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A Cold Fire

Spontaneous combustion
n. Ignition of a substance, such as oily rags or hay, caused by a localized heat-increasing reaction between the oxidant and the fuel and not involving addition of heat from an outside source.

As a boy of 12 or 13, I read a paperback book titled something like Tales of the Paranormal. It included a chapter on people who for no apparent reason burst into flames. This chapter told the story of a woman who'd been home alone (and assumed to be) sitting in her rocking chair. When friends or neighbors were unable to contact her, they entered the house and found nothing but a pile of clothing on the chair with a pair of shoes in front of it. On the chair, underneath it, and inside of the clothing were ashes. The conclusion drawn by the authorities (according to the author), was that the woman's body must have spontaneously ignited, causing a fire, a cold fire, that consumed her body, but left her clothing and furnishings intact and undamaged. According to 'experts' cited in the book, this cold fire had something to do with a disturbance of the electrical field within the body. These stories of people spontaneously igniting never left my imagination.

When I was 23, I worked for a now-defunct drugstore chain in Michigan called Cunningham's. I worked at several stores in the Detroit area, before finally ending up at a store at the north end of Ann Arbor in Plymouth Road Mall. While working there, I began a relationship with a co-worker named Trish. She lived in a log cabin in Hamburg, north of Ann Arbor.

Our store was open until midnight, and as a college student, I frequently ended up working the afternoon shift until closing. Working late and staying up late was nothing new to me by this point in my life. I'd always been a night person. That's just how I was wired. I can remember having a 'bedtime' as a kid and sitting up for hours reading by nightlight or flashlight. The downside of that of course was that I was not a morning person, which made getting up in the morning for school never easy.

That pattern continued into adulthood, and once I became a regular distance runner after high school, it was nothing — in fact it was normal — for me to run nearly always in the evening or even late at night. While working at the Plymouth Mall Cunningham's, I would sometimes run the seven or so miles from my apartment in Ypsilanti to work, and then run the same route home at midnight.

So, it was not a big leap when the notion occurred to me to run to Trish's cabin after work one night. I knew it would be a pretty long run, and it was. About 17.6 miles. That corner of Ann Arbor in 1979 was nothing like it looks today. There was no strip mall headed by Kroger's at the corner of Plymouth and Nixon. Just a field with a farm market. It was a lot less busy than it is today.

My route to the cabin went like this:
> North on Nixon to Pontiac Trail
> Right on Pontiac Trail for a few hundred yards
> Left onto Joy Road
> Right on Whitmore Lake Road and north across North Territorial
> Right on Six Mile Road, across US-23
> Left on Whitmore Lake Road through Whitmore Lake
> Left on Barker Road, back across US-23
> Right on Leeman Road to M-36
> Left on M-36 into Hamburg, to the cabin

And I did this, in the dark, starting a little after midnight. I was not afraid of bad dogs, or bad guys, or bad weather, or breaking an ankle, or getting hit by a car. None of those things were on my mind the three times that I made that trip. What was on my mind on every one of those trips was spontaneous combustion. I remember getting goose bumps while running, thinking of the strange sight that I would make, glowing and roasting coldly in the middle of an empty dirt road. And the next morning someone, perhaps out to retrieve their morning paper, would be standing over a pair of shorts, some shoes, and a curious pile of ashes. They'd scratch their head and wonder.

All of those runs ended up at the cabin at about 2:00 in the morning. Thankfully, my electrical field was never disturbed sufficiently to cause me to ignite. I no longer think about spontaneous combustion. That might be because I no longer run lonely dark country roads in the middle of the night.

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