I found the evidence in the digital camera. Blood pressure rising, I consciously noted what it really feels like to have your jaw hang open in disbelief.
Yes, that was my teenage son using a lighter to ignite a stream of clear liquid being shot out of a plastic water pistol. I could see trees in the background. At least he was conducting his mad science outdoors.
Was it lighter fluid? Or gasoline?
My stomach churned as I texted him at his friend's house, imagining spending Friday night in the hospital burn unit.
"Hey, you are in trouble. Call me," I typed, determined to avoid using all-capital letters, which would tip him off to the level of my anxiety.
Seven minutes passed before I caught Jesse on the phone. He acted casual while I was a babbling mess. During those minutes spent waiting, my mind had spun in circles. I questioned the decision years ago to work outside the home. I wondered if allowing him to blow up aliens in video games led to this behavior. I fretted over the time he was 6 and left a note saying "I runnd awy."
Mama guilt in full burn.
As it turned out, Jesse, 16, and two friends were trying to use rubbing alcohol as a flamethrower, with limited success. The fire was quickly extinguished in the cold air. My son insisted they were not mimicking a how-to video on YouTube, but had come up with this bright idea by themselves. Somehow they had ignored all the other videos that showed painful scenes of experiments gone bad, including kids rolling around to extinguish their flaming clothes.
While I was livid and threatening to call other parents, my husband's reaction was remarkably mild. I detected a fleeting smirk. Was that pride? Or a bit of nostalgia, perhaps?
When I retold the story at work, I was astounded all over again by the men's reaction. They snickered and began regaling each other with their own tales of adolescent fire play. They seemed impressed that Jesse had at least moved his activities outdoors. Later, one of my colleagues shared a more detailed version of his 1970s experience: While he was at his cousins' house, a match was used to ignite his aunt's hairspray.
"It produced a flamethrower, memories of which still make my eyes widen with awe," he wrote, adding that he and his cousins repeated the trick. "No wonder my aunt's hair was a mess. Poor woman was always out of hairspray."
What is it with boys? When I was a kid, I don't recall my girlfriends and I ever pausing during our slumber party games and deciding, hey, let's blow something up.
I could choose to believe that my son was merely exercising his academic curiosity. He is admittedly a stellar student.
I know he is not doing something like harming animals, but still I worry about such risk-taking goofus behavior glorified on Web sites. I blame television shows such as "Jackass," in which men try to one-up each other with grotesque pranks involving bodily functions or pain.
At least they begin with a disclaimer: Do not try this at home.
But what really grates is that I am the Queen of Paranoia regarding freak accidents, most of which I believe can be prevented with a helmet. When my older son started driving, he almost thought I was serious when I approached the car wearing a helmet, and with one for him tucked under my arm.
As a reporter, I have dutifully brought home and recounted every once-in-a-lifetime accident, every freakish mishap that I have encountered, in an effort to educate my boys. Some of my warnings have been useful, especially when they were young. They learned that it's not smart to walk across ice-covered ponds when the weather warms, and to leave a friend's house if anyone finds a parent's gun.
They know not to stuff their mouths full of marshmallows lest they choke, and to be careful not to poke an eye out with fake swordplay.
When Jesse was in 4th grade, his teacher pulled me aside and gently asked me to be careful about what I told him. Apparently, he was entertaining his friends with my stories about freak accidents.
But I bet none of those boys ever jumped on a bed with a sharp pencil in hand after that.
Alas, flamethrowing never crossed my mind. Until now.
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.