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  • Writer's pictureTerry Groves

B.R.A.T.S. Up In Smoke

In about 1968, when I was ten or so, I had a bit of a fascination with fire. I wasn't running around lighting them, I just liked how a line of gasoline would flare from the end you lit to the other, a snake of flame.

I knew a lot about fire safety from what I learned in my involvement with Wolf Cubs and Boy Scouts. Since we were always having camp fires, and because we often crafted creative ways to light them, fire safety was a high priority.

I was also cutting a lot of lawns in those days to earn pocket money, so I had access to a constant supply of gasoline.

One evening while Mom and Dad were out with their Square Dancing club, us boys were home alone. Mark and Robin were out somewhere so I was left in charge. I got to thinking about how long a small trail of gasoline I could lay down and then light. My carefully thought out plan ended up a mess on the sidewalk behind our PMQ in Clinton. I feel a brat story coming on.

Of course, the can slipped as I was laying out my trail, and the small stream I wanted, turned into a fair size puddle. I was working quickly in case one of our neighbors spotted me and stopped me. I had just lit the gas, resulting in flames that were taller than me, when I heard Mom coming up the side of the house. For some reason they were home early. I believe she was saying, "Where is everyone?"

OMG, I moved to put myself between her and the flames on the off-chance she wouldn't notice them. Ha! I was so busted. And I was so grounded for a week.

I did have a healthy respect for fire, that's why I lit it on the sidewalk. Cement doesn't burn. I had a scare at one of our Scout camps that really tempered my fascination with the flames. And that time, I wasn't even doing anything bad.

We had been given permission by one of the local farmers to use a wooded area on his land for a permanent campsite. I recall accompanying the Scout Master the day the agreement was made.

The farmer, Mr. Lawson, pointed to the woods that began at the end of one of his fields and ended at Turtle Creek (the subject of an earlier blog posts). There was a small valley with Turtle Creek cutting through it. He said, "Feel free to cut down whatever trees you want, do what you like. Just don't bother my crops (since we would have to cut through his field to get to the woods) and don't burn down the forest."

It was a generous offer and we worked hard to respect it.

We built two hootchies, permanent huts, that we waterproofed using mostly natural element we found in the woods, a latrine area a short distance away, and a fire pit. The pit was in the center of a bare spot that we had scraped clean of any flammables, for about six feet all around. We hung a canvas tarp nine feet above the fire-pit, to help keep it dry. Buckets of water and sand were always around the fire-pit area for safety.

e used that campsite a lot, with and sometimes without Scout Masters, all year round.

During winter camps, we kept the fire going all the time, carefully tending it so we never lost the flame. During one weekend, we had been out doing some snowy adventure and were cold when we arrived back at the camp. We stacked some wood onto the fire and fanned the flames to get it going good. The flames got a bit higher than normal, so we knocked some of the wood down, to lower them. A plume of sparks and burning leaves gushed up from that and the tarp over the fire-pit caught on fire.

The tarp had been there a few years and was quite dry. It flared up before we could do anything. We grabbed the water buckets, but they had mostly frozen over while the fire had burned low in our absence. The sand buckets were similarly frozen. By now the tarp had collapsed and the flames were burning up the ropes that had secured it to the trees. The trees were starting to catch fire.

Some kids ran to the river to fill the buckets with water while others of us grabbed our blankets and beat at the flames. All this time Mr. Lawson's words rang in my head, "just don't burn down the forest." I was so scared. Both for the danger we were all in but also because we might be destroying this area that had been entrusted to us.

Then the flames were out. We had managed to beat them all into submission. We made doubly sure our fire perimeter was secure and then we talked about what had almost happened.

I never forgot that experience, how scared I had felt, but mostly, how quickly the fire had gotten away from us. This, despite all the safety measures we had been taught and had respected.

From then on, I was a lot more careful around fire. An important lesson in the life of a brat.

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