October 26, 2010

Picnic table.

Repeat after me:

On my honor,
I promise to do my best,
To love and serve God, my Queen,
My country, and my fellow man,
And to live by the Scout Law.

The Scout promise has changed a bit since the days I first joined as a Wolf Cub, but the essence is the same: work hard and be good to the people and places around you.

Not a very hard promise to keep — except for that one time we set a picnic table on fire.

My Scout troop in Etobicoke used to be part of a larger, Toronto-wide network of troops. When we’d go camping, the other troops would join us, and we’d often have 20-30 of us booking out whole campgrounds for the weekend. We all knew each other by nickname: among us were Waldo, Kayu, Larva, Ghando, Teddy, Jugu, Muhchi. My nickname was Paddington Bear. And of course, there was Buffalo.

Buffalo was a little older than me, and was a bit bigger than the rest of us. He was also great at lighting fires. When it came time for a campfire, and everyone else was sent to collect firewood, Buffalo was given custody of the fire pit.

Buffalo would light the hottest, brightest, biggest fires anyone had ever seen, and would do it all without the aid of lighter fluid or any other props. He would arrange the wood so perfectly that the whole stack would erupt in flame with the touch of one lit match. Throughout the night, nobody was allowed to poke the fire, or even add wood to it, if they didn’t get consent from Buffalo.

I wasn’t great at lighting fires, but I was fairly strong for my age and quite good at entertaining Buffalo. While the rest of the troop would be out collecting firewood, I would join him at the fire pit, telling him about my recent visits to the Ontario Science Centre or the Royal Ontario Museum, and helping him carry heavy logs. I would be there, next to him, as he would strike the match to start the flames.

One night, Buffalo made a fire bigger than any other fire we had seen. As the night went on, the fire grew and grew to the point where we all had to stand at least ten feet away to avoid getting scalded. My friend Booj (another great nickname) was standing almost twenty feet away, and his nylon tear-aways actually started to melt. Seriously. This was one intense fire.

Usually, once people started to go to bed, Buffalo and I would start to put out the fire. We’d stay up until the fire had died, and would throw sand over the ashes before we went to sleep.

Not this night. By the time most of the Scouts had gone to bed, the fire was still raging and massive, and we were running out of firewood. Instead of putting out the fire, Buffalo had an idea: let’s make this the biggest fire in the history of campfires.” I was on board, but there was one small problem: what would we use as fuel for the fire? It was late, and finding firewood in the dark was difficult.

And that’s when Buffalo looked at one of the campground’s picnic tables with a glimmer in his eye.

The leaders were all in the cabin, having tea and checking in on the rest of the Scouts that were going to bed. There were only a handful of us left outside, and we were all close friends. The chances of us getting in trouble were slim, and the prospect of lighting a picnic table on fire felt risky, dangerous, tough. Buffalo looked at me — partly because I was his sidekick, and partly because I was the only person there strong enough to carry a picnic table with him — and nodded. It was time.

I won’t lie: I was conflicted. I wasn’t the kind of kid to break the rules, wasn’t someone that kept secrets from adults, and wasn’t really interested in destroying things. The Scout Law said that we needed to be wise in the use of all resources”, and while this was a wise use if our goal was to feed the fire, in the grand scheme of things, it definitely didn’t seem right. On the other hand, this was an opportunity to do something incredibly memorable, to create an experience that none of us would probably ever replicate. This was a chance to be great.

Buffalo and I picked up the picnic table, brought it to the fire, tipped it on its side, and placed it into the flames. I burned off my eyebrows and scalded part of my arm while doing it, but I didn’t notice that until the next morning. I was caught up in the moment, and was mesmerized as the entire picnic table was surrounded by flames. It was the biggest campfire any of us had ever seen, and everyone around the fire pit that night couldn’t help but smile and know that they were part of something special.

The fire lasted long into the next morning. When we finally put it out, Buffalo looked at me and said:

Sometimes you have to break the rules to do something completely unforgettable.”

He was right. I still remember.