I have been attracted to fire for as long as I can remember. Like a moth to a flame, or a mosquito to a bug zapper on my parents’ back porch in the Southwest desert, I have always been pulled inexorably to fire as if by some sort of unnatural gravity. Fire may be the devil’s only friend, as Don McLean assured us many years ago in the song “American Pie,” but the devil isn’t fire’s only friend. It pains me to think that we have even that much in common, but I must face the truth of it; I love a good fire.
From my earliest days, fire was usually associated with good, or at least not so bad, things. My father was a welder and metalsmith in the Navy, and he made for us what he called a charcoal broiler, possibly out of scrap metal from his ship or else from somewhere in the Navy yard. The squarish steel box, probably a foot across and about eight inches deep, stood atop a three foot pole fixed to two steel crosspieces at the bottom. A grate rested on small ledges in the middle of each side of the box along the top.
Many, many burgers and hot dogs and steaks were cooked on that device, some in our back yard or at the beach or at camps and picnic areas in the Laguna Mountains and the desert, and it was always my duty to get the fire started and produce the bed of coals that was to get the meal cooked. I was a terrible eater in my youth, so the payoff for me was more in the fire than in the food.
I remember having a bright idea one day; a way to save money on all of the charcoal that we were using. I had read of Native Americans heating rocks and then dropping the glowing stones into pots of food that they wanted to boil. “I’ll just throw some rocks in the broiler and heat them up. It’ll save money” I told Dad, and he knew of no reason why I shouldn’t try.
My plan worked great on the first try. The stones heated up to a cheery glow and flawlessly cooked our dogs or burgers or whatever we put on the grate that day. Basking in my father’s accolades, I looked forward to my first opportunity to repeat my performance. That opportunity came quickly enough, and with it the flaw in my plan was exposed.
It turns out that there are fracture planes in many rocks, and that those planes are weakened when the rocks are heated and expanded, and then cool and contract. They are then ready to snap apart the next time that they are heated. The Native Americans knew about this and how to choose the right stones that could handle repeated heating and cooling. They neglected to share that information with me.
I had no idea of what was coming until the first stone popped like a gun going off. The chip flew off of the rock, bounced off of the side of the metal box and disappeared – – – somewhere. I was mystified as to what had just happened and leaned over the broiler in order to assess what was going on in my fire. At that moment another stone exploded, sending chunks of burning wood up into the air and several chips whizzing a couple inches past my right ear.
“*&%%#!” I yelled in this unguarded moment as I jumped back away from the infernal device which now promised pain and worse than pain instead of burgers and dogs and praise.
“Glenn!” came the stentorian voice of my father, calling me in, I knew, to have me account for the salty language that had just erupted from my mouth. “Come in here.”
Dad’s bedroom window was not twelve feet from where I then stood, and his desk where he studied for his post-military college classes was situated directly in front of that window. I knew that there was nowhere to hide. The fear of exploding rocks and fire in my face was now replaced by my fear of the wrath of my father.
As I trudged into the house through the back door and then down the hall towards Dad’s room I pondered which of the two threats was the worse. By the time that I walked through the door into his room I was still not sure of the answer to that question, but the fact that I had survived the first and had not yet seen a resolution to the second inclined me to consider the latter most likely to lead to definite discomfort.
To my surprise and relief, Dad was sufficiently impressed by the gravity of the situation to allow me to wriggle off the hook with no more than a mild admonishment to clean up my mouth. I believe that he felt responsible for allowing a dangerous situation to develop on his watch, and although I couldn’t imagine how he should know any more about the lore of Native Americans on the subject of cooking with hot rocks than I did, I clutched my free pass with eager hands. I felt like I had navigated between the Scylla of an exploding fire and the Charybdis of Pop’s judgement and emerged unscathed. That was luck enough for me for one day!
Most of my experiences with fire were more benevolent that that however. Dad and I played a game of sorts. Whenever a fire was needed in order to cook outside it was my duty to produce that fire by the use of only a single match. Whether it was at the beach or in the backyard during the summer, with an abundance of dry wood, good kindling, and no wind, or in the mountains in the dead of winter, surrounded by fields of snow and with a one-inch coat of ice over the grate of the stone and steel camp stoves provided at Green Valley Falls, my job was to get that fire going with the greatest economy possible short of rubbing two sticks together.
At first, Dad allowed the use of big strike-anywhere matches; the kind that you could light by scratching them on the zipper or the pant leg of your jeans. Later, as I honed my skills, the challenge was made greater by limiting me to one PAPER match. And no paper was allowed in the process, other than the paper of the match. Paper was only needed by pansies. Real Men, and Real Boys who wanted to think that they are men, took their knife and hatchet and produced a pile of shavings, then splinters, then sticks, until at last they had a pile ready to do the master’s bidding.
I never failed. It never took more than fifteen minutes for me to have a roaring fire even on the coldest and frostiest and wettest days, days when I could hardly feel my fingers for the cold. And the payoff was enormous. Mom’s fried potatoes and bacon, eggs and biscuits, and the coffee that I loved to smell but did not yet prefer to drink were a prize beyond gold.
But even more than Mom’s breakfast I would enjoy Pop’s inspection of the blaze, nod of approval, and declaration that I had the makings of a man who could live off of the land, and that was heady stuff for a kid who was born and raised in the city, yet knew that there was a world closer to the way that things should really be out there in the fields and the forests.
Not all fires that I was engaged in were made by me nor under control however. San Diego is a dry place, and in the 1950’s and 60’s the neighborhoods were laced with brush-filled canyons which led to dry creek beds that ran with water only when it rained. And I mean rained a lot!
During the summers kids would play in those canyons, and while for some unknown reason I never started a fire in one, others were less cautious. Many times we would hear the fire engines going down Fairmont Avenue, or Highland or Chamoune, or any of the numbered streets around us, headed to a canyon to put out a fire.
We might be throwing a football in an alley, or playing baseball at the diamond at Hamilton Elementary School, or just hanging out at the recreation center. We would stop what we were doing, scan the horizon for smoke, and then upon sighting our quarry, mount our bicycles and pedal there as quickly as was possible.
The excitement which we experienced was palpable. Residents on the fringe of the burning canyon would be out with their garden hoses, wetting down house and yard as much as possible in an attempt to protect their property in the event that the wind pushed the flames in their direction. Firemen would already be on the scene, unlimbering hoses, connecting them to nearby hydrants, and plunging heroically into the heart of the inferno.
We boys would jump off of our bikes and find the first hose that looked like it needed an extra hand to drag its heavy self in the direction of the firemen, and we would then haul it into the canyon, allowing the firemen to worry only about fighting the fire. For some reason which eludes me to this day, none of us got cooked for our efforts. The firemen never let us get too close to imminent danger, of course, but they really did appreciate our help. In retrospect I find it hard to believe that this was allowed at all. In our current insanely litigious society, no fireman in his right mind would allow anyone, much less eleven and twelve year old kids, to jump into such a dangerous situation.
And it truly was dangerous! Many years later, while working on a construction job on Mira Mesa, a nearby canyon fire was my siren song once again, and I responded like the ten year old boy did over a decade earlier. This time, thick smoke reduced my vision and I got turned around, and soon I was running like a jackrabbit only a step or two in front of Santa Anna Wind – driven flames. It was the last time that I ever stepped up to help fight a canyon fire, or any other, fire.