In these stressful days of social upheaval and economic uncertainty, reading gear reviews that gush in favor of the new or the improved can be a pleasant distraction. But circumstances being what they are, some of us may not be buying new gear soon. Making do is the new normal.
As long as we can still appreciate the outdoors (at safe distances), our basements, garages and sheds contain the necessary vintage gear to get outside and enjoy ourselves. Comb through the storage units and see what you can dust off and resurrect for one more season.
For example, here’s a classic piece of outdoor equipment: a Coleman lantern.
Who among us of a certain age did not try, and fail, to light a gas-powered Coleman lantern? We held a lit match with shaking fingers near the mantle, that walnut-sized, pear-shaped cloth bag. The mantle flared, we bumped the lantern, the bag slipped off and landed in a little pile of ignominious ash. Again and again we struck matches, and after 25 or so mantles, we got the hang of it. The Coleman company earned a reputation in the outdoor industry for listening to its customers; they may have learned some new words during my lamp-lighting attempts.
Coleman lanterns fall into that category of vintage outdoor adventure gear that includes Minnesota-made Jon-E hand warmers, Benjamin Franklin BB guns, uncooperative outboard motors and leaky wooden Army surplus dinghies that bring back fond memories that might not match the original experiences.
Who among our peers did not develop serious untangling skills from a Mitchell 300 spin-cast fishing reel? Who, in an emergency, did not use a Stanley thermos to pound a fence post?
My earliest memories of the Coleman lantern came as a boy in Iowa, night-fishing with my father and his buddies. They were after catfish and conversation. They each had a lantern, which was no surprise given that more than 50 million were sold after they appeared on the market in 1914 from the workshop of William Coffin Coleman.
Stink bait was the lure of choice. My father would slide a piece of aluminum foil as a light panel partway around the lantern and the light would be directed in a particular way, usually toward the stink bait pot, so no one would trip over it.
On calm summer nights, I can still imagine the mosquitoes and various small insects immolating themselves — zzzztttt — on the lantern. Later, I found out that the mantles, made of guncotton, silk or rayon, were impregnated with metal nitrites, and thorium was their main chemical element. Thorium is radioactive; the tiny, and I now hope safe, amount in the mantle was actually glowing rather than burning.
For those resurrecting old gear, Coleman Fuel — white gas — remains plentiful and available in the familiar one-gallon red-and-silver cans. Depending on the model, replacement tie-on mantles are still stocked at major outdoor retailers, along with newer mantles that snug themselves or a clip-on style that fits nearly all the old lanterns. And a long-reach butane lighter beats a shaky match any day.
What gear will young adventurers reminisce about in a generation or two? I can imagine them now: “Remember when our Coleman Quad Pro LED lanterns had only four removable light panels? And one USB port? We managed!”
Mark Neuzil is chair of the Department of Emerging Media at the University of St. Thomas.