Accidental Trilogy???

The origin of this book is as improbable as it is absurd.

In December 2014 Rudi was trying to get back in the groove of civilian life after returning from a nine month tour overseas in Kuwait while Bob was on the mend from a procedure to get his heart to beat right.

But for one night everything was right, perfect in fact. Big Cypress National Preserve was celebrating its fortieth birthday at the Collier County Museum. As the festivities wound down, Bob found himself entering the ember glow and crackle of the campfire to take a brief respite when a lumbering Rudi stepped forth from the shadows.

“Can you help a fellow American down on his luck?” Rudi asked with a slightly brooding look on his face. The flicker, aroma and sound of the campfire also made him simultaneously relax as he approached.

South Florida’s winter tourist season was just about to begin. Three weeks and it would be in full swing. The kickoff for Rudi was January 9th. That’s when he was scheduled to give an evening talk around a campfire at a remote campground ― halfway the distance between Miami and Naples ― in the epicenter of the swamp preserve.

“I love the idea behind the campfire program,” Rudi lamented as he settled in around the orb of light and reached for a slider sandwich that Bob offered from his paper plate. “The problem is, nowadays, the actual campfire … munch munch … is almost an afterthought. It’s the giant outdoor screen that gets all the audience’s attention. I just sit in back … munch munch … and let the Power Point do all the work … munch munch.”

“A POWER POINT at a campfire? Apocryphal!” Bob stammered in disbelief. He flicked a pebble toward the pulsing embers. “—That doesn’t seem right.”

Rudi conceded as much as he gestured toward the campfire with a second slider sandwich he’d grabbed from the plate.

“The campfire should be ‘center stage.’ It’s how Yellowstone … munch munch … the entire National Park system … and human civilization for that matter … got its start.”

Rudi looked at the lone remaining slider. “—Are you gonna eat that?” he asked looking up.

“No, take it. It’s all yours.”

“Thanks man,” Rudi said in a brightening tone. “These sandwiches … munch munch … are really delicious. What are they?’’

“Pulled pork.”

“Oh yeah … munch munch … so, like I was sayin’ about the campfire …”

. . .

Fast forward a week later to the edge of town where Bob greeted Rudi with a proposition he couldn’t turn down. “What do you say you forget about the Power Point?” Bob suggested. “We’ll partner up to do a campfire talk ‘on the campfire,’ just you, me … and my guitar.”

“So … are you going to send me an email?”

“NO! I’m not gonna send any EMAIL … for crying out loud!” Bob gasped. “― A presentation like this, you gotta work on in-person. It’s a theatrical production.”

“You mean like Vaudeville?”

“NO! Not Vaudeville. I’m talking Off-Broadway. You gotta carefully choreograph everything in real space. It’s more than just a script.”

Rudi nodded his head as the concept slowly soaked in. A moment or two later he broke out of his reverie with an affirmative yes.

In fact, he called it a “capital idea.”

. . .

Two weeks later Bob and Rudi performed a campfire talk entitled “Heroes of the Big Cypress” to a crowd of thirty at a campground for the first time. The basic premise of the program was simple: draw the audience’s attention towards the campfire and rekindle the magic of the verbal (not written) folklore that takes place around its ring.

With each new performance, five in total that first year, Bob and Rudi tinkered and added new twists ― some of which were intentional, such as a Coleman lantern to add more light and a deck of Bicycle playing cards to work in a staged bet, while others, such as an unexpected downpour prematurely dousing the campfire flame out cold, they could neither anticipate nor prevent; the entire milieu of which all metamorphosed into an ever expanding and more intricate script. Rudi was convinced they were ready for “local theater” to which Bob scoffed. “If all this pans out like I expect, they’ll be calling us out to do our campfire talk at Yellowstone. What-a-ya think about that?”

Rudi’s jaw dropped at audacity of such a dream.

“Ya-ya-ya Yellowstone National Park!? That’s … THE BIG SHOW!”

“That’s correct,” Bob confirmed. “—The Holy Grail.”

. . .

The following year it was thus with a rather large slice of humble pie that Bob and Rudi nervously waited to perform their “opening show” to a new crop of winter tourists. As the clock neared 7 pm ― could it be possible ― not a single person was going to show up?

Not that it mattered.

No, Bob and Rudi were, in a word ― undeterred.

Even if it was just the two of them and an amphitheater full of mosquitoes (and yes, there were plenty of those!), they both knew the “golden rule” of swamp theatre: The Show Must Go On!

You see, that particular eve wasn’t just any old night, for Bob and Rudi it was the opening campfire talk of the National Park Service’s Centennial Year, its 100th birthday; it was January 2016.

As a happy postscript, and much to Bob and Rudi’s relief, twelve campers eventually did show up.

. . .

The reaction from the crowd that night was much like the other shows: a combination of laughter, pity, bemusement, musical delight, mild shock and maybe even a little fright ― all punctuated with a nagging question at the end: “—Okay, what just happened?”

Voice in the crowd: “I think that was all just ‘part of the act’ … I mean … I think?”

To be sure, by that point, not even Bob and Rudi were sure.

The one thing Bob and Rudi did know was that they had discovered the most elusive of all human commodities: “good chemistry.” Together they were able to pull off what individually neither would have been able to do ― let alone think up ― and in the process have some good old-fashioned campfire fun.

Most of all, they had done something “above and beyond” for the Park Service’s 100th birthday.

Bob and Rudi both felt really good about that.

. . .

As for the call from Yellowstone, well, that never quite panned out.

Or maybe, in a backhand way, it did.

You see, by their last show, Bob and Rudi were consumed with a “new mission” fueled by the creative chemistry they built around the campfire.

They’d joined forces to write a book.

Rudi had a short story in mind. “― Something of regional interest, a novella that the local folks might enjoy.” Bob was thinking more epic length and obtuse – an odyssey in the footsteps of Melville, a white leviathan for the swamp.

. . .

Months in the making, The Legend of Campfire Charlie was the result. Most overtly it celebrates the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service and the poignant history of the Big Cypress Swamp, but its full grandeur aims for a much higher mark.

Or maybe it’s just two guys sitting around a campfire giving a half hour talk.

More like forty thousand hours (but who’s counting?) and twice as many words! That’s about how long it took to write ― all on spare time and all on odd hours ― more than a walk in the woods, it was an Appalachian Trail scale hike, full of detours, doldrums, dead ends and downward spirals into Death Valley depths of doubt. But through it all somehow the two authors plodded on ― and surprisingly cheerily, too ― with an ethos perhaps best described as an ‘optimism of fools.’

Novel writing, of course ― and especially by debut authors ― has a reputation for being a lonely and dubious chore, one more likely to end up on the junk heap of unfulfilled pipe dreams (and rusted-out Rudebakers) than ever actually getting done. But for Bob and Rudi ― working in tandem, plus hanging out with Ranger Rusty, Campfire Charlie and the rest of their fictional cast ― the journey, not the destination, became the entire point. Their ongoing conversation was as easy and affable an amble as there ever was, and just as scenic as any stretch of the Appalachian Trail. At some point, probably somewhere just north of the metaphorical equivalent of the Delaware Water Gap, Bob and Rudi’s spirits started to rise, a minor miracle of the universe appeared to be coalescing: Mount Katahdin, the terminus of the Appalachian Trail, was in sight (and, yes, just in case you’re wondering, that craggy peak lies within a state, not a national, park.)

While this book is a work of fiction, Bob and Rudi’s original “Heroes of the Big Cypress” campfire talk did celebrate three real people who, once upon a time (and one still currently), worked at Big Cypress National Preserve. To them and to all the other people out there, near and far, alive and dead or yet to be born, that have ever championed or stepped softly in the swamp or any other natural area that is dearly loved, this book is for you.

And to you Campfire Charlie tips his hat.

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