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September 2009 Dr. Vern

Posted in Features on September 1, 2009
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Contributors: Dr. Vern

Now that warmer weather is here, it's time to set things on fire. No, wait, that sounds bad, let me rephrase that. All I'm saying is that when you're getting ready to burn something, summer is the best season. Oops, sorry, that wouldn't sound too good in court, either. Let me back up and explain, so pull up a chair and get comfy.

My trusty old Jeep sees lots of camping duty. It's a little known fact that the law requires that you must have a campfire when camping. Not wishing to risk jail time (Editor's note: It's not so bad once you get used to it), I usually press my Jeep into service hauling firewood. The reason I use my Jeep is because the typical camper isn't exactly the most industrious person. After you break out the cooler and settle into the hammock, the need for firewood won't be obvious until darkness sets in. The next step is to frantically search for firewood within a small radius of the campsite, leaving nothing for the next guy doing the same thing, i.e., yours truly. Having learned the hard way not to bother looking near camp, I'll take my Jeep and head away from the beaten path in search of dry firewood. Without much effort, I can usually fill the back of the Jeep in just a few minutes. In no time at all, I'll have a roaring fire back at the campsite, with steaks ready for grilling.

That all sounds nice and wholesome, doesn't it? Camping, Jeeping, cooking over an open fire, enjoying the great outdoors, what more could a guy want? How about a rousing game of "Will It Burn?" You're staring into a roaring fire and have a little time on your hands. Next thing you know, your mind starts to wander. Soon, you're contemplating the big questions of life. Why am I here? What's the meaning of life? Look what I just found, will it burn? As a bona fide fireside philosopher, I suspect humans have asked these questions for eons. The time line probably looks something like this:

1) Earth is formed.
2) Thousands of years later, early man appears.
3) Thousands of years after that, a caveman learns to make fire.
4) Twenty minutes later, he tosses a dinosaur egg into the fire just to see if it will burn.

Back to the present day, the Museum of History won't let me have any dinosaur eggs, but there's still plenty else to test in the fire. Are you interested in playing "Will It Burn?" The rules are simple. Everybody knows highly flammable stuff will readily ignite, so things like gasoline or fireworks are off limits. The whole idea is to nonchalantly act as if you were partaking in a legitimate scientific experiment. (A clipboard and laboratory coat will help with the appearance.) For example, let's say you have a competitor's magazine with you. We won't ask why, even though it's a good question. Instead, we'll move on to a far more appropriate question: Will it burn? Most likely, but toss it in the fire because that's the only way to know for sure. Just in case the results weren't conclusive, it would be a good idea to repeat the test with any remaining magazines from our competitors.

Even after I discovered this new scientific use for a campfire, some things haven't changed when loading the Jeep for a camping trip. For instance, I still pack the standard items like tents and sleeping bags, and a normal amount of food for everybody. In case we get stranded, I still bring emergency food provisions, which don't take much room because it's only a bone saw and barbecue sauce. Now that I've joined the "Will It Burn?" league, there are other types of things I always bring. How about that end table the dog confused with a chew toy? Then there's that wobbly chair that's missing an arm. If I took items like these to the dump, I'd have to pay cold, hard cash just to throw them out. Furthermore, I'm too lazy to get up in the middle of the night to leave them by the side of some country road. On the other hand, I can burn them for free! Living in the city, I can't burn them in my yard. OK, technically I can, because the laws of thermodynamics are the same anywhere. Legally, however, such incendiary events are frowned upon by the authorities. Oh sure, I can have a fire in a ho-hum fire pit on my patio, but after one tiny incident when I got to wondering what would happen to an old plastic lawn chair, my neighbors put the cops on speed dial. Hence, I've got a pile of cast-off items in my garage, just waiting until I pack the Jeep for the next camping trip.

Speaking of old lawn chairs, have you ever considered the incendiary properties of an old aluminum-framed one? There's a reason you won't find them in stores anymore, thanks to the thigh-pinching nylon webbing and loose rivets that form the patented anti-comfort system. While it's hard to find these chairs nowadays, experiments with them represent the pinnacle of "Will It Burn?" research. Aluminum doesn't burn, of course, but it will melt and practically disintegrate if hot enough. The nylon webbing burns in pretty colors, and if you're lucky, will even form little flaming teardrops.

I think by now you all know the drill about writing to complain about my latest advice. Look in the front of the magazine for the mailing address. Before I get torn to pieces, I understand that when I was thinking about questions for a fireside philosopher, I should have come up with something far more appropriate than "Will It Burn?" Please accept my apology, because my comments don't represent how most guys think. I probably should have suggested something like "I Know This Will Burn, But How Can I Make It Burn Faster?"

-Dr. Vern

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