The events of this narrative are essentially true and I trust the reader will forgive any blurring or dimming of the facts presented caused by the passage of time. This story takes place during my assignment to duty in the Electric Shop at the Submarine Base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I have always had an interest in magic and have taken my paraphernalia with me wherever I have traveled. While in Hawaii I had performed for my friends at shop parties and for their children's birthday parties. My performance consisted mostly of rope tricks, card tricks and silk productions. My repertoire usually ran out at the end of about ten minutes - fifteen, if I stretched out the patter for each effect.
Not much can happen on the island of Oahu without everyone else knowing about it and such was the case of my doing a so-called magic act. The Officers Club at Kaneohe Marine Base was planning a big dinner dance and party to celebrate the birthday of the Marine Corps in November - they even had a live band for the occasion. I don't know how (or why) they heard of my paltry performance, but they called and asked if I would perform during the two scheduled band intermissions of the evening. As usual, my ego overreached my ability and I agreed. It wasn't until the performance was a couple weeks away that it dawned on me that I was going to come up short time-wise.
In discussing the problem with a friend in my duty section, I hit upon the idea of teaching him to eat fire so he could take one of the intermissions. I had done simple fire eating since I was a kid using burning cotton, then a small cork doused in lighter fluid mounted on the end of a coat hanger with the big finale being the complete devouring of a burning candle. I say "simple" because the so-called candle was really an off-center cored apple with a small piece of candle wick stuck in it and lit. This was the act and my friend was a willing, if not eager student.
So eager, in fact, that he started getting fancy right from the start. At some point during this time he came up with his stage-name; Mephisto. He obtained one of the large asbestos sheets that we used in the motor rewind shop and painted a large letter "M" on it in phosphorous paint and used that for his table covering. This led to his decision to do the entire performance in black light. We had a fluorescent fixture in the shop that we used and placed ultraviolet lamps in it. Under the black light everything that had been washed in soap seemed to glow and that letter "M" on his table was spectacular.
We practiced almost every evening either at home in the naval housing area or at the shop when we had duty. With every rehearsal Mephisto would add something to make the act even more spectacular. He had even gone to the Honolulu Public Library and found a book about a fire-eater. This book, it should be pointed out, was a fictional account. I mention this as an important adjunct to what eventually occurred.
One evening while practicing in the shop, Mephisto told me he wanted to show me his latest addition to the performance. He wanted to know if I thought it showy enough to be the finale of his act. I saw that he had his torches at the ready, his candle was lit and his u-v light was switched on. He asked me to douse the shop lights. I must admit, his stage setting would give any audience anticipation for wondrous events to follow.
He started out with the usual blazing cotton balls; proceeded to the large flaming torches and then picked up and ate the burning candle. Of course I had seen all this many times by now and to tell the truth, I was becoming somewhat bored with it all. It was at this point he picked up a water glass which he announced contained white gasoline. OH-OH!!.. this wasn't anything I knew about. He seemingly drank the entire glass holding the gasoline in his mouth while he lit his cigarette lighter and held it in front of his mouth. Standing there in the darkened room with only the black light and his glowing "M" for illumination; I was for the first time excited about his act.
He blew the gasoline across the top of the flaming lighter...for what seemed a long time - nothing happened. Then WHAM! A huge explosion and an enormous ball of fire formed in front of Mephisto's face and seemed to just hang there for a few moments before slowly - oh, so slowly, rising to the ceiling and spreading out along the rafters before going out.
For a moment I was stunned, but then noticed Mephisto still standing there in the dark; saying nothing; motionless; seeming not even to breathe. I asked him if he was OK. No answer! I turned the lights back on and quickly ran over to where he was standing; statue-like except for the growing wet spot in his dungarees. His face was burned to a bright red; his eyebrows were like the smoking stumps one might see after a forest fire; and his eyelashes were gone except for the few that looked like little ashen-colored piggy tails.
It is at this point that I must digress to explain a shortcoming of mine- a peccadillo, if you will, that I believe I inherited from my mother. As long as I can remember, I laugh uncontrollably whenever disaster occurs - especially if it happens to someone I care about. I can't help it ! Perhaps it's nervousness, I don't know. I remember my mother laughing hysterically whenever my father would fall through the ceiling on his semiannual trek to the floorless attic of our home to change out the winter and summer clothes. I seem to have acquired her affliction and have lost more than one friend because of it as it takes over at the most inopportune times.
As you might guess, I began laughing at the visage of my poor smoldering friend. My seemingly uncaring laughter brought Mephisto back from his inanimate state and in his best sailor language told me to do something that is physically impossible. He refused my offer to take him to the base hospital corpsman - in fact, it was several days until the redness subsided and he would even talk to me. When he did, I apologized profusely and tried to explain about my reaction - I'm not sure he bought it.
In the finest show business tradition, Mephisto decided the show must go on, in spite of the pain involved in practicing with flaming torches being so close to his still tender face. In fact, he re-engaged with a renewed enthusiasm. He wanted to go to a costume shop in Honolulu looking for a devil costume to put the finishing touches on his act. Unfortunately, the only devil's suits they had were little kids Halloween costumes.
Time for the big show was drawing near and we still didn't have a costume for Mephisto. I think it was my wife Pat who came up with the idea that we take a pair of long-john underwear, sew up the rear flap, dye it red and attach a tail. The idea had some merit, especially since he would be in almost total darkness anyway and no one would notice it was long underwear. Pat was able to make an acceptable tail out of a long tube of material with a coat hanger inserted surrounded by cotton batting. Once again, a good idea went astray as a result of our trying to get fancy. I came up with the idea of spraying the underwear with glow-in-the-dark paint. Mephisto and I set up the black light in the back yard at home. We hung the long-johns on the clothes line and began spraying the paint. It really looked like this was going to work- that is until it dried and Mephisto went into the house to put on his new costume. I guess I hadn't figured that the material wasn't stretched out on the clothes line the way it would be once he put the thing on. He came back outside and stood in front of the u-v. Once again, I began the involuntary laughing - he looked like a glow-in-the-dark leopard with huge spots from all the unpainted areas that I had missed.
Once again he used uncivil language to me. I tried to make up for it by mustering every bit of control I had to keep a straight face and offer a solution to this newest of problems. I suggested that we could fix it by spraying the suit with him in it. I recall at the time this idea made perfect sense to both of us. Somewhere it is written " ... the best laid plans of mice and men...etc." I sprayed that costume until every little missed spot was now glowing in magnificent brilliance. Mephisto also seemed pleased with our work - at least until he went in the house and took off his freshly-painted long handles. It seems that woven long underwear is made from material that is porous. He noticed while he was undressing that we had painted not only his costume but also most of his skin. Needless to say, this started a new outbreak of the giggles with the resulting hostility.
It wasn't until the day of the show that it dawned on Mephisto that he would be actually performing in front of a large group of people. The resultant stage-fright began to set in. He was beginning to have second thoughts about everything - including the wisdom of doing this at all. It seemed like I was constantly encouraging him that day not to give in to his fears and quit. He was very anxious about the way his performance would be received and overly concerned about the appearance of his costume which, I must admit, had become even more ludicrous with the passage of time in that the material had stretched out from being worn and the knees were baggy and his tail drooped.
As the hour of his debut approached, Mephisto became at once more agitated and despondent. But, trooper that he was, he decided to go on with it. While he was setting up his lights, paraphernalia and table I hit upon the idea of a way to embolden him and zing up his act both at the same time. The band had just stopped for their break and it was only moments before Mephisto would be introduced for the first time in public. I asked the drummer if he would take a few moments and provide some drumrolls and rim shots for my friend during his show. The guy graciously agreed. Now if I'd thought of this idea before, I certainly would have told Mephisto of it; but this hit me at the last possible moment.
The announcer introduced the premier performance of The Great Mephisto. The house lights dimmed to reveal the glow-in-the-dark accoutrements of this fledgling fire eater. Mephisto entered from stage right and took a bow in response to the wondering applause of the audience. His tail, the wire of which had been bent up to prevent its dragging on the floor or catching on something seemed to arch up over his back - and when he stood back up, his knees bagged noticeably. It was a sight I'll never forget as long as I live.
He stepped next to his table and began the usual introductory flaming cotton balls and candle eating routine. He then picked up his torch (by now, thanks to his fiction book, he was using white gas for the torches instead of lighter fluid) and lit it. He held it up and tilted his head back and at that moment the drummer started a building drumroll. Of course, Mephisto wasn't expecting that and looked over to see what was going on. It was only a moment before he discovered the heat of the torch was searing his already tenderized face. He let out a pain-racked howl that sent terror through the assembled crowd.
He put down the torch and walked off the stage - for the first and the last time.