A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The Man Scout: The experiences that frighten us most — they often burn brightest in our memories

By Chris Cole
Special to NKyTribune

Chapter 16 of the Boy Scouts Handbook is the one I have been both looking forward to and dreading since I started my Man Scout adventure several months ago. Fire Building.

Growing up in Newport, I never had much use for fire. We were city folk – no campfires or brush burning. I don’t think I ever even roasted a marshmallow until I was married. To this day, I do whatever I can to keep distance between myself and even the most controlled flames (with the exception of my desire to become a future Forged in Fire champion).

My views on fire – which is to say, being honest, my fear of fire – was shaped by three events that occurred during my formative years.

The Man Scout was always clumsy, so it shouldn’t have surprised anyone when he tripped and fell onto his own sparkler, leaving a permanent reminder of his fear of fire.

The first happened when I was 6 years old. It was the Fourth of July and like kids from sea to shining sea, my older brother Billy and I were celebrating the way any red-blooded American celebrates independence from the Brits – with fireworks.

We would light snakes, throw snaps – you know, typical kid stuff. Then, as Billy and I ran up and down the street in front of our house waving our sparklers, Mr. Weren’t No Boy Scout tripped on the edge of the sidewalk and fell right on top of his burning sparkler.

That wasn’t fun. I can still remember the smell of my skin burning. And to this day I won’t touch a sparkler.

About a year later, on Feb. 28, 1984, there was a house fire across the street from where I grew up. It was a really bad one. Two adults and five children died in the blaze.

I can vividly remember staring out our living room window at the three-story red brick building completely engulfed in flames. You could feel the heat of the fire standing inside our house.

Until that point, I had actually wanted to be a fireman when I grew up. Nothing changes a little kid’s dreams faster than watching his neighbor’s house burn down.

The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire had an equally profound effect on me once I was old enough to comprehend what happened on that night in Southgate in 1977. I wasn’t quite a year old when the fire occurred, killing 165 people. But growing up here, you can’t help but bump against that kind of tragedy over and over.

A friend from high school lost his parents that night. My Uncle Bernie was on the scene and used to tell us stories about what he experienced. His long career as a police officer hadn’t prepared him for that, and it had obviously left a mark on him. Later on, writing for NKU’s alumni magazine, I visited with attorney Stan Chesley to discuss the groundbreaking litigation that followed the fire.

The Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate burned down on May 28, 1977, killing 165 people.

It’s hard to imagine how events like these wouldn’t have a lasting impact on me. In fact, I don’t know how more people who grew up in Northern Kentucky back in those days, in the shadow of the Beverly Hills disaster, aren’t afraid to go anywhere near a flame.

Is it any wonder I don’t grill, never get too excited about fireworks shows and always sit as far from a campfire as possible without being unsociable?

I’ve been looking forward to the Fire Building chapter because I do, in fact, want to become a future Forged in Fire champion. My experience in the forge last month (see The Man Scout No. 6 and The Man Scout No. 7) was one of those full-circle moments, forcing me to face a fear I’ve carried throughout my life and teaching me that with the proper training, I can control fire and make it work for me.

But at a base level, I need to do this because I’ve still got a scar on my back from a sparkler, because I can’t drive down I-471 without thinking about a nightclub I’ve never even been to and because I’m still scared to death of a house fire that was put out 36 years ago.

It’s time to face my fears and learn to build fire. If all goes well, I’ll report back here next week and let you know how it went. If not, well, Happy New Year, and honor me by always remembering to Do a Good Turn Daily!

Chris Cole is Director of Enterprise Communications at Sanitation District No. 1 and a deacon at Plum Creek Christian Church in Butler. He lives in Highland Heights with his wife, Megan. The Man Scout chronicles Cole’s journey to acquiring some of the skills of the head, the heart and the hand he failed to learn as a child of the 1980s growing up in Newport. His field guide: a 1952 Boy Scouts Handbook he found on eBay.

Related Posts

Leave a Comment