Ustulation

USTULATION: the act or process of searing or burning

On our get-away last weekend, our camp stove malfunctioned.  The propane began to leak out of the connection arm and we had flames shooting out of a place they didn’t belong.  We were eventually able to get the flames out but in the process we knocked the stove off the picnic table.  The impact with the ground broke the connection arm off altogether.  We were left with a propane canister releasing a geyser of propane that we couldn’t stop.  In the end, the propane canister emptied itself and we survived without any injuries or immediately apparent environmental damage.  We ate our lukewarm dinner and celebrated a narrow escape from catastrophe.  The episode reminded me of a previous narrow escape from my childhood…

I grew up camping in the white gas era.  The red and silver rectangular jug of Coleman Fuel was an essential component of our camping supplies.  Our three-burner Coleman stove had a tank in the front with a valve on the right hand side.  When we set up camp, we filled the tank with gas and then pumped the valve before every meal to build up an appropriate amount of pressure.  Inevitably, there was too much air in the tank and large orange flames licked the bottoms and sides of the cooking pots.  This process, repeated countless times during my childhood, covered the bottom third of our percolator with permanent black markings.  My mother still uses that percolator and, I must confess, despite its “loved” appearance I envy her.  I’ve purchased at least four coffee making contraptions for my own camp box and none of them work as well as her dented, black percolator. 

There are several important safety precautions one must observe with white gas.  The litigious society warnings – no huffing, drinking or bathing – apply as well as the standard warning for all things flammable: keep away from ignition sources.   This warning is noted in multiple places on a typical fuel canister.  Doubtful that Coleman’s warnings were adequate, my mom supplement with more colorful warnings of her own.  She told terrifying stories of people who added fuel to a fire and were badly injured when the fire followed the stream of gas back into the can and caused the fuel canister to explode.  I was properly terrified and vowed never to participate in such foolishness.  I have no proof, but I suspect that my brothers took her warnings as a primer on bomb making and experimented with their buddies.  Again, no proof…but it sounds like something they would do.

On one particularly memorably mother-daughter camping adventure, my mother brought the fuel warnings to life in a new way.  We were camping at Kalaloch – a northwest treasure located in Olympic National Park on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  The campsites are surrounded by lush coastal forest.  Those forests are kept lush by approximately 120 inches of annual rain fall.  The local town has a profitable laundrymat that serves tourists – primarily with dryers.   

My mom is not great at fire starting under the best of circumstances, but the dampness that had infiltrated our fire wood certainly didn’t help.  After many frustrated attempts, she was growing desperate.  In her desperation, she poured some white gas into a Styrofoam cup (this was before the green revolution, people) and poured it on the fire.  It worked!  For a moment.  Then, the rain began to threaten the fire’s progress.  So, mom grabbed the fuel can and splashed some more gas on the fire in an attempt to give the flames an advantage over the raindrops.  Can you guess what happened next?

That’s right…EXACTLY what my mom had spent years warning me would happen.  The flames followed the trail of gas from the fire pit back to the jug of fuel in my mom’s hands.  Realizing her mistake, she panicked.  Not wanting to be holding the jug when it exploded, she dropped it and stepped away. 

Within seconds, the fuel can she dropped on the ground began to form a puddle of gas visibly identical to the puddles of water from the rain.  That is, until it caught on fire. 

So, there was my mother, standing in a puddle of flames.  We had a problem.  I ran to the next campsite and yelled, “Help!  My mom caught our campsite on fire!”  I received a terrifyingly slow response from my fellow campers.  Didn’t they realize that flames next to a forest are a huge problem?     

After what felt like an eternity – but was likely more like a minute – the man of the camp grabbed a shovel and ran back with me to help my mom contain the fire.  Other campers in the vicinity were quick to identify that we were on the brink of catastrophe and rushed to help snuff out the flames. 

As often happens after an event that could have been worse but wasn’t, the severity of what almost happened began to sink in. 

If the fuel jug had exploded…

If my mom had been burned…   

If the flames had spread to the trees…

The story of the fire quickly spread through the campground.  A seemingly endless parade of men stopped by our campsite to offer advice, gimmicks, tutorials and must have products related to campfire building.  Seriously, “Fire!” may just be the most effective pick-up line ever.  If my mom had chosen to capitalize on her damsel in distress status, I have a hunch she could have walked away with several phone numbers on that trip. 

Miraculously, the only casualty of the whole debacle was our blue tarp.  Our faithful blue tarp had served as our portable blue sky for years.  There it stood, tented over our picnic table with one sad, melted corner. 

I’m not sure if it was her frugal nature or the desire for a wordless reminder of the dangers of white gas, by my mother did not replace the melted tarp.  From that point on, a deep bow was required to get under that one corner of the tarp.  On rainy trips, the melted corner acted like a catch-basin for the run-off from the rest of the tarp.  Hourly, someone had the unenviable job of pressing up from the underside of the tarp to release the waterfall of accumulated water before the weight caused the entire tarp to collapse.  The dumping of the water inevitably resulted in wet feet, mud-splattered pants, and a renewed respect for the dangers of Coleman fuel.

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