Good Ideas Gone Bad

I’ve written the occasional blog on mistakes I’ve made as a teacher of exceptional students. I suppose it would be nice to look back on an unblemished and illustrious career free from the mistakes that can haunt long after the golden years of retirement, however, I’ve come to realize anyone who has taught for more than a few years has made numerous noteworthy mistakes. Now if you ask some teachers about the classic blunders they’ve made some might look at you in disbelief and respond, “I rarely made mistakes while teaching!” These teachers either have extremely short memories, an enormous ability to forgive themselves then forget or they’re just plain lying!


I think back to my eleventh year in the classroom where I was directing a magnet school for students in grades 5 – 12 with social, emotional or behavioral disorders. We developed an activities, experiences and outdoors program to work with our students outside the classroom where they interacted with society and the environment. One of our monthly outings in late spring was a wilderness camping trip where we would take 12 to 15 students on a 2 to 3-day wilderness backpacking trip.


This particular trip was in late May of ’94 and it had been a particularly wet spring, however the long-range forecast called for a drying trend. Reassured by the local weatherman’s favorable forecast we loaded up full gear into three vehicles for 14 students and three staff.


The Upper Okanogan Wilderness Area where we planned to set up base camp was about a two and a half hour drive from school. We arrived at the campsite at about 4 PM and before unloading let the students spend a little time running about and getting a feel for the site.


At about 5 PM we began unpacking the vehicles and setting up camp under a thick layer of rather dark clouds. About 20 minutes into set up it began to sprinkle and I realized we should get a fire started in case things got a bit wet and for heat and cooking.


We collected a reasonable amount of firewood, split some into kindling, threw it on top of some crumpled newspaper and soon had the makings of what should have been a quality campfire.


Just as the flames were beginning to adhere to and consume the larger logs necessary to sustain the fire a heavy rain started and doused the flames. Undeterred I had four of the boys hold a tarp over the pit while I relit the logs, but try as I might the flame from the matches would not take hold because the wood had been dampened by the rain.


Not being one to concede I remembered I had brought some white gas in case the lanterns ran dry so I jogged down to the car and grabbed the gallon can, which was almost full, and headed back to the pit.


Now being an educated man with reasonable wilderness experience I knew not to put gas on an active fire so I checked the pit carefully to assure all flames had been extinguished. Satisfied I was working with a cold pit I poured a healthy amount of gas on the damp logs. Unfortunately I had not rolled the logs over to make sure the embers had cooled on the bottom, and some hadn’t. The logs exploded into flames, blowing the tarp out of the boys’ hands and the gas can out of mine, spraying gas from the can as it hit the ground. Some of the gas was expelled from the can when it hit the ground, splashing into the fire pit where it ignited and began a quick march out of the pit and straight toward the three quarter full gas can.


The whole incident briefly startled and disoriented me until I looked at the rogue flames racing toward the gas can, knowing that if the two met there would be an explosion far greater than the one just experienced – complete with flying can shrapnel. With the image of burnt and bleeding students in the back of my mind I leaped to my feet and kicked the can downhill away from the fire.


As the can left my foot like a soccer ball heading toward the net for the winning goal the compression of the kick sent gas spilling from the nozzle again leaving a perfect path for the flames to follow. As I watched the can it rolled and bounced down the slope drizzling gas as it went with the campfire flames hot in pursuit. I suddenly looked up and realized the can was bouncing right toward the group tent the girls had erected for their sleeping quarters.


Not being fleet of foot, but bolstered by a healthy infection of fear I bolted down the slope catching up to the can mere feet from the girls’ tent and gave it one more NFL sized kick. The can flew through the air again, but this time there was not enough gas to leave the flame a proper path to follow.


The flames died out about four feet from the girls’ quarters.


By this time the steady rain had turned into a torrential downpour and a stream materialized right in the middle of camp destroying any chance of starting a fire and drenching the ground under the girls’ safe haven.


Wet, stressed and frustrated we packed up the gear and kids and headed back into town making it to the school around 9 PM. There was no way we could call parents at this late hour so we laid out our damp sleeping bags and had a campout right in the middle of the gym. We cooked under the cover entry outside the building then after dinner played a few group games before calling it a night.


To be quite honest I think the majority of the kids had a wonderful time and saw it as a real adventure.


As for me, no one got blown up, burnt, pierced with shrapnel or drowned so all-in-all it turned out okay and while I’ve had to deal with damp campfire wood several times since that day I did learn never to use gas to restart even the deadest of fires.