Many holiday memories stay with us because of the joy we shared with family and friends. On the other hand, some memories stay with us because the holidays were a disaster. Or almost.
Though it was 1970, this is a tale from the 1960’s, the decade of peace, love and plenty of pot. The location was Idyllwild, California situated high in the mountains above Palm Springs. (When I say “high,” actually, there’s a double meaning.)
We were 12 friends celebrating the holidays. One couple had rented a rustic cabin and that meant a place for all. While some were technically homeless no one felt that way.
Contrary to the notion that the sixties represented equality of the sexes, that was more myth than fact. For example, at this week-long Christmas/New Year’s get-together, the girls did the cooking and cleaning and the guys the heavy chores. (Many weren’t heavy but just had the image of being “manly.”) One such chore fell to me with near calamitous results.
The task in question was gathering kindling and firewood to build, start and keep the evening fire going. Actually, it was more a late afternoon fire because in winter the sun went down early and, with snow on the ground, temperatures were barely above freezing.
The chore was informally rotated between the guys. In the morning I discovered that night it would be my turn. But that left plenty of time for me to prepare.
Prepare? The reason it was kind of a big deal to me is I grew up as a city kid in a Jewish family in W. Los Angeles and we didn’t have a fireplace. If we were cold we just turned up the thermostat.
Back to Idyllwild where on a few nights before, a couple of the guys had struggled getting their fires going and wound up being the butt of jokes. All of this added up to, crazy as it sounds now, considerable nervousness on my part.
On the bright side, the kindling was plentiful with lots of dead branches on the ground. And the he wood itself wasn’t a problem as it was already cut and stacked and only needed to be brought inside. Keep in mind, however, it was oak, not Presto logs. One match was not going to do it.
I was so worried that when I saw some charcoal lighter fluid in the storage bin, a terrible idea came over me. Why not just soak the kindling in lighter fluid just to give the fire a little “boost”? (If Smokey Bear were reading this he’d have a coronary.)
So, as the guys were watching TV and as the girls prepared dinner, I began nonchalantly placing the lighter fluid-soaked kindling into the fireplace. Naturally I did so without letting on my nervousness or ridiculous plan. While everybody was fairly stoned, I had only taken a few hits, serious as I was about the job before me.
I had watched others build their “kindling” base and crisscrossed a couple pieces of oak on top as they had. I stuffed newspaper under and around the kindling and now I was ready. But, for what followed, I was definitely not ready.
I casually put the match to the newspaper beneath the kindling and then… I can only say of what occurred is it was over quick. It wasn’t an “explosion” as much as it felt like a giant flame thrower had been aimed at the fireplace. And, as I recall, there was a “woosh” sound that accompanied the orange and blue-tinged blast.
Watching TV, the guys snapped out of their stoned state and looked over at me, as if to say “WTF just happened?” Even a few of the girls came out of the kitchen. Adding to my embarrassment, there was also a telltale odor of lighter fluid hanging in the air.
The good news is, the oak fire took hold. Actually, how could it not, given the lighter fluid inferno. But the fire was roaring so quickly I thought it had to be obvious that something had been fishy. And yet, through the evening, and as I added log after log, somehow no one commented. I guess they were just glad to be warm. Naturally, I never told anyone the truth, that is until now.
Much to my Jewish mother’s chagrin, I wound up living in the mountains for years and even worked for the U.S. Forest Service. All that time in the rugged woods definitely “de-citified” me and I even got proficient at building fires and without any “booster” agents.
In fact, if you had me over now, and you had a fireplace, I’d be happy to build the holiday fire. However, after reading this, my guess is you’d probably hide any lighter fluid. Marry Christmas, everyone!
Jack is at facebook.com/jackneworth, twitter.com/jackneworth and firstname.lastname@example.org.