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To Build a Fire

To build a fire, or when trying to impress the kids goes wrong

My kids’ first camping trip. In my mind, it’s the first in a series of monumental events for my children, ranking right up there with their first communion and high school graduation. Maybe I’m building the experience up too much, but I have certain expectations from their first night beneath the stars. Cue the montage of tranquil fishing scenes, flashlight enhanced ghost stories, and impromptu lessons on the various tree species of the Southern Appalachians. A lesser father might look at this as just a night in the woods, but to me, this camping trip is to be the turning point, where my two toddlers become outdoorsy, adventurous, curious human beings. With any luck, it will serve as the sort of iconic childhood memory that my kids will feel compelled to repeat when they become parents themselves.

We’ll hit all the first time camper highlights: tent, creek, hike, spooky stories…but I’m going to seal the deal with a roaring campfire where I’ll introduce my kids to the art of the s’more. Little known fact: s’mores were invented by a father trying to win over the affection of his adolescent children. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems like the kind of snack a dad would come up with while trying to impress his offspring.

Two graham crackers, a hunk of Hershey’s milk chocolate, and a roasted marshmallow. Squeeze it together, and what do you get? Love. Cry hyperbole if you like, but the s’more is so powerful, so iconic, it has its own national holiday. National S’mores day lands in the middle of August, somewhere between Independence Day and Labor Day. That’s no coincidence.

Of course, before my kids can taste a s’more, I have to get a fire started, which, historically, has been a bit of an issue for me. My lack of pyro skills is legendary among certain circles. Typically, it’s just a comical interlude in a camping trip. I try, I fail, we laugh and someone with better skills makes the sticks go boom. No harm, no foul. But with my kids standing behind me, their sticks in hand topped with fluffy marshmallows, literally dancing with anticipation, there’s a bit more pressure than usual to get the fire going.

I do everything I’m supposed to do. I’ve always been a fan of the teepee method, so I’ve got a solid foundation of newspaper tinder, surrounded by a ring of small sticks leaning against each other. The wood is dry, the matches are long…my wife nixed the gasoline helper but I have a quick start log nearby for good measure. It’s textbook really, which is why it’s so frustrating when the fire doesn’t get past the blue smoke phase. Meanwhile, my kids stand behind me, sticks at the ready, chanting “Fire! Fire! Fire!” waiting to roast some damn marshmallows. Enter the string of profanities from their father.

I reload the paper, strike the match, and wait as the fire starts to smoke, then flame bright before burning out like an ‘80s hair band. I reload and go again, but it’s no better. I go for the easy-start log, which burns dull before crapping out.

Seeing the direction I’m heading with my obscenities and rage-like desire to burn everything in sight, my wife tries to drag the kids off to collect more firewood, but the little tikes are steadfast, holding their marshmallowed sticks, ready for their dad to make good on his promise of a “campfire so big, you’ll be able to see it from the moon.”

It’s even more frustrating knowing that the cave man, without the benefit of any state-funded education, basically did what I’m trying to do 790,000 years ago with two rocks. Hell, idiots start accidental fires all the time. I’ve personally started two “spontaneous brush fires” in my day, thanks to some illegally purchased alcohol and fireworks. If only I could be so lucky today. Now, I couldn’t start a fire with a blowtorch in a sea of Georgia pine straw. Maybe I need some bottle rockets and a sixer of Zima, like back in the day.

For a minute, I think there’s some sort of atmospheric disturbance that’s squelching any attempt to build a fire. A lack of oxygen perhaps? Some weird side affect of global warming? But a quick survey of the other campsites in the campground shows one family after the other enjoying roaring campfires, compliments of fathers far more capable than I.

All I want is for my kids to see their dad harness the power of fire like some sort of mythological god–is that too much to ask? If I can ever get this fire roaring, I picture myself taking them under my arm and saying, “When you’re older, I’ll teach you how to build a fire.” Then they’d hug me, and they’d never do drugs or go through an awkward goth phase.

What actually happens is I keep stuffing the fire with more paper and hurrying my kids to roast their marshmallows while the pitiful flame lasts. It’s more blue smoke than actual flame, but it’s hot enough to roast the marshmallows. S’mores are made. The kids stuff their faces, then run off into the woods, my wife chasing after them with a wet wipe, worried about bears and the melted chocolate on their faces.

A few weeks later, I’ll get a roaring fire started in our front yard with some dry leaves and sticks. I’ll beckon my wife and kids to the front yard to gaze upon my creation, but they’ll just stare at me oddly as I dance around the steady flame, saying, “Look! Look at what Daddy did!”

It’ll be an impressive fire—even my neighbors will say so in their own way, but its significance won’t register with my kids at the time. They’re too young to truly comprehend the weight of the lessons I’m trying to teach them. But I’m certain the camping trip and the yard fire will leave a mark. Perhaps they’ll remember the events fondly when they’re older, and doing everything in their power not to look like jackasses in front of their own children.

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