Out Matched

His legs were melted. Clearly, something terrible had occurred.

Misfortune and tragedy are everywhere. A real optimistic outlook, I know. Understand that I don’t go about thinking depressing, negative thoughts—on a regular basis. That’s not who I am. But, it is true. Just as kindness and mercy are plentiful and abundant. Either goodness or sadness can be found wherever you look. And, no, I am not referring to the whole ‘glass half empty or half full’ malarky. The glass is full—even if it is partially full of liquid, the rest of the space inside the glass is filled with air. The glass is full. All full. Always.

Anyway, my point is that things happen to us, around us, to those we know, and those we don’t. They’re unavoidable. Some of it’s good. Some of it isn’t. These last couple of weeks have brought pain and heartache to some people that are close to me. One of those people is a little more removed from me than the others, however, it got me to thinking about an event that I was planning on writting about anyway. That event just sped the timeline up.

At Thunder Ridge Scout Camp we had what was called the Boom Box. We called it that because we kept all the flammable stuff inside it. So, if it were to catch on fire, and possibly explode, it would go ‘Boom”. Thus the designation: Boom Box. And, while this Boom Box was just a brightly red painted outhouse-shaped wooden shack, we kept it organized. Spray paints in one area, kerosene in another, and so on. When I was first introduced to this storage system I noticed all the gas cans sitting at the bottom.

“Why all the gas cans?” I was new. There were like, eight containers of gasoline sitting along the bottom, all in various stages of fullness. I was informed of the differences—the fuel, differences in the fuel. A few of the containers were gasoline. Others were diesel. The camp would use the gasoline primarily for the few gasoline generators we rarely needed, and in an emergency, for our camp trucks. The diesel was used weekly.

If any of you have ever attended a Boy Scout Camp, there are special events that the camps might do to help inspire and motivate the boys. One of those events is named The Honor Trail. On The Honor Trail, the boys hear stories of past American heroes, or of ancient myths, or whatever, all revolving around a theme. The event takes place in the evenings so it is darker and firelight is thus required. There is something about fire that is romantic and sets a mood. Now, when I say ‘romantic’, I don’t mean the kissy-kissy romantic. I’m referring to the atmosphere, the feelings it provokes. The solemnity of it. That kind of romantic.

To do this, we used #10 cans. Those big cans that food comes in. The kind you find in a cafeteria. If you’ve seen The Walking Dead, there’s a scene where Carl is sitting, eating chocolate pudding out of a #10 can. Those cans. Those cans would be cleaned out and set into the ground—about half of their depth, or so, into the ground—at specific points on the trail. They were the markers for the scouts to stop at and hear the speakers. The #10 cans were placed in sets of three. Inside those cans, the wicks would have to be replaced every week. That was easy. Each wick was simply just a roll of toilet paper.

One #10 can + one roll of toilet paper + diesel fuel (filling half the #10 can) = a smudge pot. I don’t know where that name came from, but that is what they were called: Smudge pot. They were very effective. Since diesel fuel isn’t as combustible as gasoline, once the toilet paper is alight, it wicks the fuel up, and it burns for hours. Hours. It creates a very effective illumination—and atmosphere. Very effective. Also, the fire is contained within the metal cans that can’t get accidentally kicked over because they are in the ground.

This Honor Trail event took place once a week. Every few weeks I would be the one to help set up the smudge pots. You can’t just carry several rolls of toilet paper, multiple canisters of diesel, and matches, long distances through the woods without some sort of difficulty. Help is a good thing. Usually, it was a two or three-man job. One carried the toilet paper and the other carried the canisters of diesel. It made things much easier. This particular week, myself and my junior staff (Mathew), were charged with getting it ready. It was at the first stop where it all went wrong.

While the smudge pots were prepared, the camp Commissioners would engage the waiting troops with stories. As this took place the troops, a few at a time, would leave to go on The Honor Trail. Simple system. Also, those setting up the trail, some senior staff, and management had radios so that we could communicate with each other—if needed. I had one of those radios. And, that system of communication works great, if someone is listening.

Mathew and I reached the first point. Old Toilet paper out. New toilet paper rolls in. Add some diesel. Light match. Try to light the diesel—it’s not as easy as you might think, visit here for more information. Try to light the diesel. Try to light the diesel. Try to light the… Flames had begun. Just not where they were supposed to be. See, the fuel canisters had their funnel necks attached—no cap—to make pouring the fuel quick and easy. Since diesel doesn’t catch fire as easily as gasoline, this works just fine. However, right then and there, flames were coming out of one of the funnel necks. The one right next to my face.

I saw the fire shoot out of the neck’s opening. I was startled, shocked, and very confused. I had grabbed two canisters that were labeled ‘diesel’. Regardless, it was clearly evident that one of them—the fiery one—had gasoline in it. “RUN!” I grabbed Mathew and we bolted for cover. If I recall, he was 15 or 16 years old. I was not ready for him to go up in an explosion. I’m also sure he felt the same way. Additionally, at 22, I would be just fine with not perishing in a fiery forest flambé.

Now, some of you may know that it is the fumes of gasoline that burn, not the liquid. So, depending upon the ratios of canister size, temperature, oxygen, vapors, and some other variables, you may just have fire, or you may get an explosion. I was certain that the fire would melt the canister, the gasoline would spread, more fire (we were in a forest), and just horribly bad stuff would happen. Or, it would explode, tossing fiery debris onto the surrounding forest grounds (and probably Mathew and myself)… So bad. So very, very bad.

I radioed for help. But, you can’t just yell “FIRE!” over the radio, as anyone nearby the radio (who shouldn’t be) might hear and panic. ‘Anyone’ referring to scouts or their leaders. I tried over and over again to get anybody’s attention. Nobody answered. I would later find out that some people had turned their radios off, and others had the volume way down, to prevent distractions. Nobody could hear my call for help. Mathew and I just watched the flame shoot out of the plastic neck of the gas can. I nervously awaited the explosion that certainly was our doom.

When I was in middle school, during State-Sponsered Terrorism Social Hour (or P.E. as it was often referred to), I sat next to a kid who had large patches of scars where his skin had melted. I asked what had happened. “I was playing with gasoline and matches, near my hot water heater, in my garage. The pilot light ignited the fumes. I got third-degree burns from my pants melting onto my legs.”

Another friend would tell of how he was burning some trash in his backyard (which, in the country is still pretty common, and even more common 30+ years ago), poured gasoline on the small pile, to help get the fire going, lit the debris on fire, and watched as the flames from the pile ignited the vapors coming out of the funnel neck on the gas can (much like the situation I had found myself in—years later).

He told of how he had kicked the can away, in case it was to explode, and watched in awe as the can rose up, into the air, spiraled around as tendrils of flame rained down, all about him and his backyard. While it was impressive, he still cannot figure out how he did not set himself, or his house ablaze. He also openly admits, what he did—both keeping the canister near the open flames and kicking it—was stupid.

My good friend, Erich, recently recounted a moment of how, at a very young age, almost burned himself alive because of a nearby fuel canister and a small campfire.

I know I have done some things with gasoline and matches that I look back upon and wonder how nothing worse took place (like the time I blew my house up or the fire in the hole). It’s moments like those that helped form my safety montra: If you’re going to do something stupid, do it safely.

There are precautions that can be taken. Like, PUT THE CAP ON THE GAS CAN! or, DON’T KEEP FUEL NEAR OPEN FLAME! or PUT THE CORRECT FUEL IN THE CORRECTLY LABELED CANISTER! You know, things like that. (when it come to flammable liquids)

And now, back to the story…

…I nervously awaited the explosion that certainly was our doom.

After what felt like hours, someone finally answered. I told them of the possible situation, told them to grab some help and some tools, and then to get to our spot ASAP! Eventually, help arrived. It was just the one staff that had answered the radio. He couldn’t find anyone else that could help, so, he grabbed shovels and picks and then got to us as quickly as he could (under the circumstances and payload). By the time he had reached us, the fire had stopped. The flame had self-extinguished. I don’t know why, and I don’t care. It was out. The three of us quickly completed the remaining task of filling and lighting the other Honor Trail smudge pots and headed back to camp.

Thunder Ridge campground.
The approximate distance traveled by that one staff member was over half a mile, at 9,200 feet elevation, carrying three shovels (about 6lbs each), two pickaxes (about 5lbs each), while running the whole distance.

I mention all of this, all of this, because recently Erich’s cousin’s son, had a gasoline-related accident. Long story short, the gasoline can blew up, he is in the hospital, with 2nd and 3rd-degree burns… Fortunately, he is doing well and it looks like he will live.

Call it whatever you like: luck, fortune, blessings, God… I don’t care. I use the term ‘luck’ but, what I mean is God. I say things like, “Well, you were lucky.” and what I’m actually saying is, “Aren’t you fortunate that God needs you to still be alive even though what you did was super stupid.” It may not be nice, but, I never claimed to be nice. However, I am working on it.

My point is this: Somethings we can’t avoid, some things we can. Playing with fire, that’s avoidable. I have lost track of the number of stories I have heard of first-hand fire stores that almost killed the teller, or of second-hand stories that involved a sibling, or a cousin that almost died, or almost burned down a building. It’s nuts. Fire is cool, I’ll be the first to admit that I love using fire, as a tool. To cook with, or heat a home, or whatever. It is not a toy. It is to be respected and its power is not to be taken lightly.

According to NationwideChildrens.org children playing with fire set more than 20,000 fires every year. And, fires started by children cause an average of 150 deaths and nearly 1,000 injuries every year. Also, children usually play with fire in a hidden place – such as a bedroom or closet. It is in these places where clothing, mattresses, and bedding can easily catch fire.

So, I encourage you to teach your children about fire. How to use it safely and responsibly. That it is a tool and not a toy. The benefits and dangers. Be respectful, be responsible, be safe, be well.

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