Another tale from my dubious youth.  As usual, the names have been changed to protect the guilty.

Among the questionable movements of the hippy era was back-to-the-land romanticism, sustainable only if you had a paying job that left you enough time to muck about with gardening, a grant whose results didn’t fall due for a few years, or parents who thought you were studying to be an engineer.  My friend, call him Ned, fell into the first category.  He worked as a construction laborer, a job he described as being a human mule, and which scrubbed a good many romantic scales from his eyes.  I remember someone telling him admiringly what a healthy life physical labor was.  When he asked what she meant, she explained that you always see these old men on construction sites, obviously of advanced age, but still able to do the strenuous work required, as opposed to aging men with sedentary jobs.  Ned patiently explained that those men were only in their thirties, they just looked old, worn down by lives of hard labor and dubious choices.

Nevertheless, Ned, an eagle scout, kept a romantic edge on the idea of self reliance, to the point that he rented a house in the country from a farmer who had moved into a subdivision, having tired of the “simple life.”  He diverted water from a nearby stream for his use in the house, and heated it with a wood stove (albeit a state-of-the-art Swedish one).  He also kept a kitchen garden, and raised a few goats;  by and by he acquired a cow.  Because he earned a reasonably nice paycheck from the construction industry, he was able to make a go of it without going bankrupt.

One of the goats was a young billy who was constant trouble.  He was particularly adept at escaping the pen and eating up all the produce in the garden.  Ned devised more and more complicated ways of keeping him in, which he always defeated.  To make matters worse, he delighted in charging the legs of Ned’s friends when they were about, earning him the name Bucky.  He was especially frightening for children, who had no height or weight advantage in these confrontations.

Eventually, Ned got tired of it, shot Bucky in the head with a handgun he kept for security, and announced there was to be a goat roast.  A friend who had read somewhere how to do such things offered to clean and prepare the goat for cooking, and Ned got on to digging a pit for charcoal and rigging up a reasonable facsimile of a spit.

The actual gutting and cleaning, along with the subsequent hide tanning, is a whole other story, fraught with missteps and near disasters, that I won’t go into here, as it eventually was successful.  Suffice it to say that I will never forget the taste of fresh goat liver omelet for breakfast as long as I live.

The day of the party arrived, and guests along with it.  I have to say, it was as varied a group of individuals as you will see.  There were hippies, academics, construction workers, and people from foreign countries, reflecting Ned’s multifarious interests and genuinely diverse community of friends.  Among the merry-makers was his current girlfriend, with her five-year-old daughter, whom we shall call Robin.

Beer flowed like … beer, and the country air was hazy with cannabis.  Everyone gathered around the pit, taking turns turning the spit and arguing about whether the goat was done yet.  It didn’t take long for Robin to figure things out.  In the midst of one of the discussions, she turned to Ned.

“Is that Bucky?” she asked, pointing to the sizzling roast.

Ned took a moment, no doubt turning over in his mind exactly how to approach the topic of death and the food chain to a five-year-old.  Eventually, he cleared his throat.

“Yes, it is,'” he said.

“Good!” she replied.


How to build a fire

The woods around Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in the late 60s were scrupulously maintained by a cadre of forstmeisters.  Deadfall was cleared promptly, and cords of firewood kept at intervals along the well-groomed paths.  This was to be used elsewhere; open fires in these woods were strictly prohibited.  Germany, like all of Europe, was well trodden through centuries of settlement and resettlement, and Mother Nature was more a well kept mistress than a matriarch.

But this was, after all, the late 60s, and certain paths through certain quarters were undeclared free zones, and the minions of the psychedelic diaspora ran unfettered there.  In one such area, we maintained a kind of salon-in-the-wildwood, with a commandeered military shelter overlooking a campfire that was more or less permanently smoldering.  That fire saw faces and feet, new and familiar, come and go through many nights.  Tall tales, laughter, music, and in one case, an improvised artistic stick-throwing contest, filled those days and nights like the billowing cannabis smoke pouring from the tent.  It was, as I believe I’ve mentioned, the late 60s.

On one particular sodden day, after a solid week of rain, a friend, call him Chuck, and I arrived with the idea of cheering things up with a nice, cozy fire.  After a half hour of rummaging through the surrounding woods, we managed to collect a halfway decent pile of not-so-wet wood.  For kindling, there was always sufficient litter in the tent, partly collected for that purpose, partly the natural detritus of exuberantly youthful living.

So we began.  First, a crumpled piece of paper, with informally piled twigs atop, failed to catch.  Then Chuck suggested a teepee.

“What?”  I said, “You mean the tent?”   Chuck snorted and rolled his eyes.

“No, it’s a Boy Scout thing.  You stack small firewood in a kind of pyramid, then light it.”

“You were in the Boy Scouts?”

The teepee, too, smoldered hopelessly, as another friend, Herbie, arrived, surveyed the situation, and declared the obvious solution.

“You need a log cabin.”  Great, I thought, we’re going to run through the entire history of architecture here.

Nevertheless, what we were doing wasn’t working, so we carefully laid small sticks, of a size precisely to Herbie’s specifications, and stuffed paper from the dwindling supply into the ground floor.  The lighting ceremony was accompanied by the lighting of a large joint Chuck had been preparing.  All went marvelously well.

Except for the part involving the campfire.  It produced lots of smoke, but not much else.  Herbie declared all was going according to plan, that the wood just needed to dry out a bit.  Chuck pointed out the fire had been planned for that day, and not the next.  Chuck and I laughed uproariously.  Herbie grunted and stuffed the last remaining kindling into the structure.  We watched as the fire blazed up, consumed the dry paper like it was … dry paper, then died back to a dull occasional flicker.

Jens arrived.  Jens was from Antwerp, and as far as any of us could figure, had been on the road since shortly after birth.

“What’s happening?” he said.  From anyone else, this was a standard hippie greeting, the equivalent of a grunt of acknowledgment.  From Jens, it was a reasonable question.

“Trying to build a fire,” I offered, “but it’s just too wet.”  Gloom.

Jens looked at the pathetic little pile of semi-charred sticks, and, without a word, turned and walked away.  Just not willing to sit in the damp woods without a fire, I thought.

We continued our discussion of what to do next, whether the attempt was even worth continuing, when he returned.  He was dragging a sodden-looking, moss-covered log, about a foot in diameter and roughly five feet long, which he promptly dropped squarely on top of the remains of our fire building exercise.  A few halfhearted sparks flew out in protest.  A collective groan arose to compete with them.

“Jesus, Jens, thanks a hell of a lot!”  Herbie said.  He had still not used up the last of his theories in defense of the log cabin method.  Jens shrugged and sat down to join us.

We moped in silence for a good ten minutes, until the first flames began licking up the sides of the log.  In a few more minutes, the fire was roaring away; I was dumbfounded.  I looked at Jens with incredulity.

“What?”  he said.


“Jens,” not his real name