A Friendship Fire
Author’s note of 5/20/09 : This story, written eight years ago in 2001, is one of my favorites. It is especially poignant because our son Terry, who the story revolves around, gets married in three days.
At the end of this, I’ve added a postscript about a very special friendship fire we had last night.
A Friendship Fire
It’s a beautiful March night. During this third month of the year, the nights are cool and the days are normally mild. The blossoms of spring begin to show off- the azaleas, dogwoods, and honeysuckle. Most of the days are full of blue skies and moderate temperatures. Best of all, the mosquitoes haven’t become a nightly nuisance.
Therefore, I hunt for every chance I can to be outside in March. It’s a great month for my youngest son, Terry, and I to build what we call a “Friendship Fire.” I’m not sure where the name came from, but I believe Terry, age twelve, came up with it. Often, he will come to me and say, “Daddy, let’s build a friendship fire tonight.”
We’ll venture out behind our house in the edge of the field. It is far enough from the lights that the darkness is deep and the sky reveals itself on clear nights. In the field is an area where we pile dead limbs. On these cool clear nights we’ll bring our lawn chairs, maybe some marshmallows, and just sit around a blazing fire built from stacked limbs.
Soon we are joined by our faithful dogs, Eddie, Ivory, and Happy. As we sit there, our faces illuminated by the firelight, Ivory puts her head on my leg, begging to be petted. If I don’t pet her, she’ll gently pick up my hand in her mouth and quickly put her muzzle under my hand. She likes my attention and companionship just as much as I enjoy hers.
As requested, Terry has brought his guitar. In the firelight he softly strums chords. He asks, “What do you want to hear, daddy? “Whatever you want to play, Terry. You can’t play a song I won’t enjoy.”
He begins playing and I sit back and just drink it in. I’ve noticed that as he has approached being a teenager, he’s not quite as keen on doing things with me as in the past. That is a natural progression of age and is not bad in itself. However, it still brings sadness to me knowing that this age is passing quickly.
As he matures, my challenge is to find things in common that we both enjoy. One that always works is how he loves to drive my truck. He’s never refused my offer of going with me so I can pull off on the side roads and let him drive. This is a trick I learned with Terry’s older brothers: Let a boy drive and he’ll go anywhere with you.
Secondly, he will stop anything to play his guitar for me. So, I request as many concerts as possible. Whether it’s gentle acoustic or heart-stopping deafening electric, I enjoy hearing him play. Sometimes I ask him to join me at my drums. We have a good time just jamming. What a treat it is to play music with your son! What our neighbors hear across the field may not sound pretty, but it is wonderful for me to be with my son, playing music, and just enjoying being together.
Back at the friendship fire, Terry finishes playing and we sit there in silence. We are both comfortable sitting here quietly. In special friendships, silence says just as much as words. We enjoy each other and we both know it.
I lean back and watch the embers going up into the dark night sky. I try to see how high they glow before fading out. I breathe deeply. This time is priceless. No telephone, no TV, no interruptions.
The only noticeable noises are the sounds of the night. With the advent of spring, the crickets are chirping again. The song carries a long way and echoes off the pine forest across our field. For probably the millionth time in my life, I thank God I live in the country.
Sitting in this “comfortable silence,” I think about my friends, Henry and Nada. This sweet older couple lives in New Orleans and has helped us as volunteers each year at the camp.
About four years ago, Henry had a major stroke. Since that time he has not been able to speak or get out of bed. Although, he is very alert and recognizes people, he just cannot express himself. He has spent these last years between the hospitals, or in a special care facility.
On my last visit to New Orleans, I visited Henry and Nada at the hospital. He had recently been hospitalized due to some medical complications. All during these years since the stroke, Nada has faithfully been at his side. Her commitment of true love is always wonderful to behold. I expected a sad and emotional visit. But the joy I saw in each of their faces as they looked at each other was beyond description.
Our visit was wonderful. During our time together, Nada gave me a great gift through an insight she shared, “Curt, we often think we have to say words to tell someone we love them. But I’ve found this is not true. During these past years, Henry and I have found that lovers do not need words. In our own way we tell each other ‘I love you’ a hundred different ways daily. Many times I’ll just sit here beside Henry’s bed and we’ll simply spend the day looking into each other’s eyes.”
Then Nada added a statement that was as strong as any words I’ve ever heard,
“I’m so thankful God has given us this special time together. It’s allowed me to be deeper in love with Henry than ever before.”
There was a long silence in the room after Nada finished, interrupted only by the ticking of the wall clock. She’d said what was on her heart. Henry couldn’t verbally speak, although I firmly believe he heard every word Nada had just spoken. I knew by the look in his eyes that he’d fallen deeper in love with this woman he’d loved for a lifetime.
As Nada looked lovingly at Henry, I didn’t say a word either because silence is the best response when you are in the presence of greatness and grace. The ensuing silence, broken only by the ticking wall clock, didn’t bother any of three of us at all.
Recalling my visit to Henry and Nada, my eyes drift back to the friendship fire and the silence surrounding Terry and I as we both enjoy the warmth of the fire and the warmth of being with someone you love. Terry pokes the fire with a stick. The wind shifts and blows the smoke toward where we are sitting. After moving our lawn chairs away from the smoke, I think about one of my favorite stories concerning sitting around a fire.
When Terry’s older brothers, Clint and Clay were six and eight-years-old respectively, we went on a hiking trip to the Ouachita Trail in Arkansas. We hiked about twenty-five miles through the beautiful mountains and along the Kiamichi River. On our third and last night out, we camped along a small stream. We built a good fire to warm us as the cool mountain air settled in around us.
As we cooked our supper, we were soon joined by another guest- a small mouse. He wasn’t shy in the least and it was evident that he always greeted each camper here and happily shared their meal at this well-used campsite. We stacked more dead limbs on the fire and watched the surrounding mountains and forest darken around us. It’s hard to describe the “wonderful lonely” feeling of camping in the deep woods miles from civilization. It is wonderful because the shackles of our busy lives are loosened. However, it is also lonely, eerie, exhilarating, and scary- all at the same time.
As the fire warmed and comforted us, out mouse friend enjoyed leftover pieces of our macaroni supper. As we sat there and just enjoyed the sounds of the night, I l
ooked over at the boys. Clint, who was age six at this time, caught my attention. He was staring deeply into the fire. The reflection of the flames lit his face and in the corner of his eyes I saw tears welling up. I quickly recognized what he was feeling, because I’ve felt it many times myself when deep in the woods at dusk.
I quietly asked, “Clint, what are you thinking about?”
He sighed and stared blankly into the fire, then blurted out, “I wonder what the dogs are doing back home?”
With that, a tear trickled down one cheek. Moving over by him, I put my arm around him and said, “I don’t know what they’re doing right now, but I’ll sure be glad to see them tomorrow night, won’t you?” The three of us all sat silently staring into the comforting fire, full of macaroni, good memories, and a good dose of homesickness.
I still tell Clint’s famous, “I wonder what the dogs are doing?” story. Even though he is now eighteen, we still pick at him about it. It’s hard to believe it’s been a dozen years since that trip.
Back at tonight’s friendship fire in our back yard, Terry breaks the human silence and my reflections with his usual statement, “Well, Daddy what do you want to talk about?” I smile and look into the fire. “Oh, it doesn’t matter. What would you like to talk about? ” Invariably we talk about the usual things: school, baseball, recess, God, music, the stars, our dogs…
At the sound of our voices after this period of silence, Ivory thumps her massive
tail on the ground in a rhythm that is similar to the crickets as they chirp. Eddie, our rat
Terrier, jumps up, and barks into the darkness to remind us that he is guarding our camp
fire. Happy puts his head against my leg as a reminder that he wants to be petted, too.
It is a special time around the friendship fire. After roasting marshmallows, we
reluctantly return to the world of homework, electricity, and television. As we grope our
way toward the back porch, Terry lets me put my arm around his shoulder. The thought
hits me on how soon a boy becomes a teenager, and then although they love you no less,
they don’t want your hand on their shoulder, and they politely decline your invitation to
sit at a friendship fire. When those years come, it’ll probably just be me and the dogs out
here. Nevertheless, for now, I just believe we’ll build a bunch of friendship fires in the coming year.
From the book by Curt Iles, The Old House copyright 2002 Creekbank Stories
It’s now May 20, 2009. Re-reading The Friendship Fire makes me both happy and sad.
It’s been a wonderfully cool week. Low humidity and blanket nights have pepped everyone up.
Last night we had an extended friendship fire. DeDe and I invited Terry and his soon to be wife, Sara, to join us as well as Sara’s parents, Alan and Helen Knuckles.
Sitting in the pines around our fire ring, we watched the sun go down and the sounds of the night come alive. Hot chocolate and apple cider were enjoyed around a crackling fire.
I looked at Terry, so grown up now from the boy who once boasted, “When I grow up, I’m gonna either be a baseball player for the Houston Astros or drive a Little Debbie’s truck.”
He’s a man now, even if we still call him “T-Dawg, the wrestling nickname he gave himself in fourth grade.
I look at Sara whom I loved even before Terry did. I couldn’t have selected a better wife for my son. God is so good at matchmaking. I look forward to the future day when I’ll have friendship fires with their children.
We visit with Alan and Helen and it is just wonderful. I think about the grandchildren the four of us will share (one day.) The Knuckles are part of our family now. When your children marry, you become joined as family, and that is a good thing.
As we finally retire to the artificial light of the house, I think about coming friendship fires of this weekend. My three grandsons, Jack, Noah, and Jude will be in for the wedding. I’ve already introduced the older two to friendship fires. In fact, Noah always opens on the phone with, PaPa, do you have a fire?”
Yep, another generation of Iles boys are learning about the joys of friendship fires, popcorn cooking, the smell and sizzle of pine knots burning, and the shadows of firelight under the canopy of the pines.
Life is good.
Thank you Lord for life.
Thanks for letting me live long enough to enjoy friendship fires with another generation.