recess radio program

12/22/06
Real Wood Fires
    by Kevin Shortsleeve

I'm thinking about the old fireplace in the home where I grew up. Of all that it taught me, and of the varied experiences a real wood fire can provide a child. I remember the sense of accomplishment that came with successfully designing and building a good fire. Details mattered. You could develop your own style, piling the wood just so, remembering with a certain pride that strategically placed air pockets were of the utmost importance.

The wood fire revealed so much about science. There was that mysterious transfer of energy, and as I was the sort of child who would occasionally melt my matchbox cars in the fireplace, lessons in metallurgy left a deep impression on my mind. I even ran a business out of my fireplace. When I was seven, I came to believe that I was so good at building fires that I should charge for my services. I installed a little coin box near the fire tools and asked for a dime to build a fire. This business only lasted about three days. While none of my brothers and sisters was willing to cough up the dough, I could depend on my father, who laughed as he dropped his coin in the slot.

And I can't forget the mantle piece, which seemed a most precious space, reserved for only the most important objects, a wind up music box in the shape of a 1928 Duisenberg, cards from great aunts whom I'd never met, and Christmas stockings. Most importantly, the fire was about family. It was where we gathered, laughed, told stories, and joked around. One of my older sister's boyfriends played the guitar. He loved Elvis and Bob Dylan, and, when he played, I danced in front of that fire like a pagan beast. Then there was that smell of burning wood, which defined Christmas for me, and on Christmas Eve, there was the annual terrifying, towering inferno that blazed forth for a few awestruck seconds as we stuffed the hearth full with crumpled and torn bits of wrapping paper.And there were the quiet times too, where no words were needed...where the changing shape of the wood, the crackle and hiss, and the dance of colored flames filled the silences with meaning.

To gather 'round the fire together is perhaps one of the most primal human experiences. We might even imagine that without successive evenings by the fire, millennia ago, human society might not have emerged from the darkness. So when we gather, huddling close and wondering at the pleasant crackle, we are sharing an experience with our primal ancestors, and we bask in the warmth of a moment that marks the birth of society itself.

Copyright 2006 Kevin Shortsleeve

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."