by James Judge
I had agreed to serve as an adult sponsor for a Saturday night camp-out out in the valley, for some of the grade school boys. He proposed we both go, help the dads shepherd the group, sleep out with them and then go by ourselves to the Church service the next morning. I was feeling just a little hesitation because Brian’s reputation had preceded him. He was equal parts David Livingstone and Crocodile Dundee, with a little Mad Max mixed in there somewhere. Even amongst a group of missionaries renown for their independence, Brian was known as a bit of a loose cannon. He was single, had a kind of “cleaned up hippie” look, rode a big motorcycle, and was capable of turning just about anything into an adventure. He impressed me as the kind of guy who, if he ditched his bike at sixty miles per hour and broke a leg, could probably set it himself and walk the five miles home, whistling, with the motorcycle slung over his shoulders. In other words, a kind of guy not a whole lot like me. But the prospect of a night of camping in the open, under the stars, and participating in a real Kikuyu Christmas service was too enticing, so I accepted.
The day of the camp-out arrived. Brian led the way down to the valley on his motorcycle while three other dads, myself, twelve boys and all our gear were crammed into two old vans. The several miles of road leading from the mission station to the valley floor below were intermittently stone and then dirt and then stone again and it was soon obvious our vehicles were not blessed with anything remotely close to shock absorbers. Each bump generated a seismic force capable of realigning your spine. The ten-year-old boys provided their own sound effects; screaming with glee every time we hit a new crater, as if we were on a ride at an amusement park, which I guess was pretty close to the truth. When we got to the bottom of the hill, we turned left and headed way out into the valley, soon off-roading it in search of the perfect place to camp for the night. We ended up near a small ravine, within sight of a few giraffe and straggling antelope. They looked us over with a casually, pretending not to care, as they munched lazily on the brush. But it was soon obvious they were less than excited about their new neighbors. While we were busy unloading the gear, each time I looked up, the animals became progressively smaller and smaller, as they moved ever so slowly, ever so noiselessly away. I wondered if they were trying not to offend. With just so much late afternoon sunlight left, we went straight to gathering wood and dry brush for the building of a fire, which, as men are prone to do, we sort of overdid. As the sun faded, the fire grew. And grew. And grew. My wife and daughters later told me they could tell exactly where we camped that night because, even from ten miles away, they could see the immense size of our signal fire burning out in the valley. We were probably identifiable from space.
Once it was dark, we roasted hot dogs, ate potato chips, and just laid back on our sleeping bags and took it all in. The boys did what boys do with a fire, they meddled and poked at it incessantly, and each time they did a shower of sparks would billow up into the absorbing blackness of the night sky. I traced the path of the glow-orange embers as they raced skyward on their smoky escape. They cooled as they rose, faded for just an instant, and then, in the blink of an eye, seemed to be reborn as a host of white-hot stars- the strange, unfamiliar stars of the southern sky, visible only from the other side of the world. Their sheer number and clarity was shocking, making them seem almost within grasp. It made me feel as if I could reach up and rearrange the newly born stars into constellations of my own design. I remember thinking, this was the kind of sky Abraham must have beheld as the echo of God’s promised descendants still rang in his ears. Look up! Your descendants shall be as the stars in the heavens. Sitting there with that star strewn expanse canopied low over our heads, dirty, tired, hypnotized by the dancing fire, I flashed to another group of men and boys, two thousand years earlier. Those first Christmas shepherds must have lain around their great signal fire much like we were now. It was easy to imagine the star-pierced black velvet curtain being pulled back, and someone, dressed like the sun, stepping through, blinding us, even as he had them, with the announcement of the greatest of news. For a moment, a quiet moment full of expectation, I imagined myself a different kind of shepherd.
Campfires and storytelling go hand in hand and it didn’t take long for ours to begin. Our stories that night went the direction all stories seem to go for ten-year-old boys, grown-up and otherwise…straight to the sensational. And who better to lead us that direction than Brian, who had just about seen, heard and experienced it all. Soon there were stories being traded all around, with Brian invariably applying the trump card, about who had had what crawl into their sleeping bag in the middle of the night. Stories that greenhorn, tenderfoot, suburban doctors with 7 different kinds of insurance, don’t necessarily need to hear right before bedtime, when sleeping out in the open in Africa. Believable stories of people who, while sleeping out in the African landscape, much like we were now, had let their campfires burn a little too low and been awakened to find themselves being dragged off toward the bush by some hyena. A hyena that only let go and retreated when the camper was able to grab a stick and pound the animal on the head. I wondered if I was the only wide-eyed boy sitting around the campfire that night scanning the area for an appropriate weapon to keep within reach, just in case. As we lay down to sleep, I positioned my bag just a little closer to the fire, convinced smoke inhalation would be far better than providing a meal for something, even now, lurking in the dark, waiting for some dumb short-term missionary like me to doze off and let the fire burn too low. If sleep came that night, it came fitful and in short shots. I definitely saw the sun rise the next morning.