Fire Me Up
At the tail end of the Baby Boom, there were kids everywhere. The street around the corner from our house won the distinction of having over 100 kids, just on that single block of a single street, all attending the local elementary school. It also meant my Girl Scout troop was unwieldy in size. My friend Katy’s mother, Mrs. Rommel, stepped in, and said she’d lead a Camp Fire Girl troop, as an alternative. And Mrs. Rommel was so serious about us being committed, she set the goal of us earning every bead Camp Fire offered, even if it took us all the way through high school. We were eight years old at the time, and we were all like, okay sure. Of the twelve girls who started with her in 1970, almost all of us did just that, achieving WeHeLo honors (which is very cool but hardly anyone knows about). Really, Camp Fire itself is not well-known, except (maybe) folks know that Madonna was a Camp Fire girl (so was Marian Anderson, and Janis Joplin). Being quietly bad-ass suited me just fine.
The launch of our Camp Fire troop coincided perfectly the first Earth Day, and with a focus on cleaning up our local lake and waterways, and the dawn of the National Environmental Policy Act — which was in direct response to our river catching on fire, AGAIN. Maybe growing up in Cleveland in the 1970’s already made us a little bad-ass, and then Camp Fire just cemented that. Like every Camp Fire troop, we adopted a local environmental project. We aligned with organizations trying to get the Cuyahoga Valley cleaned up and designated as a National Park. We made posters, wrote letters, walked in fundraising walks, and cleaned up along the towpath and trails and around the lodges that dotted the valley. We camped throughout the preserve, sending photos and journal entries about our experiences to support the National Park effort. And four years later, President Ford signed the bill making it a National Recreation area. Since then, it has been named a National Park, the only one to include a major industrial area. To this day, I’m like, yeah, that’s my park.
Along the Grand River, in far northeast Ohio, we went to Camp Yakewi for two weeks every summer. We made enormous headway on earning achievement beads: fishing, cooking, hiking, canoeing, knife skills, knot-tying, identifying trees and birds and flora and fauna. We made lanterns out of coffee cans, hand-tied hammocks, made bricks out of the clay mud. I learned to clean and filet a fish that I caught myself, which, trust me, was not a skill I would have learned at home. One summer we built a fish ladder along a waterfall in the Grand River, and another summer we made a Bosun’s chair out of rope, complete with pulley system and a platform in a tree. My friend Julie’s hair got caught in the baling twine we were twisting with a crank to make the rope, and all of us got stung by bees or wasps or horseflies along the way, and Ann zipped her lip in her jacket and Jodee fell off her cot in the night (which was funny only because the tents were on concrete slabs, so falling out of bed meant completely falling out of the actual tent), Holly lost a shoe portaging in the muddy bottom of the Mohican River, and we had snakes and raccoons in our tents, but other than those instances and an impressive collection of blisters and sunburns, and the occasional leech, we stayed injury-free every summer…rather remarkable in itself.
After a horrid middle-school experience (which would be an entirely different essay, but suffice to say that if I go to hell, it will look like seventh grade) I prevailed on my parents to please send me to a different high school. At my new school, no one knew anything of Camp Fire Girls; I stayed active with my troop even though I didn’t go to school with them. And Camp Fire got way more challenging as we got older. To earn the WeHeLo (Work Health Love) award, we had to complete three major projects that combined those concepts. I was a mite obsessed with the movie “All The President’s Men”, and one of my projects involved presenting on journalism ethics and the role of the press in society. That essay won me early admission to Marquette University, in addition to completing the WeHeLo requirements. As most of us in senior year of high school were thinking college and career, Mrs. Rommel was all like, ladies, you have six beads left in order to get them all: let’s go. She figured we could earn them all in a final four-day camping trip between Christmas and New Year’s, out at Camp Yakewi, where no one but us would be there. Of course, one of the remaining beads was for winter survival camping.
We did it. We camped in ridiculous conditions, in the rustic Pioneer lodge, hauling in food and equipment through two feet of snow, cutting firewood then hauling it inside to keep it out of snowfall, melting snow for water, cooking over open fire, sleeping huddled together in a pile in our in sleeping bags. Best idea of the campout: soak the tinder in Ten-O-Six to insure it’d light. Worst idea of the campout: while we were in the K-Mart in Austinburg (where Mrs. Rommel took us on day three to briefly try and thaw out), Julie and Jodee and I washed our hair in the bathroom sinks. Wet hair freezes pretty fast, and is pretty miserable, worse than four days of unwashed non-frozen hair. Oh, and a feral cat peed on my sister’s sleeping bag and froze the zipper solid. But we earned every bead, every single bead, Camp Fire offered. What did you do over winter break? Successfully did not freeze.
In the end, I learned from a very young age, like eight, to care where my water came from and how clean it was. I learned that a group of people doing many small things can make a big difference. I learned to get informed, to set goals then work to achieve them, to let passion be my co-pilot, to make choices that serve others, to ponytail my hair to keep it out of harm’s way, to build a fire and put it out, to double-check water depth and rope length and pulley strength, to be resilient, independent, self-reliant, to stay cool and keep warm, to trust a good leader, and be quietly bad-ass. You know what didn’t matter? That we were girls. In fact, Camp Fire Girls became co-ed in 1975, changing its name to Camp Fire. And — sidebar — anyone would benefit from all that we were taught and learned. What really made the difference was a leader who believed in us, and believed that this organization could shape us. Rather than criticizing all the reasons something might not work, people like Mrs. Rommel essentially say, let’s not waste time — give me the keys, I’ll drive.
The lasting lessons of spending your formative years caring about and for your environment include being able to tell myth from truth, that protecting the environment does not create an economic crisis, and that our actions do in fact impact our climate. Every single person who drinks water should care that EPA protections are currently being rolled back to allow things like dumping coal ash in rivers; coal ash — you know, which includes lead and arsenic. You do not grow up seeing your damn river catch on fire and not be changed by that. When you see a dumpster-fire, you don’t just say, wow that’s a hell of a burn. You say, damn that’s bad and we don’t want it to get worse, and then you organize to get safe, stay safe, keep others safe. To quote Paul Farmer, “your most important achievements on this planet will come from working with others, in partnership”, and to paraphrase Camp Fire’s mission: we want caring confident leaders, and (I’d add) we’d like them to be a little bad-ass, too. Guess what? The people we are looking for are us.