A Campfire Tale
“Hey Dad,” I asked. “Can you tell me a story?”
Dad squirmed in his folding chair; ruminated for a moment and finally let go of the gaze he had on the campfire. I could tell that the stories were not going to come out like a torrent flood. I’d be lucky if it came as a slow moving creek.
Still, you could see him working on something inside his head.
“Well,” he finally said. “There was once a great warrior named Falling Rocks.”
“Falling Rocks?” I asked.
The name came from a sign somewhere on the mountain pass we had come from before reaching the dry lake we were camping on.
“You wanted a story,” he said.
I couldn’t argue with that. So I accepted this was going to be about someone named Falling Rocks.
“How did he get his name?”
He pondered for a moment before saying: “When he was born there was a rock slide. So, the chief named him Falling Rocks. He was one of two sons of the tribe’s chief. He was the favorite of the two.”
“Who was the other brother?”
“His name was Gray Wolf. He was smart like Falling Rocks but he was conniving and jealous because Falling Rocks was liked by all.”
I didn’t bother to ask why he was named Gray Wolf. Instead, I listened to Dad try to tell the tale.
“One day, the chief asked his two sons to hunt for the mysterious two-headed deer. The one to find and kill it will become the new chief of the tribe. Falling Rocks jumped at the challenge, grabbed his bow and arrow and ran off into the forest to find this deer.
“Gray Wolf hesitated at first. Then, he grabbed his weapons and headed into the forest in the same direction as his brother. Now, Gray Wolf wasn’t as good a hunter as Falling Rock was. He was always in competition with him, and always losing. “
Dad stopped gritting his teeth. Creating stories from scratch was going to be a long and arduous task for him.
“And?” I enunciated.
“Well, Gray Wolf didn’t want to lose, especially with so much on the line. So he cut a path through the forest and followed Falling Rocks from afar. ..”
Dad stood up. I can see the struggles written in his face.
“I think we need to get some marshmallows to roast,” he said.
I sighed, and reluctantly agreed.
“I’ll finish the story later,“ he added.
I had to admit something: dad had no intention of telling stories around campfires. He'd rather talk about his experiences racing. We came to the dry lake to race land-sailors, just like everyone else that happened to be camping on the dry lake was doing.
Saturday was the time trials for the various classes of sail cars, and Sunday was the main race. He was preoccupied throughout the cold, dark, star-studded nights, plotting strategies to win the race and bring home a trophy.
He didn’t have time for the type of imagination I yearned for.
During the day, Mom, the sisters, Jill and Mary and I were left to our own devices. We rode up and down the encampment on our bikes, hiked through the brushes toward the railroad tracks or found some type of game to play inside the RV.
Also, I had my action figures. I plotted out little stories and played them out under the canopy shade of the motor-home’s awning or inside the small corners of the vehicle. My own brand of story-telling whittled the time away.
And if I wasn’t playing, I had a ton of comic books, fantasy and science fiction stories to read. On this trip I brought plenty of them, including one book with short interlinked stories about Martians
“They call me Ray, “he said. “What do they call you, little man?”
Dad left and went inside where the rest of the family was. Now, I was alone with the a hot, crackling fire that mercifully kept the bone-chilling cold away...
It was a strange night. The light of the fire cast a glow only a few feet around me. Even the neighbors to the left – as well as the other campers in the mile long line on the southern edge of the lake were engulfed in the darkness. It was as if the rest of the world vanished and I was left in this cold, dark empty place..
Even though I was very close to the fire, a cold shiver raced through my body.
"Mind if I join you?" a rotund and jolly-looking man with bifocals said as he approached the campfire.
"Don't mind" I said.
It was not unusual for one of the campers to venture into the night, stop by another camper’s fire. Dad, the sisters, and I often did that. In some unwritten law, everybody at the encampment visited the various campfires warmed themselves, possibly talked a little about the upcoming events before moving on to the next campfire.
Everyone knew each other, thus nobody had to ask for permission. That was why I found this a bit odd.
The man, who I had never seen before, sat in the folding chair opposite of me. He clapped his hands and then rubbed them before the crackling flames. Although he was a stranger, there was something affable about him. It was as if I had known him my entire life. He was easy to warm up to.
“They call me Ray, “he said. “What do they call you, little man?”
He let a jovial laugh. I laughed, too.
After a while, he broke this light moment with a simple question: “Any good stories to tell?”
“My dad tried to tell one,” I said. “But he’s not good at story-telling.”
He glanced behind him, and as he did so the flames of the fire grew with new energy. It illuminated more area around us; in particular, it cast a glow on the area behind Ray where dad’s land-sailor, sail-bike and other inventions of his were.
“Your dad is not a bad story teller," he said when he turned back to me. “He just wants to write a story in his own way. He does it in beautiful machines that ride the wind. And machines built by his hands.”
It struck me odd when he said that. He must have seen the perplexity swarming my face.
“Stories are told in very different ways,” he said. “Just as different from the norm those beautiful machines are.”
He leaned closer to the flame. All the while the fire reflected its image onto his glasses.
“So tell me of the campfire tale your dad was telling you.”
“It was about some warrior. He was named after a sign warning of rocks that can fall on the road,” I said. “You know, Falling Rocks.”
“Ah,” he replied. Just then he did something that caught me off guard. He extended a hand and clasped something in the fire. He pulled his hand away. It wasn’t singed! He turned his clinched hand and opened it. The flames danced on his palm, and then took the shape of a valiant warrior.
“This is Falling Rock, I assume.”
Although I was shocked, I managed to nod my head and say: “What are you doing?”
“Tell me about the other character,” he said.
“It’s his brother,” I replied, “Gray Wolf.”
He reached into the flame and grabbed more of it. When he opened his hand another warrior emerged.
“Brother against brother, always made for a good story,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to see what will happen between the two when you finish the tale.”
“Me? Finish the tale? But how?”
His wide grin grew wider: “Once, I saw a poster of a dinosaur in a hallway. It began to move and snorted and roared down it. I once met a grandmother made of metal, wires and electricity who was every bit human as a real grandmother. I’ve had the company of Martians, firemen from the future, ghosts, and a man with moving tattoos.
“They needed a story to exist, and I helped them find it, just as Falling Rocks and Gray Wolf need a story from you. “
Me? Tell a story?
“Your dad tells stories of ingenuity and power of the wind. You tell the story of action figure. Now, you need to tell a story for them; finish what was started.”
Falling Rocks and Gray Wolf dissipated into the cold night sky. I saw their expression, seemingly imploring me to help them to stay in this realm.
“Don’t say it, and they will never live.”
Ray stood up. He peered at me one more time. This time, the look was boring a hole into me.
“Somebody has to continue to dip into the flame and tell the tales,” he said. “Will you do so?”
With that, he turned and walked far beyond the flame’s glow and into the pitch black world.
At that time, the motor-home door swung open. Dad came out with the marshmallows. My sisters followed close behind him, as did my mother.
“Now we can have something while I finish that story,” he said.
I was about to ask if he saw Ray out here, but something intuitive told me that he or anyone in the motor-home saw him. In fact, I was probably the only one who saw him. I glanced in the direction he left. He wasn’t there. Gone.
“So are you ready to hear the conclusion of the story?” My dad asked.
“No,” I said. “Maybe you can just talk about your day on the dry lake. I think I want to hear that.”
Dad was surprised, but pleased. He wanted nothing more to tell his tale. And thus, he began to do so. That night, the story of Falling Rocks and his brother was going to be mine to tell. Maybe it will be on paper, or in the films, or most likely, it would be around a campfire before my future family.
Either way, Ray had showed me the power of story-telling. And that power I will carry on through my adulthood until it is time to pass it on to another child looking for a good tale.
-In Memory of Ray Bradbury.
When the fire is at its brightest,
and night at its darkest.
We gathered around
To hear a story told.
We sat spellbound
as we heard the horror
the harrowing adventures.
We laughed out loud
and pondered those themes,
as the fire crackled
and snapped onward through
The star-studded night.
It didn't matter how dark it got.
It didn't matter how cold it got.
We had the fire.
We had the stories.
Even the cold silence of the desert
couldn't contain the imagination
around the campfire.
Inspiration from Two Sources.
If you the picture haven't given it away, part of this story was dedicated to Ray Bradbury. Nearly 30 years ago, I had chance to see him at a small gathering at Torrance High School. And, in this hour long speech he managed to create a story on the spot. The man was incredible, and his imagination was boundless. When I wrote this story, he had passed away several months earlier.
Also, in this story, I made reference to land-sailors. Unless you've peered toward Ivanpah Dry Lake at the California-Nevada border (outside Primm) you not know what that is. My father liked to make things powered by the sun or wind. We joined a group of land-sailor enthusiasts to race these vehicles on desert dry lakes such as El Mirage, Superior, or Ivanpah. At night, many of the racers and family set up campfires -- and many would walk from one fire to the other just to socialize.
Ultimately this story is based on the imagination. It was something that land-sailors had, as well as what Ray Bradbury had. It's a commodity that shouldn't be wasted.
Ray Bradbury collection
© 2014 Dean Traylor