September was my favorite month of the year because after all of the different Boy Scout summer camps we went to as a troop, Monday nights was when we would start again on our regular Scout Meetings. Here, we would have knot tying relays or learn how to identify trees by their leaves or bark. Some days we would learn how to make plaster of paris molds of paw prints found in the mud or sand nearby where we meet as a troop.
One of my favorite weekly skill building sessions was on the subject of hiking and camping. This was the late 60’s and early 70’s when all sorts of revolutionary new equipment was coming into use. First, we learned about nylon back packs with external frames plus hip belts. This was a vast improvement over our canvas packs which dug into our shoulders once loaded.
Next, we learned about how to wear and buy mountaineering style, vibram soled hiking boots from Europe. Designed for hiking in the Alps, these boots were all leather, tough and offered incredible ankle support. I remember my first pair that I ever owned. Given I have big feet, they were huge. They also were very heavy in weight. They may have been perfect for the Alps but not so practical for hiking in state parks outside Philadelphia.
Third, we learned about new innovations in camp stoves. Having always cooked over a fire, the arrival of various new camp stoves was very exciting. Some required bulky propane canisters and others used kerosene. The newest and fanciest ones at the time used white gas. Once we learned about all the different types, we had a contest to see which hiking stove could boil a cup of water the fastest. The stove which used white gas won the contest but it worked like a blow torch and probably would have melted the pot too once the water had boiled away.
However, the biggest event during Monday night Scout meetings was the annual fire building contest. My father, the Scout Master, would drive two stakes in the ground and then tie a piece of string from one stake to the next at the height of his belt buckle. Then every patrol was given one log, one axe, one hatchet and one strike any where match. The goal was to split the log into small enough pieces using the axe and the hatchet and then build a fire that would burn high enough to burn through the string. The first patrol to do this got bragging rights for an entire year and would be known as the best fire starters in the troop. It was a big honor that every patrol wanted to have.
As a patrol leader of the newly formed Intrepid Patrol, an assorted collection of all of the new scouts which did not get absorbed into the other patrols, our first year was a disaster. We were still trying to split the log and build the fire when others burned through the string. Our second year was not much better because we were arguing and interrupting each other instead of listening and working together.
After the second mess up, we were determined to win during our third year. Every month when we went camping, we would practice. Sun or rain, in the forest or on the beach, we tried over and over. Our goal was to start strong and then blow away the competition.
Over time, we learned a lot about each other and our patrol. Through multiple "false starts" over many camping trips, we realized that John was good with an ax and could split a log in half very well. He was a junior Davie Crockett. Charlie, on the other hand, loved the hatchet and could bust split wood into very small pieces very fast. Charlie was He-man the Barbarian. Now, Peter was good with a knife and could make a "fuzz stick" in no time flat. He was the only Scout I ever knew with his own switch blade. And I, being the son of a landscape architect and site engineer, was good at building, lighting and feeding the fire. After a lot of practice, we blew out the competition the third year and won many subsequent years.
The keys to our success in the fire building competition look simple from the outside, but required a ton of work. First, we had to clarify the different roles and make sure we matched them with the right person who was skilled in that particular area. Second, we had to support each other and work as a team rather than argue and criticize each other. Third, we practiced once a month and had to figure out what actually worked well given our skills and talents. It did not happen all at once, but with discipline and practice it came together over time.
This summer I wish more groups would recognize that matching talent with opportunity takes time, focus and discipline. It will not happen all at once but the effort is worth the result once it happens. If during the process you learn how to build a good campfire, I suggest you celebrate this accomplishment with some tasty s’mores.