Starting a fire is an art as well as a skill. Camping and fishing trips of my youth always required a fire, and we learned how to quickly build one – most of the time. From small cooking fires to roaring bonfires near the water, giving us light to fish by, we planned location, size and amount of wood carefully.
On camping trips, we always dug a small fire pit and ringed it with flat stones where we could keep food warm. A forked stick stuck in the ground on either side with a straight stick across them over the fire allowed us to hang a pot from our mess kit. And the pit was big enough to allow a fire on one side but an area to rake coals to use the frying pan.
I loved the breakfasts we cooked. Bacon, burned black in some areas but still rubbery almost-raw in others, scrambled eggs with ash in them, toast burned to a perfect black and coffee with half milk and lots of sugar in the cup, still seems the best breakfast ever.
Dinners were a full meal in a foil pouch. A big hamburger patty was placed on a square of tin foil, then sliced onions and potatoes placed on top. Cut up carrots with a big hunk of butter topped it off. When the tinfoil was folded tightly over the top, it could be placed on coals to cook. We ate it straight from the pouch, no plate needed.
The butter was supposed to stay in the pouch, but no matter how carefully we made it, some always leaked out, and it was not unusual to stick a hole in the foil at some point. But the meal was always delicious, even if the meat was charred on the bottom and the carrots and potatoes still crunchy.
It seemed to rain on almost all our camping trips, so we made sure we had a dry place to keep wood. But all too often the pit would fill with water, making it a little hard to get a fire going. So, we had a plan
“B,” another flat place to build a fire on drier ground.
We always wanted to start our fire with flint and steel or by rubbing two sticks together, but never could. So, we carried matches. To keep them dry, we dipped the heads of the “strike anywhere” stick matches in wax. That worked well.
It seemed wrong to carry paper to start the fire, so we gathered tiny twigs and dry pine straw, leaves and grass. We learned to pyramid it with bigger sticks on top and kindling in the middle to quickly get it started. Then we would put bigger wood on top.
Since our wood cutting tools were small hatchets, we learned to put long limbs on the fire, one end burning and one end outside the fire. As it burned, we simply moved unburned areas into the fire. We called it a “Lazy Man” fire.
My most memorial fire was one at Clarks Hill one summer while I was in college. Mom and I put a trotline across a cove and then beached the boat on a small sandy area near it. We built a small fire, mostly for its glow and enchantment since it was not cold, and put our rods out on forked sticks, hoping for a catfish bite.
We sat there for about four hours. I do not remember catching any fish, but our talk will always be with me. I think that was the first time mom really talked to me as an adult. It took my dad a few more years, not until after I started working.
That night I grew up some. Our talk made me realize it was time.
Fires can have some interesting effects.