Brazos River Bottom, Christmas Day, 2009
I’ll never forget taking the kids on a campout at Huntsville State Park on New Year’s Eve 1998–a New Year’s I documented in this little essay I wrote for the Houston Chronicle’s “Texas Magazine” when I was a Chron reporter and frequent contributer to that now-defunct magazine.
Where the dooh-dah man waits
PAUL MCKAY Staff Writer
SUN 01/25/1998 Houston Chronicle, Texas Magazine
It’s the perfect campfire, a crackling pile of logs and flames with ambers that create a warming in the soul, and glowing ashes that scatter like fireflies in the night.
The right kind of campfire chases away the mystery of darkness – it keeps the “dooh-dah” man at bay -even as it creates its own mystery.
This occurs to me, late on a chilly New Year’s Eve, as I stare into our campfire with my family at Huntsville State Park.
I have friends – such good friends that they feel free to speak bluntly to me – who have told me that camping on New Year’s Eve is “lunatical.”
They tell me that nobody camps out on New Year’s Eve – especially not with children and most especially not in a tent – all of which is true. Which is why we’ve come camping. We have a major portion of Huntsville State Park all to ourselves.
Around our campfire, we hoot, we holler. We get downright primal.
We get lunatical, disturbing no one, with the possible exception of the coons in the trees.
The night is growing colder by the hour, but we’ve built the perfect fire, composed of the right blend of hard-burning pine wood and soft-burning hard wood, with a few chunks of mesquite thrown into the mix to produce a smell as tranquilizing as incense.
The flames are flamboyant shades of red and blue, orange and yellow. The blinking coals at the base of the fire would be perfect for cooking, but dinner time is past. We’ve had our campfire meal, and we’ve had our fill of what once were lush, white marshmallows that the kids cooked. Roasted to a crispy black and seasoned with dirt, marshmallows are not that hard to take, once the taste buds adapt to the initial shock.
We’ve come to the hour when we gaze quietly into the fire and get mesmerized by it. We probably will bring in the New Year not with a bang but a crackle.
We occasionally swivel our heads around and marvel at the stars. That’s one of the benefits of staring deep into the mysterious glow of a campfire. You can’t help but look up, from time to time, and search the stars. It’s always a satisfying search, even if you don’t know what you’re looking at – even if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
I think back to a night when I was about 12. My father let me tag along with him and a group of his buddies for a night of camping on a bluff overlooking the Brazos River. I remember two wooden tables at the campsite that were so huge as to be in scale with the trees that towered above the men. They sat at the tables to play games of chance and sip from bottles of strong drink by the light of lanterns.
A lantern is a moveable feast of light. You can hang it up, set it down or carry it around. No matter how you use it, it provides a circular glow that – if you’ve a mind for the intrigue of light – can be as interesting, almost, as a campfire light.
While the men played poker, I prepared to venture off with a firearm, a lantern and a flashlight, in search of coons.
“Watch out for the dooh-dah man,” one of my father’s friends warned.
As if I were scared of any dooh-dah man, whoever or whatever he was.
I exposed numerous coons in beams of light from my flashlight, exposing the sorrowfulness of coon eyes. I did not have the heart to kill my prey, but I thoroughly enjoyed finding my way in the wilds by lantern light, having my flashlight and a warm gun as extra security.
I have always enjoyed hunting as long as there was no killing involved.
Later that night, when the friendly gaming broke up around the tables, the men sauntered over to the campfire. Earlier, around those tables, there had been hooting and hollering and playful ribbing. But now the hour was late, and someone stoked the dying campfire to a full blaze.
I remember the stillness around that fire, how the men became withdrawn, seemingly hypnotized by the flames. Suddenly, one in this group of grown men dropped to one knee, seized by the flood of his own tears. The other men were alarmed and crowded around him, but he waved them off.
“I’m all right! I’m all right! I just need to get it out!” the weeping man shouted.
I learned later that he had been reduced to tears by the memory of his wife, who had died several years before. Apparently, the firelight stirred the emotional outburst. For sure, the tears were in no way triggered by strong drink, as he was a teetotaler.
It goes to show how deeply the light of a warm fire, on a dark night, can penetrate the soul and summon up intense emotions, including sorrow.
And yet a flickering fire can be a calming influence. Like whittling, the very act of sitting by a fire and getting focused can clear the mind in such a way that insights rise to the surface. Whittling around a campfire at night has to be about as therapeutical as therapeutical can get.
You can gaze into a good fire and vividly recall the past, or clearly consider the future. Best of all, firelight can chase away worry and tension so that the here and now – the present moment that God and mental-health experts so strongly urge us to live in -feels like a warm coat on a winter’s night.
On this night at Huntsville State Park, my 14-year-old son announces that he wants to tell a ghost story. His younger sisters shiver at the thought of a chilling yarn in the backwoods on a late evening, and I do not want to be up all night with a pair of young girls too scared to sleep. I tell my son that the story of the headless soldier will have to wait until the light of New Year’s Day, if the story gets told at all.
In lieu of ghost stories, we share really corny jokes. A joke is nothing more than a story, and no campfire would be complete without some stories told around it. Storytelling, like creating a perfect campfire, is an ancient art, older than a coon’s age.
One hour away from 1998, the jokes have gotten so lame that there is yawning all around. We snuff out the fire. By the circular light of a lantern, we trudge toward the chilly tent where we huddle under piles of blankets for a cold night’s sleep.
We hear ruffling outside. The kids ask what’s out there. I am tempted to say it’s the dooh-dah man, but the thought of the dooh-dah man – whoever and whatever he is – being outside our tent near midnight gives me the jimjams.
“It’s probably a sad, old coon up in the trees, trying to get some sleep,” I explain.
We nod off around the midnight hour, like a bunch of blissful, lunatical maniacs who don’t have sense enough to come in from the cold – while the rest of the world brings in the New Year with the usual bang.
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