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Yesteryear’s Memories: The Great Outdoors


Growing up in the 60s in the Midwest wasn’t that different than anywhere else, I believe. Kids climbed stuff, they ran around, they got into mischief from time to time, and they played games and dreamed of what they would be when they grew up. The kids in my neighborhood played baseball in the vacant lot by my house with bases made of whatever was available. One day it would be an old piece of wood someone found; another day it may just be the bare spot we wore in the grass. There were bicycle races held there and model airplanes were flown. Model rockets were launched and we took off our shoes and socks after it rained — the ditch along the edge was perfect for wading and splashing each other, and eventually the grass gave way to mud that squished between our toes. It was grand in sunny weather and big enough to fly a kite when it was windy. But as far as neighborhood kids went, I was the luckiest because I lived right next to it.

Daytime was fun in that lot, but night was fun too. I’d get my flashlight out and explore the tall grassy areas. It had fireflies (or as we called them, “lightening bugs”). Occasionally there was a toad and if you were careful you could snag a few night crawlers. It was fun grabbing one and slowly pulling it out of the ground — they’d stretch out over a foot and you could get a dozen in a few minutes. Of all those activities, though, one stands out in my mind. My friends and I called it camping out. Most people would call it sleeping in a tent in the back yard. It didn’t matter to us; it was still big adventure even if it wasn’t out in the wilderness. We would plan all week for the big day, gathering cans of beans and making tin can lanterns. Our tent was faded brown canvas and smelled like, well, canvas. It has a special smell all its own. We used old blankets under our sleeping bags to cushion the hard ground and pieces of plastic underneath to keep us drier. We gathered iron skillets and those old army surplus can openers — they were harder to use but perfect in keeping with our ‘roughing it’ scheme. We always fried potatoes over the fire — and that brings me to the point. The focal point of our camp was the campfire. We always dug a shallow hole to get to the dirt. Then we stacked up twigs, then bigger twigs, and still bigger pieces until we had a nice structure like a log cabin. It only took one match to get it all going, then we put on chunks of good sized limbs. After it burned down, then we’d set the skillet on top of the hot coals. It really was perfect for cooking. After the food, though, was maybe the best part. Sitting around staring into the fire.

I don’t know what it is, but it must be some primitive instinct thing. I’ve seen it everywhere there’s a campfire burning. People can sit for hours looking into the flames. It doesn’t matter their age, where they’re from, or what they do for a living. It doesn’t matter what language they speak or what kind of car they drive. Some people talk, some tell stories, some tell jokes, and some just stare. I think it must be that no two fires are the same, and the flames constantly change. The wood makes little noises like crackles, whines, and sizzles. Sometimes it flares up and sometimes it has different colors. The sight and the smell and the sounds are ever-changing but it’s still somehow predictable in the course of the evening — the flames build and they die down, and they accept each piece of wood you throw on and consume it like some kind of animal devouring its prey. And most of all, they keep you entertained and warm and calm.

I’m afraid that things have changed over the years, though. It’s only legal to have a fire in some places at certain times. Now you can’t just build a fire wherever and whenever you want. I think if the politicians have their way, we won’t be able to burn anything anymore — or at least you’ll have to purchase a permit. They are even outlawing wood-fired pizza restaurants in some states. So much for another of our freedoms being taken from us. Maybe people would be more calm and relaxed if they stared into a campfire for a while. All I know is, after a day of playing baseball in a vacant lot there was nothing better than starting a little campfire, eating simple food, and watching a pile of wood turn into a pool of glowing coals. Oh yeah, and falling asleep to whines, crackles, and sizzles.

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