In the morning, we arrived at the camp on the outskirts of some small town in Washington and as soon as we began pulling our bags from the back of the truck we were told to go replace our local counterparts on the fire-line. They were a chain-gang of convicts who were commonly hauled out of the penitentiary to fight fire and then make our meals back at the camp. Not only was this my first year firefighting, it was my first fire in the U.S so I was a little surprised stepping onto the set of Cool Hand Luke. The idea of these workers possibly being considered expendable by those in charge of the overall operation made me question what kind of situation we were about to find ourselves in. I expected their primary strategy to involve us being covered in fire retardant, flown up and then dropped over the fire. No sooner had I shrugged off this idea as being ridiculous, my crew and I were standing at the edge of a massive gully a kilometer away from the fire and being instructed to build a fire-guard down one slope, along the bottom of the gully and back up the opposite slope.
Instantly thinking back to the month of training I underwent to get this job, I remembered something from a lesson on fire behavor about how a gully is a particular land formation that makes for dangerous situations when near a fire— something about how a concaved structure has a higher wind velocity that perpetuates the… burning ratio… of… creating the vacuum effect that…I’m no scientist… Hell, maybe there was no danger. I can’t be certain at this point because I did end up wasting most of my time in class trying to master my ability to keep my eyes wide-open at all times, rendering those around me oblivious to the fact that I was fast asleep… I was not successful… But even if it had worked, I would still need to keep the outbursts of screaming fits, induced by my day-terrors, relevant to the topics being discussed some how and I could only imagine how difficult that would have been…
“Now, hoses come in a variety of sizes. When connecting a hose to a pump make sure it has a diameter of an inch and a half because—”
“AHHH! THE FIRE IS FAST!… RUN!…RUN RIGHT AWAY!”
“…Hmmm. Excellent point; fire does travel at amazing speeds. Thank you for bringing up the issue of running. Now remember everyone, you should not run because using your fire shelter is your safest bet. It is when you—”
“SHIT! I’M FALLING! FALLING TOWARDS THE FIRE!… OH! HOW THE FLAMES BURN MY SOUL!”
“… Yes…Ok. You should always try to have sure footing because falling can be hazardous and having good boots is key… Although, I’m not sure what you’re referring to in terms of—“
“AHHH! HERE COME THE ZOMBIE DOGS!… I’LL SAVE YOU!… QUICK, JUMP ON MY UNICORN!”
“What?…. Jeff, get it together; you’re drooling all over yourself.”
Anyways what I was getting at, before this neurotic digression, was that no matter what kind of terrain we’re on, we will face numerous flare-ups all around us because sparks travel great distances from the fire. We have to build a fireguard by digging a wide trench that will intersect the fire’s path and cut down any trees overhanging this trench to stop the fire from crawling forward, and then we extinguish any flare-ups on our side of the fireguard. The problem on this fire was that our only water supply came from two helicopters that would drop buckets on any immediate threat. Their resource was a lake a few kilometers away and because it would take them ten minutes to be any help, we were left to fight the fire with dirt... that's right... we would be throwing dirt on the fire. Unfortunately Ol’ Strong-armed McGee wasn’t on our crew that day to throw a shovel-full of dirt up a 40-ft tree that was candling.
With all of these factors, I formed an equation in my head: Being as expendable as we were + the fact that I wasn’t actually hung-over, but still drunk + the death trap we were about to climb into = A situation ripe for a fuck-up. However as soon as I remembered the most important factor - a hefty paycheque - I forgot my troubles, grabbed my tool and made my way down the gully.
My exploits from the previous night wasn’t the only thing attributing to my discomfort that day, there were other issues. One was fact that my uniform was three sizes too small because I wasn’t quick enough in raiding the company’s wardrobe. Now, I assume those who hold the typical perception of the firefighter might think of a firefighter in a tight uniform somehow alluring, but it wasn’t. I looked like an eleven year-old boy who had some how magically transformed overnight into a twenty-one year-old boy. With the expression of dread on my face, someone might have easily assumed that I also had no idea where I was or how I got there because the last thing I would have remembered was falling asleep while reading a comic book on my bunk bed.
While I’m on the subject of metamorphosis, I should mention this last analogy isn’t all that far from the truth because I did grow into my body far too quickly as a child. Due to this blessing I still find controlling my body as easy as riding an electric bull while having a seizure. Stepping onto an escalator is a life and death situation for me, so I always find climbing down a steep gully with a bunch of gear a particular treat.
We began working and my headache took form once the sex stories started following one after another; all seeming to perfect the art in being completely irrelevant to the situation. Each story topped the last but the unspoken rule of never calling anyone’s bluff, no matter how ridiculous the story, still held strong. At least I assume that was the rule because I couldn’t image anyone believing half the shit being said. When someone told me a story, they always put a substantial amount of energy in telling it and I always found it frustrating in trying to figure out what reaction they wanted from me. Maybe, “Dude, you are an animal; a tiger to be exact. Wow! I can’t just picture you doing that in my head right now… There we go… Lookin’ good tiger.”
I guess I’m also concerned for these guys, because if they ever decided to trade in their blue collars for white ones, their conversational skills might not serve them well in an office.
“Hey new guy.”
“The name’s Carl sir.”
“Carl, I’m going to need 50 copies of last month’s fiscal report on my desk by the end of the day.”
“Sure, and hopefully I’ll also have that sweet-assed secretary on your desk by the end of the day; fiscaling her report.”
“You know what I’m talking about, now don’t leave me dry and give me some skin up high [extending his hand above his head, waiting to receive a high-five]”
“[Quickly picking up the nearest phone] Security, come here immediately. I think I’m about to be sexually assaulted by the new guy.”
Since so many firefighters seemed to continuously talk about women, one might figure there would have been unwavering tolerance working alongside women, but fuck no. Having to listen to the typical complaints about the mere existence of female firefighters was just angering.
I admit, my story doesn’t take any female firefighter into account and therefore I write this as strictly through a man’s perspective; that’s because as soon as I realize women are not in this line of work to attract other women, I lose all understanding. What’s their underlying ambition? Challenging themselves to become better people?… Yeah well, I want no part of that shallow world.
Several times I heard the argument: “When it comes time to strapping a 80 lb pump to someone’s back and having them haul it up a hill, a woman wouldn’t be the one to do it.” But as I understand it, most people don’t carry the pump because they (man or woman) will avoid doing it at all cost. Sure, I’ve never seen a woman carry a pump up a hillside solo, but I’ve only seen the same three men do it every time and when one of them was me, I felt like going to collapse in tears because the thing was slowly breaking me in half. Therefore I think a slightly less disdainful statement would be, “ When it comes time to haul a 80 lb pump up a hill, anyone who isn’t built like a brick shithouse or isn’t as crazy as a rat that lives in one, wouldn’t be the one to do it.”
I’m not just saying this to avoid generalization; I’m saying this because I’ve seen zero evidence of a woman’s abilities being inferior to that of a man’s. I’ve known plenty of truly hardworking women… and some who were lazy, but there wasn’t a discrepancy between the sexes that justified this thinking.
There were only as select few who brought up the issue of women in the workforce, but sometimes the grievances became so passionate and trivial that I began to feel as if I were stuck sitting at the dinner table with that angry, drunk uncle who’s a common archetype in every family. He’s the guy who constantly wants to elaborate on his theory of how the world’s problems are the fault of those who are born without testicles or those who have no trouble keeping a tan throughout the winter. I get a little antsy when I have to listen to this because I never know if the rant is meant to be nothing more as an amusing anecdote or a cue for the S.S to burst through the door.
While all of this typical bullshit was frustrating me that day, nothing compared to working with this one particular guy. I understand that as soon as you give anyone who aspires to be the comic relief a stage that is safe, be it free from heckles or in front of an audience that will feign the slightest interest, that person will want to perform to his or her full potential. Unfortunately this guy’s audience happened to be a group of people who would be stuck in the woods together for the next three weeks and his show didn’t provide a single intermission. It was like having to work along side the lovechild of Bobcat Goldthwait and Sam Kinison and all I wanted to do is crawl under a rock.
He would REPEATEDLY do this thing that could be referred to as a catchphrase and I might ruin the intent of his joke by attempting to put it to writing, but I’ll try anyways. It begins with him arbitrarily insulting anyone who’s not present and then following his comment with a quick shaking his wrist (as if having a mighty wank) and squealing to a crescendo. It sounded something like, “Meeeeyaaa-SPLOOGE!” So here’s a random example, “No, I wouldn’t say Stevenson is the worst choice to be running the saw, but I would say he’s a writhing douchbag… meeeeyaaaa-SPLOOGE!”
… Yeah I don’t get it either. Don’t blame me, you now know as much as I do. It wasn’t listening to this every five seconds that was painful, it was trying to figure out why everyone else found his banter so endearing. My bafflement caused me to start second- guessing myself, thinking, “Maybe I should be laughing with him. This might be my fault because I don’t understand his humor. I do suppose Stevenson IS a douchbag… but wait, SO IS HE!…. Ah! This confusion makes my head hurt!”
After hour-ten I entered a limbo between inebriation and being hung-over. I noticed our fire-guard extended all the way down the gully, but it was no more than a foot wide and for some reason we hadn’t been cutting down any of the surrounding brush, despite the fact some people seemd more than happy to be lugging around the heavy chainsaws. The fire wouldn’t even flinch when crossing it.
If those in charge decided to bring in a bus full of professional mimes to do this job, they would have gotten the exact same results as they had gotten with us. The productivity of both parties would be comparable if the mimes gallivanted down the gully and put on a spectacular show; swinging their invisible axes and shovels while wearing those renowned grins that teeter on the line between idiocy and insanity.
As soon as the first flare-up happened a few of us quickly went over to it, not to put it out, but to get a picture along side it. Everyone’s enthusiasm didn’t seem to properly coincide with their lackluster imagination because they merely positioned themselves next to the flare-up as if they were posing next to a really big fish they just caught. Now, I don’t consider myself avant-garde when it comes to setting up the perfect hero-shot, but if I were to get the supreme shot it would involve me foaming from the mouth, being bare-assed naked and throwing an axe into a 45 foot wall of flame while a pack of exiled timber wolves huddled behind me for protection… No wait; make that a family of some indigenous hill-tribe…. I would also be carrying the severed head of some mythological creature pertaining to fire…. Oh! Maybe the head of the Greek god of fire, Flamius! (Don’t worry about the authenticity; I’m a wiz with papier-mâché.)… What else?…. I’d also be shooting ice beams from my eyes because that would be my superpower… I think I would title the photo “Just another Tuesday.”
At first there were not enough flare-ups for everyone to pose next too, but soon enough another one popped up and then another, until everyone had a chance get a shot next to their prized sturgeon. We were scattered throughout the gully when each flare-up conglomerated into a wall of fire dividing our crew in half.
If someone were to create a parody of the chaos that ensued it would sound something like, “[Sound of fire burning]…Oh man! Where is everyone?…EVERYONE PULL BACK!…. This totally reminds me of that time I was banging this chick in her kitchen…PULL BACK!….No man, you have to manually focus… Meeeeyaaaaa SLOOGE!…. Come over here!… We were going so crazy on each other that we didn’t even notice the stove bursting into flames… The flash didn’t go off. Are you sure you took it?… Hey, you guys over there. Get your asses up to the road… Meeeeyaaaa SPLOOGE!…. The room was burning all around us and I just kept givin’ it to her from behind…. This shot isn’t that exciting. Maybe it would be better if I were on fire… We can’t reach you. We’ll pull back here… Meeeeya SPLOOGE!…. Goddamn, I love givin’ it from behind. Who’s with me? … I’m not talking about being engulfed in flames, I’m just talking about my uniform being on fire a little bit… Just go! Quickly!… Don’t take another one! I haven’t lit my shoulders yet…. Oh yeah well that`s nothing, one time I was going so hard on this chick the friction burned all the hair off my balls …. Meeeeeyaa—SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET MOVING!”
Half of the team ran to the top of one slope, where our trucks were parked on the road and the remainder of us, which included me, ran up the opposite slope where we found a large area that had been previously burned-over. We became trapped as the flames spread throughout the whole gully and started reaching some pretty impressive heights, however, I want to emphasize that we were not in any danger because this burned spot we were on was large enough to set up three carnivals featuring this clown show. The helicopters quickly came to extinguish our escape path, but they only ended up fanning the flames even higher. Figuring that this would play out to be a long and arduous process, I immediately lied down in the ash, put my pack behind my head and passed out. It was the sweetest six hours of sleep I’ve ever had, even though I awoke now and again to those in the grueling process of trying to set up their slightly more elborate pictures. I wished someone had taken a shot of me at that point because it would have been a great hero-shot of me curled in the fetal position, with the only resources we had in the air, stoking the fire.
Now, I don’t want to give anyone the idea that going to the fire in such rough shape was anyone else’s fault other than my own. I admit it was because of my own stupidly that I didn’t second-guess my own actions and I shouldn't have been relying on the idea of some sort of all-rational authority that would keep my foolishness in check. The most practical thing for me to have done would have been refusing to go to work the night before, but no; I did what I was told, I folded, I rolled over, I was a lackey, I was a mindless drone. Sure, when it comes time when we’re living in an oppressive dystopia, I’ll be the first one to be seen on the streets, soliciting state propaganda with a glazed look in my eyes, but as soon as someone orders me to go fight fire in a gully somewhere in Washington, I’ll be the first one to lead the resistance (garbage cans through storefront windows and all.)
Thinking back on all of this now, I realize that for all its flaws, these were some of the most exciting times of my life and it was enjoyable working with the majority of these people. I would not trade these memories for anything.
It’s a strange thing to consider, but I guess I can say that I’ve reached some sort of milestone because no matter what I do for a career from here on in I can always sit back and point out the hero-shot above the mantle every time my children start complaining about hard times. This is the equivalency of having one of those college football trophies that qualify middle-aged men who are handicapped with hobbled knees to shout constructive obscenities at T.V. every Sunday. Of course, I will have to be careful as to whom I have over for company because as soon as a fellow coworker spots it, he or she might expose the real story behind the photo… unless they become distracted by the really nice picture frame I have it in.