I stood there as they applauded and thanked me for my heroic efforts.
I’ve never felt so bad.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate pats on the back as much as the next guy, but this time something was keeping me from fully enjoying the moment.
To understand the reason behind my feeling this way we need to go back…way back to 1993.
It wasn’t just any ordinary weekend in January. That weekend was the SCORE 400 and just as many years before, I was out in the desert with my fellow Boy Scouts. We were one of many volunteer groups that helped with traffic control during the race. Our post was at the Shea Road crossing. It was a great place to view the race because most vehicles would fly over the entire road then upon landing they’d continue their dirt and dust filled journey through the desert. We would take turns guarding the road crossing, making sure that civilian vehicles never went pass that point. My shift had just ended so my friend Steve and I decided to go look around. We filled our canteens, grabbed our compasses, and headed out towards a sand dune that was probably a couple miles off in the distance.
Our trek through the desert carried us across a vast landscape of dried brush and sandy washes. During our hike we saw a few lizards, some buzzards, and even a pit crew tearing down a wash most likely on their way to assist their driver. We arrived at the dunes shortly after and spent the next hour exploring them. In my mind I was just like Indiana Jones. I had everything needed for an adventure: canteen, whip, pocket knife, Zippo lighter, fedora …okay, I didn’t have a whip or a fedora, but I was still poised for adventure. Well adventure is certainly what we found!
On the way back to camp we came upon a huge patch of dried brush that included a generous amount of desert grass. Of course this “grass” was as dried up and dead as the desert itself. A thought came to my mind, I wondered how fast this grass could burn. Now curiosity is an important element in a young mind, but often it can be dangerous. The latter proved to be the case that day. I lit the grass and it quickly took to fire. It spread outward as rapidly as ripples on a pond’s surface after a thrown stone’s impact! I attempted to stomp out the blaze, but as I moved to one side of the brush the fire grew on the other. I furiously emptied the contents in my canteen in an attempt to extinguish what
we I had started! We both frantically took off our shirts and began to beat the fire into submission, this only fanned the flames and made it worse! I then noticed the flames approaching a Palo Verde tree… A TREE! I recall saying a quick prayer to myself promising God and Heaven everything I could if he would just help put the fire out! I quickly realized that God didn’t make this mess, I did and it was up to me to clean it up. We both dove under the tree suffocating it’s trunk with our shirts. I can still feel the pointed branches scraping my skin, but I couldn’t let that deter me because we had started I had started a fire. We paused for a moment and noticed that the flames behind us had died out. You see, although the grass was dry it was also pretty scarce. The fire had burned itself out, but not after scorching that section of the wash. Steve and I had managed to keep the flames from consuming Arizona’s state tree. In my thirteen year old mind this action alone would keep me from serving a life sentence in juvenile hall.
We stood hunched over, covered in soot, and full of scratches and cuts from the smoke-filled ordeal. It seemed like an eternity since the fire started, but in reality it was no more than five or six minutes. Once Steve and I gathered ourselves we came to the bitter realization that others most likely had seen the smoke. How would we explain this? We just couldn’t come walking casually back into camp looking the way we did! We were shirtless, beat up, bleeding, and covered with the smell of smoke. There was no escape…unless we made up a story. Yeah a story, that’ll save
our butts my butt.
We went over the story several times and agreed that this spun tale would be our greatest hope of escaping certain doom. We tiredly walked back to camp nervous that our true actions would be discovered. Each step was accompanied by both pain and shame. I was a Boy Scout. I knew better than to do what I had done. I felt like a criminal. I imagined myself in prison meeting my cellmate for the first time behind locked bars:
Me: “H-H-Hey I’m Josh…what did you do to get here?”
Cellmate: “I’m Mad-Dog Macintosh…I killed 15 people and punched the Queen of England in the face! What did you do kid?!”
Me: “I started a brush fire…can I please have the top bunk Mr. Mad-Dog sir?”
I wasn’t about to see that scenario take place so I was gonna tell this story with such emotion and detail that it would be impossible to doubt it’s accuracy. We entered camp and ironically there was an ambulance there assisting a driver that had pulled over due to extreme dehydration. Luckily most of the attention was on that situation which made our arrival unnoticed for the most part. We walked up to the crowd of Scouts and spectators to see what was going on. Only then were we noticed and quickly the questioning began.
“Why are you guys so dirty and beat up?!”
“Where were you?!”
I began to tell the story we had been rehearsing since the flames went out. To summarize:
“Steve and I were walking back from those dunes back there and we saw a fire! It was right next to the wash! So we ran over and put it out. It was so big, but we managed to keep it from spreading too far!”….”It must have been started by a cigarette or something because it’s the same wash we saw a pit crew driving through earlier!”
Every Scout, leader, spectator, and paramedic was amazed by what they had just heard. In their minds we were true Boy Scouts…Indiana Jones had nothin’ on the me! The paramedics checked us out, cleaned our scrapes and cuts, and even treated a few minor burns I had gotten on my arm. We were safe and Mad-Dog Macintosh would have to bully some other cellmate. That night the camp out ended and we all went home back to our normal lives. At school on Monday, Steve and I never even mentioned the fire. There was an unsaid rule to never speak of it again.
Life continued right along it’s regular course… School, Sports, Band, Practice, Family, Weekend, Friends….you know it was just Life.
Sometime in February it was announced that there was going to be a Volunteer Recognition Dinner at the Elk’s Lodge for all SCORE 400 volunteers. Never to be one to turn down a free meal, I was excited about attending. The entire Boy Scout troop was going, all except Steve. He had to be out of town with his family.
Myself and the troop showed up fully dressed in our Scout Uniforms, complete with neckerchiefs, Merit Badge sashes, and Boy Scout caps. We drew a lot of attention because we looked sharp! We all enjoyed a delicious spaghetti dinner and pie for dessert. Following the meal, Sal Fish who was President of SCORE got up and thanked everyone for their assistance during the race. He called the individual groups up and they were given certificates of appreciation for their time and efforts. He then called out Troop 492. We all arose in sync and walked up to the front together as a large group. We stood in line as he individually shook our hands and handed us the certificate personally. We received an applause from those in the room and began making our way back to our seats. What happened next has stuck with me for nearly twenty years.
He interupted the applause and said, “There’s a couple of these Boy Scouts that I’d like to have stay up here.”
“Oh no!”, I thought as I slowed my walk towards the back of the room. “Could Josh and Steve please come back?”, Sal said across a room full of curious volunteers. I made my way back and explained to him that Steve wasn’t able to come.
“Well then it looks like it’s just you and me up here young man.”, he said with a laugh. I stood there somewhat frozen, unsure of what was going to happen next.
Mr. Fish began speaking, “Ladies and Gentlemen, during a race there are many unforeseen events that can take place on the course. This year was no exception, but a particularly unique incident happened and Josh here along with his friend Steve prevented what could have easily gotten out of control and negatively affected the race.” I could see the crowd leaning forward in their seats as glances of awe were cast upon both Sal and I. “There was a fire in a wash that appears to have been started by a careless pit crew and this Scout, along with his friend put it out before it could do greater damage!” He excitedly shook my hand to the cheers and standing ovation of the entire room. I was a hero in their eyes….yet I felt like a villain. That moment could have been so much better, but it wasn’t and now here I sit nearly twenty years later recalling a moment from childhood that brought me both public fame and personal shame.
So this weekend as you are out and about our beautiful desert watching the race I want you to remember one thing:
Desert grass is extremely flammable and should not be lit on fire!
Give heed to my words and I promise you that in twenty years you won’t feel bad.