Welcome to Balanced Rocks: Pictures and Stories

Beginning March 16,2010, I began a journey of balancing rocks. I hold to the practice of setting to balance at least five sculptures a day, sometimes, many more. Of these I take lots of pictures and videos. While conducting this adventure, I have been introduced to an incredible unfolding story. Additionally, I discovered this phenomenon is manifesting worldwide. As I post pictures and stories, I found many others similarly engaged and sharing their works. Additionally, as folks come upon me performing my work, many want to find out how this is done and try themselves. This blog shares this work in both pictures and stories. Enjoy


A seeming impossibility becomes possible

Rock Balancing: The Beginning

On a fine summer day, sometime in August, 2009, I was visiting family in Toronto. Like most folks spending summer in a large city, we used up as much time as we could finding outdoor events that would cool us. One afternoon, we headed to the Beaches section of East Toronto. After spending some time playing in a large sandbox in the shade with my grandkids and some of their newfound companions, we headed to the Boardwalk that extends from Balmy Beach to Kew Gardens. Ella accompanied me, Liam took off with his mom, Natalie. They ventured down the boardwalk, Ella and I headed onto the sand toward the water’s edge. Halfway there we encountered what looked like a small size Stonehenge.

About a dozen sculptures were gathered together in a rough circle. Each was a stack of two or three rocks balanced one on another. The tallest one was slightly taller than Ella, who was small average height for a five year older. All were in the neighborhood of three feet and four feet tall. What immediately jumped out was the precarious nature of the balancing. Most points of contact were miraculously slight. Most seemed to be standing on a point. Two more folks were witnessing this amazing display. We imagined that there must be small metal rods embedded at the point of contact, or else some kind of glue was used. Each of us peered from close low angles to detect what could account for this mystical display. Ella, not being so cautious, toppled one structure over. Luckily, it did not land on her.

I hurried over and picked up the fallen rock. I saw no evidence of a rod or glue. It indeed had been balanced on its pedestal. I lifted it up and tried to place it back where I reckoned it had been balanced. I cautioned Ella, to be careful and not upset any more sculptures and went about the task of finding balance. I was not successful and struggled immensely but did not find the magic spot where stability could be achieved. After a lengthy effort, an attractive Asian woman about my age approached and gently nudged me aside offering to demonstrate her work. She pointed to the spot she would set the stone upon. She called it by a foreign name. To me it looked like a slight dimple.

Placing the small end of the upper rock into that hollow, she deftly and quickly moved it around, slightly twisting and cajoling it into position. The sight of this slender woman with longish graying hair performing an intricate dance with a rock slightly larger than her head emanated calmness. It seemed only the ends of her fingers were used to achieve these small movements. Apparently, equilibrium was close. Shortly she was done and withdrew her palms which naturally assumed an open prayer posture. The rock I had grappled with was majestically resting in its previous stable state. She next went over and reset two other structures, I had not noticed were also amiss. I just took them to be part of the rubble strewn about the beach. Now all the display was standing and providing a small sense of order in our chaotic world.

I never got this woman’s name, but heard her story. She had set this display up for the purpose of taking pictures, one of which she hoped to use for a cover of a book she was publishing. Unfortunately not getting her name makes it difficult to find her book. But I carried away with me the sight of her presentation and the incredible feeling I had witnessed an amazing ethereal event. I also felt an urge to explore this practice.

Rock in the Snow

Rock in the Snow
January in Toronto

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Now for a brief interuption

Sorry for the interuption folks.
I am working on a story that will be posted as a Water Story. This one is fiction. So I do not get to dig it out of the recesses of my memory and simply transcribe it. This one takes some inventing as I draw it up from another part of my brain that uses other than memory circuits. This process involves sitting and reflecting time, then putting musings into words. After it settles a bit I go backwards and check how it is flowing with the tale I want to tell. So far, I have got two days into it. Not a lot of finished work has come out. But, I find it necessary to break off at times to let the froth cook and see what emerges. In the meantime, feel free to browse through some of the backpages, that are posted. When, this current project looks like it is finished, it will appear here. Or, I may just keep posting updates like this.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Shark Tale

Tales of sharks were common around West Coast Florida. Sighting were rare. Most stories came from fisherman who found their prize sport fish attacked and half eaten before landed it. By the damage inflicted it was obviously a shark attack. There had been no local stories of sharks attacking humans. There were always plenty of shark teeth to be found on local beaches. It seemed every beachcomber had an extensive collection. For all the talk and lore, I had never seen one landed.
One day my brother Karl and I accompanied Drew back to his house, a few houses up the bay. We cut across neighbors front yards. About half way there as we crossed the Graham’s property, we spotted a sizeable fish in the water. We walked out on a nearby dock to get a better look. It was a shark. It was still and obviously dead. It had a three deep wounds on its side no doubt inflicted by a boat propeller. Each gash cut down to internal organs. We decided to haul our find out of the water. We secured a piece of rope and waded out to the large carcass. Very warily, we attached the line to its tail and pulled it to shore. We asked Mr. Graham if we could haul it up a limb so we could get a picture. He agreed and helped us hoist it tail end up to a large horizontal oak branch.
Next we got a camera and took several pictures of us three boys surrounding our catch. We were careful to turn the wounded side away so that anyone looking at the picture might glean we were rugged fishermen. Later Mr. Graham provided a copy of our picture to the Sarasota Herald Tribune and Journal. The next day’s issue showed our prize fish in the sporting section. All three of us were even mentioned by name. We felt proud and much bigger than our size. We tempered our swimming in those waters a bit and kept our activities to boating. Soon we got a chance to go out. About a week later Mr. Graham called and demanded we haul our shark away from his property. It was raising quite a stink. We got hold of a boat, rowed over, cut down our shark and towed him out to the middle of the harbor. There we offered a a small ceremony to this beast as he drifted down into the depths after we cut him loose.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Haven’t Learned a Thing

By the time I was twelve I had become quite proficient at swimming. I not only swam in the warm waters of Florida’s bays, but had gotten over my aversion to coolness of swimming pools. I could dive in and swim many lengths of the pool without a rest. Breathing, stroking, and pacing were becoming second nature. I felt quite at home in water as long as it was temperate. I had yet to venture north of the Florida border and taste cold northern waters Some of the fresh water springs in Northern Florida were too cold for my liking. I seemed to becoming a reptilian creature. Unfortunately my brain functions were slightly on that level also.
In the summer of my twelfth year, I attended a month long summer camp. The attendance fees were bartered by my dad in exchange for a large wooden canoe. We were put up in cabins with boys of the same age. My cabin held ten twelve year old lads and our counselor. The canoe my dad provided was large enough to hold the whole cabin load of us along with our counselor. It became apparent to us that our counselor had a slight fear of water. He always acted nervous out in the canoe. We never saw him swim and maybe he could not. Feeling our full measure of adolescent meanness, we devised a prank for him. We figured that on one of our trips out into middle lake, we would in mass abandon canoe and leave our counselor to fend for himself getting back to shore. We all figured we could make it back swimming. One day we got our chance.
We got out in the middle and on a pre arranged signal, all of us jumped out. We swam away in glee as our counselor was yelling at us to return. . We proceeded back to our docking area. About halfway there, I noticed by full length jeans were becoming waterlogged. The heavier they got the more arduous swimming became. I began worrying that I might become exhausted. Before I got completely worn out, I remembered something from water safety class about removing your clothing. Apparently I had dismissed the lesson about not going in water in your street clothes. I began peeling my pants down my legs. I only got them as far as knotted up around my ankles. There they acted like small weights.
Without use of my legs, II was being dragged down. At a few feet depth, I hit bottom and had enough spring to propel my self back to the surface. When I broke surface, I took a hug gulp of air. As I descended again I kicked furiously to free my legs. After a couple attempts one leg got free from its ankle restraint. Using my freed leg I could kick my way to the surface. After another huge gulp of air , I descended again and freed my other leg. Having both legs free, I could now resume my swim to shore towing my pants with good lifesaving water rescue technique.
I changed course and instead of heading to our dock, I headed to the nearest one--the dock of the neighboring Girl Scout camp. I noticed no one around there and realized I would be coming ashore in my under shorts. Rather quickly I hit their beach, looked round and saw the coast was clear. Gathering my pants in a bundle, I stealthily ran across their compound through the woods to our cabin. That night our cabin was restricted and lectured at great length concerning our stupid mean spirited behaviors. We lost canoe and water privileges for the remainder of summer. We all felt cheated by the consequences of our actions. It was only many years later did I come to and understanding concerning the narrow escape with possible drowning I had encountered.


Monday, October 20, 2008

Oh Yah, I can Swim

By the time I was I third grade I found waters that were not to chilly to jump into. Although the Gulf still seemed cold, waters in Osprey bay and its surrounding creeks, estuaries, and bayous were luxuriously warm. Not only that but the bottoms were soft mushy mud that felt good to walk on. Mud flats held no grassy sections that could hide crabs, fishes and other denizens that might devour small boys. Also, even at the end of the dock facing the shore, waters were not over our heads. Here we could jump in and pretend to swim. The whole summer that year, I learned how to paddle forward as long as my feet could occasionally touch bottom long enough to catch breath and rest. Perhaps for a few strokes, I could even be swimming.
With the advent of fall, we stopped going in the water. Because of the amount of time I had spent in the water including many short periods when I had my feet off the bottom and my posture almost approaching a float position, I considered myself an accomplished swimmer. I attended a short swim lesson session that taught us how to float and hold our breath under water. I could hardly wait until the next summer when I would join the kids who jumped off the dock on the deep side facing out of the harbor and swim under the dock to the swallow side where we could stand on the bottom.
The next spring my first chance for swimming came with the first warm weather. I was enrolled in Cub Scouts and once a week went to our Den Mother, Mrs. Langer’s house after school to engage in scouting activities. She had a pool and on the first hot day we all changed into trunks and gathered round the pool. Each boy was polled about his ability to swim. When asked, remembering the strong fluttering I had done the previous year, I answered. “Yah, I can swim.” Mrs. Langer accepted my answer and let me join the boys in the deep end. The depth where I jumped in was eight feet and it did not have a soft muddy bottom. I found the water not so buoyant and was not able to stay up in the float position. I let myself sink to the bottom, went into a crouch and sprang my legs open propelling me to the surface. There I captured a big gulp of air, fell back into the deep and sank back to the bottom. Hitting it , I again went into a crouch and sprang to the surface again. I repeated this for quite a while not making any headway, but not getting exhausted either. I was too embarrassed to scream for help and just kept bobbing up and down.
Finally, one of the scout leaders sensed I was perhaps in trouble and asked me “ as I shot above the surface, “Do you need help getting to the side.?” As I took in a big gulp, I nodded affirmative and went back down. On my next ascent, I was grabbed by strong hands and lifted out of the pool. I was grateful for the help but was ashamed to admit, how much I needed it. I just acted like I had been practicing a new water acrobat routine. Inside, I was determined to give swimming pools a rest and confine my swimming activates to the safety of Osprey town dock with its soft muddy bottom where I could stand with my head out of the water.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Adjusting to Water

Warm baths seemed nice. It was comforting to immerse in liquid that was near body temperature. If water was too hot or cold, it lacked comfort, and I probably wailed if subjected to it. Extreme air temperature seemed easier to take than extreme water temperatures. I do not remember venturing into water by choice while we lived in Michigan. At age six we moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Even though folks referred to Gulf of Mexico waters as bath like, I did not find them so. My first attempt into entering those waters probably occurred at my grandfather’s house. He owned beach front on Casey Key. It seemed adults liked the idea of escaping hot air by going into Gulf waters.
My first venture out into water, halted as soon as my toes hit liquid that I could tell was much colder than blood. I see myself in shorts up to the bottom of my ankles in seemingly frigid water, shivering and hunched over for warmth. I was being encouraged to quickly get in, and advised, “You’ll get used to it.” I saw no sense in getting used to freezing to death. So I took the slow approach and tried to inch my way to deeper waters. Every step seemed grueling and painful. It seemed to take a long time and I had to guard against cold waters splashing on the upper parts of my body, that were not yet subjected to being immersed. Even though it felt like the parts immersed were indeed “getting use to it,” I could see no benefit of continuing this strenuous task. For me, sweltering air was not that bad. I recall finding enough relief from heat, by the time I reached knee depth in water. Then I turned and ran out, fully satisfied with my water experience.
After several attempts I finally managed to get fully immersed. It seemed shocking at first and eventually I did get used to it. The water did not become warm, but I could stand it. The only thing that made it bearable is the frolicking that could take place in this liquid buoyant atmosphere. However, the chilling effect was not yet finished. The next painful phase emerged when I came out of the water. The cooling effect of water evaporating off wet skin immediately hit me. The only relief came from dunking back in cool waters. It seemed incredulous that something so cool to get into now provided semblance of warmth. Surely, I had entered an upside down world. Now it was important to have towels and dry cloths near at hand to cover up quickly so that my body could return to the comfort of blistering heated air. I quickly learned to prefer the cooling effect of sweat evaporating off my near naked body than go through this arduous cooling method.


Friday, October 17, 2008

Water Stories: Earliest Memory

My earliest memory of water I do not remember. I must have been floating in a sack of water before I was born, since that is what humans do before they emerge. It was probably warm and dark, maybe even comfortable. After that, I do not remember specifics, but I feel that my earliest sense of water is that it was unpleasantly cold. Probably it first consisted of being bathed by my mother. Air was quite a bit colder than the warm moist environment I come from. Then, I was assaulted by something liquid and more chilling. It was not pleasant. Being bundled in swaddling clothes seemed more preferable than being immersed in fluid that was even the slightest bit colder than my body temperature.
Little did I realize that water could get much colder. In fact, it could lose so much of its heat it stopped being liquid and turned solid. That provided my next memory of water--that of ice. I only have the slightest vision of my sister Karen, sitting out in the middle of the lake with our dog. Next to me on the shoreline were my parents who were raising quite a commotion yelling at Karen to come back. Whatever message they were conveying to her, it only caused Karen to stand up and wave back in greeting. The dog just stood there wagging its tale. I could not understand what the fuss was all about.
I did know that the ice would support the weight of many grown men who would go out to the middle and harvest ice. I could not understand why my parents did not go out and fetch Karen, It would certainly have made more sense than standing on the shore and yelling. It did not seem to be working. Eventually Karen must have got tired and returned to shore. Once they she was grabbed in an embrace and my parents seemed relieved. I had no idea that Spring ice held danger.
I must have intuited that it was not worth venturing out onto the ice. I have no memory of making that trip alone for the next few winter we spent in Michigan. After that we moved to Florida and ice was something I did not have to contend with for quite awhile. But it still took some time before I discovered water’s refreshing qualities.


Thursday, October 16, 2008

No Story tonight.

October 2008,

Dear Reader,
There will not be a story tonight. In the morning, I attend a servsafe class. My day begins at 8:30 AM and lasts until 5:30 PM. In my job as receiver of foodstuffs, I am required to have training in the method of handling food properly to prevent spread of illness. I was given a text to read tonight in preparation for tomorrow’s class. I will take it to bed with me and likely shortly fall to sleep. This weekend I intend to have an outdoor fire and hope that will prompt another fire story. In the meantime, stay warm.
Baba Rob


Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Got the Picture?

Yesterday, when I arrived home. I set out on an assignment to find nice photos showing the autumnal colors in their glory. The sky was overcast, and bright sun was not present. I went off hoping that sun would burst through for even a moment to illuminate the fall splendor. Shortly after pedaling away on my bicycle, a slight mist developed. Through out my ride, hard rain threatened. With out sun to cut through the mist, long range landscapes were not possible. I captured a few close views on my digital camera. As rain increased I headed home to download pictures. I felt this may be the last chance to view autumn leaves this fall. The rain and wind managed to dislodge a bunch of leaves. If it did not turn mild and quiet, the images I got would have to make do for addition to my blog.Arriving home, I used Photo Shop to crop pictures that I hoped to post on this blog. Three went up. I felt slight disappointment that what I posted seemed rather small and did not do justice to reality I viewed. I worried that the last chance had gone and colors were past their peak, never to return till next fall. This morning dawned bright and clear again. Though there were some bare patches on trees and many leaves were blowing around on the ground, sunshine lit up the hillside. I cruised around looking for more opportunities to gather shots. Today's posting will reveal what I found. Too bad, my little digital camera has no zoom lens. I hope the pictures I provided give a sense of the outstanding beauty, covering the Finger Lakes region.


Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Hills Are Ablaze: On Assignment

On the way to delivering Natalie, Alex, Liam and Ella to their train in Syracuse we noted that the autumnal colors were likely at their peak. All the hues present in a fire were shining form the hillsides as we passed. The past few days have been unseasonably warm no doubt ripened final colors into leaves. By the time , I returned home clouds came over and a stiff breeze sprang up. Leafs are blowing off their perches. Likely a cold front is moving in and this may be the last chance to capture the radiance emitting from the hillsides.
I picked up my digital camera, am heading out on my bicycle in search of a brief sunny interlude to highlight this radiance. Hopefully I can capture a suitable image. My hope is to post it on my blog in lieu of a daily story. Any way, an older slogan holds that a picture is worth over a thousand words. So I better get out and see if I can put those thousand or so words into a digital image.


Monday, October 13, 2008

Talking about Fires

There is no denying Liam is afraid of fire. His actions portray trying to manage that fear. He reacts in a way that he hopes will remove the object of his fear. While he was out yesterday, I made a small fire outdoors to get rid of yard debris. When he returned with his parents, he attempted to take charge again. He does this my insisting that an adult stay in attendance at the fire. Essentially, this is good practice. Fire safety dictates that fires be tended. But he pushed this to an extreme, since he fusses when I walk to the house to fetch a rake. In the battle of wills that ensues, I have to both attend to a fire that could blow up and a kid that is erupting. Luckily the fire has almost died down, and Liam’s dad comes to the rescue. They agree to perch on the hammock and keep an eye on the fire that by now has given up on producing flame and reduced to glowing embers.
This frees me up to attend to grinding up some nuts to produce peanut butter. All the kids looked forward to filling their own jar. Ella, Inanna, and Tyler all got to make personal labels for the jars they filed. Liam surrendered his chance since he could not let himself leave the fire till even the last wisp of smoke emitted. His fear yielded an extreme sense of fire safety. He was not about to listen to reason that the dying fire could be monitored as long as we were nearby and it did not require constant gazing at it to ensure it would not escape its metal container. But eventually, it died down enough that he felt safe to wander over to the playground and join in other kid activities.
Soon after supper was over, Liam’s parents left for a night on the town. I was left in charge of the kids. As it got dark, a chill was settling in and I prepared a fire in the fireplace. As soon as Liam noticed what was going on, be became anxious and stood outside the doorway to the living room, occasionally peering around the corner to see if he had to launch another fire safety crusade. He threatened to spend the night outdoors rather than live indoors and share his space with fire.
I stood firm in letting him know that staying outdoors was more risky than living with a fire and I would not permit that. I also let him know that it was beneficial for us to have warmth that the fire would provide. I was also aided by other folks that wanted to get warmed by the fire. Melanie and Cory, both engaged Liam in conversation about the benefits that fire provided for mankind, including the fact that Liam’s beloved trains ran because they could carry a contained fire.
Eventually, Liam came around the corner and was willing to join us in conversation . At first he had to be assured that the glass doors and screens in front of the fireplace would contain fire and not let it pounce out at us. Slowly, talk drifted to other subjects and Liam appeared settled and safe getting warmed by the fire. Finally, Liam let his imagination run free and began letting out tales that exposed his vast range of fears about its dangers. I listened to an incredible array of stories that showed what could occur in a fertile mind. We even joked about his immense powers of imagination that showed an inner flame of his own. By the time he needed to get ready for bed, Liam was OK with the idea that what was left of fire would be OK behind the safety apparatus in front of the fireplace. I figured he went to bed with a healthy respect for his new friend fire.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

Liam Does Not Like Fires

I got used to the idea that we are not going to make traditional bonfires around here. Last night we used a metal container that is designed to hold a fire off the ground and provides a screen to cover it over when it is ready to go out. We managed to build and hold a sizeable fire that suited as campfire. This container is also light and quite portable. Today , I decided to move it near a large brush pile and hold fires there until that pile is exhausted. I began clearing away to bare ground an area of larger circumference than the large urn. I figured this area would also be a good place to dump ashes. As I was making this clearing several large rocks presented themselves from the undergrowth. By the time it was ready to make a fire, rocks ringed the whole shebang and besides having an elevated metal platform to hold the blaze, it resembled a traditional campfire setting.
I went in the house to fetch matches and a piece of paper. My intent was to make an initiation fire and begin burning up some of the debris I just cleared out. Liam , my six year old grandson was Inside and I asked him to join me in fire making. He agreed and I felt we were in for a grandfather-grandson bonding experience. He brought a squirt gun with him. After I got the fire going and sizeable blaze was bursting forth, Liam came up and squirted me. I dashed that idea and told him he could take charge of being the fireman and quench any small pieces that managed to get out of the container. He objected to this and told me he did want to be a firefighter. He stated, “I don’t need to learn about fires, I am going to drive trains when I grow up. He seemed upset with the idea fire could leave the container. I told him it was OK and we could take care of it.
He then broke into tears and ran to the house. He would not talk to me except to say he did not like fires and wanted me to stay in attendance with the one I lit, until it stopped glowing. When I went to the house to see what was the matter, he kept up a steady fuss and insisted I go back to the fire, and not leave it unattended. He was acting so alarmed about having a fire unattended, I wondered it he might be exhibiting strong primal behavior with an adversity to flames. I wonder about the source of his strong contrary reaction. We engaged in a power struggle. He not willing to discuss the possibility that this fire might be safe, and could be observed from other vantage points than right next to it. .
The fire died down , we talked about fires. He has a vast interest in them, but he also has a strong sense of caution. He expressed interest in all the differing ways fires can get out of control. To prevent that from happening he likes to take control. As far as I can figure, Liam gets bombarded with fire safety lectures and presentation s in school. He is normally, anxious and it takes very little to get him in a controlling protective frame. I was disappointed that he could not enjoy tending a fie with me, but it seems he is a good candidate for slow patient instruction about the nature of fires. Perhaps a good place to start is with his interest in trains. In times past one of the most important goods on a train was that of fireman.


Tonight’s Fire

Behind the house I moved into August 1, are several acres of woods, Scattered about the trails that my landlord mowed are piles of brush. When I first spotted them, I could only envision magnificent bonfires. I searched for a clearing where burning could be conducted in safety. One spot offered a circle over seventy five feet in diameter where no overhead branches would be harmed by a sizeable fire. However, the landlord nixed the idea. He feared that an open fire may not be legal and would draw undue negative attention. I assured him that fires for entertainment and cooking are legal and I felt comfortable tending a fire until it extinguished. But to no avail, he did not want an open fire. As a compromise, he purchased a metal fire holder it that stood on legs over a foot off the ground. It came with a dome shaped screen cover to help contain sparks. It did not provide the same atmosphere as a fire on the earth in a pit enclosed by a circle of rocks.
I gave up on the idea of large bonfires and headed towards making my fires indoors in the fireplace. Over time, I hauled much of the wood to a spot near the house and set up a wood cutting station. For the past few weeks, I cut and stacked over a cord of wood for fireplace fires. Tonight, several folks were over for a dinner and party. I managed to get a fire going in the fireplace as several folks gathered in the kitchen to fix a meal. Jayme and Dan headed outside to set a fire in the container. Being a mild evening, outdoor fires seemed appropriate. Looking out the back, I noticed a nice blaze. Looking closer at it, I spotted a few pieces that looked like they may have been ones I had cut to fireplace size. My woodpile had been raided.
Jayme was headed over in the direction of my pile. I went over and noticed one end of the stack was disassembled and the pile unraveling. I informed Jayme that I did not mind he used the wood, but showed him how I neatly stacked the ends so they held the stack together. He apologized for grabbing those pieces. Next I told him that for outdoor fires there was much material laying about that could be used and we did not have to use wood that was cut to fireplace length.
I gave myself the job of fire tender and went off in the woods to gather bundles of fagots. Each tine. I approached with a bundle, I set about snapping smaller pieces apart and laying them in the fire. Larger pieces, I laid across the fire till they burned through and both ends could be shoved into the inferno. In the meantime, our crowd of evening guests gathered round the fire and engaged in normal fireside behavior. Stories and jokes were told. Smaller side conversations were initiated. Finally, musical instrument s appeared and sitting round the fire sing-a-longs sprung up. II tended the fire till it retired, then went off to bed, satisfied that another fire story had been told.


Thursday, October 9, 2008

Movie review: Quest for Fire (1982)

I enjoyed this movie in theater when it was first released. I was drawn in immediately. This movie followed a band of prehistoric people who had yet to learn how to make fire. For them, fire was a possession that needed to be kept alive. One tribal member was responsible for carrying a container of embers and keeping them glowing. His was likely an esteemed tribal position. Besides carrying the embers, he was charged with using them to develop a fire. They lose their fire when they are driven out into a rainstorm by an attacking band of strangers. They escape and huddle in a swampy lowlands. At first their mood is celebratory, until they discover their fire did not survive.
The dialogue in this movie is remarkable. A special language was drawn up. They communicated by grunts, guttural sounds and gestures. Even lacking translation, it was not difficult to pick up the gist of their communication. Their conversation after discovering they were with out fire, resembles a modern group facing crises. Here is where communication breaks down, just as it does when a present day group is under threat of losing a vital possession. Emotions tend to rule, and logic and planned response take a back seat. Here we witness the squabbling and in fighting that results as they try to figure out a method to obtain more fire resources.
Finally a band of three is sent out seeking fire. There are hints this is not going to be an easy trek. For one thing, which direction would you go to look for fire. It is not quite as simple as trying to find berries, when you just head to the regular patch that is always in the same place. Fire seems more elusive. It will not likely be found in the same place. We follow this crew as they wander around searching for fruit of a different nature. They interact in much the same way as a modern group would react to a loss of somethiof prime import but with not much clue of how to restore it. Finally off in the distance they notice smoke-- a sign of their elusive goal. They head gingerly in that direction, not knowing who they may encounter. They find that the smoke comes from a campfire of a group of cannibals preparing to have a feast.
The intended dinner, is tied up nearby. One of the dinner party already is missing an arm and it is shown being turned on the fire. Fumbling with their language, the band of searchers concoct a plan to steal fire and in the process, free the human cattle. As fate has it, one of the freed bunch demonstrates how to use flint to make fire. Besides this their teacher, a female, shows them new techniques of human fire making. Up till then our band enjoyed animal type sex, but now they were shown lovemaking. They proceed back to their tribe with much booty. This small aside, may or may not have been realistic, but I enjoyed it showed how in many ways sparks can turn to flame. The acting was elemental, but good in that all that transpired happened without a word off English, yet I felt I had good grasp of the story. Well done.


Wednesday, October 8, 2008


In an oxygen rich atmosphere, materials that are only glowing or smoldering will suddenly burst into flame. An example was provided by my friend Chris who persisted in smoking cigarettes despite being hooked up to pure oxygen that compensated for lung congestion caused by advanced stage lung cancer. She usually remembered to remove the oxygen tube from her nose when she was going to light up. Some times she forgot. Once sitting with her, I witnessed her pull a lit cigarette to her face. As it got near it turned into a flaming torch. She got it away quickly and dowsed it in an ashtray. Burn marks on her clothing and bedding, attested that many attempts likely occurred. Luckily, her quick reflexes prevailed and got the burning faggot moved away from its catalyst.
In more controlled fashion, oxygen is fanned into embers to try and increase the burn. As a youngster, I remember bending near a budding fire. It usually required pressing a cheek near the ground and blowing sideways at mostly glowing cinders that lacked flames. It took a special knack to direct a stream of breath at the base, so that smoke did not blow back at my face. It also helped to control the jet so that is was lasting and steady. If administered properly, flames would pick up, Once established, I could back away and the fire would draw air to itself.
In this small way, I was using my lungs as a bellows.
The same effect can be produced to enhance the burn of a fire. Forcing air at a fire increases the burn rate and thereby the heat. One time I lived in a house that relied on a wood stove for heat. My job was to tend the fire. We had a tool that consisted of a long metal tube. At one end was a mouthpiece similar to that found on a wind instrument. The other end had a pointed nozzle that had two small holes side by side. This tool could be placed into the fire and by blowing on the mouthpiece a steady stream of air could be directed to a precise spot in the fire. I experimented with directed a sustained blast of air at the most internal part of the blaze. It was easy to detect I was making an incredible hot spot. I further experimented with placing bits of metal in a crucible in this hot spot. I was able to bring the temperature up to a point that metals I played with glowed red and became plastic and pliable. I was discovering the elements of forging.
Mechanical devices came to be used for the same effect. These could maintain an even steady stream of air at a fire and did not have to pause for inhalations and catching breath. They could work steady. Old-time forges had such a device and it consisted of an air bladder that when expanded sucked in air. When it was collapsed, air was forced out of a nozzle at the fire. Usually, an apprentice operated this device, pumping it up and down, while the master worked at the fire end handling red hot metal pieces. This is another form of bellows. The root of this word means blast bag. Furnaces that had similar devices were called blast furnaces. This is where fires were brought up to such heat that hard metals such as iron and steel could be melted and forged.
In a forging experiment, I devised a means to turn a used washing machine pump motor into a blower. Through a set of pipes I directed a slow steady stream of air at a coal fire, I had set up in an old tractor rim. The air would blow up through the pile of coals, setting them to a good glow. From the side I could place metals and crucibles in the coals. This produced a steady hot fire without the need to have someone constantly at work pumping an airbag up and down.
The last form of bellows I witnessed is that one found in nature. This is when a fresh breeze springs up while a fire is going outdoors. Here a strong wind acts counter productive to creating a hot fire, since it has more of a dispersing effect and can blow the fire out. But when the breeze is slow and steady it creates a blast furnace effect. Such fires have been known to melt metals and glass, at temperatures far exceeding those capable of being produced in ordinary wood fires. Again, it is the air blast that makes the difference. By working with fire in these conditions, I began to see why ancients regarded fire as a magical and transformational element.


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Where There is Smoke…

It was in May when I traveled with Natalie from the East Coast to Montana. She was enrolled in Rocky Mountain School of Photography. I went with her as company and driver. She had never this distance solo and I felt more comfortable accompanying her. It afforded us opportunity to explore the vast northern plains of the US, an area virgin to both of us. As we approached the mountains in Wyoming, we witnessed blackened areas that spoke of forest fires. Lore told that lightening strikes were responsible for most of the charred areas we came across.
On the way we ventured into Yellowstone Park. There was evidence that a large fire burned right to the edge of Yellowstone Lodge and hot springs field that was home to Old Faithful. Folks there described how they fought the flames and kept their structures wetted down and despite all their efforts it still seemed only good fortune spared them. The fire had occurred two years previous and undergrowth was only beginning to show green with the approach of summer. All along our journey to Missoula we witnessed huge tracts of forest punctuated sparsely with blackened bare spots.
We arrived in Missoula late afternoon and after finding Natalie’s school checked into a motel. Natalie laid done for a nap while I sat at the door looking at brewing thunderstorms. It began with a sudden pelting of the largest hail I ever saw. Off in the distance sparks of lightening leaped to the ground. One large strike grabbed my attention. It was not a quick burst but a lasting discharge of electrical energy to the earth. It lasted long enough for me to shout to Natalie, “Come here, you got to see this.” It ended before she got to the door, but in my opinion set a personal record for lightening strike duration. Before night fell the storm abated and it turned to a peaceful evening.
The morning was bright, clear, and perfect weather for a hike. The southern boundary of University of Montana campus abuts a sizeable mountain with a large letter “M” marked out on its northern slope. There are hiking trails ascending this peak and we decided to go on a trek. We began heading south to where a trail snaked up the eastern slope. Our walk began in the woods and as it climbed offered brief glimpses of our destination--the peak. At one spot I noticed a bit of smoke coming off the mountain. We surmised that we were witnessing the after effects of a strike from the previous night. It was not a large blaze and in fact we could see not flames. But as we continued the smoking area would come and go from view. Finally, we pulled near enough to determine that whatever was smoking was several feet below our path. Still we saw no flames. Eventually we stood at a spot about a hundred feet above the source of smoke. It was an easy scramble down to investigate its source. When we go there, we saw a stump that had been cleaved into two distinct sections, no doubt the effect of a strike. Smoke was pouring from the ground from what were obviously the burning roots. Since all the combustibles were underground, the flames went unnoticed. But apparently enough oxygen could seep through the cracked ground d to feed the fire. We climbed back to our trail and continued our upward hike.
Not to much farther along we met three youngsters headed down the trail. They were shouldering shovels, picks and a water tank fire extinguisher. They told us they were college students at work for the US Forest Service. They had been dropped on the peak so they could carry their load down hill to extinguish the fire we had passed. Fighting fires and being dropped off above them was the bulk of their summer jobs. They expressed gratitude for the helicopters that lifted them to the top. If they had to carry all their gear up the mountain, the fire they came to fight would have likely went out or escaped.


Monday, October 6, 2008

Journal Entry, October, 2008

October 2008,

Dear Reader,
This is not really a fire story, but a small dairy entry to keep you up with my journey. This morning upon awakening my first thought dictated, “Your head has gone into retrograde and will proceed right back up your ass.” I seemed quite amused by that phrase and held it not as threat but entertainment. As I went about my day, I used it as joke on several folks. It got good laughs and lightness. It also seemed to hold a wide portent for the day. Not only were the world’s financial markets heading down the tubes, but many folks seemed to be in manic states that seemed to be headed Iin tight circular directions. Lots of energy seemed to be not directed. Later, on at least two occasions, was I informed that Mercury was in retrograde. Folks into astrology regard this as an ominous sign.
I was able to maintain lightheartedness and believed this heavy dark state would pass. Throughout the day, I kept to light small projects. I traveled to visit a friend and check on some chairs she had gotten hold of to learn caning techniques. While there, I helped install plastic window coverings. After returning home, I kept to cutting up some firewood and building a small fire in the fireplace. Even if Mercury was in retrograde or my head was up my ass, nothing so untoward occurred that it needed major revision.
After getting home from a meeting in the evening and completing a couple of phone calls, I settled to posting my daily blog. I decided to not write a fire story but post a diary entry. At first I tired to find my pre fire story entries to add today’s posting to my other log. Much to my shock I could not find any of my previous writings. I quickly commenced an anxious search for them. Going through my folder, I did not recognize the collection of writings I posted on line since February, this year. I hastily opened a new file and began downloading the articles as posted on the Internet. I had to copy and transfer them a month at a time. By the time I transferred June, I heard a slight sound going off . It was the tune of my head popping out of my rectum. I suddenly remembered the name of my log file. I searched and found it. I immediately saw that all my work had been safe all along. I do not know if Mercury is still in retrograde, but, it seems a little clearer in my head.
Baba Rob

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Today’s Fire

Today’s fire is brought to you by Uncle’s Robbie’s Homemade All Natural Granola. Yesterday, I shopped for ingredients to make some home style granola. I played around with making this delicious product while working at a boy’s residential school. I used the top of a wood cook stove to heat the mix in a large cast iron frying pan. When it was finished, I stored it in used oatmeal canister’s. I added homemade labels and titled my product with some catchy name. Today’s version is an example. My current kitchen furnishings are different and more up to date.
We have a gas range and a selection of cookware that falls short of the large size I was accustomed to using. My concoction was made up of rolled oats, dried cherries, crushed almonds, and shredded coconut. Heating this mélange over a gas flame requires constant turning and stirring. Using a wooden spoon I worked over a half hour trying to keep my product from burning. Quickly I figured out that a gas burner does not deliver an even heat as does the top of a large cast iron wood stove. Even constant stirring did not prevent s few groats from blackening. I either removed these with my fingers, or tried to hide them in the haystack I was mixing.
It seemed to be progressing slowly and not turning an even golden tan color that distinguishes toasted granola. To speed the process, I spread half the mixture on a flat tin and placed it in the broiler part of the oven. . I figured toasting it this way for a few minutes would deliver the desired product. After checking the broiler flame and placing the pan beneath it, I walked outside to capture some morning air. As soon as I came back into the kitchen, I was greeted by the shrill blast of the smoke alarm and the sight of black smoke pouring out of the oven, Opening the door, I was greeted by a flaming pan of granola. I quickly donned oven mitts, grabbed the fiery pan and walked it out the back door.
Setting it in the driveway did not extinguish this blaze. It was becoming a sustainable fire and released thick black smoke. I tipped it over and stomped it out with my foot. All the principles of fire making came to bear during my experiment making granola. A combustible material was heated to its burning point and in the presence of an open flame and oxygen source sprang into a fire. As soon as I reduced the air and heat with my stomping it scattered and went out. It will take another attempt to get back into the granola making business. Luckily I have half the quantity of oats I did not use. I must find another method using this new fangled stove.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Cooking Without Fire

It was during the hot drought filled summer of 1978 that our garden vegetables cooked on the vine. Our only source of water was a deep well at a church down Boston mountain in the Arkansas Ozarks. With no means to water the garden, it wilted and what was left of the produce warmed, softened and fell to the ground. The only survivors were string beans and jalapeno peppers. We put up a few jars of hot pickled beans. Next we struggled to find some source of income to obtain food. Small work kept us just at survival level. One day while cleaning up the back yard, I turned over a pile of leaf mulch. Underneath was a mass of large earthworms. They looked to me like just the thing bait shops sold to fisherman.
I felt grateful for this windfall and made plans to gather a sizeable harvest and entertained, the prospect of driving down from the hills with a hefty shipment of worms. I even imagined becoming a night crawler baron as I counted out twelve hundred worms. At three dollars a dozen wholesale, I envisioned easy street as the next road I would be traveling. Nearby was an old bathtub. I placed my counted hoard into it and went down to a local mill to scrounge a load of sawdust mulch to bed them for the night. After tucking them in, I retired and figured at wholesale prices, I would gain a hundred fifty dollars the next day when I showed up at the fish camps just to the north in the Missouri Ozarks.
Upon awakening, I ventured to the tub and noticed some shriveled dried dark string looking things stuck to the rim. I thought that any escapees probably fried on the hot porcelain of the tub as they tried to leave their sawdust home. It did not seem I lost too many and I was still hopeful of a sizeable harvest. Digging into the sawdust to gather the remaining ones, I discovered it was unbearably hot in the middle of the pile, too hot even to run my fingers through it. Nary a worm survived my sawdust composting oven. Immediately I deflated, not only over the loss of income, but I suffered guilt that I was responsible for wiping out a whole colony of beneficial earthworms. I decided to abandon my fledgling empire and go back to seeking honest hard labor.
I had been introduced to my first lesson in spontaneous combustion. Composting materials can reach incredible temperatures at the core of their pile. As the moisture is driven off, sawdust can approach combustion temperature. The man at the lumber mill, told me that large piles of sawdust once ignited can smolder for long periods with out the slightest trace of smoke, but ready to bust into flame in the presence of a blast of air. He related that one time while moving a pile with a front end loader, it burst into flame as soon as he uncovered it. It was likely ignited by spark from his muffler and fed by sudden appearance of lots of air. I felt sorry about the worm’s fate, but gained respect for the heat generating properties of slow oxidation and its attendant risks.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Where there’s smoke....

The winter of 1974-74 was brutally cold, especially near Niagara-on-the -Lake Ontario. I spent the fall and early winter there. Two friends, Richard and Lisa bought a house that they were refurbishing. I lent an occasionally hand. Around Christmas time they left for a bit to visit family and friends. While away a deep freeze broke a water pipe. A thaw exposed the resulting leak and by the time they returned their basement was flooded. They called me for help. I hurried over with my plumber‘s kit.
Rather quickly we traced the leak to a pipe located in a crawl space under their kitchen floor. Accessing this space from the basement, I discovered it full of leaf debris. Apparently, one side was exposed to outside weather and leaves had blown in and accumulated there for quite a while. By scrapping out several buckets full, I gained enough space to worm my way to where a repair could be made. It took only a short time to cut out the broken section and sweat in a new piece of pipe. We also got some pipe insulation and wrapped up the pipes before we shut of the access hole to the basement. It seemed their house was only used in three seasons before this and other winterization projects would bloom as we carried out renovations.
On my way over, I brought along two incredibly large and gorgeous heads of cabbage. To celebrate our success at plumbing repair, we decided upon making a stuffed cabbage feast. We made a day of it, alternately preparing food, taking on cleaning projects, beating drums, singing and dancing. We invited some friends over to join our celebration. Several times through out the day, we caught a whiff of smoke. We never detected its wispy presence and figured it was likely remnant smell left over from using my torch to sweat water pipes. We were not concerned and continued to celebrate.
Just as soon as night fell a stiff breeze picked up. Shortly we detected signs of smoke. The local Fire Department responded quickly to our call for help. Upon arriving they opened up the crawl space from the outside and using long rakes removed clumps of leaf debris. As soon as they hit fresh air, the clusters burst into flame, but were quickly extinguished. Apparently, while using my torch, I caught some tufts aglow. Since they had not much air in their cramped space they smoldered all day. With the advent of a fresh breeze they began to ignite. Quickly, the fireman cleared all the leaf debris out and instructed us to install a barrier against their infiltration. Not only can they be ignited by an unwary repairman, but piles of leaves can spontaneously create enough heat to cause them to smolder. We thanked them for their quick response, went back to our feast and discussed plans for tomorrow’s project sealing off the crawl space.


Thursday, October 2, 2008

Are We on Fire Yet?

Making rough estimations, I arrived at a figure that at any given moment there are approximately 200 million personal motor vehicles traveling at cruising speed all over the world. Using an estimation that on average there are six cylinders at work in each engine, we arrive at 2 billion cylinders at work all the time. At cruising speed, vehicle engines turn in the neighborhood of 3 thousand revolutions per minute, which reduces to 50 revolutions per second. That means in one second a hundred billion cylinders are in firing position. For two stroke engines only half fire in each revolution. As a result, in one second, worldwide, we are encountering fifty billion gasoline/air explosions Check the math, but that seems a lot.
I pondered, what would it look like if we could produce those explosions in one huge fireball at one location. My imagination is astounded trying to visualize the resulting carnage. I suppose that were it possible to set that off in one spot, we could likely drive Earth to a new orbit. Considering all other fuel air mixtures that are being set off concurrently, it even gets more stupendous. Not only are there other types of transportation vehicles adding to this total, but stationary engines and heating plants also contribute their combustions. If exploded in one place we could possibly even drive ourselves into a time warp. Of course, bringing this demonstration to fruit would be unlikely. Nevertheless, we are exploding fuel at this rate.
Unfortunately because all these explosions are encased in metal containers, we do not see evidence they are occurring. Without that evidence we keep our throttles open, constantly pouring more fuel on the fire. Nonetheless all the heat and exhaust gases of our imagined inferno are being created and pushed into the air constantly. It does not seem too much a stretch to imagine we may be in critical straights creating this fire eternally. Its power seems so immense it brings me to consider ancient prophecies concerning our world’s demise. It many cultures a story that this present world will end by fire accompanies tales that the last one ended by water.
One such tale, sees Noah escaping the flood. Other tales relate similar endings. I ponder how deep did the waters get before folks realized it was a flood of serious proportions. Bringing that thought to the present, makes me wonder; at what point will we realize that we are indeed on fire.


Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Fighting Fire with Fire

At first it seems a strange concept to fight using the same element that threatens to consume. Firefighters do just as their name implies. They struggle to overcome fire that by its nature wants to consume everything burnable within its reach. When fire is contained within a structure, the firefighting tactic often used is to prevent adjacent structures from igniting and letting the fire burn itself out. This happens when the fire consumes all its fuel and extinguishes by starvation. There is nothing left to consume. When fires are out in the open another tactic presents itself.
Small controlled fires are used to remove combustibles from a fire’s path. In the open, fires are often steered by winds. Sparks are driven in the direction of prevailing winds spreading fire that way. Fires usually do not double back since in their tracks nothing burnable is left. So they are left to head in the direction they are being blown. Smaller scale fires are more able to be controlled. So far in front of raging wildfire, smaller fires are lit and prevented from spreading in in the direction of prevailing winds. They will however, head slowly against the wind in search of combustibles. As larger fire advances toward the smaller one, air is sucked toward the larger blaze. This creates a small wind current that entices the smaller fire to head toward the larger one . As they meet they help burn each other out.
To aid in carrying out this tactic a network of cleared lanes are laid out in areas susceptible to fires. These lanes are termed fire lanes, fire breaks, or other descriptors that denote a place were fire can be interrupted. These lanes have a duel purpose. They provide access to a wide swath of land in front of an approaching fire. They also give a small lane where nothing much combustible is present. This renders a good place to start small fires and prevent them from crossing the road to the unburnt side. Along these ways, firefighters can easily control fires they light and send off toward the approaching inferno.
I witnessed this tactic being applied on a small island that was being threatened by a rapidly spreading blaze. Penikese Island holds 78 acres and is located 14 miles from mainland Massachusetts. Located in southern Buzzards Bay, it is susceptible to strong ocean breezes. On its premises is a small residential school for adolescent boys. Besides a few small buildings, the island is covered with shrubs and grasslands. In April, the greenery has yet to bloom and still presents last year’s dried growth, a good source of combustibles. That month in 2006, a small fire started on the south west side and rapidly built into an uncontrollable inferno. Breezes were driving it in a Northeasterly direction. Luckily, a small pathway bisects the island from north to south. The fire was several hundred yards from this break. Some staff and a few students headed up the path lighting small fires on the western side of the lane.
At each fire, someone was left with a shovel to beat down any flames that threatened to cross the road. These small fires were only allowed to head against the wind in a westerly direction. Slowly they proceeded that way. As the wildfire closed in, the smaller blazes hurried to meet it. Finally it consumed itself and the island residents celebrated the sparing of their structures, all located to the east of the fire lane. Until new growth sprouted anyone approaching Penikese would witness it half blackened, neatly divided by the firebreak.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Firewood for Free

In my years of burning wood, I do not remember ever having to pay out money to obtain firewood. Sometimes it was completely free, other times I had to provide labor of some sort to get hold of it. Often I found the truth presented in the old adage, “firewood provides heat twice.” The first warmth comes when it is gathered, cut, split, stacked and then hauled indoors. Then it warms again when it is burned. This article will briefly explore the various ways that firewood came to me.
It was not until, I moved into a commune in rural Florida in the middle 1970’s that I had a stove that burned wood. Just before the first cold season arrived a truckload of wood was dropped off by the local electric utility. They were constantly clearing right of ways for electric lines to pass. Since not many people heated with wood, they most often dumped and buried tree trimmings to get rid of them. They were willing to drop wood off to anyone who requested it, provided it was not out of the way and on route between their cutting and dumping places. There were no choices and you had to accept what they brought. Our first load was a boon. It contained several sizeable limbs of dead oak that was well seasoned. The bulk however contained sizeable pieces of camphor tree. It seemed the whole tree was brought to us. Burning it provided the nose clearing scents that camphor is noted for and was a special treat to add to our fires.
After Florida, many of us moved to the Ozarks in Arkansas. This area is the timber capital of the Southwest. Much of the oaks were cut off in the early part of the twentieth century and now second growth was being harvested. Besides oak substantial stands of hickory and cherry were being felled. Logs were hauled to the mill and sizeable branches were left laying around. Landowners were glad to have a hand getting rid of this debris which contained sizeable pieces of firewood. Usually the parts being offered were not near roadways. This meant considerable efforts had to be expended getting them onto our vehicles. Normally, our crew would head into the forest with chainsaws and buck up large limbs into carrying size pieces. Once these were loaded up we took them back to our living sites. Here saw bucks, chopping blocks and wood stacks were worked on all through the year in order to have wood for both heating and cooking. Firewood came cheap but considerable effort gathering and preparing it.
After Arkansas, I moved to New England. Firewood was just as abundant but it was also much more desirable and had a larger demand. Winters were colder, and population greater. Wood was sold for a dear price. However, with ingenuity, it was available for the price of labor or trade. Land clearing, just like timbering resulted in large quantities of branch material. To have this cleared, folks were willing to let it be hauled away gratis. Other opportunities presented when part of the payment for firewood involved a work exchange to provide cutting, splitting and stacking services. This type of work was pleasant in cold season when work also heated and provided something to do when other outdoor opportunities were drying up. I felt especially grateful to have steady work exercise prospects.
Additionally, everywhere trees are susceptible to storm damage. When this occurs, owners not only welcome help clearing their property of debris, but are often willing to pay to have their wood hauled away. Sometimes large storms turn into blessing. Hurricane Bob wrecked havoc on the trees in southern New England in August 1991. Luckily flood damage was minimal, and property damage mostly confined to vegetation. I was fortunate to find considerable paid work clearing away remnants of this damage. As a bonus, I garnered over 12 cords of hardwood for future fires. By mid fall, I had this hauled home, stacked it up, ready to be split, brought indoors and used. This provided all our heat for the next four years.
I just moved to upstate New York and do not have a good woodstove for heat. My current residence has a fireplace that is more suitable for providing atmosphere than heat. It seems there is enough firewood around the neighborhood that can likely be obtained using my previous wood gathering techniques. This will also give me time to scout out the area finding other sources toward the day when I can again possess an efficient wood burning stove.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Burning Rope

For a time, I lived with Willow and her two kids in Gainesville Florida. Jeremy and Kelly were school age and enrolled in an alternative school. They were home schooled for a good part of their day. That meant one adult was home most of the time. Willow worked occasionally as a waitress and other times worked at home as a seamstress. My work was home services and I was self employed. Many of my projects were carried out at home so I could do my share of adult supervision. Money was tight, but our rent was paid and we ate well. Nonetheless, it seemed depressing at times considering our lack of funds and how that curtailed our spending habits.
On day, I was home. I had not much work of the kind that would provide income, so I concentrated on a clean up. We had a burn pit in the back yard where we got rid of yard debris and trash. We composted vegetable matter but burned most of the rest. Since I was launching a massive clean out, we had a lot for the fire. The kids were having a home school day. Jeremy was helping me, Kelly stayed indoors working on a school art project. I appreciated his help.
We had a lot of packing materials and scraps from projects to haul to the fire. It was not a large blaze and we just kept adding to it. I must have been lagging and experiencing a slight depression pondering my lack of funds. It made me drag along and threatened to turn our project into a full day affair. At one point, I carried a box full of debris up to the fire and noticed Jeremy dragging a piece of rope through the coals. As he passed it through it would catch fire. Upon withdrawing it, he would beat it against the dirt to extinguish it. Once out, he would pass it through the coals again and repeat the process. I sharply asked him, “What the hell are you doing?”
Without pause he answered, “ I am a rope burner.” I quipped, “Is that so? Tell me about being a rope burner.” Jeremy explained he was a part of a small element that had the job of burning ropes. It was kind of an exclusive fellowship with not many members. Being drawn in I asked, “If there are not so many of you, I guess you must get paid pretty well.” He nodded and agreed, “Yes, we get five hundred an hour and have a strong union.” Quite impressed with his imagination, I asked, “ Can I get a job with you?” “Sure, I can take you on as an apprentice.” Jeremy offered. That surely lifted my spirits and that is how I joined the international brotherhood of rope burners. Since that day I have never suffered depression as a result of a lack of work. I can always find a rope to burn.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

It’s a Gas

In teaching about fire, the beginning statement I make is “Neither wood, coal, nor paper burns.” I am greeted by puzzling looks that beg an explanation. “ I go on, “ Solid material does not burn. What you see are gases oxidizing in the final process of combustion.” There are three stages in the development leading to rapid oxidation. The first is applying heat that drives gases from combustible material. The second step requires mixing oxygen usually in the form of common air with the combustible gases. Lastly a spark is needed to ignite the air/gas mixture producing flame and heat. If enough combustible material is present, a sustainable cycle takes place. The heat produced drives off more gases, the constant flame provides ongoing spark and hot gases expand creating an air current that draws fresh air, hence oxygen, toward the gases and flame.
As you gaze at fire, you give witness to this ongoing interplay that produces combustion. The dancing flames show evidence of burning gases. Notice that nowhere is the combustible material, be it wood, coal or paper, aflame. It may glow red which is a sign of its heated state and conversion to gases. Flame displays its lively nature as it stretches out engulfing unburned gases. In the process the quantity of combustible material reduces. It has been converted to burnable gases; its unburnable component is ash. Some is light enough to be lifted away on the upward flowing air currents. Heavier ash sinks to a small pile left after the fire has extinguished.
For all material, this is the fire process. The difference is what temperature is necessary to drive off combustible gases. Gases that are combustible at normal air temperature only need spark. These gases are hazardous to handle. Even liquid gasoline does not burn . However, it’s temperature to convert to burnable vapors is lower than temperatures found outdoors on a mild day. Then spark is all that is needed to begin the inferno. Other burnable materials have combustion temperatures in the range produced in ordinary fires. Other materials will not combust in these fires. Examples are most metals, ceramics, stone, and rock.
But even these things can burn in conditions well beyond the ordinary. Some have combustion temperatures quite high. Even metal can turn to vapors at temperatures high enough. These temperatures are not normal and only found in controlled environments like science labs, deep furnaces, or nuclear experiments. At times, certain other elements need to be present to catalyze burning. They conditions may also occur in the bowels off the earth where high temperatures and pressure produce fires that have powers of transmutation. The ashes from these fires are known as gems and sometimes called precious.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Franklin Comes Alive

A Christmas storm in 1977 ushered in a long, cold, brutal winter. Living in a beach house on the Connecticut shore of Long Island Sound meant we had to find ways to supplement a fireplace and space heaters to stay warm. Smitty brought in an old Franklin stove. Although these are drafty and not noted as efficient stoves, it was a large step up from a fireplace. At least the heat it produced was contained within the house and not drawn up the chimney. We even constructed a new metal chimney to vent it out the side the house. This enabled us to seal up the fireplace and keep the heat from wood fire indoors.
Since, I was not employed, my task was to gather, cut and chop firewood. I also tended the fire and made sure the house did not freeze. It seemed that all thorough the month of January the temperature never got above the low twenties. Besides that a strong wind out of the northwest seemed constant. The beach side of the house faced south and was out of the wind and usually in the sun. This is where I set up a station to cut, chop and stack firewood. It was also easily accessible to the living room where Franklin Stove resided. The Christmas tree that was in the house for that celebration ended up on the beach near our pile of kindling. It had dried in the sun almost a month when our other kindling supply evaporated.
My routine upon awakening was to stoke up embers left from our overnight fire and add kindling to restructure a blaze to welcome folk in the morning as they rose. On the first day, that our kindling supply was gone, I took out an ax and chopped the old Christmas tree into pieces small enough to cram in the stove. And that is just what I did, crammed the stove full of dry brittle spruce tender. After loading it up, I shut the doors and stood back waiting for the kindling to ignite on the glowing bed of embers. While waiting, I stepped out to gather some firewood to add to the fire once it got going. When I came back inside with an armload, I was greeted by an alive Franklin. All the tender kindling was ablaze The heat it generated caused all the seams to open and the sides of Franklin to warp outward. Belching sounds emitted as Franklin whooped to gather oxygen to fed its raging inferno.
Each time it took a gulp, the stove seemed to move slightly. It seemed to be alive and straining to move itself outdoors to find more air and fuel. Luckily, the fuel provided by the chopped up Christmas tree exhausted rapidly. Just as hastily as it came alive, Franklin passed away. The belching , wheezing, and leaping about ceased. As the metal parts cooled down they returned to their previous shape and the seams closed up. When I opened the front, the remnants of the fire were ready to receive the pieces of wood, I had brought to sustain it. I placed them inside and sat back to observe Franklin do the job he was designed to perform.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

My First Campfire

We already had television to provide us with images of cowboys and the like perched around a campfire. Here they did their cooking, told stories, and huddled under their blankets to keep warm. All of our campfire experiences were gleaned from these television dramas. One day, I along with two friends, Michael and Drew decided o have a campout. Michael’s folks let us have use of a large field behind their house. Camping out meant we would build and maintain a campfire.
We already had plenty of experience building fires. We gathered a quantity of wood and constructed a sizeable one. We had no experience cooking, even indoors. So our meal consisted of fruits, snacks and other cold goodies. We did know about roasting marshmallows, We cut a few sticks to hold marshmallows to the fire and gobbled down a few of these toasty treats before settling in. We had maintained a sizeable fire and still had ample wood to burn through the night.and provide heat for sleeping out in the open. Taking our cue from soldiering movies we posted a guard, whose duties included tending the fire. Even in Florida it was a chilly night and we figured it a matter of survival to keep our fire going.
With the first guard posted the other two of us fell to slumber. At some time in the night I was awakened for my guard shift. I tiredly maintained a presence watching fire. By the time our next shift was due, we agreed to abandon guard duty and just put the remaining wood on the fire and sleep the night through. We all managed to get enough warmth from the final blaze that we all fell in deep sleep. At some time in the middle of the night. I was awakened by a powerful acrid smell a sense of being too warm. I found my feet had swung into the glowing embers. Likely they were cold and sought heat on their own. My wool blanket was smoldering. That was the source of the powerful smell. I got up scrapped the burnt part of my blanket away, bundled back up and went back to sleep.
Through the night, I must have alternately felt cold feet and smelt bad smells. Several times I awoke to the same scene, my feet snaked over to the barely glowing embers and my blanket again smoking. By morning my fitful night ended and I discovered the nice US Army blanket borrowed from my Uncle Bob, pretty much charred beyond use. My two campmates suffered no such loss. Apparently their sleeping bags kept their feet enclosed and warm throughout the night. I was disappointed by my first camping experience, and felt regret I ruined a fine blanket I cherished. I determined that should I try camping again, I would obtain a sleeping bag, and find a way to stay warm besides letting myself crawl into the fire.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Awakened by the blaze

Winter in Louisiana can seem just a cold as in the deep north. Houses do not possess the same degree o tightness nor insulation. The old tenement shack we rented also had no heat source apart from an electric space heater. Our well, out front, was at the bottom of a three foot hole. Down there, our water pump was exposed to the cold, which sometimes can get frigid enough to freeze water pipes until they rupture. To prevent that we had a 150 watt light burning all the time at the bottom of the hole. It probably worked since we suffered no broken pipes all winter.
Most likely since we lived in the deep south, we also lacked most gear that folks in the north wore in winter. I noticed no scarves, long underwear, woolen hats, nor heavy coats. Sweaters, long pants and heavy socks were the most used winter clothing. Damp mornings put a chill on us that usually was burned away by the sun when it arose. Days that remained overcast never seemed to warm, yet we did not suffer bone chilling cold, just uncomfortable dampness. At night leaving the space heater on did not seem safe, so we huddled under lots of blankets and comforters. Once tucked in it did not feel cold. The only problem presented when trying to get out of bed in chilly morning.
One night, I was awakened by an uncomfortable heat. I was puzzled at first since it seemed warmer than any sultry nights of summer. Then I noticed a strange glow coning around from the far side of our house. I got up to investigate. I noticed immediately it was not only warm, but unbearably hot. Once I got to the living room, I realized the house across the street was ablaze. The fire department was just arriving, but were unable to do anything except spray water at adjacent properties to keep them from igniting. The roar of the flames was intense and the heat issuing from the fire almost made it impossible to look in that direction. By now our housemates were awake and marveling at the intense inferno across the street.
We were amazed that temperatures were high enough to cause the electric wires strung along the road separating our house from the one on fire to sag until they reached the ground. Once in contact with the ground, sparks issued and our neighborhood was plunged into darkness except for glow of the yet to diminish flames. It was probably over and hour before the roof collapsed, dragging most of the high reaching flames with it to the ground. Finally the heat began to quell. We all got back to our beds and awoke the next morning to normal damp chilliness. The house across the street was reduced to a still smoldering pile of rubble. The electric lines had raised them selves off the ground and our electricity was restored. I sensed I had dreamed about the raging fires of Hell.


Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Still Burning Trash

During the oil boom of the early 1980’s, I moved to Louisiana and took advantage of the building construction surge. Several of us lived together in a rural setting outside Lafayette. This area bounds the Atchafalaya Basin which defines the western edge the Mississippi Delta. The landscape is decidedly flat and drainage ditches crisscross the area to remove rain runoff, dumping it into canals that head toward the delta swamp. The ditch next to our house looked blackened. This puzzled me. I next noticed that many stretches of ditches had similar look. It appeared that ditches caught on fire. After settling in, we discovered that garbage was not collected in this area and it was several miles to a collection point.
Convention established that trash was placed in the ditch and burned on a regular basis. Trash fires happened on a daily basis. We got used to smelling incendiary garbage. At first, we were not used to this custom and gathered our trash and hauled it away. It was burdensome and we also discovered the site where we hauled it also burned it. It just burned larger quantities. It seemed no matter what, our trash would be burned. We gave in and piled it in our ditch. About once a week we lit the pile and tended the fire. It pretty efficiently got rid of the bulk. To our advantage, we could dispose of all our work related garbage too. This added wood and other building materials to the pile.
Neighbors did not seem to mind the smells created. Everyone seemed used to breathing the fumes from all the various materials being turned to smoke and ash. Later on we discovered another local solution to solid waste management. When a rain occurred, the ditches would be swept clean of all remnants of fire. Whatever had not been lifted away as smoke or fly ash was washed down to join the murk in the Mississippi Basin. Our collective sensibilities about despoiling nature collided with local custom. More deep seated than our philosophy was the reality of living in a area that for years had collected the sediment of anything poured into the vast Mid American drainage stream.
When the scope of that system was considered, the small amount that we added seemed insignificant. We lived near the edge of a catch basin that gathered water from a wide ranging area. Rivers that flowed into the Mississippi sprang from places as far as Colorado, Montana, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and traversed all the states in between. What ever was washed into the streams along the way, settled in our neighborhood. All along the coast and out in the swamp platforms were drilling deep into the earth to remove sedimentary ooze that had no doubt gathered and settled eons ago. Today’s workers were just as happy adding to that sedimentary collection that may provide future fuel. It appeared the mindset of this area condoned open burning. This area also is home base to the vast worldwide oil exploration empire, which make allowances for bringing fossil fuels from the bowels of the earth and burning them on the surface.
We did not stay long in this area. The boom tapered off and eventually our crew headed back to other parts of the country. I became more sensitive to the effects of burning. To help my process of coming to terms with the element of fire, I approached the native outlook of taking responsibilities for our actions and acknowledging our connection with our mother--the earth. To help ease the feelings of the harsh reality of how out of balance we were becoming with Mother Nature, I for a time turned to another type of fire that seemed to assuage these feelings. I began to consume large amounts of firewater.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Burning Trash

When I was in first grade, we lived in rural Florida. My first job was to clean my dad’s shop after the workers left. He built wooden boats and in a day turned out a considerable quantity of sawdust, wood scraps, paper waste, packaging materials and a small quantity of chemicals from the paint shop. My duties began with sweeping up the floors and cleaning out the sawdust hampers. We had a wheelbarrow which I would load up and haul to a burning pit we had just outside the chain link fence near the back gate. My last duty before locking the gate was to build and tend a fire that consumed our waste. Everything was burned.
First off, I stacked and arranged the pile. This experience taught me much about combustion principles. First, to have sustained fire air has to get to it. Sawdust even though it is combustible can smother a fire by preventing air from reaching the burn. I learned this when I dumped a whole load on a fire already burning well. Once smothered it would continue to smoke but all flames would extinguish. If I poked it, brief flame would appear but quickly go out after I withdrew the poker. If I left the fire, by morning an intact pile of charred sawdust would still be smoldering.. But by then all chance of flame would be gone since heat had left. On the other hand if a handful of sawdust is thrown into the air above a roaring blaze it almost explodes in flame. Plenty of air among the dust particles makes for an volatile mixture.
Next, I learned that some things may not have been meant to be burned. Once in a while a small amount I put it the fire would release a cloud of noxious smoke. Mostly, it was thick black smoke that concerned me. Although she never complained a neighbor whose house was directly behind the shop would often be subjected to dense smelly vapors rolling across her property. I must have intuited that this was not good. Close by, I could tell by the stinging in my nose that what was being produced should not be shared, besides not likely being good for me.
I learned that with a hot fire small quantities could be rapidly burned without producing toxic clouds. But mostly, I gathered some elements were not meant for my fire and would be saved for hauling to a burial dump.
Lastly, I learned that some stuff doe not burn up even in a hot fire. Even small pieces of metal would not be consumed, ceramic and glass likewise. Sometimes these items would melt and change shape but never be burned up. They also glowed when subjected to high heat for a spell. I felt fortunate to be able to conduct fire experiments as part of my tasks. I took to making hot spots in the fire. In these places I conducted tests with most items that did not burn. I learned that such objects retained heat long after being removed from the furnace, often times hot enough to cause burns or ignite fires. I suppose these experiments taught me much about fire safety.
Not only was I lucky to have a chance to play with fire, I learned the joys of just watching a it burn and letting my mind drift to the accompaniment of the moving light show. We did not have a television back then, but I do not think I missed much. I learned that there is always a good show to be had just watching flames perform their magic.


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Another Kind of Steam

Water that turns into steam when its temperature reaches the boiling point provides an analogy for other states of volatility. Apparently, human behavior has mimicked steam often enough that various phrases describing human behaviors have been introduced into English language. Examples are “I’m steamed up; I’m going to let off some steam; I’m just going to simmer; I‘ve reached my boiling point; or I‘m boiling over.” These are but a few that refer to human emotions, often anger, reaching an explosive state. This brief article will try to draw comparisons of the physical characteristics of steam to the less well known mechanisms that push human behavior.
I will give conjecture and a brief example from my experience in an attempt to analyze times when humans lose control and explode. One of the points that give rise to danger when dealing with steam is when there exists no pressure relief valve or when it malfunctions. . A similar danger may exist when humans try to bottle up and contain emotions that may produce pressure when not vented.
Just as steam relief valves vent extra pressure, humans have developed means to “let off steam. Two that come to mind are focused physical exertion to bleed off bottled up energy or calmness exercises that are designed to turn down the internal heat that builds stress. When these exercises are not in place or somehow not working, the danger of a human explosion comes to bear.
Like steam pipes that have gauges reading pressure and providing alerts that should be heeded, humans would do well to monitor their state in order to intervene upon an approaching angry outburst. Unfortunately human gauges are not as easy to read as mechanical ones. But usually with practice and helpful feedback, it may be possible to detect impending problems based upon precursor events unfolding. Of course, this assumes that a person is looking to curb violent outbursts. If they are not, it may pay those nearby to attend to reading the signs of looming pressure buildup so they may take appropriate evasive maneuvers. I hope that if I was near a pressure cooker that was showing sign s of going off, I could prepare an exit.
On incident that comes to mind, when I took this action occurred during a bout of cabin fever while living in rural Arkansas. I was not aware that being cooped up all winter can place inevitable pressure on human relations. I, Willow and her two kids had spent the whole winter cooped up with no electricity, no indoor plumbing, nor running water, and our only source of heat was a wood cook stove. There was certain romantic charm spending a winter in this gorgeous natural setting. However, probably neither of us regularly had pressure outlets, nor were we familiar with detecting coming flare-ups. One morning the pressure erupted.
My custom was to rise early, make a fire, and prepare a pot of coffee. Usually, I would sit enjoying my coffee, while waiting for Willow to arise and have breakfast and launch the kids off to school. One morning, Willow awoke in an agitated state. A heated discussion ensued. I remained in my chair holding my cup. At some point Willow placed her hand on my shoulder and started shaking it to make a point. She was unaware that her jerking my shoulder was spilling hot coffee on my wrist. I was suffering burns. When I exploded, I flicked the remainder of my cup up at her. It covered the front of her blouse. Fortunately she was not burned, but her pressure also reached explosive state.
Willow went over to the stove, picked up the whole pot of coffee and headed back to my chair. I saw her coming and detected a fit of anger in her stance. I sensed danger and automatically rose up and knocked the pot out of her hands and onto the floor. I rushed to her side and grabbed her in a bear hug, lifted her off the floor and carried her outside. There I remained in an embrace afraid if I let her go , we may start swinging at each other. In a few moments, pressure seemed eased, and I asked,, “If I let you go, can I go inside and get a few things, so I can get away for a day or so?” She agreed. Hastily, I gathered a small pack and walked down the road. Besides the small burns on my wrist, injury had been avoided. We both learned the necessity of not letting pressures build to unsafe levels. To this day, memory of that event provides me with an example of what may occur should I not attend to my pressure gauges.


Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Nature of Steam

Under normal atmospheric conditions water is liquid. When temperatures fall to 32 Fahrenheit (F) under normal pressure, water turns to ice -- a solid. Under the same pressure conditions when temperature reaches 212 F, it turns to steam -- a gas. This temperature is referred to as the boiling point. Liquid water on the earth’s surface cannot exist above this temperature. In its gaseous state, steam can continue to absorb more heat. This gives steam properties that can be useful, it also renders steam a danger.
Because of its heat carrying capabilities, steam is used for heating purposes. Under confinement, as steam is heated above its boiling point, its pressure increases. Therefore, steam carrying pipes and radiators must be able to hold great pressures. Whenever these systems fail, disaster looms, usually in the form of an explosion. Because of this danger, steam heating has largely been replaced by hot water and heated air heating systems. Steam is by far the most efficient, but its risk seems not acceptable. Steam under pressure also has another use, as it has an incredible ability to penetrate porous material.
Pressure cookers are an example of steam being used in this manner. Under pressure steam penetrates deep into food, carrying its heat and cooking quickly and efficiently. A safety feature of pressure cookers are built in pressure relief valves. These release excess steam pressure from confinement and into the air. Despite warnings to keep this valve clear, dangerous explosions have occurred when it gets blocked. Kitchens have seen metal cookers turned in shrapnel that has killed the cook. For this reason, many have abandoned pressure cooking using steam pressure.
Another use of steam’s penetrating abilities are found when working with fibrous materials. Wood for example is subjected to steam to help it absorb moisture making it more pliable. Various wooden products use steam to make them bendable. After being held in a bended state and dried, wood retains the bent shape. Common examples of this are found in boats, furniture and curved building frame construction. Another fibrous material commonly subjected to steam is cloth. Steam ironing is the example. Here, again, steam brings moisture deep into the fibers rendering them pliable. Pressure from the iron flattens the fibers and cloth and when dried they retain their flattened shape.
In nature, steam exists under tremendous pressure deep in the bowels of the earth. Water meeting earth’s molten core, renders it into steam. Because it is deep in the earth this steam is held under incredible pressure as it absorbs more and more heat. These steam pockets are called superheated. In some places, Iceland for example, these deep steam pockets naturally vent near the surface. This occurrence is used for heating purposes and gives an inexpensive source of energy. In other places where natural vents do not occur near the surface, pipes are drilled down to steam pockets. These deep troves of steam come to the surface and its pressure used to drive electricity generating turbines. As its pressure and heat is dissipated this steam returns to its liquid state and often is used for irrigation. For this reason, many steam exploratory projects are sited in arid locals.
Whether natural or man made, fires are constantly tended to produce this cycle of water being taken from its liquid state to gaseous and back to liquid. Water is not the only liquid that is brought to its boiling point turned into a gas and its properties changed before it is condensed back into its liquid form. Most liquids have a volatile gaseous state and heat properties are a constant part of this equation. Therefore fires of some sort are integral to our physical nature.


Friday, September 19, 2008

The Steam Box

Outside the chain-link fence behind my dad’s boat shop was a fire pit. Suspended across the pit was an eight inch diameter cast iron pipe several feet long. One end rested on the bottom of the pit. The pipe tilted up and its other end supported by a metal frame. The upper end protruded through a hole cut in the chain link fence and ended as it entered a long wooden box that was perhaps 10 inches high, several feet wide and at least twenty feet long. The far end of the box was covered by a canvas flap. The pipe was filed with water. When a fire was sustained beneath it the water would turn to steam and travel upward to enter the steam box. The canvas flap contained the steam so that it would not escape and when it condensed back to water would flow back into the pipe to be converted to steam again.
This steam box had an integral part in the process of building wooden boats. Several lengths of wood, usually oak or mahogany, that were pre-shaped into their finished profiles would be placed into the box and subjected to steam for several hours. Wood that has high water content is pliable. After being in steam for a while, the wooden parts would be flexible enough to be bent around a frame to produce gunwales, chines, or bow stems. However, determining the correct moisture content was not exact and resulted in mishaps.
While waiting for the wood to steam, shop workers would stay busy with other boatbuilding tasks. These included milling lumber, gluing up sub assemblies, or preparing previously finished hulls for the paint shop. Every so often one of the workers would go over to the steam box, lift the canvas flap, peer inside, then shake his head and walk back into the shop. Eventually, a worker after peering inside the box would don a leather glove, reach in, retrieve one of the pieces and carry it into the shop. Bending it around and fastening it to the frame took all the available workers.
Besides working handling steamy hot material, it had to be formed into its structural shape before it was secured. First one end was fastened into place with wood screws, Next, all available hands bent and twisted and applied clamps to hold the cooling piece of timber into position before it was permanently fixed into place. Sometimes before this task was accomplished a loud cracking sound would reveal that this piece had not been thoroughly steamed. The result would be a splintered half fastened piece of useless product. This event was usually accompanied by curses, mutterings and clanging noises from clamps hitting the floor as they were thrown off the piece of lumber that no longer held its place.
Fortunately more material had in the meantime been cooking. So, likely the next piece withdrawn would have a better chance of being bent without problem. Usually after cleaning up the mess from the broken piece and before drawing out the next one, a break was called and good mood restored. Happy attitude seems important when handling wood withdrawn from a steam box.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Our Florida Fireplace

When I was six years old we moved from Michigan to Florida. In the house my parents built was a fireplace; but, I do not remember it being significantly used as a source of heat. Only on the rarest of mornings would my dad put some scrap wood into the fireplace and take the chill out of the air. There were three of us kids at that time, myself, a brother and sister. After we stumbled out of bed, we would crowd in front of the fireplace screen to help transition from our warm beds to the chilly Florida morning.
There was not room for all three of us to be positioned to receive heat being radiated from the fire. Since it was usually too hot to stand still in front of the fire long, all three of us twisted and turned to spread and share the heat. We seemed to be performing this un-choreographed dance as we took turns being the one directly in front of the fire. It would not take very long to warm up one side and then turn around and get the other side cooked. Then the next kid in line would bump into position to take a turn at stealing the warmth. Just about as soon as we were sufficiently warm our dad would notice us absorbing all the heat.
With his stern voice we would chase us away from standing half dressed in front of the fire. He would order us to get on our clothes and get ready to go outside. We were reluctant to readily leave the warmth to return to our seemingly frigid rooms and scramble to retrieve room temperature clothing and struggle into it. It felt like by the time we finally got dressed all the heat we had captured would be evaporated and returning to the fireplace would not provide warmth next to our skin. Fireplaces seemed useless to clothed kids. But my dad’s cajoling worked since we did get dressed and move away from the fireplace.
Before the next heating season, the fireplace was supplemented by a kerosene stove at the end of the hallway that provided heat to the bedrooms. The fireplace fell into disuse and was only used to provide atmosphere, which was rarely called for. For a time, we kids, out of habit, would crowd around the heater like it was the fireplace. It was not the same. A kerosene stove does not radiate heat out, but rather heats the air which is fan feed into the house. It did not seem efficient to us. So before long, we abandoned our habit of crowding around the heat source in the morning and just routinely got dressed in the coldness of our bedrooms. I much preferred the flare of an open fire.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lighting Matches

I cannot remember the first time I lit a match. It may have been under my Dad’s tutelage. Or he may have offered help and instruction after catching me trying to strike matches on my own. I did have plenty of examples of adults lighting them and may have lifted a few and went off on my own to experiment. Many times I was joined by young companions who were also interested in finding out about matches and fire. There was certainly ample opportunity to obtain a pack and go somewhere to try this test of ordinary magic.
Whatever the circumstances, several properties of matches sprang to the forefront while learning to light them. First, considerable attention had to be given to the amount of pressure applied to the match head as it was dragged down the length of the abrasive striking surface. Insufficient pressure would not allow enough friction heat to be generated to spark the combustion of the sulfurous substance on the match head. Too much pressure might break the body of the match. This would result in a flaming match fragment launching into an uncontrolled spin. When it landed it could easily leave an unwanted burn mark. Or worse it could land in a pile of tinder and ignite a fire in an undesirable place.
Matches came in two styles. One had a shaft made of a small sliver of wood. The other had a shaft made from paper. Wooden matches came in a small box that made a nice container for small items once the matches were used. Paper matches came joined together in two segments that were attached by a small metal staple. Each segment held about ten matches that were separate from each other except at the stapled end where the cuts that separated them did not penetrate. When you needed a match, you pinched it between two fingers and with a sideways pulling motion pulled it apart from the rest of the book held tightly with the other hand.
Paper matches required much more manual dexterity than wooden matches. It took great skill to separate the match from its book without tearing the book apart or separating it from its cover. Without careful attention, separating a match from its pack could result in three detached pieces; the match you separated, other matches still joined by a staple, and the cover with the abrasive striking surface. Once successful at separating a match from its cover, the next part requiring digital acuity involved striking the match. Missteps here could result either in failure to light the match or sometimes burned fingers.

Unlike wooden matches, paper ones did not have a rigid shaft. When striking a wooden match it was possible to hold it with your fingers at the far end of the match head which would burst into flame when struck. Perhaps that was why boxes of wooden matches were often labeled “Safety Matches.” On the other hand paper matches required the placing of one finger directly on or at least very near the head when striking it. Otherwise not enough pressure could be applied to the head to generate the friction necessary to cause combustion. Because of this necessity to place at least one finger near the combusting surface, it required certain quickness in order to remove the finger at the slightest indication that combustion was initiated. Removing it too soon meant that the match did not light; removing it too late often resulted in a burn. Sometimes a small piece of molten sulfur would stick to the finger resulting in a small but serious burn. I do not remember paper matches being labeled “Not Safety Matches,” but, they certainly were not safe.

At first it seemed most of us kids would remove our fingers too soon, resulting in repeated strikes in an attempt to light the match. Sometimes repeated striking resulted in the gradual removing of the sulfurous material rendering the match useless. Often an unlit paper stick would be discarded because it was no longer workable. Many times we would even run out of matches because we could not get the proper striking technique before expending our supply. Most often one good sulfur burn would considerably lighten the touch. For this reason it seemed we preferred wooden matches. If I had my way, they would have been labeled “Kid’s Matches.”


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Matches vs. Lighters

In my Dad’s shop was a small oak barrel that contained a dried mass of tobacco mixture he made. He would carve out a small plug and carry it with him in a leather pouch. Occasionally, he would shave off a few pieces with his knife. They looked like dark wood flakes and he place them in his pipe. Next he would reach into his trousers and pull out a tiny box that held little sticks, slightly fatter than toothpicks and covered with a small droplet of dried reddish substance at one end. He would rub this end along the side of the box until it burst into flame. With two fingers he held this flaming rod up to his pipe and would inhale and draw fire down into the tobacco until it ignited. Once lit it would continue to burn, until he finished smoking and put it aside where the fire in the pipe would extinguish.
Uncle Ray, who smoked cigarettes, would light them with the shiny polished metal device that he called a lighter. Smaller than a pack of cigarettes, and with a similar shape, it had a hinge on one of its narrow sides. When he wanted to use it, he would flip the top open with a smart flick of his thumb. In the same motion he would rub his thumb along a small wheel, which twirled against a piece of flint. This would produce a spark that ignited a wick that was soaked with lighter fluid. After lighting his cigarette, he deftly closed the lighter and returned it to his pocket with the same hand that seemed to reverse the motion that produced it. Uncle Ray made the whole event of producing a flame and returning the lighter to his pocket, seem like an act of magic. Unless one was aware of the existence of the small case of metal, it appeared that flame sprang from his fingertips.
Seeing the almost magical way that Uncle Ray lit his cigarettes I asked my dad why he preferred matches. He told me that while serving in the US Navy in the Pacific theater during WWII, all the crew on his boat were issued gleaming new Zippo lighters. He stated that like most of his mates he could not wait to use it. After he obtained sufficient fuel all he had to do was wait until the smoking lamp was lit. This was a signal that it was clear to go out on deck and light up. It was against regulations and unsafe to have an open flame or anything that could cause a spark below decks. It was also not safe in a war zone to carry lights even as small as a cigarette or pipe after dark on deck. Dad told me that the first time he used his new lighter he promptly blew out the flame and like a spent match he tossed the used lighter overboard. I am not sure if this story was true, but might have been the excuse he used to not use a lighter. He did not like the smell of any oil or gas type fuels burning and referred to engine powered boats as stinkpots. Through out his life he continued to use matches to light not only his pipe or cigars, but he used them to ignite any type of flame, burner or fire.


About Me, Part One

My photo
Rock Balancing: The Beginning. What began as a journal of my travels took a hiatus when I began to settle in Ithaca NY. In the meantime, I took up the practice of setting rocks to balance. I returned to my blog to begin recording this story

Part, The second

On Easter Sunday Morning, 2008, I made a decision to settle in the Ithaca New York area. At the same time, I decided to continue to post my blog, However, the stories now will come from the archive stored internally. These will be the stories I gathered while on previous journeys and never entrusted to paper. The date of each posting will not reflect the date of the story being related but will mark the date that narrative got inscribed.

Carry wood

Carry wood
33 years later

Part: The third

I took a brief hiatus from my daily blog writing. I did not know the direction it would take. part of me thought I would abandon it. It turns out I missed it. The old title "On the Road Again' is no longer apt. It appears I am settling. The travel stories will age to a point, when I will probably resusitiate them and do something with them. I dusted off some old stories and begin this new series.
Thr first is one was written two years ago. I edited it and begin again a series that is more apropos to someone settling in upper New York State. They are meant to warm, amuse, educate and sometimes inflame.