(A Tale of Boy Scouts, Camping and Arson)
I flew home Friday for my little brother’s birthday. He’s not so little anymore, but turning 38 is close enough to 40 that it deserves a proper celebration. Besides, my everyday home is amongst the chaos of the northeast United States, where terror threats, mass shootings and rogue weather systems are normal occurrences. That being said, I’ll take about any excuse for a trip back to the less harried confines of the South.
It fits my brother’s demeanor perfectly. Josh is an engaging sort, with a disarming smile and easygoing attitude, which serve him well in his attempts to assist the indigent population around town.
“So on top of saving society’s dregs,” I inquired, “are you still assisting today’s youth with growing up to be well adjusted human beings?”
“If you’re referring to the Boy Scouts, then yes, I do still volunteer with the troop down at the church,” Josh replied. “In fact Charlie Campbell and I are doing an overnight camporee at Teller’s Point tomorrow. You should come along, Lane.”
“Thanks, but I fully intend on nursing a violent hangover tomorrow, and watching a death-defying amount of college basketball from the safety of your couch. But I appreciate the offer. Speaking of hangovers, where are we going tonight anyway?”
“I thought we’d go down to O’Riley’s,” Josh said. “The usual suspects have graciously volunteered to join us. I figured they would add a touch of color and intrigue to our evening.”
“No doubt,” I responded. “Those boys are a perpetual good time waiting to happen.”
“One suggestion though, how about you try keeping it to beer tonight Josh.”
“What are you implying?” he asked disdainfully.
“I would venture to say you haven’t seriously imbibed since the last time I came into town. You’ll be speaking Chinese by 10:30 if you start shooting Wild Turkey. All I’m saying is a dose of restraint will help you immensely tonight,” I stated matter of factly.
“Whatever,” Josh scoffed. “We’re just going out for some pleasant conversation with family and friends.”
“The last time those exact words came out of your mouth I witnessed you chasing a herd of chickens around the mountain house in your tightie whities,” I reminded him.
“What exactly is your point?” Josh deflected
“It was December you dumb ass.”
The next day was not pretty. Thankfully I had yakked before reaching Josh’s house in the wee hours. The same could not be said for him and less could be said for the carpet in his foyer. I had told him Kamikazes would not appear nearly as appetizing coming back up as they did going down.
I slammed a glass of water and three Advil gel-caps in hopes of quieting the Indians that had taken up a drum circle in my brain, but was fine otherwise.
Josh, not so much.
“Wow, don’t you look like a warmed over corpse,” I complemented him.
“Piss off,” he said. “I think I’ve got alcohol poisoning. That or my liver has failed. Listen Lane, I need to ask you a huge favor. Can you take the boys camping with Charlie tonight.”
“What are you talking about? You’ll be fine by then.”
“No way, I’m still puking,” Josh emphasized. You know Teller’s Point at least as well as I do and could get the boys up there safely. Hell, you were an Eagle Scout.”
I just stood there for a moment contemplating this cruel twist. Clearly my brother was looking peaked. Welcome to 38 I thought.
“All right, I’ll help Charlie take the kids, but I’m only his second. I don’t remember any of that Boy Scout dogma crap.”
“That’s fine, but you’ll probably have to help him with the tents and cooking. Charlie’s a fine accountant, and his heart’s in the right place, but his camping skills are suspect.”
“That’s fabulous,” I groaned!
“And Lane,” Josh muttered as I turned to exit his bedroom, “please don’t burn anything down.”
I flashed him the three-fingered Scout salute, then dropped the two side fingers to offer him a bird.
I met Charlie and the eight Scouts over at the trailhead for Teller’s Point in the early afternoon. The sky was about the color of the fuzz still blanketing my consciousness, gray and overcast.
It took a couple minutes for everyone to get their gear straight, then up we went. A mile or so into our hike the rain began to fall in earnest, along with the temperature. These apparently are the essential atmospheric conditions for camping with the Boy Scouts, because I always end up cold and wet.
It took a couple hours to get up the winding incline. The view of the river valley below makes the hike up worth the effort.
Charlie marshaled the troop to start unpacking the gear and rigging tents. We probably had two hours of daylight remaining, maybe less with the declining weather. The hike up had kept everybody comfortably warm, but after stopping to take in the view, along with the increased wind at this altitude, a damp chill had begun to creep in that cut right through our clothes.
I noticed Charlie had found the fire ring in front of our tents, and was bustling about to clear it of debris.
“Once we get a fire started we can warm everybody up and get some food going,” Charlie stuttered.
He went over by some trees and began rooting about in the underbrush for twigs and such to use as kindling. The rain had been going for near two days now and the underbrush was at least damp. Even if he could coax something to light it would never burn long enough or hot enough to ignite anything larger, but I left him to go about his business.
Optimism is a fundamental camping philosophy, and it’s important to believe something can be achieved, but Charlie foolishly addressed nature like it was some kind of home appliance. There is no light switch installed on a mountainside that will magically ignite damp firewood.
Charlie was burning through matches quickly and his face had turned to crimson, partly due to anxiety, but mostly from all the wind he lost by blowing on his meager pile of sticks.
There was smoke but no fire.
As my brain started to work through a solution to Charlie’s problem a light sheen of cold sweat broke out across my entire body.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said abruptly. “…I know how to build a fire.”
Darkness was creeping in fast. With the overcast conditions there wasn’t going to be much of a sunset, it would go straight to sundown, and once the light was gone the temperature would plummet.
This reality was the last thing on the minds of any of our Scouts. They had already set to the task of assembling alternative shelters or bivouacs, to meet a merit badge qualification. They anticipated “roughing it” after hearing stories about such adventures from older Scouts. They were looking forward to unearthing a story of their own tonight.
Over by the cliff’s edge, around the bend from where our tents were pitched, was an outcropping of rocks that formed a natural overhang, referred to by locals as “Lover’s Ledge.”
Here you could either step out slightly over the edge for a bird’s-eye view of the river valley below or follow a couple narrow steps worn into the rock to a natural shelter underneath. The grade remained steep but the steps were well established. It was just dangerous enough to maintain the requisite privacy required for amorous pursuits.
I gingerly crept down to the secluded shelf below and found exactly what I was looking for, several dry pieces of wood that folks had previously thrown down there to use as seats, along with tree branches and pine cones.
As I collected these materials my heart raced as past escapades of mischief percolated through my mind. Pandora’s box was open indeed, and ready for business.
I rambled back into the camp, greeted by the plaintive chirps of a discontented constituency. The reality of the temperature had made its point upon these Scouts. They were ready to flip on the heat.
I headed straight into my tent to get cooking. I grabbed my red lantern and drinking cup with the measuring lines on the inside. I unscrewed the dirt-encrusted cap on the lantern’s fuel reservoir and measured out the necessary amount of kerosene, then poured it into a bowl. I pulled some cans of Sterno from my backpack and cleaned out the contents of one with a plastic spoon, adding it to the kerosene.
The faux-blue Sterno stood out spectacularly against the brushed tin of the bowl and the clear kerosene. Mixing the ingredients carefully, I added more Sterno until all of the kerosene had been incorporated into a jelly-like substance.
My breath was visible as I labored over this mixture of accelerants, and it was as though the contents themselves were smoking. Taking some pinecones, I applied the jelly-starter in between the crevices of each. When I was done, each pinecone had a considerable density and appeared like some strange blue wooden snowball. Although benign in appearance they would put on quite a show.
I took the pinecone-grenades outside to the fire ring. There I assembled some of the more combustible twigs in the center, and gently nestled three of my incendiary devices down into the wooden mixture, then placed some additional branches over the top of my lovelies, safely burying them below.
I could already see the fire that was yet to be realized, flames leaping from their earthen base to lick the sky.
I broke a series of tree branches into 3-foot long pieces, then grabbed three of the sturdier ones and again approached the fire ring. I stuck the end of each branch into the ground and leaned them inward against each other, to form a conical base above my chaotic kindling. Then filled in the gaps with other branches, forming a wooden tepee-like structure over my accelerants, a sort of homage to the Indian drummers I had evicted earlier in the day from my headspace.
My heart was pounding in my chest. I could barely control my shaking hands. This was going to be a whopper!
I instructed everyone to stand back and lit the remaining pinecone. If you light them on top it takes a minute for the flame to burn through the first layer and catch the fuel, almost like a natural fuse.
I opened a crevice in my wooden tepee and popped that sucker down in the middle, then beat a hasty retreat. As the pinecone continued its crescendo to ignition, Charlie stepped forward and instructed a Scout to back further away. That happened to be the precise moment when the entire ensemble erupted into a magnificent concerto of fire.
The byproduct of setting these types of fires is the rapid acceleration of temperature, which causes the sap in the pinecones to explode, resulting in shards of flaming wood shooting about in all directions. It was a great effect in the evening darkness, like a conflagration of fireflies, but can be detrimental if one is standing too close.
Unfortunately Charlie caught some pinecone shrapnel, which proceeded to light his left sleeve on fire. Three Scouts gang-tackled their leader, smothering him in the dirt. Charlie, half bewildered at what was taking place but seeing the smoke coming from his fleece, started banging his already extinguished arm on the ground and rolled about like some deranged lunatic.
All I could say was, “My goodness, what a fire!”
The dancing light was intoxicating. For a time I became hypnotized by the orange and red flames flickering upon the wood; chew little flame, chew.
The warmth offset any sprinkles of rain, and we all pulled our sleeping bags outside the tents to sack by the fire.
Charlie remained traumatized. He could be seen reaching down every so often with his right hand to rub the burned fleece over his forearm. Its reassuring softness now marred and disfigured.
I sat down to his right, and reached across to remove his hand and rubbed the burned surface.
“At least your fleece is broken in now,” I uttered with a laugh.
Charlie, feeling dismayed, could only look down between his legs. Out of the corner of his eye he took notice of my wrist. I could see him do a double take but I couldn’t move back quickly enough before he got a second look.
“Lane, your wrist, what happened to you there?”
I pulled my arm away and tugged down on my jacket sleeve.
“Got too close to the fire myself once Charlie,” I said in an empathetic fashion.
“Does that go very far up your arm?” Charlie inquired.
What he couldn’t see was that the skin no longer appeared smooth about my right arm. It had a textured appearance, like worn leather, cracked from overuse. I’ve had personal experience with how that wood felt as the flames licked its surface, for I had once been fuel for the fire.
Chew little flame, chew.
The following day we made it back down the mountain. The boys remained pumped full of adrenaline from staying up most of the night burning all manner of things to keep the fire going. They descended the trail packing more than just their gear – they had an adventure of their own to tell.
I headed back to Josh’s after that. By the time I walked through his door one Scout’s father had already contacted Josh with concern over his child’s exploits from the previous evening. I had barely crossed the threshold before the accusations came flying.
“So you had to set Charlie on fire?” he said pointedly.
“I didn’t set anybody on fire,” I deflected. “Charlie’s clumsy and generally runs the risk of something happening to him anytime he steps out the door.”
“Lane I asked you not to burn anything down!”
“I didn’t! Charlie was only singed. Besides, I can now vouch for you having some really talented young Scouts under your tutelage. They had Charlie extinguished before he hit the ground.”
“Now I have to get a shower, then over to the airport. Are you giving me a ride?”
“No problem, Smokey,” Josh replied. “It’s the least I can do.”
A couple weeks later Josh had returned home one evening and sat down to flip through his mail. He turned on the television and CNN came roaring to life. Wolf Blitzer was on, putting Josh in “The Situation Room.”
A regional correspondent began filing a report about a mysterious string of warehouse fires on the outskirts of the city where Lane lived. The odd connection grabbed Josh’s attention, and he turned towards the television.
An overly serious reporter struck a grave look before uttering, “Local authorities suspect arson.”
* * * * *
This is a condensed essay, which is designed to be like a campfire story. It was an exercise in quickly escalating a plot line based upon some humorous, and often dark, back and forth dialog. This started out as a much longer piece, around 6,000 words, so three-times as long, which allowed for a better set-up and character development, but I needed a tightly edited version for publication. Thank you to Peter Clavin for all his hard work at the University of Montana, and for having the vision to put together a publication that brings more poetry, story-telling and literature to our world. “Scout’s Honor” will appear in “Cedilla – Volume VII,” coming out this fall.