Back when I was groanfully employed, I felt conflicted about holidays.

What bothered me about holidays — and weekends too, I suppose — is that the understaffed, underfunded IHS clinic had to reduce services with the potential to save lives. In our location, anything that could go wrong, did, and we handled it. Murphy’s Law in action. We two in the ER — a doc and a nurse — were often outnumbered by the casualties.

But the Season of the Solstice has its perks.

Every year Earl the Maintenance Guy trekked out into the hills to find a fairly shapely cedar among the scattered clusters of contorted specimens. He set it up in our waiting room, where it waited, until someone with spare time could decorate it — which meant decorating could span several days. It was firmly secured to prevent free-range children from tipping it over.

The cedar occupies a special place in Cheyenne regard. Its wood can be used to make traditional flutes and implements. Mostly, though, cedar leaves were used for “smudging,” creating a fragrant smoke believed to dispel inimical influences.

I sometimes burned cedar in my exam room before treating patients, especially for the elders, who associated the smell with the security and healing they experienced as kids, when the traditional healer plied his trade. I tried to do it unobtrusively, without pandering.

Since it was handy, I often plucked some cedar leaves from Earl’s tree. Exploiting the transient cedar surplus, I got careless.

I didn’t always confine my smudging to the exam room, as patients and staff elsewhere in the building seemed to appreciate it too. One day I broke off a nice branch and carried it into Medical Records, as I’d done before.

This time, as I held a lighter well below the leaves to make them smoke, the whole dry, resinous frond suddenly flamed up. I left to douse my impromptu torch, but not soon enough. Full of paper charts, Med Rec was one area with extra fire-detection installations.

The sprinklers didn’t trigger, but the fire alarm did. First and only smudging alarm. Fortunately this happened on a morning when general clinic was closed to allow us to focus on administrative upkeep. There weren’t even any patients in the ER.

The building emptied rapidly as we filed outside to shiver in the crisp air. Later, we duly analyzed and documented our unscheduled fire drill, which helped us meet national accreditation standards.

The fire drill reminded the boss that we hadn’t yet conducted that year’s “fire safety” training. Such training consisted of demonstrating proper fire-extinguisher technique, after which each employee was expected to squirt a few blasts toward the base of a fire. Has to hit the base, we were warned, or it wouldn’t work. OK.

The training commenced on the broad, flat, bare area behind the clinic, the “parking lot.” We all trekked back outside to form a ragged crescent facing Earl the Maintenance Guy, who assembled a pile of wood chunks for the demo.

Having lingered behind to finish a quick paperwork task, I arrived to stand behind the group as Earl tried to get the charcoal lighter fluid to ignite in the cold air.

Before I left the building, I had spied a loose balloon amid the clutter on my desk, one from the supply I kept to amuse kids. (No, nobody ever choked on one.) The thought occurred — what would make a better fire extinguisher than a water balloon, if we had one? So I quickly aquiflated the balloon to the size of a small grapefruit, then headed outside.

Earl’s attempts to light the kindling had finally succeeded. He rocked back on his heels as the flames took hold.

Everyone’s attention was focused on the fire, so except for Monte the Lab Guy, nobody saw me as I hurled the balloon as high as I could from behind the group. (I used to do some throwing sports, and still retained remnants of my bulky shoulder muscles.) The balloon climbed along a high narrow arc before hurtling virtually straight down, a blue blur against a blue sky.

Had I attempted this a thousand times more, I couldn’t have replicated the perfection of that first and only toss. Nobody saw the balloon — its high arc took it well beyond our field of vision, and when it landed it was moving so fast, so unexpectedly, that all anyone saw was a sudden soggy explosion of the carefully arranged pile of wood. The fire was summarily executed.

Earl stared in bewilderment. The crowd fell silent, then traded puzzled queries and nervous giggles. Eventually a few scraps of balloon rubber betrayed the origins of the splash, and since I was the only Balloon Guy on staff, suspicion fell on me. Monte and I professed our ignorance, if not our innocence.

When it was my turn to squirt the actual extinguisher, I begged off. Those are for amateurs, I insisted.

However, I thought, maybe the Balloon Technique would be fun to use in an actual fireplace — to greet Santa, that worthless wretch, who for some reason always leaves me a lump of coal.

In the end, the training proved irrelevant. Early one May morning, the clinic burned to the ground, a casualty of a short in the ballast of a light fixture in a locked storage room. Nobody got a chance to use an extinguisher.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired

family physician who grew up in Stockton and lives outside Hays.

hauxwell@ruraltel.net