Campfire Lessons

There’s nothing more relaxing and thought provoking than sitting around a campfire in the night. On many a cool calm Southwest Florida winter evening my wife Lori and I will sit in our comfy deck chairs for hours and watch the flames in the fire pit calmly flicker in the dark. Of course, it took numerous trial and error experiences for us to finally figure out the right set up and despite what our stubborn smoky smelling friends think, for us a propane fueled pit is perfect. It’s clean, smoke free, easy to light, and except for the initial heart stopping explosion and loss of arm hair every time I light it… pretty safe when compared to your stock, wood munching, smoke following you no matter where you sit, burn the woods down campfire. I suppose that “burn the woods down” comment deserves an explanation and since the statute of limitations has likely kicked in and I was not an adult at the time, here it is.

In the mid 1960s my father and several of his friends were avid hunters and the area in east Bonita south of Bonita Beach Road that is now Hunters Ridge, Worthington, Palmira, Quails West and several other gated communities was one of their favorite pristine wooded areas to hunt. It was very old Florida, thick with pine flatwood and cypress swamp alike. I say that they were avid hunters, but I don’t actually remember them shooting anything but beer cans or an occasional watermelon, neither of which are exactly hard to hit with a shotgun.

One weekend my dad and I loaded his pick-up with the homemade canvas camper and headed into that wilderness with Robert Lawhon Jr., his son Joey and another fellow following in their jeeps. When we arrived at the camp, the first job was to start a campfire. Being wintertime, it was really easy work because of all the lighter pine and other dry wood laying around and so once the fire was roaring, it was agreed that one person should stay in camp while the rest of us went wandering around “hunting” until dark. The woods were thick and beautiful, with trails winding every which way, so it was pretty great.

My dad and I were about two hours out when he stopped and stood dead still. He sniffed the air and then turned and looked over at me with a raised eyebrow, a wrinkled nose and a frown. My young brain went to familiar territory. “Hey! It wasn’t me!’ I said defensively. He held his hand out and looked around, somehow not laughing. “NO… I smell fire!” Then he turned and looked up at the sky behind us. It glowed a bright, blazing red. “Holy… ” my dad yelled as he flew past me on a dead run back towards the camp.

When we finally got back it looked like the world was on fire! No one had thought to stay with the fire and it had quickly jumped out of its pit, consuming everything on the west side of the camp in the thick woods. Now the smart move would have probably been to get in the “non burned up truck” and escape with our lives. I thought this was a great plan and that there was never a more clear time to choose flight over fight! But the three adult men quickly decided that we had to put out the fire.

Soon we had all split up and with nothing but shovels and axes began fighting what was now a 20 acre fire… with three men and two twelve year olds. Long story short, I don’t remember much about the battle, but six long smoky, sweaty hours later the fire was contained! The rest of the evening until daybreak everyone stood watch over the smoldering remains. We stood together, dirty, hot, sweating and smoky… leaning on our shovels, looking at what was left of the woods. No one smiled or spoke but it had become clear even to my buddy and me. Since we were using this place to hunt and camp in, we were responsible for it… to take care of it, at any cost. No one ever said that… but you could see it in their eyes.

So tonight, as I watch the gas fire pit’s flames gently lick the air, I think about how my friend Joey had become a fireman in Bonita and I had become a Councilman and now Mayor of the area that we once fought to keep from burning to the ground. And as I get up to go inside for the evening, I bend over and shut the fire off. Perhaps that unspoken lesson of how important it is to take care of the places, people and things that are left in our charge, had sunk in.

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