Campfires and other things that kids notice much later

Parents often wonder if their children appreciate the contortions parents go through for them. Watching our daughter deal with her children recently reminded me of an adventure I had with my own father.

Beverly and her husband, Bob, and their three kids were staying with us. One son had a birthday and his parents promised hot dogs and marshmallows cooked over a campfire. Rain was threatening, but Bob got the campfire going and the hot dogs cooked. Rain looked even more threatening as a few marshmallows were cooked. As the rain began, the kids piled quite a bit of wood on the fire, "to be sure it wouldn't go out," and retreated to our screened porch. The fire grew into an impressive blaze, and the steady rain grew harder.

With two families of enthusiastic kids on the porch (cousins had arrived), Beverly was soon ready to retreat from the noise, and she had an idea: She'd cook the extra marshmallows. She set out, umbrella in hand. I followed her a few minutes later, camera in hand, to see how she was doing.

She reported that the noise of the rain, and of the fire, was successfully drowning out the party sounds. It made a memorable picture. The fire was too hot to get close, but she'd settled into a beach chair, protected by a large umbrella, six feet from the fire, roasting marshmallows on the end of a very long stick. The kids very much enjoyed the resulting s'mores, even if they hadn't been the ones to roast the marshmallows.

The photo of Beverly reminds me of when I was the same age my grandson is now, just about 50 years ago, and my father was the one located an odd distance from the campfire.

My Boy Scout troop had decided to go camping one February. We went to Elizabeth's Furnace, near Front Royal, Va. My father came along to drive and supervise.

My father did not love camping. My mother had been a leader in the Campfire Girls (and, like Beverly, a summer-camp counselor during college). As a child I'd been a mascot for my mother's Campfire groups. When my father asked if I planned to be a Cub Scout, I said no, I wanted to be a Blue Bird. Blue Birds, I'd been reliably informed, had more fun.

My father decided that I was through attending meetings of the girls' groups my mother led, and should become a Boy Scout instead. This sentenced him to some years on troop committees and coming along on hiking and camping trips that he did not always enjoy. We owned a station wagon, so he was often drafted to drive, in addition.

We got to Elizabeth's Furnace, pitched tents, and got a campfire going. The temperature began to drop. My father announced that it was too cold to sleep in a pup tent, and he wasn't going to. He knew it wasn't safe to sleep in a car with the motor running, but surely he could warm it up first. He ran the heater in the station wagon, got it very warm, spread his sleeping bag in the back, turned the engine off, and fell asleep. He kept the breakfast supplies - premixed pancake batter, orange juice, and milk - in the car with him.

None of us boys slept very much. We fed the campfire and huddled around it all night, turning constantly to try to keep warm on all sides. At one point during the night, the thermometer read 6 degrees F., when we held it close enough to the campfire to read.

When my father woke up the next morning, the milk and other supplies were frozen into solid blocks. We made a breakfast, somehow, struck the tents, packed, and came home earlier than planned.

All was well until about two weeks later, when my father happened to get up during the night to get something to drink. He looked into the refrigerator, and noticed that the milk was not frozen. He suddenly realized that the car he'd slept in had been much colder than the refrigerator. He started shivering and returned to bed. He spent the next 24 hours in bed shivering, suffering from the cold two weeks after the fact. It was one of the very few times he ever took sick leave from his job.

But my mother didn't believe his story, that he'd never depended on our campfire for heat. She pointed out that my shoes had come back muddy, but basically intact. The toes on his shoes were so thoroughly scorched that they never shined up properly again.

That 6-foot-long pole that my daughter used to cook marshmallows in the rain shows that she understood the meaning of a hot campfire. My father had not. But his presence on those camping trips meant a lot to me, his lack of camping skills notwithstanding. It may take a while, but children do eventually notice.

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