I woke up Monday, very tired but in surprisingly good spirits. It was Labor Day, and after 3 solid days of music, there was a debate over whether to continue past the announced schedule. Eric had arranged in advance for the sound system to stay a fourth day, and finally that morning it was decided, what the heck, if some band wanted to play that night they could. The sound crew slowly began to set up the PA system.
I will never forget what happened next. It was mid-morning. I was sitting in a lawn chair next to Andrew Wagner. We chatted, relishing the shared experience of the festival, and while it would never go down in history like Woodstock, it was a good turn out and casualties had been light.
Shielding my eyes from the sun, I saw someone (I know longer remember who) running at us from across the field. At first, I thought nothing of it. But as he came closer, I realized he was yelling and waving his arms. He was kept running and running, but he was so far away that it seemed to be happening in slow motion. It was like a movie.
“Hey, what’s going on with that guy?” I asked Andrew, pointing to the individual in question. Andrew confessed he didn’t know. Slowly it became obvious that something was wrong. Andrew and I exchanged glances. Finally we stood up. The person was obviously distressed, and for a brief moment I pondered that he had discovered a dead body.
Finally, after enough time had passed, he was about 20 yards away and we could hear what he was yelling. “THERE’S A FIRE!” he screamed. Andrew and I took off running across the acres of grass and dirt to a part of the field adjacent to the main area, separated by a nasty ditch.
Now RFNR took place on 8 acres, shaped roughly like the letter L. 5 acres were a rectangle jutting out from the state highway; this was the main concert area. 3 acres were attached at the end of the rectangle, forming the bottom of the L. It was on these 3 acres that that a group of Bloomington punks had been beating on appliances and, unfortunately, having a camp fire.
At first only about half of the section of this land was on fire. Now I will ask if anyone reading this has ever stood in front of an acre of land burning. If you haven’t, let me inform you: it’s big. It’s huge. And it’s frightening.
A squad of us had arrived on the scene; I no longer remember who. How the hell, and hell is a carefully chosen word, were we going to stop it? Somehow a stack of heavy blankets appeared. Each person grabbed a blanket and swung it over their shoulder onto the burning ground: WHACK! The fire would go out where you struck the ground, but the flames to the left and to the right of you would continue to burn. Those flames would advance past you and then meet up behind you.
Beating the ground with the blanket for long enough, you would then turn around and find yourself surrounded by flames. To reach safety, I would have to dash through the fire (“Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack dash through the forest fire AAAGGGHHHH!!!!”) and the area where I had extinguished the flame would erupt and blaze again. There was a breeze blowing and the fire kept growing in size. People were shouting; panic, smoke, and the popping sound of the conflagration consuming grass and sticks joined to create a nightmarish cacophony. Sweat dripped off our noses.
There was a line of trees that surrounding the 3 acre section of land. Our fear was that the fire was going to hit the timber and then it would really take off. Our pathetic efforts to stop this from happening had no effect. The Greene County Volunteer Fire Department showed up, a collection of motley trucks that appeared to be creations of well-meaning rednecks with duct-tape and spare water tanks.
The arrival of the trucks boosted our spirits, but their vehicles couldn’t cross that nasty ditch I mentioned earlier. The firemen ended up standing around staring at the flames. As the noon sun rose higher in the sky and the grass fire grew and grew in size, I had images of news helicopters showing up and RFNR appearing on CNN, with miles of land erupting in crackling fire a la southern California.
The fire kept spreading, finally reaching the trees. Our spirits had reached their nadir and we looked on helplessly when it happened. Bizarrely, while staring into the inferno, I felt the breeze change direction. I first I paid no attention, but then I noticed the flames were no longer spreading out; they appeared to be moving back in the opposite direction. Could it be true? I kept watching, unbelieving. It was true! The wind kept blowing in its new direction, and the fire actually stopped growing of its own accord. Pushed back into the area where it had already consumed the fuel, it actually began to peter out, growing weaker, weaker, and then simply dying out.
Stunned, at first disbelieving, when it finally appeared that it was all over, we erupted in cries of joy. At the time, it felt like a miracle. It still does. Wearily we limped back to the concert area. By unanimous consent we cancelled the Monday music. It was over.
A group of volunteers then cleaned up the field (read my earlier blog for details). Because of the intensity of fighting the fire, emotions ran high. Some were upset at the carelessness of the concert-goers who had set the camp fire but not exercised care when they left. As I have a (probably mentally unhealthy) ability to compartmentalize, I let it go. It was obviously an accident and in the end nobody was hurt. Recently a post explaining what had happened was posted; this site has been extremely cathartic in that regard.
A few days after the festival, I celebrated my birthday; I simply sat in a chair, too tired to move, while friends chatted about recent events. For the first time in my life I was feeling my age.
And so Eric edited the video and reel to reel tape recordings for posterity. Somehow I was involved; I remember listening to the final tapes for a little bit and watching a smidgeon of the video but I didn’t have the enthusiasm for anything extensive.
Eric never attempted to replicate putting on a similar event again and who could blame him? He took a tremendous financial hit, and who knows how physically and emotionally wearing it was on him. Actually he and I rarely revisited the proceedings in detail. It was an awful lot to go through. I believe that he showed the video at Rhinos, but, like most things concerning RFNR, I honestly can’t recall if it happened or not.
Rumor has it that we will try to show it at the Straight Edge Luncheon Reunion. We should. Good or bad, it was a helluva ride, and certainly a landmark in the history of original music in southern Indiana. And with the distance of 20 years I might finally be ready to once again rock for no reason.