I remember a particular Brooklyn Boy Scout Camp Saturday Night Bonfire in the summer of 1952 when a few days prior to the event an inquiry was made in the mess hall that the camp director was looking for someone who could start a fire with a bow and spindle. I had won the bow and spindle competition at my Brooklyn home district's annual rally a couple of times So I knew that my ability to do that was pretty good. I went to the camp administration Shack to see what the issue was.
The camp director told me that the theme for the upcoming bonfire was going to be “Pioneers and Indians” and that each of the two fireplaces at the fire ring were to be lit without matches, one by a Scout “pioneer” with flint and steel and one by an Scout “Indian” with bow and spindle. There were plenty of Scouts who could light a fire with flint and steel but who would be the bow and spindle expert?
There were 2 questions from the camp director that I had to answer:
1 - Could I really do it? Remember that there would be quite an audience watching. On that question I had no problem to assure him I could easily do it.
2 - Is there Indian regalia that I could fit into? Even in those days, I was a fellow with girth. After a big enough outfit was secured all I needed was the Boy Scout bow and spindle kit with enough tinder to catch the spark to blow into a flame. To make sure the wood in the kit was good and dry I stuck it behind the mess hall coal stove for a couple of days.
On the day of the fire, I prepared the kit for use, tying the leather thong to the right degree of tautness and cutting a proper notch into the hearth board. Then I marched down to the bonfire area with our group for the ceremonies at the flag pole. Then I ran over to the fire site a bit ahead of the crowd to don the regalia.
Soon the bleachers were filled up with Scouts, staff and lots of camper parents, sisters and brothers, a huge crowd especially for a novice performer like me.
I knew the fireplace was doused with kerosene so the fire would flare up when I got a flame. The announcement of the theme was made; the flint and steel pioneer Scout and I received our cue and we walked out to face the audience. Flint and steel got his spark and subsequent flame quickly, threw it into the fireplace and to great applause, his fireplace ignited quickly.
In the meantime, I was down on one knee bowing that spindle into the hearth. The crowd quieted down to a dead scary silence as finally a bit of smoke started to rise from the friction of the spindle. Then I dropped the bow, caught a spark in the tinder and slowly blew it into a flame. When the tinder ignited the audience let out a loud gasp of amazement that must have reverberated across the nearby Delaware River. There were lots of folks there who knew that a Boy Scout could rub two sticks together and make a fire but it was the first time they had ever seen it done. I threw the flaming tinder into the fireplace and the fire and kerosene went up with a soul-satisfying whoosh. It was an awesome moment for me.