Thursday, March 1, 2007

Part 2 - Wild-Land Firefighters: We Save Babies

Now I’d like to tell the story of my most exciting experience while wild-land firefighting.

After returning home from a 21-day tour in Northern Saskatchewan, I decided not to join my crew for the standard homecoming celebration; instead, I waited one week so I could celebrate with a different crew that was coming back from Alberta. It’s not that I didn’t want to spend that extra night with my workmates because we weren’t getting along, it was because I had already surpassed my threshold for consistent bonding-time with these people and a few drinks could have caused me to finally snap, where I might have resorted to beating the smallest one of them to death with my left shoe.

It must have been one of the most prosperous seasons I had ever known because the company treated the crew returning from Alberta to a night out at a pricey restaurant. During the celebration, none of the higher-ups noticed I wasn’t part of this crew and I only intended on getting some free drinks and a meal. Half way through, the owner of the company, King Misfit, stood up at the end of the table to give one of his ritualistic speeches.— I take the time in describing this character because he embodies much of the senselessness involved in firefighting and I like to think he’s effective in foreshadowing any protagonist’s misfortune.— He was a boisterous and ambitious soul who at first glance could be likened to Santa Clause, but as soon as he opened his mouth he revealed an embitterment that Santa could only have developed had he been shot down over Vietnam and taken as a P.O.W. at some point during his career. I found his arrogance genuinely concerning because it caused me to contemplate all other possible realities if he were living under different circumstances. For instance, had he been born in a developing country with the slightest political instability, his skills in power-tripping his childhood ant farm might have led to a career well beyond the scope of dictating his own fire crews. His zealousness in keeping us in-check through continual, unjustified, public tirades gave everyone a new perspective on tough-love. I never understood what he expected to inspire when he felt like busting everyone’s balls.

Ever since grade one I’ve had a dislike for people speaking to me like I was still in kindergarten and whenever Saint Nick decided to speak to us like we were some little league sports team holding him back from the peewee championships, I had a greater urge to play my assumed roll and embrace incompetence; maybe eat a box of crayons, take off my pants on a whim, or go into a spontaneous temper-tantrum where I cry with such intensity I throw up; Bring out that overgrown four year old inside me just in spite of him.

Anyways, before my own bitterness upstages his any further, I’ll move along and mention that this night was the first time we weren’t scorned for abusing company equipment, but praised for a season nearly well done.

‘“Rumor has it we’ll be going to the States soon boys!” he raised his glass. “Yup, anytime now! Be sure to have your gear packed and ready!... Until then, drink up!”

This news sent many into an ecstatic frenzy of high-fives and joyous obscenities because going to the U.S. meant our wages escalated slightly. However, I refused to believe this news because I was familiar with his reputation for making false assurances for upcoming work. His details and self-convictions were so outlandish, I figured that the only way his stories contained the slightest shred of truth was if he were planning on setting the fires himself. After working for him for some time, no one would have raised an eye brow had he explained, “Rumor has it we’ll be going to the moon boys! For years scientists have been telling me there’s no source of revenue up there, but they’re full of shit! You all better start training underwater!”

Despite all of this I tried to focus my attention on consuming as many free drinks as I could. After all, I was still shocked by the boss’s insistence that we “drink up.”

Imagine how a beaten dog cowers at the first sight of his master’s extended hand, but once realizing that the hand is merely trying to offer food, the dog instantly consumes everything before there’s a chance of it being taken away. Just like this dog, I saw the beer situation as uncommon generosity, so I tried drinking everything I could at the speed of wind.

When the night started getting messy, we left the owner at the restaurant and sauntered up the road to a nearby club. It was a typical night of us making fools of ourselves until 11 o’clock when the music came to an abrupt halt and the DJ announced that all firefighters need to meet outside immediately.

Panic set in because we realized that not only was the omen quite real but it was to happen far sooner than anyone could have expected. Some of us sped around the club aimlessly, bumping into each other shouting, “OH MAN, THEY’RE SENDING US NOW! HOW CAN THEY DO THAT? I CAN’T DRIVE TO THE STATES! ... Oh quick, look behind you…… Hi ya ladies. We’re just on our way to make war with the elements. Care to help us in our quest to extinguish some burning-hot lodgepole pine wood... in our PANTS! HA! [Both firefighters high-five each other, unaware of the self-depreciating nature of the last comment]”

Eventually we all found our way outside where several of our crew bosses, who hadn’t attended the festivities, were waiting. “They wanted to send our crew to Washington in two hours.” One of them said, “But they realize you’ve all been celebrating tonight, so they’ve decided to send the other crew tonight and then the rest of you tomorrow. So I suggest you all go home and get some sleep.”

I was amid the shit-storm of high-fives when one crew boss confronted me, “Jeff? You’re not part of this team,”

“No… no, I’m not.” It slowly dawned on me, “No… No they can’t!” I pleaded.

“Your crew’s heading out right now. You better get to the office.”

If, instead of breaking this news to me, he suddenly decided to empty half a can of bear spray in my face then continually kick me in the ass as I stumble around, I would have faired a far better mood. Hell, knowing the alternative I might have been able to shrug off those actions as quirky, lighthearted humor, “Oh boy, you got me-OUCH!...That was a good one-OW!... But in all seriousness, I better go home so I can get some slee— AH CHRIST!”

That night my brother woke up to a phone-call from an irate drunk shouting, “The States!… They’re sending me!…. This instant!…shit!…. Need to pack!… Please pick me up!.. Shit!..... SHIIIIT!” My brother picked me up in ten minutes and drove me to my parents’ house, where he thankfully helped me gather what I needed.

When I met my sober crew they were loading up the trucks outside the office and a few of them shook their heads, laughing at me. “Boy someone’s going to have a rough day,” someone quipped. Who ever said it was lucky my left shoe wasn’t untied because if I had easy access to it his funeral director might not have been able to conceal the Reebok emblem imprinted onto his forehead.

Once again, to be continued...