From third to eleventh grade, I lived in Borger, in the panhandle of Texas, about an hour north of Amarillo. A boomtown in the olden days, it is still dominated by Phillips Petroleum. If you drive in at night, it looks like a city. Several Phillips refineries and another belonging to J.M. Huber light up the night sky, leaving the impression of skyscrapers. Coming closer to the city, really a small town, Borger conjures a stronghold out of Mad Max, because flares constantly burn excess gas near the tops of the refineries. The air smells of Sulphur.
When I lived in Borger, it was not uncommon to walk out in the morning to a film of black soot covering almost everything. I have weak, asthmatic lungs, and sometimes wonder about the air that circulated through my respiratory system in those developing years.
There are few trees in Borger. Most were planted by residents and those few are permanently bent by the wind. Outside of town, there are no trees. There are no rivers and few streams. Some hills, but no mountains. The ocean is a thousand miles away. Lake Meredith is nearby, and it is lovely. But Borger is a desolate place, really.
Still, there is astounding beauty. One can see for miles, and the sun is a magnificent flame that bursts from the earth in the morning and later spreads like lava over the horizon before it seeps into the gloom of night. The nearest towns – Sanford, Fritch, Stinnett, Skellytown – are all over ten miles away. This means that some nights, when refineries aren’t coughing up black clouds, the sky is a cavernous canopy of twinkling light.
The barren landscape surrounding Borger is also picturesque, a masterpiece of ridges and ravines. We called this wilderness The Canyons when I was a child. I was drawn there, away from civilization, even as the tall forests of the Northeast or the Jersey Shore call me today. My wanderlust was aroused, and on many, if not, most Saturdays, I could be found (maybe not) wandering among the tumbleweeds, oil pumps and dust devils of The Canyons, sometimes miles from town. My best friend Birch and I, when we weren’t travelling Middle Earth via some role-playing module, were out in the wild, “exploring.”
Now that I am a father of four boys I’ve learned to fret over precautions. Back then we brought little water or food, if any, and no bandages. Eventually I started bringing bug spray because the fruit flies ate me alive while leaving my taunting pal Birch unscathed. He was a local boy while I was an interloper, a boy from Dallas and thus, a city slicker. Maybe those flies were hoping to chase me back to big D.
Food, water, medical supplies, naw. We were more concerned about other types of safety, and so we brought weapons. Of course we brought walking sticks that doubled as +10 offensive bonus quarterstaffs with spell adders. We brought a variety of cutting weapons from machete’s to small axes, each also endowed with special magical attributes, what with being forged by the Elves of Rivendell and all.
And we brought something that not even Elrond or Galadriel could offer – guns
Just kidding, they weren’t real guns, just small, pitiful BB and pellet guns. Not really that dangerous unless your best friend were to shoot you in the leg at close range. Well, we kind of figured even the bloody welts that thing left wouldn’t be enough to stop a real foe, so we found an ad in a hunting magazine for two semi-automatic .22 caliber handguns at 49.99, and we started saving our pennies. The problem was we needed to persuade one of our parents to give the okay. Now, it certainly may boggle the minds of readers from the coasts, but here were two wild Texas boys whose parents did not own guns.
Oh well, we did the best that we could to arm ourselves because everyone knew what dangers lurked in The Canyons. It was not the possibility of heat exposure, rattlesnakes, or even drinking water from a creek that flowed dangerously near one of the outlying refineries. No, the real dangers out there were the devil-worshippers!
They were real, and they were scary. We all knew it. They’d capture and take you out into The Canyons as a special sacrifice to Satan, probably by lighting you on fire. They lived in a variety of places, but certainly near Plemmons Bridge—a long one lane bridge you’d race across at night with your lights out. (Smart, huh?) Allegedly, one of Charlie Manson’s crazy followers grew up nearby. Many died or were horribly injured on that bridge, and I think they’ve either destroyed it or build a two-laner in recent years.
Out past the bridge was an old baby cemetery, and we were sure the devil worshippers of a bygone era had something to do with that. One time, when I was a sophomore, we noticed a bunch of extra police at a basketball game. Who knows why, but the rumor went around that the devil worshippers were looking for virgins, preferably cheerleaders, to sacrifice in the upcoming satanic orgy.
Well, one of the girls purported to be on the list was my girlfriend at the time. So, you know, gangster that I was. I got Birch and we loaded up some baseball bats and took off into The Canyons to deal with these suckers. We started his circa 1970 Oldsmobile and charged into the wilds, looking for fires. We were juiced, man, testosterone and adrenaline mixing for a real fine cocktail of stupid.
Now, the problem with the whole fires thing is that scattered all over the panhandle are these gas spouts blazing pretty regular. And you know, they have to be checked for maintenance from time to time. Perhaps at night. The point is: in retrospect, it makes perfect sense to have found shadowy figures moving about the equipment putting off those fearful infernos. But to my tenth grade self, they were devil worshippers. Well, anyway, we see some shapes getting into trucks and driving toward us fast, honking. We were trespassing on private property, so.
Birch is a saint. He is ever calm and only overreacts if I am present to push him into danger against his will. I commanded Birch to get out and let me drive, and I was too afraid to even step out of the car. I slid over and made him walk around the outside. I guess I thought they had like a devil worshipping scout out in the ditch who would grab me by the ankles and drag me to the underworld. Well, I drove home like the hounds of hell were chasing me, which I really believed.
There is only one thing certain about that night—my driving nearly killed us. Taking curves that hang over drop offs at 100 miles per hour plus is pretty ludicrous and could end your life. Grown-ups working the nightshift probably won’t.
In order to buffer our souls against the consuming flames of hell, we attended the First Baptist Church. My Pops was a minister there, so I really had no choice. The truth is, I loved the place and people, whose hearts were big and full of love. The church property had a big ol’ building with three floors and two massive wings extending at a right angle from the main chapel. Birch and I found every nook and cranny of that property, learning that if you accessed the 2ndfloor boiler room you could climb through a hatch to the roof. We had a great time playing hooky from a lot of church events, chilling on that roof. You could see most of Borger from up there.
Anyhow, we had a pretty big youth group, like a hundred and fifty or so kids. On some Sunday nights during winter, when the sun was down, we played this game called Romans and Christians. The game is a modified hide-and-seek, with the ‘Christians’ trying to find a safe place to have church, marked by a shining flashlight, while the ‘Romans’ hunted you down and took you to a brightly lit prison if they found you. It was awesome, especially for Birch and me, because we knew all the best places to hide that flashlight. We could also avoid being captured and brought back to the prison room, where the bulbs seemed like a blazing flame after being in the dark so long.
There was a lot of talk about fire in the Baptist church. I spent a good portion of my youth meditating on what the pain must be to just burn, like – forever. When I read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and learned about those Protestants burned at the stake during the reign of Bloody Mary, I was fixated on how horrible it was with their skin melting off and how friends would toss black powder in to try to kill them fast.
In hell, you would just keep burning and burning. Would your skin just keep replenishing every time it melted, or would it be sort of impervious to fire? What would be the exact nature of the fire? Would it be pitch dark in there, or would the flames be bright and blinding? Would there be little ravenous spiders or rats, also impervious to fire, climbing around inside the folds of your mouth and eye sockets and ears? There would most certainly be snakes, right? At least those fiery Protestants eventually died. There would be no release from eternal hellfire and damnation.
When we were in middle school, Birch and I went to another buddy’s house with some friends. There were five of us. The kid, Scott, lived at the edge of town, and you could see far out into The Canyons from his back porch. Well, we had the novel idea to jimmy-rig a cannon and fire it out into the brush.
So we took a pipe and aimed one end out into The Canyons and in the bottom end, we put a launcher for one of those model rockets you get in science class. You know the ones where you can put a little bug or something in it to see if it disintegrates or learns how to talk or whatever. Well, we got some of those engines with the two rounds of explosions, the ones that can really propel the bigger rockets up and up, because we figured the first explosion would launch the engine out in the fields and then the second explosion would just make a big blast with lots of fire and noise. It’s often dry and dusty in Borger and the wind never stops blowing. Brilliant!
We were out there trying and getting irritated because it’s windy as heck and we couldn’t even get an engine to evacuate the pipe or anything. Finally, after a half hour of meager efforts, we fire an engine pretty far out and it went boom and there was a little pop of fire. We were up, clapping each other on the back, screaming like the little hooligans we were, without a care in the world.
Then we noticed smoke, and the scales fell from our eyes so that we saw, with sudden and brilliant clarity, what a reckless thing we’d done. See, off to the north of our newly created grass-fire dragon was Altamira—the most expensive neighborhood in Borger, one circular road that sat atop a hill and was home to some of the largest homes in the county.
So we were off, running down into The Canyons, stomping the fire, taking off our shirts and beating the fire until our shirts caught and we had to let them go. I helped my buddy Scott pull a tarp covering from an old tractor and we used that thing until it caught too. It was too late. One of the daily gusts you encounter in Tornado Alley blew through and the monster got out of hand pretty quick. It was racing to Altamira, and all we could do was watch and pray. Some of the entreaties, not saying any names, were laced with a desperate stream of naughty curse words.
We encountered a strangely mismatched couple that day. Down into the fire a gentleman came, wearing a three-piece black and grey pinstripe suit. He had a garden hose, as useless as our stomping and beating, but he was calm, kept telling us everything would be okay.
Meanwhile his wife, a sloppy woman barely dressed, a half-burned cigarette hanging out of her mouth, its smoke trailing up into the nose of the babe sitting on her hip, was out there yelling, loud enough for all of Hutchinson County to hear:
“I know who did it! You boys are in trouble! I’m calling the cops!”
I wasn’t afraid of the police. I was thinking about my Pops, and I started strategizing how I could sneak into my house and pack my bags and then get out again without being caught. I knew I was dead. Thankfully, Scott’s mom saved us all. I guess she saw the pure fear in our eyes. It took the crews of three fire trucks to put out the blaze and there were reporters and maybe law enforcement knocking on the door, but Scott’s mom kept them all at bay. When I got home, full of dread, my Pops told me he’d spoken with Scott’s mom, and whatever she said must have been magic because he didn’t kill me.
Scott moved to New Jersey a few years later. I live in Jersey now, too. Who could imagine that a couple of Borger boys would both come so far away from our little Texas hometown?
I love that I grew up in a small town. It was a wonderful childhood in so many ways. Borger has a place in my heart that is permanent, and good. In 11th grade, much to my dismay, my family moved across the country, to the Tidewater area of Virginia. Hey, at least we were still in the South. But it was a different world, one city blending into the next from Norfolk all the way up to Richmond. There were few spaces uninhabited by people. They did have real trees, though, and that was a plus.
I moved to Oklahoma after I graduated and lived there for fifteen years. I’ve lived in New Jersey now another fifteen. There are some drawbacks to being transplanted once the roots have sunk down. It hurts; feels like you lose too much that can’t ever be replaced, and that’s true. But there is always something new, and for that, I am grateful.
I’ve lived well in the dark red states, and now I’m thriving raising four boys in the deep blue. Because we have social media, I can still connect with old friends from all my old homes, and it helps. Yet that vehicle shows me more than I want to see, and it gets me to thinking about fires and monsters and enemies and fear.
I never did meet a devil worshipper. I did nearly drive myself over a cliff running from the idea of their existence. I also nearly burned down half of Borger because I was an idiot. I frequently marched into The Canyons without necessary supplies. Back when I was young and lean, I free-climbed a rock face without gear or a partner and only through a miracle did I not fall and break my neck. I once accidentally shot out my own windshield. On my tenth anniversary, my wife and I went to Punta Cana and had the most wonderful time. The last day we were there I got to drinking. I didn’t want the trip to end, so I almost drank myself to death.
On the eve of my thirtieth birthday I was received into the Eastern Orthodox Church. I left my Baptist roots behind, but not totally. Many of my fellow catechumens and also many converts I’ve met since rail against their former Protestant or Evangelical upbringings with intense angst, almost hatred. I’ve no doubt that I was led astray or stunted by certain doctrines or dogmas I learned as a child.
But the biggest threat to my own salvation, both then and now, is within. I’ve already spent too much of my life living in fear of the others: evangelicals or atheists, machismo alphas or flamboyant homosexuals, conservatives or liberals, self-righteous preachers or illusory devil worshippers. I’m not the only one. It’s a crafty deception, and that’s why it works.
Fire is linked with unwieldy, dangerous passion in many spiritual writings. Saint James called the unbridled tongue “a fire, a world of iniquity.” Many have learned this truth, too late, after permanent damage has been done.
I don’t know if there is fire in hell. I’m quite unsure of what hell is like at all. But I believe that at least part of the suffering beyond the grave will be that I spent too much time worrying about and condemning others, and not enough time anguishing over my own fallen soul. I’m trying to do better for the rest of the time I have, so every day I offer the Lenten plea of St. Ephrem the Syrian– “…Grant that I might see my own transgressions, and judge not my brother.”
Blake Kilgore grew up in Tornado Alley, spending most of his first three decades in Texas and Oklahoma. Now, he lives in New Jersey with his wife and four sons, where he’s just completed his twenty-first year teaching history to junior high students. That’s how his love for story began – recounting the (mostly) true stories from olden times. Eventually, he wanted to tell stories of his own, and you can find some of these in Lunch Ticket, Stonecoast Review, Midway Journal, Rathalla Review, Crack the Spine, and other fine journals. To learn more, go to blakekilgore.com