Beyond The Campfire was created to encourage readers to explore the great outdoors and to observe it close up. Get out and take a hike, go fishing or canoeing, or simply stretch out on a blanket under a summer sky...and take your camera along. We'll talk about combining outdoor activities with photography. We'll look at everything from improving your understanding of the basics of photography to more advanced techniques including things like how to see photographically and capturing the light. We'll explore the night sky, location shoots, using off camera speedlights along with nature and landscape. Grab your camera...strap on your hiking boots...and join me. I think you will enjoy the adventure.

F-4 Phantom

F-4 Phantom
F-4 Phantom

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Parachutes, Stilts, and Flaming Torches - Or How I Probably Should Not Have Survived Childhood

If my two boys had done half the stupid things I did while growing up, I would have killed them myself once I found out what they were doing...or at the very least the flavor of my sailor language would have been a great deal more colorful.

Seems we were allowed a greater freedom growing up in the 1950's and 60's to experiment with what parents today, and we as parents, would have had a heart attack just thinking about.  It could be that parents today have been so conditioned by the negativity self esteem police that the idea of allowing our kids the freedom to fail, or freedom to get hurt or to take risks just isn't a part of life any more.  If you ask me, this self esteem thing has ruined a lot of kids. Sometimes you lose a game...sometimes anther player just might actually be better than you are and gets more game time.  Participation trophies were not were suppose to actually earn those things.

I remember growing up in the Mayberry-like sleepy little town of Wister, Oklahoma tucked away in the pine covered hills of the southeastern part of the state. Back then Wister thrived a bit more than it does today as it has had a long history of floods and storms and such. Man what a life that was...Slow paced living, friendly neighbors, roosters crowing every morning, no air-conditioning...just burlap water coolers ( remember those?), going barefoot all summer only wearing shoes on Sunday or when trying to cross a hot asphalt road.  Shooting fireworks in town without worrying about getting into trouble, the swimming hole on Caston Creek, shooting at turtles heads with our BB-guns on Caston Creek, riding our bikes all over the place and then into places you probably shouldn't have. Racing homemade sailboats and homemade ramshackle go-cart racing down the old hill that emptied into a water filled ditch, woffleball games in the vacant lot that turned into a football game that evolved into a wrestling match...then sitting on the porch afterwards enjoying a popsicle, fishing on Hammonds Pond, and just laying around watching the clouds drift by while eating a homegrown watermelon and homemade ice cream churned with a hand crank freezer.....whew, and that's just the first week of a full three months of summer vacation.

We had no video games, color television, cable TV, trips to the museum, planned cultural activities, or big elaborate birthday parties...nothing like those things to interfere with...well...growing up.  We never took a real such ideas as going on a cruise, or trips to Disneyland, or driving cross country to see the Grand Canyon...we had that big water filled ditch at the bottom of hill to explore.    Neither did we ever have very much in the way of material things...but we never really thought about it.  We were having too much fun doing what kids ought to be doing...just having fun with our imaginations.

Sometimes it was that imagination thing that got us into trouble.  Take for instance the parachute.  One day when we lived in Hobbs, New Mexico, I asked my mom if she had an old sheet that I could have.

She said, "Yeah...I suppose...what are you going to use it for?"

"A parachute..." I said as a matter-of-fact.


Now, the operative word 'parachute' would have raised the red flag warning to most mom's that something no good was up.  But, to my mom's credit, she seemed to instinctively understand that learning by experience rather than by lecture was a far more effective training method for a nine year old boy.  She was right.  After tying four pieces of various lengths of rope to the four corners of the sheet and then attaching the loose ends around my chest with a bohemian style knot ( one that is all but impossible to untie ), I used a ladder to climb up to the roof of the house.  With the sheet parachute rolled into a tight bundle under my arm, I scooted along until I reached the highest altitude I could obtain, about twelve feet I'd guess...peeked over the edge, gulped, then jumped as high as I could and flung the rolled parachute into the air.

Oh my, how magical it I floated across the yard drifting on a a clo..."THUD!"  The ground came up much more abruptly than I thought it should for someone floating on a parachute...well, maybe the chute never actually opened.  After I was able to stand up again...I pondered about what might have happened.  Hum...could it be I rolled it too tightly...maybe if I held it more loosely...

The second and subsequently last attempt jumping from the roof ended much the same as the first...a painful collision with the ground...but in the mind of a nine year old, I had successfully completed my first two skydiving jumps...although with a slight limp to show for it.  Subsequent jumps were relegated to a lower altitude by jumping off the four foot high brick wall that was the outside edge of our carport.  I successfully completed hundreds of parachute jumps from that lower altitude and before long considered myself an accomplished skydiver ready to give lessons to the other kids in the neighborhood...a few of whom actually took me up on the idea...until their moms found out they were missing several sheets from the hamper.

That brick wall tripled not only as the wing strut of my jump airplane, but a WWII battlefield wall where countless wars were won and lost, and the occasional tight rope walking circus act I tended to perform when the cute little girl from down the street was out and about. (She was always singing the newly hit song of the day "I Will Follow Him...Follow Him..Wherever He may go..." whenever we happened to be out at the same time much to my irritation).  Best I can remember though I never really was seriously injured climbing around and jumping from that wall...and only managed to accidentally fall off a few times..usually scraping numerous parts of my anatomy in the process as I skidded across and down the various levels of bricks.  That particular athletic maneuver, whether planned or not...usually generated astonished looks of concern, tossed out affectionately between the chortles and giggles and song chorus's from the cute little girl down the street.  I learned quickly the need to toughen up and show no pain in spite of the..well...pain.

One of the more infamous mis-adventures I managed to survive was walking on homemade stilts in my grandparents yard during those summer months in Wister.  From my Uncle Polk's barn, we found some 2x4's and with a little sawing and hammering with bent nails we managed to roughly construct two pairs of stilts that allowed us to stand about a foot taller than our normal nine year old runt height.  The world looks a lot different from up that high and although it took a few dozen falls, several scent knees, and assorted bruises, we eventually learned how to stay upright for extended periods of time.

Much like the chewing gum of the day, just walking around the yard on those stilts quickly lost its flavor so we began thinking of more creative ways to injure ourselves.  First came the stilt races across the yard.  That lasted all of about four races until after we spent more time extracting assorted rocks, sticks, colors of dirt and grass from our mouths and knee caps than racing...we deemed it not as fun than first thought.  Also, frequently colliding our faces with the ground prevented us from ever having a clear winner on any of those races.  So we turned to a safer activity; climbing  stairs...the wide concrete kind that attached the yard to my grandmothers porch...or my grandmothers porch to the ground depending on which direction you were climbing from.  Those stairs extended about five feet high and ten or twelve feet wide and I guess they had...oh...I'd don't know maybe a hundred steps...(Seven or eight really).

It was summer of course and running around barefoot was a natural thing to do...walking on stilts barefoot was not.  On my first attempt I made it about half way up the stairs when, in spite of my summer toughen feet, the bottoms of my feet began to hurt as the pressure of the foothold began to cut into the scrawny and boney flesh.  I couldn't move up or down, so I just twisted and left big toe catching an edge of a step and jamming it downward to where it almost touched my heal.  My left shin then scraped across the lower edges of the concrete steps and my hands ground off several layers of skin as I skidded across the bottom two or three steps...where I eventually rolled to a stop somewhere between the stairs and the main road down the hill about forty yards away.

My grandfather, bless his soul, seemed to enjoy the situation more than the circumstances would dictate as he would twist and rub the bruised and blackened appendage that used to be my big toe...presumably with the mistaken idea that it would make it feel better.  He'd bust out laughing every time I'd howl in protest.  I never did figure out what he was laughing howling, the pathetically bruised appearance of my toe, the assorted cuts and bruises, or the manner in which I managed to obtain those injuries.  My grandmother on the other hand, quietly had Uncle Polk dismantle the stilts and return the lumber to the barn, stowing it in a location high enough to where we couldn't get to it.

In spite of similar and numerous other such misadventures, somehow I managed to survive until my early teen years...the outcome of which was as much in doubt as the previous thirteen years had been.  My friend Rocky and I, on some crazy whim, decided we were going to become scientists.  Downtown Okmulgee, Oklahoma, where we lived at the time, had a medical lab high in one of the taller buildings.  A real nice lady ran the place and she would allow us to purchase various flasks and beakers, glass tubing and assorted other lab like paraphernalia at the bargain price of whatever money we happened to have in our pockets at the time...which was never more than not very much.  We built an elaborate laboratory in his basement complete with a gas Bunsen burner and a smaller one in my dad's garage complete with not much but leftover stuff.

One summer day, we were experimenting in our garage lab boiling various colored flavors of water to see what would happen...hoping no doubt to maybe discover a cure to some obscure disease or something...when we got the bright idea of trying to distill some gasoline.  ( Please don't try this!)  Oh, we were really smart about what we were doing so we thought...the process called for using a small amount of water inside a larger beaker where we placed a smaller flask containing the gasoline, connected to the distillation tubes where our experiment would ultimately end.  The idea was to use the boiling water to heat the gasoline...presumably safer than heating the gasoline directly.  The heat source was a large alcohol burner.

After watching for a few minutes nothing seemed to be we figured we didn't have enough gasoline in the distilling I removed the cork that connected our experiment to the distillation tubes and commenced to pour in a few more ounces of gasoline from another flask. thing we didn't know about at the time, but learned about rather quickly, was that gasoline vapors are heavier than the fumes managed to filter down to the alcohol burner and in a very short period of time....CAH-WOOF!...three spectacular flaming torches erupted.  Unfortunately, two of the flaming torches were my hands...seems I had spilled some of the flammable liquid on them and the third torch was Rocky's legs.  Maybe a millionth could be possibly a few hundred thousandths of a second (I lost count somewhere in there) after the first Ca-Poof, I tossed the flaming flask across the garage and a good amount of the contents spilled across Rocky's legs during that controlled panic of a moment.  The concrete floor burst into a small lake of fire when the burning flask, after flying across the garage, busted into several hundred flaming pieces upon completion of its flight.

Not one to wither in the face of adversity and wanting to take full advantage of the learning potential of the moment, I waved my burning hands around in the air for a few seconds to see if I could fan the flames into larger worked quite nicely.  About that same time Rocky spontaneously created a new dance that would have become as  popular as any new dance crave of the '60's had we had time to perfect the moves.  In its rough form it went something like this:  As you are wildly slapping your burning pants legs, you jump around screaming.."I'm on Fire...I'm on Fire!" looks really cool with a partner who is waving his flaming hands around in the air also screaming, in synchronized time,.."I'm on Fire...I'm on Fire!".  We called it...wait for it now...."The Flaming Pants Burning Hands Dance".

Somehow or another we managed to smother the flames suffering nothing more than a few singed hairs, blackened eyebrows, and an elevated blood pressure...not so much from nearly being burned alive, but from worrying about what my dad was going to say once he found out..  I am unable to repeat in mixed company the words my church going dad cut loose with when he did discovered what had happened.  As a result, the garage lab was shut down permanently...having a great negative impact on our self esteem.

That episode also pretty well satisfied any interest I had about becoming a scientist.  Soon there after, my dad feeling sorry for me no doubt...introduced me to photography...and the late Paul Harvey would say...You know the rest of the story....Believe it or not...It's all true!

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