Monday, July 1, 2013

The Importance of a Good Campfire

My mother’s primary solution to nearly all of life’s problems was a simple one: “Please go outside and play.” Born in the 50’s and raised in a very small home in the suburbs of Philadelphia, our local neighborhood was the foundation of many of my life’s adventures. Climbing trees, exploring the creek at the local park, and playing games like running bases, kick the can, and capture the flag created hours upon hours of endless fun. Wearing cut offs, red ball sneakers and a hand-me-down t-shirt, my young friends and I spent most of our days in active pursuit of new experiences.

One highlight of these early years was when my Dad and older brother would come home from their monthly Boy Scout camping weekends. My father’s father promoted scouting and thus my Dad joined and later became an Eagle Scout. Next, he became the Scout Master of his childhood troop. Of course my older brother joined and became an Eagle Scout, too. Therefore, it was a foregone conclusion that when I turned eleven years old that I would join the local scout troop as well.

What I loved about the Sunday evenings when my Dad and brother came home was listening to all of their stories about what took place on these monthly scouting weekends.  I listened to them describe the overnight camping, the different hikes they went on, the time around the campfire, the work they did toward different merit badges, and the many practical jokes that every one played.

By the time I turned eleven years old, I knew all about being sent looking for shoreline to hold down a tent, or a sky hook to hang up a shirt. I also knew not to ask for dehydrated ice cubes (add water and freeze) or to be tricked into asking another scout troop for a left handed smoke shifter.  I even knew not to ask the camp doctor when feeling home sick because I might get my ear lobes dipped in red tinted alcohol and sent back to my tent to rest and recover.

My first official camping trip as a Boy Scout, a true Tenderfoot, took place when I turned 11 years old. My father was still the Scout Master at the time so I went out with the troop to a state park outside of Philadelphia, leaving Friday night after school. That evening my Dad and I set up the tent where we would bunk down for the weekend.

Nowadays, camping can be pretty high tech with all sorts of very unique equipment. But back in the sixties, we used old canvas tents with wooden poles. They were called “pup tents” and had a unique musty smell. One learned very quickly not to touch the inside of the canvas because the oil from your fingers could cause the canvas to leak if it rained.  Held up by the poles and numerous big wooden or metal stakes, these tents did not come with screen doors or fancy rain flies. It was just a single cover from the weather. 

Once the tent was up, then we made up our beds. After removing all the sticks and stones of varying sizes from inside the tent, we rolled out our ponchos as a ground cloth and then unrolled our cotton sleeping bags. Mine was a wonderfully thick cotton sleeping bag with a red flannel interior. It was hot in the summer and barely warm enough in the fall or winter. If there was any moisture in the air, this bag was sure to absorb it. With my Dad on one side of the poles and me on the other, we hauled in our simple canvas packs and the deed was done.

After all the tents were set up, it was time to cook. We built our camp fires, one for each patrol, and started the slow process of making a meal. These had all been planned out in advance during numerous Monday night scout meetings. Some meals were hamburgers, sliced potatoes, onions all wrapped in aluminum foil and placed in the coals of the fire to cook. Other patrols heated up canned stew, beans, etc. These meals were never fancy and most of the food came from a can. There was however lots of food and many young people to feed.

On my first camping trip, one of the older scouts had spent a month making an actual left handed smoke shifter. Using a brace and bit taped to a plastic whiffle ball bat split into fan like shapes on the end, the contraption actually worked quite well, much to the surprise of all including the inventor.  However, once the fan end really started to spin because everyone was working the brace and bit to the max, it fell apart. Still, that left hand smoke shifter became a legend in the history of the troop and when a young eleven year old Tenderfoot Scout on his first camping trip was sent off to find one for his patrol, we could all respond that we had seen one once before but not in a long time.

While I grew up on the stories from these amazing year round monthly camping trips, it was not until my first camping trip as a young scout that I learned something very important. After the setting up of camp and all of the cooking and clean-up had been accomplished, then everyone gathered around a single camp fire and shared. Some people told funny stories and others sang songs.  Some people shared jokes and others did simple skits, but in the midst of all of this reverie, there always came a point when one of the older members of the troop or maybe an adult or two would talk about the meaning of the scout oath or any one of the 12 scout laws.  It was a time to talk and to listen about bigger ideas like community service, the importance of doing a good deed daily, or always being prepared.  As the camp fire burned low, we, the younger ones, soaked up these important ideas. Upon reflection, I have realized that theses ideas became fundamental to who I am now and how I choose to live my life. In short, it was powerful teaching combination - real fun, real learning and real challenges.

My insight this summer is that we are not holding enough camp fire times in our lives. We need to rediscover and/or create the space and the time so that the older, more mature and experienced people in our lives can push back from the tasks of the day and settle in to share their life journeys, perspectives, and lessons learned. It is time we begin to rebuild this element into our lives and into the lives of those we work with on a daily basis.  

This is not the work of Facebook, Twitter or text messages. It is the work of people stopping to connect at a deeper and more interpersonal nature. For when we do this level of in-depth sharing and listening, we will discover a whole new way of living and working in the world.  And it will be transformational just like my first camping trip.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

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