Issue: May 2006
Bright Fires, Small Wonders



My dad used to put special notations on his Bay charts. Nothing so mundane as shifting shoals or unexpected sandbars—although our boat's six-foot fin keel found plenty of those. No, he noted the really important stuff. Where, for instance, to find the best red raspberry patch on Fairlee Creek (this was before you needed a reservation to drop the hook there on the average summer weekend). Which winter wheat field on the Sassafras River was our spaniel's favorite for springing. These things mattered, these places and memories that pleased him. That was my dad, his sense of small wonders always intact, no matter what life threw at him.

Which is probably why I was thinking of him at our first beach fire last season. A silver moon flickered across the water, silhouetting our anchored boat, and we ate a gourmet dinner of hot dogs cooked on sticks, snugging our toes into the warm sand on the edge of the fire. The kids danced in the firelight like Maori warriors. The flames warmed the front of me while the night cooled the back. I remembered being small, sandy, damp and exhausted after a long day of beach play on the Bohemia River, watching as Dad built a little fire and waiting as Mom cooked the beans and hot dogs. Waiting for that crackly, smoky warmth to brush the evening chill from my skin and pull me into dreams. Seeing our wooden runabout silhouetted on her anchor as the late summer sunset burned into the Bay.

Beach fires these days are, of course, politically incorrect. In a culture in which even drywall buckets come with safety warnings, most people seem far more comfortable with fires that do not actually burn. I'm surprised they haven't invented a portable fire for campsites and beaches—you know, some kind of plastic log-and-flame arrangement you could power with half a dozen D-cells and plonk down in the woods or on the sand wherever. They would be clean. They would be safe and mindlessly convenient. But they sure wouldn't earn a notation on my dad's charts.

What they're missing—besides the essentials of warmth and wood smoke and crispified hot dogs—is the magic of ritual. The fact is you can't just switch on a memorable beach fire. Like most things that matter, you have to pay attention and work for it.

And so on that evening last spring I set about teaching my kids the necessary steps, the catechism of the beach fire. First, dig the pit (this is by far their favorite part), deep enough to contain the fire but broad enough at the rim to allow safe marshmallow and hot dog maneuvering. Second, gather the tinder, ideally small sticks no bigger around than a match (in a pinch use that tool catalog that's been flopping around in the head since last season). Third, scour the vicinity for the second- and third-stage wood and pile it nearby (only using dead wood that's on the ground of course—no cutting). Fourth, if you can find a couple of big logs, roll them up close to the edge as backrests. Fifth, procure a few thin, green sticks for cooking. Sixth, gather the feast: hot dogs, hamburgers and beans (if you're up for the challenge,) and for dessert, marshmallows, Hershey bars and graham crackers. Seventh, prepare a ghost story to tell as the hour grows late. Last, leave nothing but tracks.

I don't know if my dad even had a chart when he built those fires on that Bohemia River beach, but I do know it was always the same spot. There's probably a no trespassing sign there now. Anyway, he wrote it down in the finest way he could, with the most permanent ink, by making it a place and a time we kids will never forget. I watch my kids dancing in the firelight hoping I'm doing the same. It's the small wonders, after all, that hold the most magic, that we record as thesacred, secret places on our charts.