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.

Camp Notgonnadoit

The cool night air and the smell of fireplaces burning here and there this time of year makes me want to go camping… until I really think about it for a while. I know a lot of you still enjoy it, but I have to say that I am not the intrepid explorer that I was when I was say… 12 years old. Back then, laying on the hard ground, swatting mosquitoes in a tent packed with other wood smoked kids was actually fun, probably because we didn’t care about sleep, safety, comfort or hygiene.

We would all hop into my dads old four wheel drive pick up, head out east of town to the most isolated piece of dry ground in the water soaked woods that we could find. It was all “Lord of the Flies” from there. Staying up all-night; playing with fire and fashioning spears. The number one rule was “Don’t be the first guy to go to sleep.” Making life miserable for the guy who made that mistake was quite often the highlight of the trip. (Sorry about painting you red Ralph)

The last “boys” camping trip that I’ve been on was just a few years ago. My brother invited my friend George and I to join him and his friends at their camp near the North Canal. Of course by camp, he meant a circle of rocks with a fire in it, surrounded by completely bare ground (mud) and cypress trees with a few rusty nails and ropes decorating them.

When George and I arrived with our tents, sleeping bags, coolers, old guy medication, etc. it was just getting dark. We quickly set everything up and joined the other guys around the fire. It was fun being “young boys” again, sitting around the fire, telling stories, talking… laughing. Then around midnight everyone started to fall asleep… basically in whatever spot and position that they landed in. Soon, I was the last conscious camper, so I stood up, surveyed the body’s sprawled about the camp, stretched, yawned and headed to my tent.

And so began the longest night of my life.

I stuffed myself into the sleeping bag, breathed in the cool night air, listened to the deafening quiet and then closed my eyes. Just as I started to drift off… “SNNNOOORRKkEE!” My eyes snapped open. “PPPFFFLBUT-BUT-BUT!” I sat straight up and listened. “George!” I sneered in a whisper. I peeked out of the tent. Sure enough, the grotesque snoring was coming from his tent and not from some other stinky animal. I looked around my tent and gathered up everything I could find and then waited there with it pulled tightly against my head. “SNNNOOORRKkEE!” I could still hear him! After what seemed like hours of squirming, cursing, cramming socks in my ears and wrapping shorts around my head, I kicked everything off of me. I lay there with my hands clasped over my ears. Finally, I said out loud “That’s it!” I scrambled out of the tent, walked over and kicked my friends’ big feet through the side of the tent. “George!” “PPPPPFFFLBUT-BUT-BUT!” “GEORGE!” Nothing. There I stood at 2am with my fists on my hips, shaking my head. (How could he be dead and still be making that much noise?) I looked over at the truck. “Ah-Ha!” I whispered as I opened the door and crawled inside. I shut the doors, rolled up the windows and squirmed around, trying to get comfortable. Then I lay still for a moment; blanket over my head, listening as my ears rang with silence, until “SNNNOOORRKkEE!” I yanked the blanket down off of my face. “Are you kidding me!” I moaned. It sounded like he was inside the truck! I sat up and buried my face in my hands. “Oh for Pete’s sake… his poor wife… How could he still be married?”

At daybreak I was still leaning on the steering wheel looking through baggy eyes at the smoldering fire, my brother and all his friends. They hadn’t moved all night and were still sleeping soundly, sprawled in every direction around the camp. Then, just like the rising sun… it dawned on me, and I slowly started bumping my head on the steering wheel. When you’re all over age 50, it’s no longer the first one to go to sleep that suffers… it’s the last one.

Alone Under the October Moon

“Come on Joe… Let’s go camping this weekend,” I pleaded over the phone in my preadolescent voice. But Joe couldn’t. He was in trouble from our last camping trip. I was determined to go anyway, so I went downstairs into our family’s hardware store and asked my Dad if he would drop me off with my camping gear east of town and pick me up in the morning. He didn’t look up as he worked with a torch, rosining a new tip onto a fishing pole. “By yourself?” he asked, a cigar dangling out of the corner of his mouth. “Yep!” I said proudly. He nodded at the truck outside. “Alright… load it up!”

As we drove through the woods that evening I kept waiting for some advice, parental or otherwise, like “Don’t get eaten by a panther!” or “Don’t set yourself on fire!” That’s why my buddy Joe was in trouble. He had a habit of over tending a campfire by casually kicking the logs around with his bare foot. So when he returned home last weekend with one leg of his pants burned off, his mom seemed to think it was a pretty big deal. Anyway… Dad didn’t say a word as I unloaded my camping gear next to a dry creek bed. He didn’t even shut the truck off! “See you in the morning!” he said and then… he drove away.

I looked around and immediately felt a wave of anxiety wash over me. It was the first time I had ever been truly alone. It was just me, versus my busy little imagination. (Whoa… I’ve got to shake this feeling off. It’s OK… I’ll feel better if I get busy.) So I began setting up the tent, and starting a fire under the watchful eye of a huge yellow October moon rising in the east.

Before long it was dark, my belly was full of fried Spam and I was trying to keep myself busy, poking at the fire with a stick while I sat on the ground, my chin propped up on my knees. It was unpleasantly quiet and as I sat listening to my ears ring, my bored ten-year-old imagination decided to run amok. (I wonder what time it is? How in the heck did I get sand in my… Are those eyes over there?) “SNAP”! I froze. I couldn’t see past the light of the fire, so I crept off to the side to take a peek. The moon made everything look… suspicious. I listened carefully, but all I could hear was my heart beating. (It’s nothing… Just quit thinking… Quit thinking? How do you do that? I’ll just go to sleep.)

I climbed into the tent, zipped it up and lay there watching the spooky shadows of the fire dancing on the walls. The more I tried to calm down and distract my thoughts, the more anxious and alert I became. (Maybe there’s something wrong with me… no, I’m fine… but what if I‘m not?) I didn’t know it at the time, but I had worked my way into a full-blown panic attack. Fortunately I was still capable of making a calm, rational decision. “I’M GETTIN’ THE HECK OUTTA’ HERE!” Even though I was certain it was around three a.m., I decided to put out the fire and walk… well actually, run like a wild man towards Jones Mobile Village, where I could find a phone. When I finally burst out of the woods, I saw that the lights were on in the Jones’s mobile home. Surprisingly, when I knocked, Mrs. Jones opened the door immediately. “Ben Jr.?” I was out of breath but puffed out a “Yes ma’am.” She clutched the neck of her housecoat. “What in the world are you doing out here?” I skipped the details, “Can I use your phone?”

To my surprise, when I spoke to my dad on the phone he didn’t say much of anything. And on the ride back to the house he didn’t ask any questions… He didn’t even tease me! But the strangest thing was that when I got home… It was only 8:30 pm! I had only been in the woods for three hours!

My parents never said anything about my humbling experience under that October moon. They didn’t have to. Snug in my bed that night, I listened to the comforting sounds of family and home I had taken for granted, and that just a few minutes ago had seemed so far away… the television, my parents voices, dishes clinking, the humming of a fan… my dad burping loudly from the couch to the delight of my little brother who giggled from his bedroom. I smiled, closed my eyes and drifted peacefully off to sleep.