I started exchanging physical labor for fiat currency when I was about 12 years old. Nine-month stints spent within indoctrination facilities were interrupted by summers spent clearing fields of woody debris: Small landowners converted forests to fields and other youngsters and I tossed sticks onto a “low-boy” trailer pulled by a slow-moving tractor. At the end of the day, my mom wouldn’t let me into the house until she sprayed off the first few layers of dirt with a hose. My first job was called, “picking sticks.” It was miserable work for little pay.
A couple years later, when I was stronger, I moved up the small-town ladder. Former forests had become fields of alfalfa, and I bucked bales onto a trailer pulled by a slow-moving tractor. A short ride later, we stacked the bales in the barn. The per-hour pay of $2.50 represented a modest improvement over my previous employment. Equally importantly, I felt more like a man and less like a boy when I took responsibility for my own shower at the end of the work day.
Beyond sticks and bales
A few odd jobs later I landed the premier employment opportunity for an 18-year-old athlete living in a small town in the interior western United States. On 1 July 1978 I secured the title of Fire Control Aide I for the Idaho Department of Lands. I wore the uniform of the era: leather work boots, a long-sleeved cotton shirt, blue jeans and a Bowie knife on my belt (the latter for easy access to cut a fire hose).
Naturally, this gig was strictly for summer. I was headed for college and, unlike the majority of today’s youngsters, I was prepared for college, at least with respect to knowledge and work ethic. I was, of course, socially, emotionally, and psychologically naive. But I was certain the ticket out of a life of labor in Nowhereburg went through college.
Along with another neophyte smokechaser, I was driven by our supervisor to the remote field camp where we were stationed. Neither of us possessed a vehicle — I bought my own first car a few years later, a thought anathema to today’s generation of entitled teens — so we were relegated to bumming a ride with anybody headed in the right direction. Since that direction included only the barest semblance of civilization, there wasn’t much traffic. On that first day of employment, the supervisor spent considerable time teaching us how to read a map along the route while he hammered into us the importance of introducing ourselves to our few neighbors as we completed the “make-work” tasks befitting young men employed for their ability to conduct strenuous manual labor for many hours at a stretch between weeks spent warding off boredom (at the time, all Fire Control Aides working for the Idaho Department of Lands were men).
It was cloudy and cool as Bill and I were driven more than two hours onto the wild Joseph Plains (named for the famous chief of the Nez Perce tribe). By the time we arrived, rain was falling. Three days into an uninterrupted downpour, we were called back to town and ordered to drive the WWII-vintage Willys jeep. Bill hailed from the city and he seemed even more inept than me so, assuming control as a control freak would, I took the wheel. The seat belts were buried beneath the recalcitrant only seat, so we didn’t bother with them.
The wipers swept the windshield erratic only when I decelerated. The defroster didn’t defrost. And every puddle in the pock-marked gravel road shot through the floor boards. Trying to cure these three ills simultaneously with a roll of paper towels led to the expected conclusion. Right before the lights went out, I recall the road coming up to meet my face.
So much for assuming control of the situation.
Thrown from the vehicle, I awoke flat on my back and opened my eyes to utter darkness. “That’s not right,” I thought. I closed my eyes, rubbed them with my fingers, and opened them again. Cleared of the blood that had pooled in the sockets, my eyes found the clouds. I blinked into the falling rain. Problem solved.
Turning my head allowed me to see a swath of detritus between me and the jeep, now firmly lodged against a pine tree, albeit surprisingly resting on four wheels. Two shovels, two canteens, a hose reel, and two Pulaskis — the famous fire-fighting tool wielded by my grandfather and father before me — comprised a 10-foot-wide strip about a hundred feet from me to the tree.
Bringing myself to a standing position proved challenging. I had no feeling in my left leg below my hip. Yet again I thought, “that’s not right.” My two-sizes-too-small brain was stuck on obvious, with only three words at my disposal.
I remembered my traveling companion, and shouted his name a few times. Bill finally responded, and seemed no worse for wear. He wasn’t limping, and his head was bleeding slightly less than mine. Next up: find a ride to town.
Within a matter of minutes, a pickup truck appeared on the scene. The rancher rolled down his window and silently looked us over. I asked for a ride to the nearest hospital, and he invited us onto the bench seat.
Bill propped up his head — now I noticed it wasn’t staying upright unless he held it up — and introduced us: “I’m Bill, and this is Guy. We’re Fire Control Aides with the Idaho Department of Lands.” The uppercase letters in our shared title were obvious. I was proud of the title, too.
The man behind the wheel responded, “I’m Jack Green.”
Rinse and repeat
Lacking feeling in my left leg, I asked Jack to take us to the nearest hospital. He pointed out that the nearest hospital was run by nuns in Cottonwood. I said that’d be fine. He recommended spending the extra half hour to drive to the hospital in Grangeville. I insisted to the contrary, my leg causing concern I was unable or unwilling to articulate while Bill and I passed the roll of paper towels back and forth to swab our bleeding foreheads.
Yet again, Bill pushed his head upright on his neck and introduced us, his voice tinged with pride: “I’m Bill, and this is Guy. We’re Fire Control Aides with the Idaho Department of Lands.”
Jack responded, “I’m Jack Green.”
Immersed in self-pity, I stared out the passenger-side window at the rain-soaked countryside. Every few minutes I’d wrest the roll of paper towels from Bill, peel off the outer layer or two, and apply it with all the pressure I could muster to my lacerated forehead. His own head unsupported by his hands and the roll of paper towels, Bill’s head would then fall onto his shoulder. As if for the first time, he’d push his head upright on his neck and introduce us, his voice tinged with pride: “I’m Bill, and this is Guy. We’re Fire Control Aides with the Idaho Department of Lands.”
Ever the gentleman, Jack would respond, “I’m Jack Green.”
A few dozen repetitions of this routine left me with one remaining nerve, and it was raw and exposed. Every time Bill introduced us, I yelled at him to shut up. The rancher, cool as the falling rain, never failed to introduce himself in the same level tone.
There’s no way I was riding an extra 30 minutes with these two fools. I didn’t know many Catholics, but I wasn’t afraid of nuns. We’ll take the first stop, please.
About my leg
Covered with blankets but still shivering from shock shortly after landing bottom-side up on a gurney, I was congratulating myself for making it this far. I was still worried about my numb left leg, but I could no longer hear Bill’s endless identical introductions, and the hospital didn’t seem so bad. It probably helped that I’d had no prior experience with hospitals. Not as a patient, in any event.
Had I been fully cognizant, the veritable absence of activity would have served as a warning beyond the one offered by Jack Green. Not only was I not fully cognizant, I was self-absorbed, as usual, and also busily bargaining with the Christian god I thought I’d abandoned a few years earlier. Blood was pouring out my forehead, I was shaking like a hummingbird in hailstorm, and my left leg was dead.
Enter the nun. She came in behind me, removed the blankets to expose my naked backside, and promptly removed the blade of the Bowie knife previously embedded into my left cheek. The one characterized by the large muscle known as gluteus maximus. The feeling returned in my left leg quite abruptly. My leg afire in pain, the nun waves the broken blade before my eyes and asks, “Is this yours?”
My immediate thought: Please put it back.
My second thought: I should’ve listened to Jack Green about the hospitals.
The latter thought was reinforced several times during the subsequent 24 hours. For example, the ER doctor was stitching up my forehead while the nun was pouring Novocaine into the new hole in my left cheek. Each burning drop of Novocaine caused my head to jerk into the man with the needle, thus assisting the mostly incompetent doc with the suturing process. Far more importantly was Bill’s broken neck, which the hospital failed to diagnose. I can only imagine how much money I cost the Idaho Department of Lands when Bill and his family sued the organization. Then, as now, I had the good fortune of having nothing for which to sue.
As always, I’m Mr. Silver Lining. Shortly after the voluminous reports were complete, every vehicle under the care of the Idaho Department of Lands sported a roll-bar. In this most litigious of societies, my actions induced the organization to protect against idiocy by protecting idiots. We progressives call this progress.
And there’s a bit more, although it’s as personal as this self-indulgent essay. If you’ve made it this far, there’s still time to avert the worst.
I learned a lesson about immortality. I don’t have it.
I learned a lesson about control. I don’t have it, either.
I learned a lesson about hubris. Suddenly, I had less. By now, I have considerably less than I did in 1978.
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