When our son was six, we began letting him play with fire. It made sense a few decades ago and I think it still does, but you be the judge.
Ever since he was a baby, our son had gone camping with us in southern Arizona. Even during lean years, such as when I went back to school, our family considered it cheap entertainment to take whatever was in the fridge, a box of shells and, for just a few dollars’ worth of gas — yes, that’s how many years ago this was — drive to what we called Camp Meager, in the Tortolita Mountains north of Tucson. The spot was a desert camper’s dream. The circular clearing next to the mesquite-lined wash was big enough for a few tents, a fire pit, and a regulation hopscotch arena. Large coveys of quail lurked in any direction you chose. We spent many evenings there with family and friends, eating roasted camp potatoes with our day’s take of mesquite-grilled quail.
At Camp Meager, our six-year-old was appointed official campfire-tender. He had conscientiously worked at mastering the skills required to build a campfire. (This was a kid who caught his first bass on a rubber worm at age three, but threw it back because it was too small.) Immediately upon our arrival, he surveyed the area to find the best location and assigned me the task of gathering sticks and twigs for kindling. I was up for the job.
He learned how to construct our cooking fire in the shape of a light bulb, with a round main pit and a narrow straight section where the grill would be placed over the coals. He carefully arranged the fire so the breeze could feed it without blowing smoke into the cook’s face.
Then the fun began. He would crumple three or four sheets of newspaper to support a soccer-ball-sized heap of tinder. This served as the base for a tepee of pencil-thin mesquite twigs, which was followed by thicker, longer pieces. A couple of openings were left for air to get to the tinder. Then came the part where even the most lenient parents might cringe: We let him start the fire. He used a disposable lighter to light both sides of the tinder, then sat back to watch his handiwork. From that point on, the job was just tending, poking, pushing to the center, and adding pieces of mesquite.
His favorite part — even more than the post-meal bonfire — was being allowed to poke the fire. He was aware that other kids would probably be scolded for playing with the fire, but he understood it was his job, and a serious one at that. One of my most vivid memories is the image of him crouching by the campfire against a background of a billion stars, mesmerized by the smoke swirling upward from the end of his poking stick.
It’s impossible to measure the positive effect this activity, as well as others like it, had on his confidence and sense of self-worth. We’re talking actual fire here — like running with scissors. Yet that confidence stayed with him long after we returned to civilization. It made a lasting impression on him that is still reflected in adulthood. That six-year-old is now a hulking 6-foot, 220-pound police officer in Kansas with a family of his own.
Looking back, my wife and I agree that our son’s fire-tending career was at least as rewarding for us as it was for him. It’s one of our sweetest memories, and it comes up occasionally when his family visits and we gather around the fire pit at home. But now, he’s the one gathering tinder and snapping twigs, while my wife and I kick back with a cold beverage, reminiscing about Camp Meager and watching our six-year-old grandson poke the fire.
Alan Crowe is a contributor to High Country News which produced and first published this story. Photo by Rudi Schlatte.