My Personal Quest for Fire:  From a Deviant Behavior to a Skilled Craft

Jan Cossiers (1637): Prometheus Carrying Fire. (Image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Ann suggested in today’s blog that my primary interest in the 1981 film Quest for Fire was the bit about the “missionary position.” That’s not entirely accurate. Although admittedly that part of the film did catch my attention, I was really more interested in the fire part of the movie. And for good reason.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by fire (and the making of fire). Maybe it was because matches were ubiquitous when I was growing up.  We had a match holder full of “self striking” matches hanging on the wall by our kitchen stove (no pilot lights in those days) and because my father was an avid smoker, there were always matchbooks lying around the house.  Indeed, in those days you would have been hard-pressed to find a restaurant that didn’t give away matchbooks as advertisements.  I collected these matchbooks, much like other kids my age collected baseball cards.

In addition, my favorite household chore was taking out the trash, much of which we burned in a 55-gallon barrel in our back yard.  I always found some perverse pleasure in watching it burn. As a side note, by 1960 burning residential trash in Southern California was banned in an effort to reduce smog. Believe it or not, there were protests against such blatant governmental encroachment on basic backyard freedoms.

How times have changed. Even though I loved my b-b gun as a kid, when I became a parent I couldn’t imagine letting our kids have one.

It gets more sinister. When my parents weren’t home I would surreptitiously burn pieces of paper in our kitchen sink or simulate aerial dogfights in my back yard by setting my plastic model airplanes on fire (plastic does burn).  One of my favorite pyrotechnic antics was to put a wooden match down the barrel of my Red Rider B-B gun and shoot it at at the sidewalk at such an angle that it would ignite on impact. I often wondered if that was my own invention and, if so, if there might be some useful application for such technology. I was clearly on a fiery path leading to nowhere good. That is, until my pyrogenic energy found another pathway.

Source: (a blog).

That other pathway appeared when I joined the Boy Scouts. Rather than seen as some sort of illicit behavior, starting a fire as a Boy Scout was considered an essential survival skill and highly valued. We were instructed on how to build and maintain fires and even encouraged to practice different techniques at home. With my parents’ approval I obtained some flint and a steel striker, made a bow drill fire starter, collected a stash of dry moss and twigs as tinder, and even water-proofed a supply of matches by dipping them in wax.

After many hours of “practice” I became quite proficient at starting a fire with and without matches. I should add that I considered those who started fires using a magnifying glass to be amateurish and cop outs, sort of like those who use a microwave to cook bacon.

The true test for all of my hard work came at a Boy Scout Camporee, which in this case was a large gathering of Boy Scouts from all over San Bernardino County. There were many games and competitions, one of which was a fire building contest. Of course I signed up to compete.

Jamboree fire building contest. The object is to get the flame to burn through the top twine in the shortest time.

Each contestant was given some kindling and two matches. The object was to see who could get a two foot high flame in the shortest time. Although I don’t recall how long it took me, I do recall that I was declared the winner. It was one of the rare occasions in my life that I won any kind of contest, so it was particularly sweet.

Although my obsession with fire has faded as I have aged, I find that vestiges of that childhood thrill are difficult to outgrow. This is especially true when it comes to two of the pleasures in my life, grilling with charcoal and having a wood fire on cool evenings.

The reason that I enjoy grilling is as much about the ritual of starting the fire as it is about the food. That’s why it took me so long to grudgingly invest in an emergency backup gas grill (for those times that the need for speed outweighs the desire for ritual).

And I can think of little else that satisfies me more on a chilly evening (remember those?) than starting a lively little fire in our wood-burning stove. Even though I’ve recently given up the luxury of using firewood in favor of using more environmentally friendly pressed logs, getting a fire going still requires hands-on attention and retains ritualistic vestiges. I dread to think about the inevitable time when fireplaces and wood-burning stoves are banned in our area. Perhaps, like those disgruntled folks in Southern California when back-yard incinerators were banned in 1960, I’ll be motivated to take to the streets of Glen Ellen to protest against intrusive governmental regulations (not really!)

But what about Smokey?


  1. Dennis mayfield says:

    I lit paper on fire the floor of a yard chicken coop at age 6. My cousin Gary…at age 5 told his dad who told my mom. Wow. I never did that again.


  2. Janet says:

    Larry tells about shooting burning matches across the room in high school study hall. I think the technique involved a clothespin and a rubber band. He believes the study hall monitor (teacher) never knew who was doing it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: