Oct. 20, 2020
As part of College Confidential's essay series, we're sharing personal essays from students who were admitted to college during a prior admissions cycle. The student who wrote this was accepted to Northeastern University, and we are sharing it with the student's permission.
Successfully creating this source of warmth and light has eluded even the most skilled survivalists from time to time, due to the delicate balance of fuel, oxygen and ignition required.
Despite the knowledge that creating a fire was a well-known challenge, it was my job to generate one out of the materials I could find on my grandfather's farm, and I only had one night to make it happen.
"You're gonna do what the cavemen couldn't," my father told me. I didn't point out that he was actually incorrect. Cavemen had successfully built fires, I'd learned in school — but if I shared that information, it would only make me look worse if I was unable to create one on my own.
Some kids learn how to make a fire in Boy Scouts or on Outward Bound excursions, but that wasn't going to be my experience. "We aren't joiners," my dad liked to tell people. "We do things on our own."
That meant learning to swim in nearby lakes and rivers. While other kids participated on swim teams, I would be at the edge of an algae-ridden pond, clinging to a tree root as water snakes slipped past my feet. It also meant I'd spent my afternoons building a horse pen with my brothers while my classmates made shoe racks in the after-school woodworking club. Whereas the "joiners" came home with a sanded, stained and varnished Father's Day gift to proudly offer their dads, I worked with my father on unexpected first aid concepts as I came into contact with thorns, stray staples and rusty nails during my building project.
After telling me that my new task was to create a fire and ensure that it burned all night long, my dad disappeared back into the house. The only tool I had was the knowledge I'd gained from watching my parents and grandparents make fires for the prior 15 years of my life.
I gathered leaves, sticks, dried grass and logs from around the property and took them to a rock-encircled area where we'd made many fires before. I set up my tepee of materials over the black stain that showed me where our previous fires had burned. I organized my tinder, kindling, logs and leaves in a perfect formation.
I walked into the woods to seek material that might work as a fireboard when I saw something unexpected. A small stream of smoke was rising from a part of the woods we'd always described as "no man's land." It was where local teenagers would gather, and from the looks of the trash they often left behind, to drink beer and smoke. They'd obviously done exactly that this very night, around a fire, which they'd since abandoned.
The fire was clearly winding down to the "nearly just embers" stage. I sat down and threw some leaves on it, and then blew on it to ensure that the new flames would grow. After that, I put a branch with dead leaves into it. Once it lit up, I took that flaming torch and walked back to the logs I'd set up around our family fire pit.
Back on my family's property, I held the torch against my tinder and watched it ignite, blowing on it and rearranging my setup to ensure that my fire would take hold. As the flames traveled from the dry grass to the leaves to the kindling to the logs, I leaned back to watch it.
I kept that fire burning all night long, and the next morning, when my dad asked how things went, I told him the truth, although I knew there might be a chance I'd have to start over again.
He stared at me for a few seconds and then smiled before he spoke.
"We may not be joiners, but we're not idiots either."
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