I could smell our husbands sneak into the A-frame cabin. They’d extinguished the little campfire out front after our sons settled down in their sleeping bags. The boys slept atop a bed of fallen oak leaves. It was their first “camp out”. I’d just finished reading the girls a bedtime story in the loft. My sister-in-law Roxanne was quietly lighting fire. It wasn’t cold yet, but she thought it would be fun. I’m sorry; it’s not in my nature to think positively. I, positively, thought our men folk should leave their clothes on the front porch and hit the showers before huddling with Roxanne and I around the glass-fronted fireplace. They reeked of wood smoke; acrid and stinging.
I was just about to say so, when Roxanne grabbed her husband by the lapels of his charcoal gray wool jacket. She breathed deep as she snuggled up against the cotton shirt that covered his swimmer’s chest. The top couple of buttons were always undone so his shirt could accommodate his impossibly wide shoulders. Her flaming auburn hair rested upon his exposed smooth white skin and up against his dimpled chin. “I love the smell of wood smoke.” She sighed. “It brings back such good memories.” Both men nodded enthusiastically in agreement.
My own husband heard the click of my heels striking the rough-hewn steps. He smiled as he looked up. He always smiles when I enter the room. I just had to smile back. “What memories?” I asked lightly as I offered my left hand to my beloved. He helped me on down the steps. He kissed my hand lightly with mustached lips as I drifted to his side. It wasn’t the usual glacial smooth, bejeweled and manicured feature he was use to, we were roughing it here at the Scamanders’ summer cabin, but he kissed it just as reverently and passionately. I did a double take. My hirsute hubby can still delight me.
“I want to hear the boys’ memories first!” Roxanne announced as though she’d just discovered a brand new game. She lead us all to the dark brown leather sofas light by the token fire.
I never get use to Roxanne without heavy makeup and gaudy, er I mean heavy jewelry. However, in such moments I always realize that her true beauty, the reason why everyone loves her, lies in her big smile, her joy of living, her love of everyone and the ample bosom and wide flung arms that so embrace life.
Once settled in and cuddled up to our hubbies, she says, “John first.” There was no reason to assume Stan would go first!
“Boy scouts.” He replies with a quick grin.
“Are we thinking of some particular evening around the troops campfire?
He blushed. That got us all interested!
“We use to do skits around the campfire. One of the skits that the older boys.” John indicated himself, “did was a stunt involving the newest boys to the troop; the old What’s the first thing you’d take off if you were going swimming? The joke is, you get some newbie out in front of everyone, sit him down and then cover him with a rain poncho. You ask him the question, he tosses out his shoes. You ask him What’s the next thing you’d take off if you were going swimming? He tosses out his socks. You keep it up until he is down to his breeches. Then you say, Actually, the first thing you’d take off is the stupid poncho. While you pull the poncho off of him.”
“That’s awful!” Roxanne laughs as she waves the offensive thought away with a downward thrust of her open hand. Then settles back in to the crook of her husband’s muscular right arm. Stan and I smile approvingly.
“So, when I was one of the older boys, we came up with a twist. We’d all grown up in the “Hawk Patrol”. As we got older, we and our brothers took over three additional patrols. Now if we were pulling the trick on our younger brothers or cousins in our patrols, everyone would be suspicious. But, once upon a time, I’d gotten to be good friends with Thor, a big blonde boy who’d grown up in the “Viking Patrol”. The Vikings had taken over the remaining patrols. I got Thor in on the plot and he recruited an innocent little newbie cousin of his. We also let the scoutmaster in on the joke. That night we called up two newbies rather than the traditional one. For some reason we had two fires burning brightly that night, so it sort of seemed natural. A cold wind flew from our back, so we were all hunkered behind the logs we’d usually be sitting on. The fiery campfires crackled hard in the wind, sending sparks of to the leeside and invisible smoke, so we all sat up wind. Us older boys and the men with us had little kids on our laps and cuddled up under our arms to keep them warm. We’d instructed our guy to toss out two shoes at a time and two socks and such, so the other kid wouldn’t be undressed before him. When his breeches got tossed out from under the poncho, the crowd went wild. When his boxers came out the men chaperoning the trip turned on us. I remember one man looking at me with absolute shock in his blue eyes. Before, they could intervene; the emcee said “the first thing you’d take off is the stupid poncho. As he lifted the poncho, our guys rose to his feet…full dressed. He’d been wearing double shirt, double pants and had spare underwear in this pocket!”
We all laughed and clapped at the joke he’d pulled on the troop. Later he told us, the troop had responded likewise.
Roxanne looked to her husband, who was still smiling at his best friend’s story. “I suppose you are going to say the smell of wood smoke reminds you of you two’s glory days in the woods as firefighters?” She’d tried to smirk as she asked the leading question, but she couldn’t hide the pride in her green eyes from me. They’d bet during those glory days, as a firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), he’d been a hero to Roxanne. Whenever the topic came up, she’d gaze at her hubby as her own private knight-in-shining-armor.
“Control burns actually.” He said picking a safe topic as he rolled his own green eyes her way.
Back in the day, in Northern Arizona, the firefighters who hadn’t returned to school in the fall would start smoldering ground fires that would burn up the accumulated logging slash and debris on the forest floor. They started low fires at the top of the ridge and forced the flames to back down the slope. The flames would often be extinguished by the higher humidity of the night and rarely torched the ponderosa pine canopy.
“Is there one in particular? Maybe with your best friend in tow?”
“No, he was in school. I worked with two of his equipiers in the checkerboard country.”
“Checkerboard country?” his wife asked, batting her eyelashes prettily in confusion.
“When the railroads were spreading through the west, the government gave the railroad’s hundred -year leases on sections of wooded land, so they could harvest railroad ties. When they were done with the land, they sold the leases to the lumber companies. When the leases expired, the land reverted to the BLM.” My husband explained with a roll of his blue eyes. “They left quite a mess.” He’s smart about that history stuff.
Everyone turned back to Stan; “We were working Rocky Gulch.”
Stan failed to mention that this was a report area west of the bunkhouse where my husband lived is summers in between fighting massive fires all over the west with the Coconino Hotshot. Rocky Gulch was one of the places where the vast Colorado Plateau started to give way to the drainages the feed the Verde River and hence the Salt River that quenched the endless thirst of metropolitan Phoenix in the hot, southern, inhospitable part of the state. But, in Rocky Gulch, the ancient Ponderosa Pine with their vanilla scent still reigned supreme in the fall. Orange leafed oaks occupied the rougher land. The slanting sunbeam of the autumn sun sharply lit the russet soil. It was a beautiful place.
“I met up with your boss “Big G, Little O” and your Fire Management Officer. The FMO had a drip torch in his hand, burning out islands of untouched fuel in the previous day’s burn. “Big G”; a mountain of a man with a shaved head” Stan said with a nod and a knowing look. This from Stan who is a man-mountain himself. “followed along behind flinging grass seed into the old burn like Johnny Appleseed. “
Apparently, the upper part of the gulch crackled and popped with fire. Occasionally jackpots of young growth would flare up. Fire smoldered everywhere through the duff. Banks of smoke drifted blindly about. The air was so thick with smoke that he’d had a hard time spotting them in their red Bullards, yellow Nomex shirts and green Nomex pants. Stan said to them, “How many acres you got going? “ Ten thousand, they answered!
We all laughed in surprise. Both our men-folks smiled at the memory and reminisced about the “good-old-days” They seemed not to recall the long hot days of back breaking work digging firelines in the face of roaring forest fires. They were both careful to never use the word “backfire”.
“Roxanne?” I asked as the hilarity faded.
“Sunday breakfasts, dearie.” She answered to my surprise. “My first husband and I had a tradition of gathering up the girls on Sunday morning and driving up to the foot hills to make breakfast. We’d cook over an open grill in one of the picnic grounds. He would always bring split wood or scrape two by fours. My oldest and her little sister would scrounge up some pungent pinyon or stick juniper branches to add to the flames. I would always soap up the bottom of our coffee pot and frying pan before committing them to the flames. The view of the valley and city below was spectacular!”
I knew their picnics had always been by a lake. I knew they eventually ended tragically. Maybe she tries to just remember the good parts.
“The fragrant smoke! It was always breezy where I grew up. I recall my girls and I laughing and screaming as we tried to dodge the smoke while flipping the bacon or turning the eggs. We actually made toast on the open grill! My little tomboys would play tag in the scrub oak patch on the edge of the picnic grounds. I was always telling them not to do that! My husband and I would read the Sunday paper. They never wanted to go home.”
Everyone turned to me. I leaned into John’s shirt and inhaled deeply. I looked up into his blue eyes. My black gaze turned to teary-eyed Roxanne. I quickly turned to Stan, now biting his lip lower lip. Honestly, I was thinking of our late son-in-law Todd in the backfire on Battlement Mesa. It’s not in my nature to always look at the bright side. But it is theirs. I pushed my face into my husband’s auburn locks to hide my dark eyes and breathed deeply, again. “I love this smell. It reminds me of this moment right now, with all the people I love best.”
“Oh!” gushed my beloved and my best friend. Then silence fell in the room.
“Do you all really love this smell?” my muffled voice asked them.
The chorus answered yes, and before they could stop me, I flung the door open on the woodstove and all that sweet aroma of hearth and home puffed into the room, purging all my dark thoughts. I giggled gleefully. Everyone else roared with laughter. I grabbed Roxanne and laughingly led her to the back of the house while the men rushed to close to stove and sweep up the released embers.
I left my best friend laughing heartily and rushed back to the “great room”. “You boys reek of smoke. Leave your clothes on the front porch and hit the showers before come to our beds!”
John’s mouth hung open for a moment before I disappeared.
“What’s got into your wife?” Stan chuckled.
I didn’t hear my husband answer at first, then “It’s just something in my wife’s nature. I love her for it.”