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?”
“Do you use dildos?”
“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.