September 16th, 1776. A company of Connecticut farm boys sit behind one of the many redoubts dug into the upper slope of Harlem Heights. Behind them stretches the northern plateau of Manhattan Island extending to King’s Bridge and spanning the Bronx River and leading to Westchester County. One week earlier the boys had been busy bringing in an early fall crop, but today – this day – was hellish beyond their worst fears.
Tired and hungry, they had watched the late afternoon sun fade behind thickening clouds until dusk brought a chilling drizzle that was replaced by a cold, steady rain. The night before had held no sleep. They all believed rumors that an anticipated British invasion was but hours away. None were surprised when a horrendous bombardment fell to their north upon Kip’s Bay that morning. Before breakfast, Major General Putnam had ridden among them and ordered their Brigadier, General Parsons, to rush his troops north and aid the beleaguered militia charged with defending the bay. Having found the militia in complete rout, the boys had joined the hysterical rush north to the safety of the defenses along Harlem Heights.
It is now near dark; soldiers pull arms tight to their bodies in an attempt to stay warm. All their baggage has been left south: tents, utensils, food, and warm clothing, left strewn along the shore of the East River. They only have what is in their haversacks, and many don’t even have those comforts, having dropped the extra weight the better to flee the expected British and Hessian onslaught.
One man shivers and reaches into his haversack, pulling out a small sack and a remnant of leather hide rolled into a long ball. He opens the thick leather pouch, separating the draw strings. He tucks his hand again into the haversack and removes a small tin box with tin lid pressed snugly over the top. It is a tinder box; his father’s, handed down to him by his own father. On the outside are painted country scenes: colorful tableaux of rolling hills and tiny barns beside white shuttered homesteads. Inside is an English black flint, a piece of steel, and fluff comprised of dried weed and hemp which serves as fuel; also traces of flax and char-cloth, which consists of tiny remnants of cotton and linens.
He takes out a pipe and stuffs it full of tobacco, then sets the pipe on his lap. He watches two other men put the finishing touches on a small pile of damp wood. The slender sticks are stacked in the middle of a ring of small stones that had been hastily gathered upon arrival. Next to them is a pile of wood and split branches. He watches one of the men pull a coveted bird’s nest from within his coat. To keep the rain off the dried twigs, he holds the nest close to his body. He leans forward, prepared to thrust the nest under the pile of sticks once a good flame is kindled.
The soldier with his pipe and tinder box squats on his knees, leaning forward to ward off the pouring rain. He opens the box and lays it on a flat stone by his knees. He unrolls the leather remnant, exposing spare tinder, a punk wood cut into thin strips. He holds the flint and steel, shaped like a large C, which fits easily in his palm over the box. He strikes several sparks into the fluff. He blows gently into the mass and, as it ignites, he holds a strip of punk wood over the flame. Careful to keep the tinder box and punk wood from falling, he shuffles forward to the edge of the campfire, and lifts the flaming punk wood at one end and lays the tinder box down. Leaning back, he grabs the lid and quickly presses it onto the tinder box, snuffing out the flame. Pulling himself closer to the campfire, the soldier cautiously cups the punk wood in his hands so the fragile flame doesn’t go out.
The bird’s nest has been placed beneath the stacked twigs. The soldier lays the flame under the nest while lightly blowing on the simmering twigs. Throughout the operation, he has been sure to keep a small portion of char-cloth in one hand. He sprinkles tiny shavings into the growing fire that shimmers in a sparking flame. The soldier remains diligent in his task, constantly blowing across the flame as it comes to life. A tiny hissing sound is heard as the wet wood over the flaming nest dries out and gradually ignites. Within minutes there is enough flame that others begin to add wood from the pile beside the stone-rimmed pit. The soldier picks up his tinder box. He smiles weakly, and sits back on his haunches, allowing others to nurse the fire.
After some conversation and nervous laughter, the soldier reaches forward and removes a small twig which glows on one end. Lifting the stem of his pipe to his mouth, he positions the twig over the bowl and puffs. Smoke begins to flow out in tiny wisps from the corner of his mouth. Moments later, a steady glow is seen in the pipe’s bowl. As smoke spirals upward, the soldier leans back against his haversack. Looking around at the worn and weary faces surrounding the campfire, he blows the gray mist towards their dappled faces. He tries to laugh, searching for humor where none exists. Those who sit around the warming fire embrace each other in a forlorn attempt to hide from the shame they unitedly feel. The humiliation drills deep into their consciousness for not having stood their ground before the enemy; for choosing life instead, if for but one more day.