July 18, 2005

Around the Campfire

I cannot remember when I first began playing with fire. Flame has always been a part of my life. Before learning to read, surely, I was poking sticks into fire to see what would happen. When we were camping, my mother was always made the fire for the evening meal. I'd watch her putting on oak twigs or bits of bark, and soon I was gathering dry sticks, adding them to the fire. Eventually, I was old enough to fan the fire or shift the logs so that the flames could breathe.

At camp now, most fires are still built and tended by mother or me, although I have a brother-in-law who does most of the cooking over the fires we build. On an overcast day of misty rain, I will start a fire in the morning and keep it going all day. You don't feel the rain that much under the thick canopy of oak leaves. And a hot fire will burn bright even through a rain if you keep fanning it. A fire on a rainy day will lure family members out of tents, cars, and cabins, where they have been reading books or playing cards.

On a clear night when the dark sky above the bay is filled with stars, everyone gathers around the fire pit. During our July vacation, we had 21 people most nights, all family members. Well, actually, Red-haired Sister brought Russian Girl, a child with a lovely accent, a beautiful smile, and a tragic life story. But in our family, extras are counted in.

When the whole family is at camp, we fight over choice spots at the campfire, with little kids claiming laps and Shaggy Hair Boy complaining loudly that wherever he sits, the smoke is always in his eyes. Usually about ten conversations are going on at once. The women in my family talk fast, with wild hand gestures, swishing hair, and raised voices, adding drama to the simplest tale. When Blonde Sister's three girls get going - these are the nieces with the gorgeous silky hair - everyone just stops and stares at them, unable to compete.

The men in the family, including my own dark-haired sons dressed in black, tend to be quiet and reserved, sort of blending into the background of night until their voices are needed for song. Eventually, someone will suggest a game. My favourite game is the one in which I get to yell out a word, and each team has to sing eight words of a song that includes that word. I usually get picked to yell out the words because I am, sadly, the only person in the family who cannot carry a tune.

Whatever game we play involves all kinds of arguing about the rules. We all shout at each other, passionately arguing about points, even when it is pretty obvious that no one is even keeping track of the points. The arguments include bouts of laughter when someone gets in a particularly good jab. And eventually, we all quiet down, the youngest kids nodding off to sleep, and the teenagers rummage through cars to see what treats we have not eaten yet. The fire burns down to a pile of glowing red logs. My parents are the first to head off to bed, and I am the last. Before I leave for my tent, I pour a bucket of water over the fire and watch the steam rise to the oak branches above.

17 comments:

Phantom Scribbler said...

Is this the line to fill out an application for becoming an "extra" in jo(e)'s family?

PPB said...

yeah....I read about extra teens....are people over the age of teenager allowed to be extras, too?

Yankee T said...

Sounds like so much fun!

Piece of Work said...

I love reading these camping posts! Reminds me of similar family outings in my childhood. You paint such a great picture!

Friday Mom said...

Well, my thought isn't terribly original as it turns out, but add me to the list of applicants to be an extra. I'm pretty handy with a fire myself, and quite skilled at putting up tents.

RussianViolets said...

What Phantom and FridayMom said.

Mona Buonanotte said...

As a child, my mother was convinced I was to become a somewhat famous pyromaniac. We had burn-barrels out back (you could actually BURN things in the country in my childhood), and I'd always be the one she asked to take the paper sacks of burnables out, a big box of kitchen matches, and gently and obsessively light the refuse in *just the right way*. No, I'm no pyro, I have no such inkling. But I can still poke at a fire very, very well.

Moreena said...

You make me want to go out and have a campfire family vacation *right now*

BrightStar said...

The game -- with yelling out a word then coming up with a song -- sounds great! I totally want to play that game.

Running2Ks said...

That is a really great game. Man, you make it all seem like a blast (the great outdoors, and fire for goodness sake).

jo(e) said...

Sure, grown-ups can be extras too. In fact, two summers ago, we got a visit at camp from a retired couple who now live in California but who came out to spend time with my Dad. The man, now in his seventies, was an extra in my Dad's family years and years ago. The tradition in my Dad's family of having extras goes all the way back to the 1930s.

Scrivener said...

I was always the firetender when we went camping too. Always my favorite part of camping, playing with the fire or just staring down into the coals.

But I guess that means I'd need some other skill to be an extra, huh? I can't carry a tune either, so that's out too. Damn. And you've got a cook. Ok, well, maybe I'll come up with something one of these days.

Stewgad said...

Jo(e):
I'm sure you've been told this before, many times, but you are an amazingly beautiful writer. You make the mundane lyrical. Thank you for sharing.

jo(e) said...

Stewgad: Thanks for the nice compliment.

Scrivener: No special skills are required to be an extra. It's not like we have an interview process. My kids would vote you in just because they think your taste in music is better than mine. I think you'd get points for the green hair, too.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

When I was a child, I loved the campfire, and I was so proud when I was the one who would build it. Gathering wood was an ongoing family activity. We loved to write our names with glowing sticks, toast marshmallows, sing, and tell stories. As older children, my father always challenged us to build and light a fire with a single match and we got so we could do it under even the most difficult situations. But as a wilderness camper, I rarely built fires, choosing instead to do what little cooking required on a small backpacking stove. Now, we usually build a cooking fire but do not sit around it after dinner. We don't have the extended family, just the two or three of us. I miss the comraderie of all that. Maybe you'll invite us to join you sometime?

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

I agreee with Stewgad that you're a wonderful writer, jo(e)!

And, Mona, we used to have a burning trash spot out back, only instead of a barrel, it was a large barrel-shaped cage. We tooked turns having to burn the trash--one of our childhood chores, but one we enjoyed. The neighbors had a similar cage or basket, and one dry windy summer day, some of their trash blew out and set the neighborhood on fire. We kids watched out the back window as the adults beat on the fire with wet burlap bags. It was exciting and scary.

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

When I was a child, I loved the campfire, and I was so proud when I was the one who would build it. Gathering wood was an ongoing family activity. We picked up sticks on the way back from every walk. Now, in Canada's Provincial Parks, where we often camp, gathering firewood is against the rules. This is an ecologically sound rule, it allows the forest to recycle itself and standing wood to provide homes for owls and wood peckers. But it is still a loss worthy of mourning for campers. I miss the woodgathering.

Because of the firewood gathering ban and the ban on bringing wood from the States that might be infested with emerald ash borers and other pests, we have to buy wood. One time, Keith was terribly upset because the wood we purchased was punky. Lo and behold, that night, he discovered it glowing on the campsite around his chopping block--it was full of foxfire, and it was his first. He hung a piece in the tent and that night, it stormed. Lightning flashed and then faded and the foxfire glowfilled the tent. They alternated all night in a magical night we'll never forget.

As children, we loved to write our names with glowing sticks, toast marshmallows, sing, and tell stories. As older children, my father always challenged us to build and light a fire with a single match and we got so we could do it under even the most difficult situations. But as a wilderness camper, I rarely built fires, choosing instead to do what little cooking required on a small backpacking stove. Now, we usually build a cooking fire but do not sit around it after dinner. We don't have the extended family, just the two or three of us. I miss the camaraderie of all that.

While campfires are romantic, burning trash is not. We burned all our burnable trash when I was a child. We had a large barrel-shaped cage out back. One of our childhood chores was a daily turn burning trash--it was a chore we enjoyed. We had to be careful not to allow any of the burning pieces to blow away and if they did, put them out immediately. The neighbors had a similar burning basket, and one dry windy summer day, some of their trash blew out and set the neighborhood on fire. We kids watched out the back window as the adults beat on the fire with wet burlap bags. It was exciting and scary.