Campfires are magical things. Many of my most treasured memories have been made around campfires. Many years can pass by, and all it takes is a newly lit campfire to bring back the recollection of fire circles from decades past. Memories of my kids with marshmallows on sticks, laughing with friends over a glass of wine or, sometimes, just me sitting solo by a fire trying to figure out where life should take me next.
I have only to light a fire and close my eyes to re-live tender times when friends gathered after dark to talk and sing and laugh around the magic fire. The snap burning logs lulls the brain into a state where the poignant past is just a sigh away. I like to think back with fondness to a special place in Maine where my heart healed and my life found direction in the circle of friends who camped together for seven summers, sharing circles every Friday and Saturday nights. Two of those friends, first met around a Maine campfire, are my dearest and closest to this day. When we get together and reminisce now, we inevitably talk of those times with nostalgia remembering the campfires that were a beacon to many who wandered in and sat down to join the circle only to find everlasting friends and everlasting lessons. Like all of life’s seasons, those Maine summers were special in their own time and place.
But before Maine, there was another special time of fires and friendships.
Tommy was my brothers friend first before he became my friend. He used to hang around our house when we were teenagers and they would go joy riding in Dad’s old white Impala. I never noticed him until one day we discovered our common interests. Tommy loved to draw and so did I. He also loved a good campfire and so did I. Soon, my brother’s good friend became my friend too.
I grew up right in the heart of the White Mountains, surrounded by the White Mountain National Forest and just a few miles from a secluded State Park. The rules were lax and weekend supervision by the Forest Service back then was non-existent. Since we lived in a small town in rural New Hampshire there wasn’t much to do on a Saturday night and we often ended up out at the Campton Campground around a campfire. This was a small group of nature loving outdoor teens privileged to grow up in a pristine and perfect environment. We were not really rowdy and no one ever questioned what we might be doing out in the woods. We were there to sing. We sang the songs of the late sixties. Baez, Dylan, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary lyrics drifted towards the heavens on glowing red embers. We knew the songs by heart; they were the architecture of our budding moral compasses. The artists were the voices of the war resistance and we, in our naivety, sincerely believed that they were the change agents that would prevail in calming the chaos and insanity.
In addition to the folk artists, Tommy loved Jefferson Airplane and , in my mind and heart, I can still hear him strumming the guitar and singing Go Ask Alice, Grace Slick’s reference to Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland. In my mind’s eye I can see him sitting on a log, facing the fire with the flames reflecting off his nerdy big glasses. We were all sort of nerdy kids. We were all bridging the literature of childhood and the temptations of sixties culture. We were crossing this bridge together, I can still feel the strong sense of deep and abiding friendship that arose when we were together as kindred souls growing into our identities. We sat so close to the heat of the fire that our faces turned red and the knees of our jeans burned hot. In the chilly New Hampshire night, we talked of the war, of peace and of resistance. We were figuring out our place in the world. Talking it through, we fleshed out hopes and dreams and explored social causes. It was not light talk around these campfires. These were not easy times and thus we were not light weight kids. Those campfires forged us into near adults, bound by the nature around us and the nature of the times.
The seasons passed and we all reached the other side of the bridge to young adulthood and began to follow the various paths that called to us. We kept in touch as best we could with no Facebook, no cell phones or any social media of any type. What had been forged around the fire would not be easily relinquished and we still somehow managed to keep up with what was happening in each others lives.
The call came on Christmas morning. It was short. When my brother hung up, he stared blankly out the picture window in my parents home, looking down at the garden covered in winter snow. After a moment he told me that Tommy’s Dad had called to let us know that he had been killed while stationed in Thailand. There would not be another campfire with our friend. There was no more Alice to Ask.
For many years, as Tommy’s brothers grew to be adults, they tended the Old Man in the Mountains with their Father. It was a family passion. When I read articles in the paper about their service, I often imagined that when they climbed up to the summit, they felt a bit closer to Tommy and maybe talked with him a bit. He was a great person to talk to. He was an easy person to love. He was a great friend.
As this holiday season comes to a close, I will light a campfire and think the thoughts that I do every Christmas season; thoughts of campfires whose embers cooled and died out long ago and thoughts of a dear friendship from long ago that still burns warm in my heart.