Let There Be An Inferno


OPINION — One of Jimmy Stewart’s most popular movies is ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ the story of George Bailey and his dream of being on television every Christmas season forever. At one point in the movie George says the three most exciting sounds in the world are train whistles, airplane engines, and anchor chains. He says they’re exciting because they represent travel, going someplace new, getting out of the ordinary. Of course, that was back when people could still travel without wearing masks and taking off most of their clothes in public.

But those sounds don’t cause me to think of going anywhere. For me it’s the sight of a Coleman lantern. Ever since I was a kid I’ve been fascinated by lanterns and the adventures they promise. Nothing says camping like a Coleman lantern, and few of life’s thrills equal pumping up the gas tank and poking a match through the hole in the baseplate, wondering if it’s going to explode because you did something wrong.

Coleman Model 220 Lanterns

Coleman Model 220 Lanterns

Lighting a Coleman lantern requires very little actual knowledge, and most of them have the directions written on the collar, just above the gas tank. Unscrew the pump knob a little, put your thumb over the hole, and pump it approximately 3721 times. Screw the pump knob back in, put a lit match through the hole, and turn the fuel valve knob counterclockwise. That’s about it, as long as spiders haven’t built webs in the pipes, or any of the tiny orifices are clogged, or it’s Thursday. Then you may have a rodeo on your hands.

In other words, a lot can go wrong if you haven’t kept your lantern in good working order, which of course you haven’t because you had other things to do, like mow the grass and eat and stuff. Even lighting a perfectly well-kept lantern on a cold day can be exciting. The directions probably say it might ‘flame up’ a little until it gets warm, which is rather misleading. And I’m assuming the directions say that, since it often happens. I don’t think I’ve ever actually read the directions on a lantern. I was busy eating while my wife mowed the grass.

When the directions say your lantern might flame up, they mean you’re liable to have a fireball the size and color of Donald Trump coming out of that thing. It’s probably best not to operate a gas lantern if you’ve become overly fond of your eyebrows. But don’t worry, that fireball is normal. And by normal I mean it probably won’t kill you, as long as you know exactly what to do about it.

Coleman Model 275 Lantern, affectionally called 'The Turd' by lantern collectors.

Coleman Model 275 Lantern, affectionally called 'The Turd' by lantern collectors.

First, don’t panic. Sure, you’re sitting at a picnic table, many miles from the nearest medical facility, with a three-pound Molotov cocktail inches from your face, but this situation is actually not dangerous. The lantern just needs to warm up a little, and then it will settle down and run just fine. As far as you know.

You need to unscrew the pump knob again and give it about thirty or eighty more pumps. This probably seems counter-productive at this point, since it was the pressure in the tank that caused the fuel to ignite in the first place, and you’d think more pressure would only exacerbate the problem. Not so. The initial opening of the fuel valve causes the pressure in the tank to drop, and more pressure will make the flames die down. Or not. I’m still a little vague on that.

Anyway, once the lantern warms up, the flames will go out and the mantles will begin to glow a very bright white, similar to the sun, only hotter. You can open up the fuel valve some more, and the mantles will get even brighter. Or maybe not. It depends on the particular lantern you own, and the type of mantles you’re using, and your particular cholesterol level. Or something.

The Coleman Model 220A lantern

The Coleman Model 220A lantern

Lantern mantles are made of silk, real silk, the stuff those little worms make. I have no idea why mantles have to be made of silk, but there are probably reasons. And silk mantles are pretty tough before they’re burnt. Once fired, they become the absolute most fragile things on the planet, besides feelings. They’ll stay together and work fine until you touch them, or until you breathe on them, or until you look at them, or until you want to light your lantern again. Then they disintegrate into nothing, or less. You’ll need to keep some spare mantles handy. Trust me.

Learning to operate a Coleman lantern was a rite of passage when I was a youngster, like scoring your first kiss, or learning to drive a car, or scoring your first kiss in your first car. Over the years lighting has changed. LED lights are cheaper, better, smaller, and brighter than they were when I was a kid. Also, they didn’t exist when I was a kid. So there’s that.

I still like old school gas Coleman lanterns. I collect them, restore them, and take them camping with me. The hiss of the gas is calming on a cool fall evening, and running a lantern made in 1962, in the heart of the country in Wichita, Kansas, is Americana at its finest.

Besides, eyebrows are highly overrated . . .

Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and minister who always takes burn ointment with him when camping. Write to him at [email protected]

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Kendal, you forgot to mention the inevitable horde of flying insects that suddenly flock to your location and infiltrate your nose, mouth, ears and any other open orifice. Gotta love the Coleman. 

Thanks for the nostalgic moment.

Yeah, the bugs are a problem. Still haven't figured out a way to avoid that.

I do love my Colemans, and I'm always looking for more.


Lots of coleman experience here, I know there is an 1960s coleman lantern in the south concho river up from ol gardner dam. Back in the day family was camping down there and (my brother the mechanical one) decided to fire up the old coleman, little problem was he didnt have ye old fuel cap on snug enough and he had pumped that little jewel up 40-50 times and attempted to light her up and she lit him and half of the south concho before he could instantaneously hurl that fire bomb to its watery grave!!  He was very lucky he wasn't burned and all his hair grew back. +50 years later we often laugh about this.

Prolly a bunch of those lanterns in many rivers.


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