Man at the Fire

IMG_1150We shared a birthday, my father and I, July twenty-fifth (1933 and 1959 respectively), and often celebrated with a trip to the Oregon coast. Just the two of us. We’d drive out from Portland on a Friday evening after dad finished work and spend a weekend. “We’re a couple of bums. That’s what we are,” dad would say. We slept in the roomy ’65 Chrysler and lived on cheese, saltines, apples, plums and summer sausage—the kind of food you can slice with a pocketknife and eat with your hands.

On one of these ‘bumming it’ weekends in July 1969 we had built a driftwood fire on a deserted beach near Manzanita, then strolled out toward the surf and south until our fire was no more than a distant star. When a night fog rolled in with the incoming tide, we were all but blind and turned back north hoping we would eventually see the light from our fire and find our way to the gravel road where our car waited. 

The unseen sea, so beloved in daylight, had a menacing aspect in the mist-heavy dark—always approaching from behind, reaching after us as if to pull us back. With no light from stars or moon, I stumbled barefoot into chunks of wet driftwood, stepped into piles of seaweed and at least once on a stranded jelly fish. I held tight to my father’s hand, fighting back tears, and we both looked east toward where we hoped our fire must still be.

Below: My father in his later years with my son Quinn.

IMG_1304The fire appeared at last as a blur of light the size of my thumbnail and we steered toward it, away from the surf and into the softer dry sand. The hazy glow took shape—the motion of flames, a darker shadow of rising smoke, the red coals under the tepee of logs. I didn’t take my eyes off it. I wanted to get there and feel the warmth and see again.

We were only a few steps away when I saw the stranger huddled by the fire. I saw his disembodied hands first, reaching out toward the flames, rubbing together, fingers stretching out to the pulsing coals. Then a frightened face turned toward us and the man stood up. “Is this your fire?” he said. It was a young voice and a young face, a man in his early twenties at most. He had a sparse beard and longish hair. He wore layers of clothes, at least four shirts, but no coat. He called my father, “Sir.” Dad motioned for him to sit back down and we joined him at the fire. “I don’t think we can actually own a fire,” dad said. “Even if we did start it going.” Sooner than you would expect the three of us were at ease talking around the fire. The stranger had a name I have forgotten. He was wandering the coastline. He had a satchel and a sleeping roll with him. Dad offered the open space next to the fire to sleep. We always slept in our car, which I could now see again parked just off the beach. The mist lifted as we talked and I glimpsed patches of stars. The young man said he was far from home, not sure where he was going next. “Just south,” he said, “south along the beach.” Later my dad told me “the boy” might be fleeing the draft, trying to stay out of Vietnam. “I can’t say I blame him wanting to dodge that mess,” dad said. But no one mentioned the war at the fire, not while I was there. I started drifting into sleep, leaning against dad. He walked me to the car, rolling out the blankets for me in the front seat. He put a Band-Aid on one bloody toe I had stubbed during our night walk. Then he took out his pocketknife, sliced some cheddar cheese, handing me a few bites. He put most of it on a tin plate from his mess kit, adding slices of cold summer sausage and some bacon left over from our breakfast and some poppy-seed rolls we bought earlier in Seaside. He left me in the car with the flashlight and he took the plate of food back to the man at the fire.

As tired as I was, my curiosity kept me awake, and I peered out through the open car window, back at the fire. Dad was leaning in, listening to the young man talk. At one point he reached out and patted the young man on the shoulder and they both laughed. I wanted to know what they were saying and thought of returning to the fire, but the blankets were warm and before I made a move, the night had passed. I woke to early light with dad still snoring in the back seat. The fire had gone out and the wanderer was gone. He had left the clean tin plate on a log near the fire.


About slcantwell25

A writer focused on the transforming power of memory, autism, parenting, and the ways we know what we know.
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2 Responses to Man at the Fire

  1. Maura Cantwell says:

    Sweet glimpse of a generous, beloved father and Grampa. Beautiful story holds a life-long lesson of love to be cherished. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Brian Cantwell says:

    Great story about Dad, I remember you telling me about this and it is nice to read this version.

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