For more than thirty years, I have worked with children and youth, some troubled and some troubling as Dr. Nicholas Hobbs might say. I would like to think that I have been helpful to a respectable number of them and, if so, believe some of that success stems from never having totally severed myself from my own childhood. In some areas, I have resisted “growing up” and, in at least a couple of areas, I am afraid my wife would tell you I have succeeded. With this “youthful perspective,” I cherish many of my childhood memories and keep the stories fresh in my mind. The following is one of my favorite memories.
At about the age of 11, I had developed a love for reading. I had already put together a respectable collection of books, many of which contained grand tales of mountain men and Native Americans. I was fascinated by their rugged existence. Tracking, hunting, bow making, flaking arrow heads, fire starting with flint and steel, were all amazing practices and skills. I especially found interesting the ingenuity of those making an existence on the Great Plains. How do you build the fire needed for warmth and cooking when there is not a tree in sight, not a piece of wood for miles and miles? Buffalo dung was their answer and, to a sixth grader, that sounded awesome!
Well, reading and fantasizing was one thing, but I also liked to give everything a try. I had made a crude bow and an even cruder set of arrows. I could start a fire with flint and steel, had done a fair share of animal tracking around the neighborhood, and had built a magnificent shelter in my backyard. However, I had yet to cozy up to an inviting campfire produced purely from buffalo poo.
I can clearly recall the fine Saturday morning that I decided to check that off of my list of mountain man experiences. Hunting in the neighborhood had been tough, so having no store of buffalo meat or venison, I took a couple of hot dogs from the refrigerator, grabbed a box of matches, and headed for the backyard. I immediately hit my first hurdle. There hadn’t been a buffalo in my neighborhood in over a hundred years. There wasn’t even a cow within five miles. However, I did have a large collie.
As it was my responsibility to scoop the poop and my schedule had been quite busy, sure enough, there was no shortage of dog turds in the backyard. In no time, I had collected enough turds for a small bon fire. I had forgotten to inform my parents of the plans for the day, so I decided my fire making activities might best be conducted inside the confines of my shelter. The previously mentioned shelter was a fine dugout just deep enough to sit up in and was covered with logs collected when trees were trimmed in the neighborhood. I made my way down the entrance to my underground haven and started looking for the best spot for my cozy fire. I decided that, with the dry timber overhead, setting my shelter on fire was a mistake to be made by a tenderfoot and not by someone of my experience. With a past scarred by enough accidental fires to have labeled me a fire setter, I prudently decided the safest place was the entrance. From the inside of the dugout, the entrance looked a bit like a fireplace which made me even more excited about my choices. I quickly made a pile of the dog turds and commenced to setting them on fire. Now, I don’t know if you have ever tried to light a dog turd, but they are a little slow to light. Having almost burned up a whole box of matches, I decided I might need to cheat a bit and soaked the pile in lighter fluid. I immediately had a blazing fire. However, unlike the fires of the great plainsmen before me, mine may have produced a bit more smoke and, oh my, the SMELL! Unfortunately, the entrance also being the exit, I had to tend my plains style campfire from the inside of my shelter which was filling with the green, putrid smoke. By the time the fire died down to smoldering turd embers, I had developed a pounding headache and, to this day, the hot dog roasted over that fire is the worst I’ve ever eaten.