Bro Shambo for a Helicopter Ride

Brent has his first helicopter ride and a couple of odd interactions with the infamous Chinstrap.

When we arrived on the fire the next day, our crew was informed by Division that some of us would be taken by helicopter to the the top of section Zulu in order to do some “seeding”. This entails spreading grass seed along the fire-line that the dozer had cleared. The purpose of this is both aesthetic (no ugly scar along the landscape when the grass around the dozer-line grows back) and environmental (plants prevent erosion).

Everyone wanted to ride in the helicopter, but only eight of us were needed. The fairest way we could think to settle this was single elimination Rock Paper Scissors. I made short work of one bloke, which brought me face to face with my pal Tony. Our first throw was a tie: two scissors. I anticipated him trying to trip me up by repeating scissors, and I was right. I defeated him with rock. “Fuck you”, he said, good-naturedly.

As the victorious eight waited in the flight area, the squad bosses reminisced loudly and fondly about past fires. Either it was all they had in common with one another or it was their way of excluding others and displaying their superior levels of firefighting experience. Or they just live for this shit and like going over it with the people who were there with them.

One of the helicopter pilots gave us a briefing. “Always go around the front of the helicopter…” He took our weights and broke us into two flight groups accordingly. I was in the first group. We were instructed to button our shirts all the way to the top, pop our collars, and fasten our chinstraps. Earplugs were pushed in as the pilot fired up the engine. The grass began wiggling and pulsing. At the co-pilot’s signal, I made my crouched scamper under the blades and into the fuselage. I buckled up and waited for the others to join.

It was an exhilarating ten minute flight. I have been in my share of planes, but the big difference is that in a helicopter, you can hover. Staying in one place in the air and regarding both my surroundings and the ground from a fixed point was something I’d never experienced.

What followed the thrilling flight was the tedious task of spreading seed slowly down the mountain. I had a simple, jack-in-the-box like contraption strapped to the front of my chest for spreading the seeds. I twirled a handle on the side of the box and the seeds fanned out in front of me. I followed another seed spreader like a two man marching band and we zig-zagged along the uneven terrain. Action Jackson followed us, carrying multiple sacks of seed on his shoulders.

It was hot, dull work, but within two hours we were at our pickup point. We had to wait for the other seed spreaders, who were coming from all different directions. I found a truck with a vacant seat and DJed for a while using someone’s portable speaker. Hours went by.

I found myself talking to Chinstrap, who explained his small business idea, something he started in high school. It was a clothing line called “DYKYB”. He rattled off the convoluted acronym with easy familiarity. “It stands for ‘Don’t You Know You’re Beautiful’,” he told me. The whole business sounded rather insufferable so once I had listened for a polite enough amount of time I excused myself for a piss.

The sun was going down over the dirt hills so I popped the tailgate down and sat to watch. I sang quietly to myself, sifting through some songs I know all of the words to. I felt quiet and peaceful, secure in the knowledge that I was getting off this mountain today for good, or so I thought. It was rumored to be our last day. One of the more mild-mannered (and thus likable) dudes, Drago, joined me on the tailgate. I kept singing until I couldn’t think of a song. We sat in silence until it was time to head back to camp.

We all cleaned out our packs after dinner and had a wrap-up speech from the crew boss. One of the more eager rookies shared how great he thought the bosses were. I heard one of the more savvy guys say, under his breath, “At least let them bend over before you kiss their ass…god damn.” That made me smile. This rookie’s public suck up was mocked by our table all through dinner.

There was only one outdoor outlet in the elementary school grounds. Tony and I seemed to be the only ones who had found it. After dinner you could often find us sitting together, backs against the brick, charging our phones and texting our girls.

On my way back to my tent, I spotted ol’ Chinstrap seated at a picnic table in the covered area. It was past 11pm. Just about every firefighter was in bed, getting some much needed sleep before the 5am wakeup. This must be why he was so tired all of the time. One of the crew’s favorite past times was to talk shit about Chinstrap while he napped during the day (which was exceedingly often), right in front of his pathetic, sleeping form. He had two books open in front of him.

“What you reading?”

“Ye old bibliotecha.”

I guessed what he meant but I respond, “The library?” because “bibliotheque” means library in French. In any case I want to subtly expose his stupidity for my own amusement.

“It’s the bible.”

“Hmm. Finding any answers?”

He reads off some psalm that I didn’t bother to remember because it did nothing for me. His second book was a spiral notepad. He was taking notes on the bible. Go figure.

 

 

The Forest Janitors Slide Their Way to Safety

Brent has some uninformed thoughts on the government. More redundant, tedious gridding is interrupted by inclement weather, climaxing in a harrowing, muddy escape from the canyon.

Part of our early morning routine at the fire camp was to pack our pickups with cases of water and Powerade. A truckload of Dasani and Powerade cases had been brought in and was stacked off to the side of the outdoor dining area. Several of our crew would prop a case on our heads and march over to the trucks to replenish our fluids for the day’s work.

Dasani and Powerade are both products of the Coca-Cola company. They had (most likely) been purchased with tax money. I took this as confirmation that the government is in cahoots with the evil bastards running the Coca-Cola company. I pictured lobbyists on the steps of Captiol Hill with sample tables set up like you see in Costco, handing out little plastic medicine cups filled with purple liquid. After all, even politicians need to replenish their electrolytes. Realistically, the CC company must be lining the pockets of those politicians making spending decisions for the US Forest Service. This is all guesswork, all assumption based confirmation bias that I engaged in during my morning chore of replenishing the trucks with water. In some way these Dasani and Powerade cases expose my hatred for both the government and large corporations. But it was the only show in town, as they say. Like it or not, the Coca-Cola company kept us hydrated out on this fire.

We parked our trucks deep in the canyon. Everyone checked their packs, put their helmets on, and grabbed a tool. The youngest on the crew was finishing his second Red Bull of the morning, which he had purchased at the gas station the previous evening. He’s an 18-year-old recent high school graduate nicknamed “Three-fingered Jack”; his ring and pinky fingers are missing from one hand, a result of a bandsaw accident when he was eleven. As we started our hike up the canyon, a 19-year-old in his second season commented on Three-fingered Jack’s excessive reliance on Red Bull. “Damn. Lots of energy.”

“Yep. It keeps me going.”

“When you get older. This’ll get harder,” said the 19-year-old. “You won’t be able to down all that caffeine and feel good like that.”

Marching behind them, I chimed in. “Oh yeah, at 19 you must be just breaking down”.

I heard a raspy, one breath laugh behind me. Action Jackson. “You got that wit. You’re funny, I like that.”

“Thanks.” I was delighted. Witty and funny is all I ever want to be.

“When you first showed up I thought, here’s this nerdy kid, but you’ve got some one-liners.”

Nerdy? I guess because I was wearing glasses (on a fire my fingers were never clean enough to bother with contacts) and I’ve been to college.

When we arrived at the same spot we gridded the day prior, the tattoo artist had his Return of the King Aragon moment, giving an inspiring speech that went something like this:

“We wouldn’t ask you to do something we haven’t done a hundred times before. Today sucks, we don’t need to acknowledge that. Let’s show them [Division] why we’re one of the last crews out here.”

We split into groups and gridded, formally, with three foot spacing, slowly working our way up the mountain through dense brush. We dragged our hands through the ash, “stirring it up.” The checking felt redundant and absurd since most of the ash was damp and cold. Redundant and absurd, just like most of the things our government chooses to spend our tax dollars on. Wow, I’m really on my soapbox with this post.

Yet we find three smoking hot spots in the five hours of tedious, exhausting gridding. The nose is usually the first to find these still smoldering, buried logs. These hotspots let off a distinctive smell of burning natural materials. Sharp, hot, black, searing…

Morale was low. Deon was uncharacteristically silent. One of his better mates on the crew said this happens to him during most runs after a couple of weeks. “He just gets homesick. Misses his daughter. He’ll be up and all Bugs Bunny again tomorrow, just wait.”

I confide in Tony (gridding three feet over to my right) that this is it for me. Once I get home, my firefighting career is over. I don’t need this shit. I don’t know how serious I was about this but I had been checking my email eagerly every night to see if any of the other jobs I had applied for had gotten back to me. So far, my prospects were slim.

The tattoo artist got a call on his radio. Weather approaching. 30-45 minutes out. We all heard but the tattoo artist relayed us the information anyway. Sure enough, dark clouds were forming overhead, pregnant with precipitation. We bumped up to him. “This is why people don’t live out here. It’s too volatile,” he said. He set a fast pace down the mountain.

The trucks came into view just as it started hailing. All of us threw our packs racks in the one canopy truck and we loaded up as fast as possible and drove out of there, tailed by a truck from Division. 

“Did you know your tailgate is open?” came a crackled voice from our driver’s radio. It was Division. The tailgate to our canopy truck hadn’t been closed by the last person to load their pack. It was quickly established that Ol’ Chinstrap was the culprit. Those who already disliked him clutched onto this mistake. Often people collect reasons to hate people they’ve already made up their minds to hate. This mistake was rehashed and bitched about for the rest of our run. The leaders were embarrassed by the way he made our crew look to Division. 

Our driver’s radio went off again. “The road is slick coming down. I mean really slick.” It was the crew boss from the other Boise hand crew.

We were the first truck in our convoy. We paused at the top of the hill to survey the windy dirt (now mud) road that led down the mountain. “Hand me a dip!” Said the driver.

He pulled out his bottom lip and jammed it with tobacco in while hail barraged the truck windshield.

“Just reached the summit,” said our driver into the radio. 

It was a harrowing ride down the mountain. Our tires were caked in mud, forgoing all traction. On one side of us was a dirt wall, on the other side, a cliff. Looking behind us, we saw the last truck slide into the dirt wall. Deon was sitting behind the driver on the cliff side, his hand on the door handle. “Imma out this bitch,” he said. 

I was white knuckled in the right back seat, hand also on the door handle, acknowledging the lack of control I currently held over my fate. Huge steep cliff on our left, rut ditch on right. We hugged right, the car sliding dangerously. For once I was grateful for our Boise born and raised driver’s redneck tendencies. He said he has lots of off-roading experience. He appeared to be the only one in the truck who was enjoying himself.

Somehow we all made it down the hill alive. It stopped raining. Everyone got out of the trucks and started spouting stories about their descents. “White boy lives for that shit,” said Deon, referring to our driver. “Should’ve seen me drive down that bitch. Nigga be doin’ about 3.” This killed me. 

We waited around rest of day, “monitoring the fire” in the area where, on our first day on the fire, we initially saw a wall of flames run up and down  the mountain. Some of the boys engaged in a plank-off as the sun came out. I beat Three- fingered Jack after about ten minutes of him violently shaking, stubbornly refusing to give up. Apparently he wanted to be in Navy SEAL, but the recruitment guys said his missing fingers would be too much of a handicap. “They said I’d need special gloves,” he said.

We passed the time with other physical games, like who can reach out and drop the rock the furthest in a sort of push-up/plank position without moving their feet from the line and still push their way back to a standing position. This kind of male bonding felt ancient, like it’s imbued in our DNA to compete with one another in order to maximize our effectiveness as a hunting party. Everyone was jovial because we got away from the shit work on the hill and survived the ensuing mudslide escape. 

As we waited for 7pm, the time we would be contractually allowed to return to camp, Tony shared some cynical realities about our role as a Type 2 handcrew. “This fire is dead.” he said. “The hotshots are already on the next big fire. We are just forest janitors,” he said. So much for the romance of risking life or limb to battle flames, returning to our girls with soot-caked hands and tales of near escape. We are naiive forest janitors run by a bunch of egomaniacal ex-cons, our existence made possible by the ineffectiveness of our country’s government and their inability to eradicate redundancies. Or at least that’s how I felt at the time…

Only as Good as Our Leaders

The crew gets fed up with its leaders and endures another long day of gridding. Jackson hides from the spotlight.

Another dark morning, another bumpy, sleepy commute to our section of the fire. Our driver, the crew boss trainee, was really starting to get on my nerves. Literally every other word he uttered was “fuckin'” and it was grinding my gears to no end. He abused that word to such a degree I was ready to diagnose him with Tourette’s.

“Is this yours?” asked the crew boss trainee from the drivers seat, holding up a cellphone by the car charger wire for us to see in the backseat. It dangled helplessly like a mouse from a cat’s paw. It was some nondescript off-brand antiquated touch screen belonging to my hotel roommate with the cross tattoo. “You can unplug that,” he said, a touch of defeat in his voice. The crew boss trainee yanked it from its lifeline and tossed it into the backseat. He plugged his phone in and kept driving.

The crew boss trainee spit chew, belched, and texted incessantly through all of those hundreds of miles we rode together. He would tell stories that always served to puff himself up. The subjects were mainly fights: Fights outside of bars in Boise, fights on the hockey rink during high school, and his short lived UFC career.

He told us an unintentionally sad story about trying to pick up chicks in bars. His game was that he would go up to a girl and say “can you hold this for a sec?” holding out his hand. Apparently most ladies, confused, would tentatively grab his proffered hand. “I held two hands at once.” He boasted. “Got a few numbers.” I’m looking out the window saying nothing, flummoxed at his lack of understanding of the female creature. Again I silently thanked my female dominated upbringing (older sister, surrounded always by moms and daughters) for bringing me success in the dating world and not rendering me as clueless as this guy. He must’ve grown up with brothers.

Worse still was when our driver DJ-ed, displaying a love for the worst kind of country music. “This is what I walked out to (in the UFC),” he said, turning up the most republican song I’d ever heard: “Kiss My Country Ass” by Blake Shelton. The phrases rebel flag flyin’ and natural-born are incorporated, along with obnoxiously patriotic stanzas like:

I ain’t scared to grab my gun

and fight for my homeland.

If you don’t love the American flag

you can kiss my country ass.

Shelton savors his lyrics, especially the refrain “kiss my country ass”, which is repeated too many times to count. I find it especially distasteful when he lingers on the word ayssss at the end of every stanza. For an excruciating four minutes and thirteen seconds I was cringing in the backseat, jealous of the deaf.

At last the trucks came to a stop and we filed out and up into the mountains along the dozer trail. We were heading back to the grove of smoking aspens we had left the day prior. The smells of freshly churned soil and sweet roots flayed open by the dozer had become familiar at this point. It started lightly raining and the trail became increasingly muddy. We stopped every ten minutes or so to “HYDRATE!” during which I would chug one to one water to grape Powerade with a significant amount of dirt floating in it.

When we arrived at the smoldering aspen grove we were instructed to grid informally through the trees, combing slowly up and down the mountain, fighting slash and thick brush. Drago called Jackson over to cut up a smoldering log. In my head I had nicknamed him Action Jackson because he looks like a short GI Joe brought to life. Muscle bound, without any superfluous fat or hair (his head was buzzed) and his signature raspy exhale one-breath laugh, he was an action figure always on the move, working hard in one way or another, even if it was just stretching during our long, hot, staging days. He cut up the burning log like he was born to do it, slicing it neatly into thirds. Drago and I rub dirt into the burning parts. The three of us work together for the bulk of the afternoon. It was fun to watch Jackson expertly carve up a tree, man and tool working together seamlessly.  Somehow we find out its Jackson’s thirty-first birthday and he accepts our felicitations with great humility.

During our lunch break a solitary firefighter with a blue hard hat hiked past us. “I like your blue hat” said one of the younger guys. Turns out he’s with “Division” which means he is out there to make sure crews like ours are doing their job properly. Apparently we weren’t working up to his standard because the crew boss trainee showed up a little while later saying he got chewed out by mister blue hat because some of the white ash in our section of the fire “didn’t look stirred up”. Even though the ground is damp at this point from the off and on rain of the last couple of days.

The squaddies were upset. They and had us line up and grid uphill, formally, with ten foot spacing. The weather oscillated between light rain and bright sun. People called out a handful of hotspots. “You guys are just finding these now?” Said one of the squaddies. “Tomorrow is going to be a hands and knees kind of day!”

“It’s never their fault,” said Lessard, a sawyer and one of my closer allies on the crew. “We are only as good as our leaders.” I’m peeved at this kind of leadership. None of the squaddies were taking responsibility but instead they were shifting blame to the grunts who were merely doing what we were told to do: grid informally. But I keep my spirits high as we trudge uphill with one hand in the moist dirt. Ain’t nobody gonna break my stride. I enjoy the hike through the dense dense brush as best I can, stirring up the wet white ash with my Pulaski. Never complain, never let them see your spirit break. Resilience is strength.

On the ride home everyone was dirty and exhausted. A female voice came on the radio. My ears perked up. It was music after weeks of hearing nothing but the grinding machinery of male voices joking, dick-measuring, belching. Humans need that male-female yin-yang balance, lest we become as out of touch with the other gender as our crew boss trainee driver…

When we pulled into the elementary school parking lot, I set about refilling my water bottles from the Dasani case in our truck bed. Tony walked over to the tailgate and confided in me. “When we were gridding, you know what I was thinking? Fuck that bald-headed fuck,” he said, referring to the crew boss trainee. “Dude. He’s right there,” I said, nodding my head in the direction of the drivers’ seat.

“Oh shit… do you think he heard?”

“Nah probably not.”

We walked into camp and washed up for dinner. More firefighters started rolling into camp, many with faces smeared with soot. They wear the soot proudly, like badges, somehow expecting others to assume that the dirtier their face, the harder they worked. Lessard, a three year veteran, tells me that some people actually rub charcoal on their faces. “They’re just trying to look like badasses. It’s just stupid. No one cares how much soot you have on your face.”

At dinner, a girl on a different crew got sung happy birthday by the whole fire camp. Word had gotten out among the crew that it was Jackson’s birthday but Jackson did a wide-eyed head shake, just like Deon’s from the other day when he wasn’t in the mood to perform my play. Jackson especially is not one for the spotlight. During the cheers that followed the girl’s happy birthday song, Jackson ran off and hid in his tent.

After dinner I called my parents and my girl. This kept me up past 11. In my tent I browsed Spotify and found a beat that I loved. I listened to it over and over again. I wrote a rap from the heart, not a rap I’ll ever share but one I am pleased with. I wondered if the tattoo artist could hear me whisper rapping in my tent with my headphones in. I’m sure I thought I was quieter than I was. Tents offer nothing in the way of auditory privacy. Finally I turned off my phone and passed out, dreading the forecasted “hands and knees” kind of day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stirring up Ash in an Aspen Grove

A full, hard day’s work. Brent puzzles over potential metaphors.

I decided to give myself a little extra time one morning by setting my watch alarm to 4:55am rather than 5. This way I was the first to use the bathrooms and I had a few precious minutes to relax as dawn broke. I sat on a picnic bench under the covered area drinking cheap coffee with a splash of chocolate milk watching firefighters emerge from their tents and blink their bleary eyes at the dark grey morning.

After breakfast, we loaded up and drove to the Zeta section of the fire. It was quiet in our truck that morning; everyone except for driver and passenger used the half-hour drive to get a little more sleep.

We parked off the side of the dirt road and hopped out the trucks. Everyone grabbed a tool. I chose a Pulaski and again took it upon myself to lug around a fuel can. We were split into thirds by counting out numbers. I was assigned to a crew with Metalhead and a 44-year-old guy. He knocked up a girl at 17 and was doing what he wants to do now that his kids have grown.

The 44-year-old and our squaddie are both avid Frisbee golfers and embarked on an agonizingly dull conversation as we grid the steep ridgeline. They compared frolfing courses, throwing strategies, and bragged about tournaments. I focused my attention on my surroundings instead. The fire-scarred earth was bare and repetitive like the landscape of the moon. We cooled the hotspots by rubbing dirt into the wood and spreading the coals or by shoveling fresh dirt onto the heat. It was both meditative and tedious. Lost in our own thoughts, conversation evaporated until…

“Why are there no girls on this crew?” asked Metalhead.

The squaddie spoke up. “Myself and (crew boss) have… reputations.”

Basically they get “involved” with the girls and it causes unrest within the crew. That explains why the one girl who was on our crew in Nevada was unceremoniously reassigned to a new crew when we reached the Redmond base and assumed new leadership.

Someone spied smoke in an aspen grove about a half-mile up the mountain so we dropped what we were doing and hiked towards it. Crossing a creek, we heard a rattle. I didn’t see the snake but others went in for a closer look despite warnings from the squaddies to stay clear. I keep trading hands with the fuel can as my shoulders get tight, breathing heavy as we hike uphill.

We arrived at the source of the smoke. It was a huge, burned out tree releasing great plumes. It showed no signs of slowing down. Little spot fires resided in the ash surrounding the tree. The smoldering patch of hot earth was about the size of a living room. I was instructed by the squaddie to dig a line (a shallow ditch to separate the flames from the unburned vegetation) at the edge of the hotspot. I’m handy with pickaxe, having spent a summer conducting solo landscaping projects on a Lopez Island property. I treated the dig like a workout, doing sets of 15 or so at a time, matching the swings with my breath. By lunchtime, I’d gone through three of my four 32oz. canteens.

After I finished the line, I helped the crew stir up the ash to release the heat. I was getting familiar with the stink of burning dirt.

“We need to get some water on that guy,” said the squaddie, gesturing to the smoking, blackened tree. “Otherwise it’ll burn all winter”.

Suddenly, a spot fire jumped to a nearby tree branch. It immediately caught fire. I thought we were going to see the tree torch, but at the last possible second the 44-year-old raised his shovel above his head and smashed the branch. Sparks came raining down from the singed pine needles. The branch fell to the ground and the day was saved.

“What would we have done if the tree had gone up?” I asked the squaddie.

“We would’ve hiked away and watched it for spot fires.”

Before we could hike back down to our pickup trucks, we had to wait for a dozer to make its way past us; it was blocking our trail out of there. The big machine was loud and slow-moving on God’s uneven earth. While we sat on the hill and waited, I chanced my eyes closed. The squaddie threw a rock at my helmet, which was loud and rattling for the skull inside. “Hey, no napping. You too Chinstrap.” He was referring to the scapegoat of the crew, a 23-year-old, red-bearded guy who didn’t fit in very well. He was quick to nap and had erred more than anyone else; he once misplaced his line pack and, when confronted by the leaders, had nothing to offer other than shrugged shoulders. He’d become the punching bag of the ruthless group of males. Here’s how he came to be called Chinstrap.

Someone told him on his first day that he needed to wear his chinstrap all the time (which isn’t true) so he was the only one with it securely fastened under his chin as we hiked that steep trail our first day in Idaho. I think the tattoo artist coined the nickname. We were all waiting at the top of the hill for the stragglers and he said, “Where’s Chinstrap?” and we all knew instantly whom he meant and had ourselves a good laugh, myself included.

Finally the dozer passed. We had to leave the smoking tree for tomorrow. Though the smoldering mass around the tree was giving off noticeably less heat. We hiked down, dirty, sweaty, and getting bit by mossies (Australian term for mosquitos that I’ve adopted). Everyone was relieved and in high spirits, having completed a full, hard day’s work. On the way back down the dozer line I saw a yellow tiger swallowtail stuck in the mud and think thought there was a metaphor somewhere in that image but I was too spent to dwell on it. I do remember, however, that I did my second grade butterfly report on that species. I also saw several leopard print butterflies batting about cheerfully, seemingly oblivious to the havoc the fire had wrecked upon its environment.

During a water break I picked an orange-red Indian paintbrush flower for special someone that I kept in the breast pocket of my yellow Nomax for the rest of the week. It was covered in white ash. I intended to send it through the post pressed in a letter but it wilted before I could send it. Maybe there is a metaphor in that too…

On the way back to camp we stopped at a gas station store. All 20 of us soot blackened blokes stormed through the doors, perusing the aisles hungrily for cheap gastronomical thrills. Most of the crew was always talking about how they want to quit cigarettes but lots of packs are purchased anyway. American Spirits and Camels were the most common among them except for Deon’s special Newports. They chuff them outside the gas station as they wait for everyone to make their purchases. I get a half-G of milk and manage to get it all in my stomach before bed in addition to the Sysco dinner. My feet finally felt okay; wearing two pairs of socks is definitely the way to prevent blisters.

I crawled into my tent and stayed up just late enough to scribble down some thoughts about the day in my leather notebook while hip-hop instrumentals played faintly through my phone speakers.

The Sci-Fi Play That Never Was

A thunderstorm robs everyone of sleep. Brent and Deon get in trouble.

During the morning drive from camp to the fire, all three of us in the back seat fell asleep: Deon, myself, and my skinhead hotel roommate with the cross tattoo. As we dozed, my hotel roommate’s head kept creeping slowly to my shoulder, but I was too tired to care.

The previous night we had suffered a thunderstorm. Around 1am, the sky exploded three times and then the rain came, plopping loudly onto our tents. I had to resort to earplugs. Up by my head my tent was taking in water so I consolidated all of my stuff in my red duffel and crammed it by my feet. I managed to sleep somehow, all the while getting misted in the face because of the my tent’s inadequate rain fly. But my sleeping arrangements, damp though they were, were downright comfortable compared to how others slept…

As I was getting situated, shadows darted past my tent. In the morning I found out that the shadows belonged to another crew from our same company, except these guys and gals were all based out of Boise. Their crew boss, a fierce, fit looking gentleman with black hair, tattoos, and glasses, has a reputation for being more than a hard-ass. The Boise crew had just arrived earlier that evening, and even though the forecast had suggested rain, this crew boss didn’t bother having his crew set up tents. So the crew got rained on, hard, in the middle of the night. They scattered and found solace under a covered area, on top or under picnic tables, probably struggling to stay warm in their sopping sleeping bags. Later in the week two members of that Boise crew got up and left in the middle of the night. Given what we’d gleaned about the Boise crew boss’s shoddy leadership, no one was surprised. Interestingly, one of the deserters was a boy and the other was a girl. Everyone in our crew assumed they were be lovers. I pictured the two of them whispering plans, getting the guts to go through with it, then sneaking away like the kids in Moonrise Kingdom. The whole affair made for a bit of juicy gossip.

Back at the fire… I snatched some last minute sleep in the truck and dreamt about old 70’s era photos of my father. I realized I was dreaming but before I could take agency and start lucid dreaming, I fade into consciousness.

It started raining again as we arrived at Zulu, the area of the fire we would be working that day. An engine drove past, destined for the bottom of the hill. The woman who was driving was scared because her rig could get stuck in the mud if the rain kept up. Apparently they had gotten stuck the day before. Once she drove past, my hotel roommate made a comment about how women can’t drive and I have to rebuke him with a “don’t be sexist, dude.” Me the great moralizer. I was 23 and he was 19 so it felt appropriate for me to display some moral authority.

We all hopped out of the rigs and grouped together to be debriefed. The crew boss trainee was last to get out of his truck. He looked around the group for a second, then tossed blue pill bottles to three new guys. Drug tests. The guys chewed these cotton swabs for a full minute, gnawing and smacking and absurdly and complaining of the toilet paper taste. Tony was one of the unfortunate chosen ones. When we were talking later, he pointed out that two of the three picked to take the drug test were Mexican. He was half-joking, but he had a point.

After the usual safety debriefing and breaking up into small groups, the crew boss trainee continued his siege and called out me and Deon for leaving our line packs in the back of his truck overnight. We were supposed to throw them in the cabin before we went to sleep, but it had just slipped our minds. The packs are expensive and could be ripped off. But in this case, our packs just got wet from the rain. The crew boss trainee laid down his punishment: “One of you has to write a play, and the other has to perform it.” There were eager oooo’s and laughter from the crew and it was quickly decided that I would be the playwright and Deon the actor.

I hiked carrying a dolmar (fuel can). I’ve gotten in the habit of grabbing one every morning. Not only does it make you strong, but you get to hike in the front of the line with the guys carrying chainsaws, which means you only have to choke on dust kicked up from two or three guys rather than 15. But the light rain was keeping the dust down. Instead, the challenge was hiking in boots heavy with mud.

We arrived at an area with a huge plot of white ash and proceed to stir it up to release the heat. Then we gridded informally, but there wasn’t much in the way of hotspots because the ground was wet. The job felt pointless.

We took more than an hour for lunch. Some people nap, others amuse themselves by throwing rocks and pinecones at each other. There is a cheer every time a projectile bonks the helmet of an unsuspecting someone. I busy myself by writing this sci-fi stage drama in my small notebook. It is transcribed here for your entertainment.

UNTITLED SCI-FI STAGE DRAMA

CAST

RANDY– Deon

NARRATOR– Brent

RUSSIAN CYCLIST– Brent

RUSSIAN SCIENTIST 1– Brent

RUSSIAN SCIENTIST 2– Brent

SCENE 1

NARRATOR: It was the final day of the Tour de France and Randy still held the lead. But, with 20 miles to go, the two Russians had moved up and were within view. Randy checked behind him nervously. He’d won the last seven tours and was not about to give up his rein, especially when tensions were so high between the Russia and the USA. His entire country was counting on him, or at least all those who give a fuck about professional cycling. Digging hard for the final sprint, Randy thought he was pulling away, but as they rounded the final corner, he saw that the Russians had moved up. Soon they were on either side of him, taunting him.

RUSSIAN CYCLIST: Give it up old man!

NARRATOR: Randy doubled down and pushed himself harder than he ever had in his life. The finish line was in view. Panting and still in the lead, he began seeing through tunnels. His window of vision slowly faded until everything went dark.

SCENE 2

NARRATOR: He awoke with his hands tied. Two men were speaking in Russian.

RUSSIAN SCIENTIST 1: Ah, you’re awake.

RANDY: Did I win?

RUSSIAN SCIENTIST 1: Unfortunately for you, yes. Welcome to our space station, Bolshevik Prime.

NARRATOR: He was lead to the window while he got his first view of Earth from outer space. He gasped.

RUSSIAN SCIENTIST 2: Because you’ve proved yourself superior to our Russian athletes, we’ve decided to use you as a donor. Our plan was for you to mate with our top female Russian athletes so in 20 years or so it is us that will have the Tour de France title eight times over.

RANDY: That doesn’t sound so bad. I get to shag female athletes. Just like home.

RUSSIAN SCIENTIST 2: But unfortunately for you, the space shuttle delivering the Russian athletes was hit by one of your American missiles.

RUSSIAN SCIENTIST 1: But we have a plan!

NARRATOR: He led Randy to a tank. A man was floating in it, hooked up to tubes.

RUSSIAN SCIENTIST 1: Behold, project Z. He’s been injected with our special Russian superhuman serum.

NARRATOR: He held up a syringe.

RUSSIAN SCIENTIST 1: As you know, two men cannot mate. But we have the best doctors in the world aboard this space station. and we are prepared to do what is necessary to create a super athlete.

NARRATOR: He held up a knife.

RUSSIAN SCIENTIST 1: Yes… we will turn you into the child bearer.

RANDY: YOU CANT TAKE MY DICK!

NARRATOR: He shoved one of the scientists and dove into the syringe. He felt the super serum surging through his veins. He roared. As guards and scientists pushed in, he remembered his Krav Maga training. He snapped a scientists neck and broke another’s back over his leg. He was mad with his own power. He yanked open the door and tore down the hallway until he reached the escape pod bay. He hopped in one, fired up the controls, and, using his now hyper-intelligent brain, launched the vessel out of the evil Russian space station. But there was trouble. Anti-spacecraft turrets surfaced on the station and opened fire. A lucky shot hit the wing of his spacecraft and he lost control and spiraled down through earth’s atmosphere and crashed into the ocean. Thanks to his new powers, he survived the impact and surfaced. The water was freezing but it didn’t matter. He spotted land in the distance and began to swim, faster than he’d ever swam before, unknowingly on towards Russia, where he would singlehandedly take down the entire government and become the greatest triathlete the world had ever known. 

At last the workday was over and we were back at camp, gathered up for a debriefing. I had my little notebook in my breast pocket, ready to be pulled out and performed. I hadn’t shown Deon the script because he wanted to be surprised.

But, consumed with some trifle with Division (the people in charge of the incident) the crew boss trainee forgot all about our little punishment. “Is there anything else?” He said at the end of the debriefing. I wasn’t going to say anything. I looked around and saw one of the crew look up at Deon expectantly. Deon looked back and shook his head, eyes wide with warning. He simply wasn’t in the mood to clown around. So my little morale booster of a play was never brought to life. At least I didn’t have to struggle through all of that exposition in a Russian accent…

 

On the Black Hill

Steep terrain, secondhand smoke, and grasshoppers, oh my!

 

Our convoy of four white trucks crossed the canyon bridge and left Twin Falls behind. We all yellowed up in our trucks, a difficult task given everyone’s lack of elbow room.

About a half an hour into our drive we could see the great plume of smoke that would be keeping us busy for the next week. The driver had the passenger hand him a dip. Everyone else needed their nicotine fix as well, perhaps to mitigate whatever apprehension they had about driving straight towards an active wildfire. Since I was the only non-smoker in the truck, the guys asked if I mind if they smoked. I said no. I honestly didn’t mind the secondhand. It was a free little buzz, after all. So I was flanked by two smokers, ashing into empty plastic water bottles, with more smoke coming at me from the sawyer in the passenger seat. He asked me if I’m wearing contacts and shared some story about contacts melting in the eyes of firefighters. I dug into my backpack for my glasses and did a swap.

The closest town to the fire was Bellevue, ID, just at the base of the Sawtooth Mountains. We drove through the small town and onto hunting roads that pointed us towards the fire. We reached a gate where a cop stood guard. Our truck was the first in the convoy and our driver lowered his window. The cop said, “you guys gonna go play?”

Helicopters were flitting back and forth, dragging buckets through the air behind them. With an impressive display of aviation, the pilots would dip their buckets in a nearby lake, then fly over the fire and release the water. The fire was sunset orange against the blackened valley and was traveling down the ridge. For atmospheric reasons I didn’t (and still don’t) understand, the white smoke it was releasing wasn’t rising very high.  Eventually the fire’s progress was halted by a dozer line, which weaved its way up the hillside. With no more fuel to burn, it petered out. However, another fire picked up, moving down the adjacent hillside.  Many firefighters were perched on their engines for a better view of the action.

This new fire charged down the hill, offering plenty of visual texture complete with fire swirls. From where I was standing with all the trucks I could feel its radiant heat. The 7pm sun was still hot as well. Guys posed for selfies in front of the fire, no doubt to impress the ladies with their courage. It was a little pathetic watching them fish for “wow you are so badass” responses.

We watched the fire for a couple of hours until it had burned through and out of our sight. “Easy money baby,” said Deon. We were getting hazard pay for just being out there. The crew boss gathered us together. “The hotel and restaurants and all that shit, it’s over. MRE’s (Meals Ready to Eat) for dinner tonight.” These are a military grade prepackaged food that we carry around when we know we are going to be on the hill for a long time. MRE’s are notorious for inducing constipation, and the people who make them know it. Each contains two white squares of  gum that some of the rookies (not me, thankfully) chew unknowingly; they are there as a laxative.

Finally our crew was given the green light by the incident commander. We were delegated into three groups and all start hiking up the dozer trail we saw put a stop to one of the fires. The grade was steep and the dirt was loose. For every one step we made we slid down a half step.

Though I was doing better than many. Some people were really struggling. It was brutal terrain, unbelievably steep at parts, with ankle breaking switchbacks. I was glad I had taken the time to oil my boots that day. We were all breathing in burning sage and dust from stomping boots. An ambitious rookie had taken charge of one of the domars (a five gallon gas can for refueling the chainsaws) and he was really falling behind so I took it off his hands.

I used my hoe to pull me up the hill like an ice axe. I had to count my steps, just like Jon Krakauer did when he was climbing Everest. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, repeat. All my errant thoughts melted away. My brain could only focus on two things: breathing and walking.

Finally our group reached our assigned section of the mountain. We began gridding down the hill, putting out glowing coals and small fires. Rain was predicted but I couldn’t see any clouds in the fading light. I ate an entire packet of peanut M&Ms and then we got a radio call to move back up the hill. We climbed, gridding as we went, but the recently blackened earth was mostly cold. It was sometime around midnight when we reached another crew high up on the hill. The orange glow of their cigarettes showed up clear on the ridge top. Everyone broke out their MREs and tried to rest. I choked down a vacuum-sealed chicken stew without bothering to heat it up.

Slight winds and colder temperatures made sleep difficult. Everyone was wishing they had brought their company issued hoodie. Desperate for warmth, I ended up following the instructions to heat up the evil smelling giant hot hand heating pad that came with my MRE. It gently crackled like static as it warmed. I put it on my neck, then under my shirt, on my chest, and on my belly. It was almost too hot for my skin but the rest of my body was so cold that I had to will my thermal sensors to absorb the heat and spread it to my limbs. One of the sawyers put on his chaps just for warmth.

We blinked awake with the 6am sun and wearily made our way down the mountain slightly to meet up with the third group. Tony was among them, and we shared a look of mutual misery and understanding. “I’m ready to get the fuck off this mountain,” he said. Still, we couldn’t help but chuckle at the absurdity of our situation. In the daylight now hundreds of grasshoppers were leaping underfoot, flying out like grass clippings under a weed eater.

The crew boss told us that another crew was coming to relieve us. Our crew was exhausted. Our shift began at 9am 24 hours ago and since then we’d only had snatches of sleep. We lay down in the dirt and dozed as best we could. There was no shade to be found and the sun was getting hotter. I awakened to a grasshopper on my pants, refusing to let go. I checked my watch. It was 9:40am and no one had yet relieved us. People took to throwing rocks at other rocks to pass the time.

I wandered down the hill to a good scouting point and saw the other crew far down the mountain. They were making slow progress. One of the crew leads, a tall, tatted-up dude from Southern California on his sixth season, was pissed. He was “Holocaust hungry”. I later found out he is Jewish, so I guess it made sense for him to say that. Technically we were supposed to wait for the new crew to meet us where we were high on the hill, but we had had enough waiting around.

At noon we passed the all-Mexican hand crew, who were spread out according to their level of physical conditioning. A few fatties lagged behind their crew, several hundred feet from the middle of the pack. Had we rigidly followed our instructions, we all would’ve died of thirst before they reached us at the top of the mountain. Nothing like bureaucracy in action.

My Own Private Idaho

More staging in southern Idaho

Tony found a spot for his red truck inside the Springfield base and we hopped out. I noticed we were dressed almost identically: heather grey t-shirts, khaki shorts, gym socks, and Vans. I hoped everyone would be too preoccupied to notice; the base was a flurry of cars arriving and people packing their bags. Despite all the activity, one of the office girls saw Tony and I and yelled out, “twinsies!” and began pointing it out to anyone who would listen. Though soon all 20 of us were twinsies with our black company t-shirts, green cargos, and fire boots in various states of wear.

We stacked our red duffels in the trailer and headed for Redmond. Finally I wasn’t in the middle seat, but “right nut” in one of the roomy Fords. I found myself joking easily with the guys in our truck; there were no bosses in there to cramp our vibe. Endorphins were running high. I was proud of my decisions, unexpected and random though they may have seemed to friends and family. Somehow I was happy to be off on another adventure with these crazy people. At the same time, I recognized the transience of my merriness, which led to a deeper appreciation of my current state of giddy elation. I savored the feeling. I knew there would be hardship (shit food, boredom, lack of females, dealing with “certain” personalities), but I was getting paid, going I don’t know where to do I don’t know what.

At the Redmond base we set about getting our line packs in order and checked off. With our previous crew boss laid up with kidney stones, we were to be led by a guy from the company’s Boise base. My first thought was that he looks like a celebrity car mechanic, the type of guy who would have his own show fixing cars. You know, the kind of daytime rubbish on AMC that you would flip through unless you were totally bored or totally stupid. He’s a tall, goatee-sporting man with tattoos up both arms to his neck. One of his sleeves is horror movie themed; I recognized a bloody amputee girl carrying a chainsaw from one of the Evil Dead movies. With a calm delivery he told us us we’re going to Twin Falls, Idaho. Everyone was quiet when he talked. With his stature and overall intimidating appearance, he was a natural leader.

I filed up the stairs to the firehouse and found my fellow rookie friend sitting on the couch sifting through Netflix. It was the 18-year-old who I had waited with for those existentially excruciating two days. The most excitement in his life for the past two weeks was a trip to Bend to see the new Spiderman movie. I was so glad I picked the number seven (see previous blog post: Purgatory at the Redmond Base). I suggested he put on Hot Fuzz because I started watching it during my 36 hours at home and hadn’t quite finished it. He obliged and about five of us stuck it out through the whole thing.

The movie finished just in time for spaghetti dinner. I ended up sitting next to the wild-eyed, movie loving crew boss. When I shared my internal peril of not knowing how long we would be stuck at the Redmond base, he rattled off something in Japanese which he explains to me is some Zen phrase about patience. It turns out he has a wife in Japan. He spends his winters and springs there. I wished I were on his crew; he seems somehow more worthwhile than the other leaders I’d encountered in the company.

After dinner some of the guys and I threw a football around but it kept bouncing over the barbed wire topped fence. Showering, I realized that it was the first time I’d been alone all day.

We were up at a brutal 4:30am. Breakfast was biscuits and something that was more wet cement than gravy. All 20 of us were loaded up in the trucks and on the road by 6am on the dot. I slept until our first fuel stop. I got some coffee fuel for myself and felt inspired to read a few chapters of The Great Railway Bazaar.

My spot in the roomy Ford had been claimed that morning so I found a seat in Chevy driven by a Boise crew boss trainee. Everyone in the truck had been quiet up until the first rest stop. Once the caffeine entered our circulation, conversations got going. The Boise trainee boasted of his high school hockey record for penalties and scoring.

Inevitably, the conversation drifted toward women. “It’s really impressive when a girl can fill out a pair of Nomax (the standard issue green cargos),” someone was saying. “I mean she was good from the front but that back…” Deon starts chatting in his lazy yet lively Southern drawl. He’s Atlanta born and came out to the Pacific Northwest to “hoop”. He tells us a story about chatting up this girl at a bar. Apparently things were going really well; they were flirting, he had her laughing, until her girlfriend came out of the bathroom and threw a wrench in his game. Frustrated, he took to cross-examining the couple, trying to make sense of their sexuality and maybe get lucky in the process. His rendition of the conversation went something like this:

“Do you like cock?”

“No.”

“Do you use dildos?”

“Yes.”

“Well that doesn’t make any sense at all. How bout I just give you the real thing?”

He follows that up with a story about a wasted night back in Atlanta. He was dancing with a girl at a club and his brother was laughing and he couldn’t figure out why. Until some intuition made him feel her(?) crotch… “I started at the stomach and slid down” and he grabbed a handful of manhood. He immediately slapped her and ended up in jail. She dropped the charges. “She had no Adam’s apple,” he explained. “She must’ve had it shaved down. You gotta warn a brotha, you know what I’m saying?” Now he always “checks” a girl he’s talking to, using the same method of start ing at the stomach and sliding down.

Deon rivals the best comedians with his natural affinity for storytelling. I heard this particular story at least three times throughout our two week assignment and it never got old.

Deon’s brazenness had him posing provocative questions to the truck, ones like, “how do you feel about Trump?” There was a long pause. “Better than Hillary!” said the Boise trainee with plenty of enthusiasm. “Yeah!” chimed in the beaky guy in the middle seat. I of course said nothing. I recalled the photo framed in the Redmond base’s kitchen, the one of our firefighter company’s owner posing with George Bush. GB is rocking his trademark squint and his mouth is oddly agape; the photographer must’ve caught him mid speech. That that was the photo they went ahead and framed suggests that GB must not have lingered for more than one picture. Regardless, it is displayed proudly. When our convoy stopped briefly at the Boise base, I ran in to use the bathroom and saw the the same photo repeated on an office wall.

At the end of the seven hour drive was the College of Southern Idaho (note the acronym), where other fire trucks were stationed. Everyone had come there to stage. Numb from the paralysis of the trucks, our crew took to the grass to stretch and nap.

At 8pm our “shift” was over and the we all gathered around the crew boss. He told us that we would be staying in a hotel. He went down the list of crew members until everyone had a roommate. I was picked by the beaky guy with whom I had been switching off the middle seat the whole ride over. He has a completely shaved head and a serious nicotine addiction. At 20 years old he’s only 130 pounds. With his crude goatee, he looks like the type of guy that would be cast as the villain in a school play. He said he picked me because he “could tell I was chill”. He has a cross thickly tattooed on his forearm because his family owns a church. “I’m not religious or anything though.” Though a bit tactless and immature, he proves himself a friendly guy and an accommodating roommate.

Our provided dinner is a pepperoni pizza ordered to the hotel. I attacked a few slices and took the elevator down to the hotel pool. It was occupied by a large young military family. The boys were hucking foam footballs at each other and at the other firefighters (including Deon) who had decided to check out the pool. The two girls (I would guess aged 7 and 11) began requesting “piggyback rides”. They would swim after us and grab our shoulders and we didn’t have a choice but to parade them around the pool, diving underwater and resurfacing to their shrieks of delight. Deon was taking the roughhousing to another level by flinging the girls into the air. They would hit the water with a great echoing splash. He was beaming the whole time, looking like he was having the time of his life. It was infectious. The little girls were drawn to him like the he was the sun, except instead of radiating heat he was radiating charisma.

I fired up the steam room and it became a great place for conversation. In a steam room there is no eye-contact anxiety. Your partner’s form is shrouded and blurred and you can talk as freely as you sweat. The attractive mother of five chatted with me about working for the military. Her family gets to travel all over, which is good and bad, she said. We bonded over our fondness for Seattle; her and her family lived in Bremerton for a few years and she loves the area.

I transitioned to the hot tub, then to the pool, then back to the steam room, finishing up the Nordic cycle with a cold shower. I was feeling okay with this standby business.

And then it was day three of staging on the campus lawns of CSI. There we sat, hour after hour, in the grass under the shade of oak and willow trees. I tried to pass the time by reading The Great Railway Bazaar, which was dense, repetitive, and ultimately unsatisfying. If Paul Theroux can have a career in the travel writing business, why can’t I? I napped. I stretched, and led a few friends through a yoga session. I followed this up with some good old-fashioned PT, which included tree branch pull-ups.

All of this idle time had me rethinking the life decisions that led me to this field in southern Idaho, getting paid to do nothing for 11 hours a day. I thought I’d be seeing fires, busting my ass, and getting in tremendous shape. But no, I was lazing about, atrophying and mostly eating shit Walmart sandwiches. One labeled “Beef and Bleu” was especially gnarly; thinking about it days afterward still made me nauseous.

Why did I leave? I sacrificed so much to go down this road and to supposedly cast off as an adventure writer, all just to hit this dead end. All I could do was scheme my future inside my head. To top it all off, after the first night we had downgraded to a hotel without a pool. They did offer HBO, however, and I was finally able to catch up with 2002’s Phone Booth.

The call came on day five. One of the firefighters had bought a football at Walmart to pass the time and we had just discovered a nearby field perfect for playing catch. Someone came running over crying, “LOAD-UP” so I ran back to my truck and clambered in next to Deon and my beaky hotel roommate. I felt a mixture of relief and excitement. But somewhere in there was a vague sense of disappointment which I realized was because I wouldn’t get to see what was on HBO that night.