Don Rogers: The ghost of Bonehead |

Don Rogers: The ghost of Bonehead

Stan Stewart, aka Bonehead, superintendent of the Los Padres Hotshots.
Los Padres Hotshots/File |

A reporter comes as me one Halloween decades after I’ve left the hotshots.

He tapes a paper cutout of the fire crew’s insignia on a ball cap, just like in one of the pictures I keep as a totem in my office. Same with a green T-shirt, our uniform around the station.

But who is this person strutting around, flexing his biceps, swaggering and growling and grunting, eyes popping to emphasize instructions perhaps insufficiently understood? Who is the reporter impersonating, putting a staff the size of a 20-strong hotshot crew into stitches? No one’s even trying to hold back.

Who is this? Surely not me with my trademark aloha spirit, my chill self, still a whiff of the surf in my bearing. The me I know inside.

No, this is … Bonehead? Bonehead! My foreman back then, glaring when I slipped a gear driving the crew truck, missed a message over the radio with a helicopter or air tanker overhead, did one of the innumerable stupid things I did, or said just to mess with him.

Bonehead, for balding prematurely and for his, um, straightforward personality. This blunt, burly, square-jawed fireman built like a linebacker, who called us pencil necks because he could. This bear whose growls and grunts masked one of the brightest people you or I could ever know.

—     —     —

I’m in the office at the station, with the superintendent of the full crew and Bonehead. Must be 1984. My crowning achievement to date — the Santa Barbara News-Press gave a story I wrote the B section front — lent me some notoriety for a day and something else, more lasting.

“Cage, you’re a writer,” Bonehead said. This was short for Birdcage, a nod to my physique.

“Why, thank you!”

“So you can write our reports” and be the secretary, basically.

Oh, great.

Right now, Supe is chewing on me for rearranging things.

“Nobody messes with this desk, understood?” he barks.

I’m hollering back: “Maybe if it didn’t look like a preschool romper room in here I wouldn’t have to …”

Bonehead and Supe look at each other.

“Remember when Cage was a rookie?” Bonehead says.

“Oh yeah, quiet as a mouse. I remember.” Supe chuckles. “Never said a thing unless spoken to.”

“I think I like that Cage a lot better,” Bonehead says and expertly spits a slug of tobacco juice into a Gatorade bottle he carries for the purpose.

But I’ve grown some over the years, from trying to make the team to taking Bonehead’s place while he finishes the season on a special project at the forest SO. I might be a little overly proud of my temporary ascension.

—     —     —

I’m a rookie, holding line on a dirt road in the Monterey District while we set a controlled burn. “Holding” means most of us space out about 150 feet apart and watch for spot fires on the “green” side of the road.

It’s early season and there’s not much danger of a spot fire. Actually, it’s hard to get any fire going.

Bonehead is making his way along the road, stopping to chat with each of us, identical other than our hand tools in smudged yellow shirts and green fire pants under orange aluminum helmets, each bearing 30-40 pounds of canteens, head lamps, fusees, maybe saw gas and oil, C rats in cans, and in my case a thin paperback in my pack, most likely a Louis L’Amour western.

Looks like I’m about to have my first conversation beyond a grunt and a nod with the boss.

“I hear you have a good lookin’ sister,” he starts, as if in disbelief looking at me.

—     —     —

We’re beating dirt with our super p’s, ax on one side and grubbing end like a pick’s on the other, somewhere around Camarillo, one of these perpetually burnt-looking places between Ventura and Thousand Oaks.

A few of us pencil necks are digging trenches, the worst, beneath where the fire has burned to make sure nothing hot rolls over the swath of mineral soil we chew up and scrape around the black edge. There’s not a hint of smoke this morning, already hot. But every fire must be lined, and so we do — up, down, around every crooked finger. These are the longest days, flames and action long gone.

Bonehead is making his foreman rounds, scouting ahead, checking on progress, keeping us safe and on task. As he passes he stops, grabs one of our p’s and starts swinging, really tearing it up. This lasts about a minute as we watch.

Then he hands the tool back, muttering something like, “Like this, blankety-blank FNG pencil necks.” Something like that.

Only he can’t quite keep from smiling, or maybe it’s a grimace, hard to tell sometimes. And moves on.

We look at each other, mock him a little when sure he’s gone. But we’re kind of giddy, too.

When Bonehead does this, it means you’re OK. You’re on the team. You made it. How to describe this? It’s like playing for the Yankees or the old Super Bowl Raiders, and in a sense that’s exactly right. We, at least, believe this is the top crew of its kind in the entire world.

I still believe it.

—     —     —

Bonehead is looking down at me from a dirt road somewhere atop a ridge, easily 100-foot flames ripping in the distance. I’ve just emptied a drip torch while clambering atop head-high brush on a steep slope, thrashing my way along branches over the ground and just ahead of the flames I’ve set.

Fire has a magnetic-like attraction to fire, and so we light a backfire away from the line first so it will pull the flames we set a little later along the line, and the main fire ideally will pull the whole backfire toward it.

Crewmates also are throwing napalm canisters with long fuses further down the slope as I drip fire. It can be quite an operation, sometimes spectacular.

With the torch empty, I’ve clawed back up to the road, thighs burning, lungs burning. I’m hands on knees, sweat-sopped, heaving. Spent.

Bonehead, with a smile: “How’re you doing?”

Me, nodding: “I’m good.”

Bonehead: “Really? You look shot.”

Me: “No, I’m good.”

Bonehead, growling now, eyes starting to pop: “Great, Cage. Let’s go then. We don’t have all … day.”

—     —     —

“Who is this girl you’re spending all your time with now?” he asks at the station.

I shrug. “You haven’t been to the store in weeks.” Our hangout after work. You’d think a group like us, spending so much of our time together during busy fire seasons, couldn’t wait to get away after a regular day. But no. Cold cans of Bud or Coors, peanuts, barbecue sandwiches, all the fires refought, all our stupid stories retold, all those laughs and some serious discussions, too.

“You in love or something?”

I shrug noncommittally. I am, but we’re laconic in these days and so I feign casualness, just another girl. Admit nothing. Act cool.

“I want to meet this girl you’re so in love with and can’t go a day without,” he says, half in grunt, half in growl, and just a trace of a smile.

So we meet at a restaurant in town, maybe Joe’s, on Lower State.

I should note she’s from Indiana, and even worse, South Bend. “Notre Dame sucks,” he declares just about first thing. He’s a huge fan of USC football.

“At least a degree means something from Notre Dame,” she snaps. “SC’s just a bunch of thugs who don’t even go to class, and we’re still better.”

I take a deep breath. Let it out slowly.

He grunts, stares at her, big-eyed. She stares back, big-eyed.

“She’s all right,” he tells me later.

“How’s the Midget?” he still asks 33 years into our marriage.

She’s not so crazy about the appellation, but she loves him. They all do.

—     —     —

We’re at Derf’s, a burger and beer place at Mission and De La Vina, just back from a fire started by an air tanker when it crashed during a drop, killing one of my buddies, the co-pilot.

Bonehead buys me my beer. “It’s hard losing a friend,” he says. “Real hard.”

—     —     —

“Call Stan,” she says toward the end of summer. “I’ve been thinking about him.”

“Still above ground,” he growls. “It’s a good day. I’m having a beer.”

He’s between rounds of chemo. I imagine him sitting at the doorstep of his house in Buellton, still drinking crappy Bud Light. We have a good, long talk. He’s got time.

“How’s the Midget?” he asks. I picture him nodding with a little smile as I tell him, and he grunts out some smartass reply about her rooting for the wrong team and putting up with me all this time. Probably the only person who could, he adds.

—     —     —

The RIP postings start showing up on Facebook in the evening Nov. 4 and on the YouCaring site set up for him. I recognize some names; many more I don’t.

Bonehead started as a sawyer in 1974, was a foreman by the time I joined in 1980, and finished out as the Supe the last decade of his 40 some years on the crew. He fought his cancer for nearly 10 years.

This is hard. Real hard, I see, for generations of us. I wonder how many also bear some of his spark, maybe like me without even realizing it, better people for our time with him.

Publisher Don Rogers can be reached at or 477-4299.

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