Burned out at a young age

I spent my first 11 years on the north shore of Long Island. But my formative years were spent in the northern Finger Lakes after my parents uprooted the five kids and 10 Newfoundland dogs and bought a 120-acre farm in Phelps.

You never heard of Phelps? It’s a village of 1,883 people with a unique claim to fame. It was the world’s largest producer of sauerkraut.

Yup, most of the farmers grew cabbage, and come early fall they delivered their crop to one of three nearby sauerkraut processing plants. During that time of year, the west end of town was quite odorous.

In 1967, they started the annual summer Sauerkraut Festival. Sort of like Saranac Lake’s Winter Carnival, only shorter and warmer.

Recently they had a Woodstock theme — “Peace, Love, & Kraut.”

They typically have a variety of family friendly events, including a cabbage head decorating contest, a “Kraut Krawl” (think pub crawl, and no you don’t drink fermented cabbage juice), a hot dog and kraut eating contest, a cornhole tournament and a 20-kilometer run, among other events. I believe they discontinued the sauerkraut court. Probably because no gal wants to put Sauerkraut Queen on her resume.

Although the move from suburban Long Island was traumatic for an 11 year old, I soon realized how lucky I was to have moved to the great little farm town in the Finger Lakes.

I had too many teachable moments to count during the decade I lived in Phelps, but one stands out. My neighbor Jim Rosencrans and I wanted to camp out on our “back 40.” Yup, we had a back 40. It was a 40-acre drumlin that, other than a dozen or so apple trees, was as barren as it was remote. We had given it the creative name of “The Hill,” which stuck: Ask anyone in Phelps today over the age of 60 about Drury’s Hill and they’ll know where it is.

We’d selected a spot at the summit for our campsite and went to tell my father where we were going to camp and cook our dinner.

My dad came from a long line of mining engineers, had studied engineering at MIT, and could be as gruff as he was smart. So, I was surprised when he said, “Sure, but let’s make sure we do it right.”

Jim and I rode our bicycles the three-quarters of a mile to the top of the hill, while my dad, with shovel in hand, walked. As he came up to the summit I said, “We thought we’d build the fire here,” pointing to an open area.

“That should work,” my dad said, “Let’s dig a small pit where you’ll put the fire and make sure there’s nothing combustible around the firepit.”

He dug the pit and then dug a trench downwind of it. The trench, perpendicular to the wind direction was about 12 feet long.

Then he said, “We’ll do a small backburn to burn the grass around the firepit, making it safer for your campfire. The ditch’ll keep it from spreading any further.”

It made sense to me, and with that my father set the grass on fire upwind of the firepit.

As he lit the fire, the wind picked up. Not a lot, but enough. The small grass fire worked its way around the firepit, as intended. But as it approached the ditch, it spread out — not as intended.

Instead of reaching the ditch and dying, it traveled around both ends. The wind picked up a bit more and the fire gained momentum. My father didn’t panic, but with a high-pitched voice he shouted, “Bicycle down to the house and call the fire department.”

When I hopped on my bike, and pedaled down as fast as I could, I thought the fire was out of control and a full-blown disaster. It was indeed out of control, but not a full-blown disaster … yet.

I got down to the house, ran in, and shouted to my mother, “The hill’s on fire! I have to call the fire department!” Which I did.

The fire department arrived within minutes, drove up the farm road to the base of the hill, and trudged up from there.

As we crested the hill, the fire was nearly a full-blown disaster since it had spread over about four acres and the flames were licking the sides of the apple trees. The light wind blew the smoke into our faces and the scene was as close to Hades as I ever want to get.

Fortunately, it stayed a groundfire, burning the grasses but never getting far up the trunks of the trees. The dozen firemen spread out and started pounding the fire with their heavy blankets. The flames crackled and snapped as the firemen, in a frenzy, whipped the ground with their blankets. They huffed and puffed and with the wind’s cooperation before long the fire was out.

We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when the firemen packed up their equipment. Then, in a final bit of irony, they all lit up cigarettes before heading back down to the house. My father, Jim, and I followed them. I said to Jim, “I guess our camping trip is canceled.”

Imagine my surprise when my father smiled and said, “Actually we created the perfect place for a safe campfire. There’s nothing left to burn.”

That evening we heated up our baked beans over our campfire and made smores. With full stomachs we crawled into our sleeping bags under the star-filled sky. I was happy to be camping in the great outdoors, and even happier that it was my father who started the fire, and not me.


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