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Dad on Fire

Okay, here we go, let’s see if we can get you to catch.

It’s just a tiny flame at first, gnawing away at the edge of some crumpled newspaper. now the paper feeds the smallest twigs, and pretty soon I’m carefully adding bigger sticks to the top of the burning pile. nice… nice… oh yeah, that’s gonna do it. A thought flashes through my mind – did I remember to open the damper to the flue? – but then the tinder ignites, the kindling comes alive, and smoke is charging up the chimney.

Here in darkest winter, the warmblooded might lament. But I’ve been waiting all year for this bone-chilling season, when thoughts of neatly stacked rows of split logs delivered directly to your door rule supreme. So come. Draw closer now. Sit beside my fire.

I could say that my fascination with fire began when we moved into our house and i first saw the brick fireplace that anchors the far corner of our downstairs den. Here was the yawning firebox, the mantel high above, the andirons blackened by the soot of countless fires that had come before. the previous owners even left me a set of brass fireplace tools on the edge of the broad, elevated hearth.

But anyone who has sat before a campfire knows that the deep-seated fascination of watching flames dance and lick on wood goes back to the dawn of time. Still, I suppose it’s sort of a guy thing, too. Push him hard enough, and the average male will probably admit that his attraction to fire springs from a primal urge to keep his family warm. though it could also explain such behavior as continuously yelling at the family to leave the thermostat alone, insisting on manning the barbeque grill all by himself, and obsessing over the wattage and lumens ratings of every light bulb that enters the house. Yes, modern man might seem nutty, but it’s in his DNA. At his core, he’s all about fire.

And to feed that fire, he needs fuel. take it from me: Once you’re the proud owner of a fully functioning fireplace, your life becomes a continuous quest for wood. We have a healthy stack out back, but I always count on the Sturm und Drang of thunderstorms to bring down a few decent-sized limbs to chop up and add to the pile. I also enlist the children to gather the smaller sticks, and they scream with delight when I slam big branches on the pavement to break them into fireplace-sized lengths.

It’ll turn you into a woodaholic if you let it. I’ve accumulated a shabby pile of brush the size of a Volkswagen just to supply me with kindling (and the neighborhood association still hasn’t complained about it). I even liked a Facebook page called “I Burn Firewood” that lets me check out the potential of trees in my yard. Oak and maple are reliable fireplace standards, of course. But poplar? Okay to burn, the experts say. Locust? go right ahead. How about cedar? Burn that, too – but carefully. it’ll crackle and pop and probably make the dog pee on the rug. There are a few caveats – I’d burn the Christmas tree limb by limb if I didn’t already know the sap would gum up the inside of the chimney – but when it comes to nearly all wood, the hive mind of the internet speaks with one voice: Burn it. Burn it all.

I’ve taken to hoarding cardboard containers, packing boxes, and those little crates clementines come in just to make sure I have enough fire-starter on hand. I’ve also created my own document destruction service by consigning fistfuls of junk mail to the fireplace – dozens of new credit opportunities now all go up in smoke. I pocket packs of matches whenever I find them lying about in restaurants. And my instinct for new wood opportunities continues to sharpen, thanks to my fellow man.

My pal Burke, while helping me clean out the tool shed a while back, eyed me sharply when he saw me throw a couple of virgin two-by-fours out with the trash. “Hey, don’t go throwing that out,” he said. “That’s good wood!”

It’s gotten to the point where I’ve started to eyeball fallen tree limbs and old lumber sitting by the side of the road. With only a glance, I can now size up the type and quality of a branch just by looking at the bark. Driving around town, I imagine pulling over and tromping through the brush to claim my prize in full view of rush-hour traffic. Maybe I should just to keep the chainsaw in the back of the minivan. I could throw open the rear hatch, rev up the blade, and be off with my treasure before anyone is the wiser.

The fire is burning steadily now, so let’s throw on another log and settle in for a while. Soon my attention drifts to the television – that twenty-first-century campfire – and for a moment, as the scenes flicker on the new 42-inch flat-panel screen, the warmth and smell of the age-old hearth is lost to me.

But then I notice the firelight reflecting off the edge of the entertainment center that houses the TV, and my eyes begin to play over its smooth, lacquered contours. The expertly angled joints. The deep-set grain beneath the veneer. The heft and weight of each panel so smoothly joined to the next. It might be made of pine. Maybe even hickory. I remember how it took Burke and me the better part of an evening to muscle this bad boy into place. And now I’m thinking there might be only one way this majestic piece of furniture is ever going to leave this room…

Hey, now don’t you go laughing. That’s good wood.

Tony Farrell has written about parenting for many books, magazines, and websites. He lives in Richmond’s West End with his wife, Laura, and their children, Lucy and Will. He writes for the DadZone every other month and shares theater reviews occasionally too.
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