“A Few Secrets of Firebuilding,” Ensign, Feb. 1980, 16
When I saw him the other day in the hardware store, I didn’t recognize him. “Don’t you remember me?” he asked. “I’m Dan Bigler.”
It took just a few minutes of reminiscing to bring it all back, especially that cold, windy Saturday morning years before when the nine eleven-year-old Scouts—including Dan—climbed into my sedan with me, their assistant Scoutmaster. Heading up to Mt. Graham in Arizona, we soon arrived at the mouth of Merijilda Canyon, with its giant mesquite trees and its boulders the size of twenty-five-gallon barrels. It was March—and raining off and on. When the rain stopped for a while, out bounded the nine boys, ready for action.
I told the group to imagine that they were stranded in the mountains with no car and that their clothes were soaking wet. If they weren’t dried off promptly, I told them, their lives could be in danger. They were to imagine, too, that although they had plenty of wet matches, they had only one dry one. They had to get the fire started right the first time.
I took them to a large, nearby mesquite tree. After searching the tree carefully, I showed them some unobtrusive twigs about the size of a needle. We gathered a bundle of them. Then we continued searching for more fire-building material until we had gathered ten bundles of twigs ranging on up to the size of a man’s index finger. Each boy had the responsibility of keeping one of the bundles dry and secure.
Next we carefully selected a site protected from too much wind, and positioned a 1 1/2-inch mesquite limb to support the fire-building materials and allow for air flow. The boys lined up according to the size of the twigs in their bundles. First came the bundle with the needle-sized twigs at right angles to the mesquite limb, allowing space for air. I lit the match and tucked it under the precious bundle. Everyone cheered when the needle-twigs ignited. Then the second Scout stepped forward with his bundle, and so forth, until each bundle had contributed to making the flame an enthusiastic, warm fire. Then I extinguished the fire and told the boys to go and make their own fires. Each one received a single match.
Dan and I both remembered how disappointed each boy was when not one of them could get a fire going. Oh, every Scout got plenty of smoke out of the wet wood, but not one fire. Why?
“We each failed,” remembered Dan, “because we tried to cut corners. We weren’t willing to pay the price of time and effort it would take to collect the different sizes of twigs.”
Some of the boys had tried using only five sizes; others had tried with seven or eight—but each failed because they had tried to take a shortcut.
“I think,” Dan said, “that’s when I learned there aren’t any shortcuts—that you have to pay the price for anything worth having.”
Dan had a sequel to the story. Years later, a Scoutmaster himself, Dan shared the secrets of building a fire in the rain with his own Scouts. After the demonstration and instructions, that new generation of boys tried cutting their own corners. They got lots of smoke, but not a fire in the entire troop.