Don Rogers: A haunting
Late afternoon sun glinted off the red-tipped tail as the air tanker banked on approach to the Nevada County airport.
Memories came flying back of my friend Ted and a whole ’nother life.
In that life, those planes were a welcome sight, even if you caught some pink splatter. We’d watch sometimes with awe from our perches along firelines as they’d torque themselves along ridgetops and out of tight canyons.
But you get used to almost anything, including old airliners swooping where Cessnas wouldn’t dare.
So it wasn’t long before an incoming retardant drop just meant backing off to make sure what once happened to a crewmate wouldn’t happen to us. Too heavy a load dropped too low washed him down a hillside, ending his season and leaving him with a long pirate’s scar from his McLeod.
Ted was the other roommate when I chased my girlfriend from Honolulu to Santa Barbara. She lasted as long as a ride on shore break, but not before Ted and I became fast friends.
He was training to become an air tanker pilot. I’d been a bartender in Waikiki, but now was too young to buy my own drink.
“You should check out the Forest Service,” he said over beers at a barbecue with the neighbors downstairs. “You’d like firefighting, I’ll bet. You go hard during the season, and then you’re off all winter. You can go to school, go surfing, whatever you want.”
So instead of returning to Hawaii, tail tucked between my legs and facing my father’s jokes, I found the ultimate in “work hard, play hard.”
My memories blur between smoke and fog, flame and gray breakers. Between fire camps and State Street bars. Endless nights swinging a super P, scraping, chopping, metal plinking on rock. Aching wrists. Chainsaws revving and whining out ahead. Sweat chilling to cold during breaks even on warm nights, T-shirt under the yellow Nomex sopping. Laconic jokes as initial attack well before sunset wore on to sunrise and then noon, and then longer, sometimes beyond the next sunset. Days too hot for a bare hand on a metal helmet. And always wary over what the fire — roaring, crackling or silent, barely smoking — might do next.
I graduated from work crew to engine slug to the Los Prietos Hotshots. A couple of crewmates live here now: Clay Carroll and Steve French.
Ted became the co-pilot of the air tanker based at the Santa Barbara airport, a twin-tailed CJ-119 built for the Korean War.
He marveled at the hotshot crews. “Ah, any dirtbag can do what we do,” I’d say, just the truth.
It was a familiar argument, who had the more dangerous job. I explained mine was much more about endurance, punching endless line forever. Dodgeball with flames was rare, and we were too well schooled for alarm beyond a certain prudent alertness, let’s say.
Ted defied death every drop, I argued.
“Yeah, but if things go to …, you can’t fly away,” he’d say. “You’re stuck.”
“Well, that’s why we make sure we don’t get in those situations.”
One morning an 8-foot section of his wingtip popped off under the strain of a dive. Ted’s plane sheared pines and dug a crater near Frazier Park, starting its own fire.
We arrived just as the last of the body parts were bagged in black plastic. The fire had died, too. This would be an overnight mop-up shift.
A week after the crash, I drove to Ted’s hometown, Crescent City, with Sandy, his ex-girlfriend. I had thought they’d get back together.
Ted was gregarious and smooth. I envied him. I was bashful and horribly tongue-tied with women. But Sandy, who had always awed me in an entirely different way than air tankers, broke through that by San Luis Obispo. We talked nonstop the rest of the way to our destination 10 miles from the Oregon border.
I was smitten by the time we got back to Santa Barbara. To my complete surprise, she liked me too. We had a sweet affair that ended with her moving back to Florida after the passing of her father.
I’d lived just enough by then not to follow. But these things, these people, you never forget.
The air tanker dipped beneath the trees, and I punched my code on the door at The Union, deadlines to keep.
Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 477-4299.
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