Fire played a large part in my early life, and I was never far from one. Sometimes my experiences with fire were frightening, as I have mentioned in the previous parts of this story, and sometimes they were humorous. In Part III I am going to describe three instances in which fire was exactly what fire should be, and that is simply warm. These stories were times when fire warmed the soul as much as the body, so much so that the glow of those fires continues to burn low even today.
The first story took place at Silver Strand, a beach on the narrow strip of land that connects the town of Imperial Beach, on the Mexican/U.S. border, with Coronado Island. I have no idea why my father preferred to take us to Silver Strand, which was much farther away from our home than were the more popular Ocean, Mission and Pacific Beaches. Perhaps it was the ubiquitous Navy presence in that South Bay area that drew my very Navy dad to choose that spot. Ultimately it didn’t matter much. He was driving and Silver Strand was his preferred beach. Sand and water and waves were the only things necessary to me, and I spent many a wonderful, sunny San Diego day at Silver Strand.
One of the things that I liked most about the Strand is that it had concrete fire rings. These circular pits were about four feet in diameter if my memory serves me correctly, and were raised about eight or ten inches above the surface of the sand. The logic behind those rings was that if people’s beach fires were contained within visible and enclosed areas there would be fewer people stepping onto a smoldering beach fire left covered only by a thin layer of sand. This happened often at other beaches and could result in painfully burned feet. I never had the dubious pleasure of stepping in any such unintended booby trap, but I can’t believe that it was anything like a pleasant experience.
As I have written before, starting the fires was always my job. On our visits to the beach I did so as speedily as possible so that I could get into the water as soon as possible. My brother Fred, who had no such pyrotechnic contract with our father, was always in the water first, and so I poured my heart into plying Prometheus’ gift in order to join Fred as quickly as I could. Once the fire was securely established I would turn it over to Dad and fly straight as an arrow into the waves.
At this point it is necessary to explain something about the water off the beaches of San Diego, and also about my juvenile physique, and how the two came together to shape this story. Although San Diego has a warm, mediterranean climate, with palm trees and stucco houses hidden behind hedges of hibiscus and bougainvillea, the water flowing south past those beaches did not originate anywhere near the Mediterranean Sea. The North Pacific Gyre draws water from the chilly northern reaches of that ocean and then impels them past the Washington and Oregon and Northern Californian beaches, until they finally arrive off the coast of San Diego.
In addition to the continuous flow of chilly northern Pacific water past our beaches, a phenomenon called the Ekman Spiral conspires with the Coriolis Effect to draw the warmer surface waters westward. This, in turn, causes colder deep waters to well up from their abyssal depths to replace the surface layer, ensuring that nobody without a wetsuit of some kind will spend extended periods of time in the water without getting thoroughly chilled.
Now add to that picture my physical stature at that time. To say that I was thinly built is like saying that Kim Jong Un has a really bad haircut. I ate very little when I was young, and that fact was demonstrated by my spindly frame. Compared to my childhood form, Richard Scarry’s Busytown character Lowly Worm looked like the Incredible Hulk, all of which is to say that I had very little spare tissue to protect me from the usually cold water of Silver Strand.
I would persist, however, and stay in the water, getting the stuffing knocked out of me by waves and generally having a ball. When I could no longer stand the cold I would emerge, blue and with teeth chattering, and return to our picnic site next to the blazing fire. Mom threw a blanked around my shivering shoulders while Dad would scoop a trench in sand that had been warmed by the sun. I would then forsake fire and blanket to lie down in the trench. Pop would cover me with the warm sand and I would lie there like a corn dog, warming up from without and within.
Fred would usually come in about this time because my retreat from the water to my sand bed would normally signal the beginning of our meal. Hot dogs were skewered on long steel forks that Dad must have fabricated in the metal shop at the Navy base. They were then held over the glowing coals of our fire and quickly cooked. Bell Brand potato chips and ears of corn and cold sodas and beer were brought out to make the feast complete. Then, my body heated by sand, sun and fire, and my belly filled with all of the goodies mentioned above, and my ears ringing with Mom’s admonitions against going out too soon lest I get the cramps, or fall to rip tides, stingrays, Godzilla, and a hundred other threats and terrors that the deep had to throw against a ten year old boy (Mom was a bit of a pessimist), Fred and I would race down the beach and plunge into the frigid water, eager to do the whole thing over again.
My second remembrance of this trilogy took place somewhere around 1964 or 65 at Highland and Landis Recreation Center in East San Diego. The Rec Leader, Mrs. Shumway, had decided to stage a week long summer camp for the younger children of our neighborhood. She devised a plan to use the older teenage kids who made “The Park” their hangout as her assistants. Those with intimate knowledge of what a gaggle of misfits most of that group was would have declared Mrs. Shumway to be out of her mind to even consider it. Events proved instead that she was a genius. But that’s another story.
For one week us teenagers arrived, helping with paper constructions or officiating games and the myriad other duties necessary to keep a hoard of young children busy and happy for several hours each day. At the end of that week the parents, children, and helpers were to be treated to a feast. A business run by Pacific Islanders was contracted to come in and cook a pig in a pit.
I had never heard of anything like this before, and I had serious doubts that any such thing could be done. On the evening before the feast however, a bunch of really big guys showed up and dug a pit right where we would high jump. The next morning they were there early with a pig; yes, a real, whole, dead pig, wrapped in banana leaves.
I don’t recall all of the details of the process. Perhaps a fire was made, the pig laid on the coals and then covered with dirt and a second fire lit over it. Maybe some other means was used to cook the now-interred pig. I couldn’t tell you. I was leery of the whole deal though. I mean, bacon and chops and ham came out of plastic wrappers that Mom bought at the commissary on the Navy base. I didn’t eat dead things buried in a burning pit where, by all that was right, we should be high-jumping.
The funny thing is that my attraction to fire overrode my antipathy to buried and burning pigs, and as the time approached to remove the pig from the pit I was sucked into the excitement which everyone else was feeling about the event. In short order the pig was produced and, in spite of everything that my offended sense of propriety told me about this abomination, the meat which the cooks began to slice off and serve looked and smelled irresistibly good.
At last, with the pig looking accusingly at me through sockets from which the eyes had melted out, I accepted a plate of the pork and soon sat with Terry and Dennis and Eugene and Mack and Emilio and a dozen other boys and girls and ate a meal that tourists now pay hundreds of dollars to enjoy when they visit Hawai’i.
My final tale involving fire took place primarily at Green Valley Falls campground in the Laguna Mountains. I loved camping there as much as I loved anything else when I was growing up in San Diego, and on this occasion Dad took my friend Mike and I for a weekend in the great outdoors.
One of the things that I enjoyed most about camping at Green Valley Falls was the weekend campfires that the rangers would organize for interested campers. A fire pit was constructed in a safe area and logs were placed in a concentric semicircle, providing seating for the campers. In the evening, as daylight faded into dusk, the fire was lit and a large, cheerful blaze hissed and popped while the ranger gave a talk on the fauna or flora or geology or other related topics concerning the natural history of that corner of southern California.
During this particular trip Mike and I discovered, to our delight, that the campsite adjacent to our own housed a family which consisted of a father, a mother, a young boy, and Clarice and Marcia. I never knew the names of the father or the mother or the boy while we were camping. All of my attention was on Clarice and Marcia.
The girls were roughly our age. Marcia was the younger and they both seemed to be as interested in the two boys next door as those boys were interested in them. We spent as much of the days together as we could, and on Saturday evening we managed to sit close to each other during the rangers’ campfire discussion. I confess that I learned little that evening about the Black-headed Grosbeak, the incense cedar, and rocks such as the Julian Schist.
As we walked back to our camps after the ranger’s presentation, Mr. and Mrs. Madsen – that was their last name – allowed their girls to walk home with Mike and I, with my father trailing at a respectable distance. We sat on an outcrop of boulders that separated our campsites and talked about anything and everything until the girls’ parents called them into their camp to prepare for the night’s sleep.
Sleep is something that I didn’t do much of that night. I was very shy as a youth, and although I knew and counted as friends many girls from my neighborhood and from school, I had never before experienced a spontaneous and mutual attraction such as this, and it left my head spinning with possibilities.
But there was one complication; they lived in Norwalk, which is somewhere around one hundred miles north of San Diego. Still, true love conquers all, so the next day as we were all packing to go to our respective homes, I procured Clarise’s address and promised to write, a promise that I fulfilled with great excitement and hope.
To my chagrin however, Clarice’s family was in the process of moving. Now, instead of one hundred miles north, they were going to be more than five hundred miles away. True love might conquer all, but my puppy love was crushed by this development. I groaned at my bad luck and then turned my mind to resuming my normal activities of hanging out with my friends in the neighborhood, but now without even the semblance of a girlfriend.
As a postscript, I visited with the Madsens a few years later. My Army basic training took place less than two hundred miles from Petaluma, where they now lived. When I was able to secure a weekend pass I bought a bus ticket to that town, and upon arrival found their phone number and gave them a call.
I was treated very royally by that family, although Clarice and Marcia had their own lives and friends and were not overly excited about my visit. I have concluded that my welcome was more likely the result of Mr. Madsen’s experiences during World War II and his understanding of where I would be going and what I would be doing in the very near future.
This concludes my reminiscences of fire in my life as a youth. More stories abound, heaven knows, and I could write for a year and not exhaust them all. I hope that you have enjoyed reading them, and I hope that you will take the opportunity to (safely) light a nice fire and create some new memories of your own. These have come to be among the fondest that I have.