Saturday, March 22, 2008

Camp Fire

My grandfather once told me a story about when he led my uncle and a group of his friends on a Boy Scout camping trip. This was before the days of GPS, Kevlar canoes, gore-tex jackets, thinsulate boots, Nalgene bottles and Clif bars. These were the good old days of military issue canvas tents, heavy aluminum cots, and green polyester sleeping bags with a red plaid interior stuffed with cotton. Wool was the gore-tex/thinsulate/dry-fit rolled into one. Instead of vacuum sealed space age trail mix in lightweight packs, scouts were toting 60 pound aluminum exterior framed packs filled with canned goods and perhaps a small amount of frozen food to be cooked the first night out from base. No reports were printed out along with a Google Earth shot to help plan ahead for the week. No burning a quick MP3 CD for the ride or charging the IPod for the hike. Simply bid the city goodbye, load up in a yellow school bus towing a trailer, and do not forget the deck of cards.

On this particular trip, the boys were gathered around the fire after using it to cook up their meal in the full set of pots and pans brought along more to add weight to the boy’s packs I think, than as a cooking essential. They talked of their day’s activities as they burned paper plates, napkins, and packaging in their fire pit, causing the occasional purple or green flame to leap up amid the orange before disappearing into a crumple of grey ash. As they sorted, cleaned and packed up their epicurean tools, my grandfather grabbed a can of unopened baked beans and sat down with all the boys around the fire. “What do you think would happen if we tossed this in there?” he mused. I can see my uncle and his friends exchanging sideways glances of smirks and half smiles of fear and intrigue. Receiving a few ‘let’s find out’ and ‘not sure’ responses he casually tossed the can into the flames. Being prepared, as all good scouts are, the boys and my grandfather leapt behind trees and bushes to hide from an impending explosion. It never came. Despite the anxious looks and quick ducking whenever a branch crackled and broke, nothing happened. Everyone finished packing up the makeshift kitchen, faced downwind when using the nearest bush and retired to their heavy canvas tents with their stiff cots. That’s when it happened. A loud explosion erupted from beneath the embers of the dying fire that had everyone sitting up in bed. One piece long johns with only one working button on the backside flap scrambled from tents and fumbled with large flashlights powered by half a dozen size C batteries. To the amazement an amusement of all, the baked beans had not only exploded and nearly put out the entire fire, but flaming hot beans had shot out like shrapnel burning dime sized holes through the heavy canvas tents and nearby foliage. Even sleeping bags inside bore marks where bean had melted into the cotton/polyester blend. Luckily no one was standing next to the fire at the time and everyone could laugh about the story, also understanding not to include this part of the week when relating tales to mothers back home.
I’ve always enjoyed those types of stories from my grandfather and always learn some life lesson from the telling. Those types of trips and others like them taken by my father have always been a fun filled way to guide my life. Perhaps it is what drove me to seek out remote parts of Africa instead of the comforts of Western Europe when traveling. These stories have always come in handy when on the road and the other day I learned what happens when you forget to heed the moral of the story.

Like camping expeditions 30 years ago, here we have no other way to dispose of our trash than to burn it in a large pit we dig in the back yard. Not the most environmentally friendly thing to do with plastic bottles and packaging, but better than strewing it across the lawn and leaving it to the wind. Hopefully someday soon communities will organize more efficient and effective ways of waste management here. Until then it is a box of matches and some dried grass for kindling before the rainbow of colored flames erupt from the components of our trash bags. The other night I was out after dark disposing of the last couple days of accumulated waste. We burn after dark because often times kids like to come put out our fires during the day to see what we are throwing away, wanting to take anything that looks valuable or interesting. It is only trash, but still, I am not excited about people digging through our stuff, even what we are throwing out. With a full moon beginning to rise I did not need to bring a flashlight with me. One match got the bag going and I sat adding a few scraps of old paper to the fire to make sure the entire bag was consumed. A few times I had been standing near the fire when an old milk carton or plastic bottle had popped and sent a few sparks up in the air, so I was now on the lookout for such things. Having tossed in all my extra paper and seen that the plastic had burned up sufficiently I stood back to watch some bright green flames move over a candy wrapper. No sooner had I taken a step back than a huge explosion sent me reeling back twenty yards, covering my face and expunging a few choice words. I whipped back around to look at the fire, feeling my face and body at the same time to make sure nothing was smoldering. I was fine. Jessica came quickly from the front side of the house asking if I was alright, wondering what had just happened. She had been washing dishes at the kitchen sink and came running when she saw the explosion through the window. Assuring her I was fine, we made our way back towards the trash pit to ascertain what had just happened.

A large, flaming mass of melted plastic and paper had been propelled onto a nearby pile of brush which was now growing into a mound of flames. I quickly scraped a thick line around the pile with my sandal to make sure the fire would not spread to the entire yard. We stamped out a couple more pieces of burning debris in the vicinity and then turned our attention to inspecting the blast site. At first we could not think of what could have caused such a big bang. Milk carton? 7up bottle? Glass jar? None of these were the culprit. Then Jess spotted globs of white foam scattered around. “What is that?” she asked and then she said it as I spotted it. “Did you put your shaving cream can to burn in the trash pit?!” Indeed I had. Picking up the charred remains of my Edge shaving cream I noticed the bottom of the can had blown out and what had remained of the shaving cream had been shot out like silly string all over the ground. I began to laugh as my grandfather’s story flooded back into my mind. There were no holes in canvas tents or sleeping bags, only small white spots of shaving gel that looked like remnants of snow in a March thaw on the ground. I tossed the now exploded can back into the fire, knowing the fireworks were over for the night and we made our way back into the house, joking that it was good I still had eyebrows. It was not quite as amusing as deliberately throwing a can of baked beans into the fire, but I could not help but laugh out loud. As I went to bed that night I ran my hands through my hair and the front of my bangs felt crinkly, like I had extra hair gel stuck there. It took me two seconds of wondering to realize that I had not escaped my night completely unscathed. My hair was a bit singed but not gone, or even noticeably different in the mirror the next morning. I smiled as I drifted off to sleep with the inevitable words of my grandfather ringing in my head. “If you play with fire, your gonna…” I know, grandpa, no need to rub it in.

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