Cathy Free: Free Lunch: Campfire ashes stir warm memories for lifetime scout

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 1 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

WEST BOUNTIFUL — Peek inside an old tin canister on Bob Tanner’s bookshelf and you’ll find the remnants of several hundred warm memories, including:

A brisk fall evening huddled around a campfire with two dozen Girl Scouts discussing what it means to live in a free country.

A late-night bonfire at a Boy Scout wilderness campout with lots of laughter and ghost stories.

A summer Tanner family reunion, with relatives sharing stories about their late “Uncle Mack” while a few teaspoons of his ashes are scattered with the embers of a glowing fire started with flint and steel.

Tanner, 71, a leader of male and female scouts since 1959, flashes on these moments and more whenever he lights another “spirit” fire in the high country. For almost 35 years, the West Bountiful adventurer has collected ashes from every campfire where those gathered around were caught up in a strong bond of friendship and positive energy.

In all, he has saved samples from more than 300 fires, adding a small amount of old ashes from the canister to each fire and gathering a smidgeon of new cinders to add to the next one.

“You have to have a good feeling there — that’s why it’s called a `spirit’ fire,” he says over a Free Lunch of steak and salad at Ruby River Steakhouse. “If anybody’s arguing or it isn’t a clean fire (one made without paper, plastic or trash), I don’t get out the canister. You want to pass along only good feelings and good times from one fire to the next.”

There certainly hasn’t been a shortage of good times for Tanner, who has camped beneath the stars since he was 5 and currently serves as an assistant leader for West Bountiful’s Boy Scout Troop No. 219.

The son of a ranch hand from Jackson, Wyo., he spent his early years helping round up cattle and dreaming of only one thing: to become a Cub Scout when he turned 9.

“We were a poor family, living in a two-room house with no electricity and water from a pump,” he says, “so I wondered if there would be money for me to join scouting. But on my 9th birthday, my dad told me, ‘yes,’ and that’s when the bond started. I haven’t enjoyed anything as much since.”

In 1978, when Tanner learned about the old mountain man tradition of carrying burnt sticks from one campfire to the next, he decided to update the custom for his Boy Scout troop. He kept a list of every spirit fire started by his scouts, and continued the practice when he was asked by a group of girls if he’d lead them, too.

“Nobody else could be their leader, so I couldn’t say no, even though they were scraping the bottom of the barrel,” he says, his blue eyes twinkling. “With the girls, almost every time we had a spirit fire, we also retired an old American flag. So the jar has a lot of flag ashes in it now.”

A former Air Force pilot who served in Vietnam, Tanner says, “Burning those flags was hard for me. It’s an emotional thing — I usually have to walk away while the flag is burning. But I know it’s important and the kids take away a lesson from it. They sit around the fire and talk about what they love most about their country. That’s a true spirit fire.”

Although Tanner isn’t as lithe as he used to be, he still enjoys long hikes in the mountains and sleeping on the hard ground beneath a starry sky. He’s thought more than once about retiring from scouting, but “then I’ll see a kid who needs a father figure, a kid who I know is going to need some help,” he says quietly, wiping away tears.

“It’s not so much me reaching out to them as them reaching out to me,” he says. “It’s important that they have somebody to form a bond with. When you have friendship around a spirit fire, that’s a deep bond. You’re mixing the ashes of the past with the memories of that night and each person brings their own special spirit to the fire. That’s something worth holding onto.”

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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column for the Deseret News since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.

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