unning around all day today, preparing for Midterm Exams for my students, I was pleasantly surprised to be taken out of the tyrannical now and thrown back 20 years in time by a note from Angie. She wanted to use a story I had told her as an illustration for something she was writing, and wanted both my permission and a reminder as to where she might find it on my journal. The thing was, I realized, that she was remembering a story I had told her, and not a story I had written down already.
And so: The Great LOMC Prairie Fire of 1988.
It was the first of my three summers working at Lutheran Outdoor Ministries Center, LOMC
, and it was a week with a smaller group of kids in attendance, and so I was spending the week working maintenance for Virgil Rocke, the Property Manager. I was actually rather enjoying myself because I was teamed up with another SGL (Small Group Leader, a.k.a. "camp counselor") who was also on maintenance duty for the week, Murray Weldon, a student in Agronomy who was, along with me and Marine Lt. Rob Guy, the other real enthusiast for deep woods hiking and exploration on the staff. Murray was, naturally, particularly interested in the plants growing in the woods and prairie of the property, and was forever murmuring Latin plant names to himself, and forcing me to eat things he found growing along our hiking routes.
This particular hot day, in July, I think, we were up on the roof of Hillside House, replacing shingles or something of that sort. It was late morning, if I recall correctly, with the day having not yet the fullness of its considerable heat. Northern Illinois had been suffering from the Drought of 1988
, and everything was growing brown and dead, so much so that you were starting to get that horrible dead dust rising up as you crunched your way across the lawn.
Suddenly! A hue and cry broke out! Junior high school-aged boys came running up from the pond where they had been starting to fish from the dock, I think, crying out that a fire had broken out on the campfire ring on the far side of pond, where a group had failed to extinguish all the embers from their evening campfire the night before. As this news was shouted up toward us, Murray and I straightened up and, sure enough, smoke was rising beyond the trees circling the pond to the north. "My biscuits are burning! My biscuits are burning!" Murray cried out, in perfect imitation of the Yosemite Sam from that summer's hit film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
, though the movie reference was more to the seat of Sam's pants afire, not something else. The two of us scrambled off the roof and down the hill toward the Administration Building. We knew that the fire department in Oregon, Illinois would be coming, but it was a volunteer department, and aid would take time to arrive. And a summer grass fire can move fast. Steve, the lifeguard at the camp's pool, had already pulled out the camp's prairie fire equipment, kept for both occasions like this and for the intentional burns that are a part of the life cycle of prairie plants. LOMC featured a number of areas of restored prairie and areas where the original prairie plants of Illinois were in the process of being restored, and so had the equipment to go with that project, in this case a wheelbarrow full of shovels and of wide and thick rubber flaps at the end of shovel handles, used for slapping out grass fire. Murray and I each grabbed one of these off the top of the pile in the wheelbarrow and began running for the fire.
I was still in the height of my distance-running shape, and I took off at race speed, something like a five-minute mile pace, leaving Murray behind as I ran toward the trees ringing the pond. When I burst through the gap in the trees made by the service road, I saw that the whole eastern side of the campfire space was aflame, with smoke pouring into the sky eastward in the wind. I kept running, passing the campers and their SGLs still at the dock and tearing around the pond, stopping at the end of the flames and looking back to see the rest of the available staff starting to come around the shore after me. I pulled off my t-shirt and tied it around my nose and mouth for a little breathing protection and waded into the fire.
The simple truth of the matter was that I had the time of my life. The heat, the danger, however great it was or was not, the urgency, and the utter unity of the staff members as we beat at the fire – all of these were enthralling when put together. Whether smacking down the small traces of fire as sparks threatened to set new patches of grass ablaze, or whether being confronted or mostly surrounded with sudden walls of fire taller than me, every motion counted, every choice mattered. We beat and smothered what we could, shoveled dirt onto the flames, both trying to create a firebreak and to smother what was already burning. I cannot remember if it was twenty minutes or an hour before the firetruck came lumbering around the pond: I probably couldn't have said at the time. When we stepped back to let the firefighters finish the job, I was black with soot and ash, looking like I had been used to clean out an old chimney. But I had also had an adventure, done something useful, and was drunk on a not-inconsiderable adrenaline binge. I still get a bit of a rush, remembering the flame all around me, of locking eyes with Murray or one of the others and seeing in that look the agreement to tackle this or that section of fire next, of darting back from the heat and then plunging in for another round. It's one of those tiny episodes in life that is writ much larger in memory than the time it actually took or occupied.