By William Kelly
A Scoutmaster's simple instruction in firebuilding also proved to be a lifetime lesson about overcoming failure
It was a cold, drizzly day in July 1970. To earn the rank of Second Class Scout I had to build a cooking fire. And I could use only two matches.
I piled up a handful of damp twigs and struck my first wooden match. It flared up, but the twigs wouldn't light. I held that match as long as I could. Finally, I had to drop it. The twigs weren't even warm.
So I scooped them up and dried them with my shirt inside my raincoat. Then I lit my second match. The twigs glowed and smoldered. A small flame caught hold. I added a few leaves, but they were too soggy. Smoke stung my eyes. For almost half an hour I tried to keep that flame alive, but all that came of it was a clump of charred leaves.
I walked into the Nature Center lodge to see my scout leaders. The two men were sitting by a roaring fire. When they saw me with my ash-smudged face and wet hair they burst out laughing. One of them said I smelled like smoked sausage. They told me to try again next week.
But I didn't.
Months later on a scout trip, one of the dads, Mr. Seeley, asked me why I always volunteered to collect wood, but avoided the job of starting a fire. I sheepishly told him how I'd made a mess of my two-match test. I tried to make it sound funny. I described how it had made the other men laugh, but Mr. Seeley saw right through me.
He took me aside and showed me how to split a log open, even a wet one, to find dry wood in the center. With a sharp knife, he whittled a pile of thin shavings. Next he split more center wood into small kindling sticks. He used them to build a miniature teepee around the pile of shavings. With one match the curled shavings flared up. The bone-dry wood caught and burned clean. He kept adding sticks, one at a time, each a little bigger than the next. Soon the fire crackled with leaping flames.
Then he looked me in the eye and said no matter what happened in life, I should never give up. He told me that to do just about anything worthwhile all you need is grit and know-how. He said the grit is on the inside, and the know-how is out in the world waiting to be gathered. You just have to decide to find both.
A few years later I earned my Eagle Scout badge. To this day I can build a fire in almost any conditions. It's a valuable skill I've used for years on countless camping expeditions.
But Mr. Seeley taught me much more than a skill. He taught me a life lesson about overcoming failure, how to learn, how to teach, and how to inspire others. It's the greatest gift I've ever received.
William Kelly lives in Delmar, N.Y.
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