In 1974 I was the newest member of a start up hotshot crew, a Forest Service newbie. Back then we were inter-regional hotshot crews. Of course I had no idea what any of that meant, because this was my first summer on a crew and I was their last hire of the season. Apparently they lost someone else and as a last resort and at the urging of a friend of mine already on the crew, they hired me.
I was unprepared for life on a hotshot crew because I didn’t even know what it meant to fight a wildland fire. Did we use hoses like a city fire engine? Did we hike a lot? I was in for a hard miserable summer but didn’t know it yet.
By the time I arrived in the small mountain mining town with a ranger station, the classroom fire training had already been completed. I wouldn’t even get a basic explanation of our job and what I was supposed to do. My first day on the job, I was even told they had no line gear for me to use.
“You’ll have to go to an Army surplus store and buy some webbing, canteens and a small pack to carry your gear”, the crew boss told me.
Everyone else on the crew had already been issued their gear, but there was none for me. It didn’t make me feel like I was wanted on the crew. I was already an experienced backpacker so it wouldn’t be hard to figure out what I needed. Everyone else got their gear from the agency but me. Ok, no problems. I was just happy and excited to be a firefighter… whatever that meant.
Very quickly I learned that the crew boss didn’t like me. He hated when I asked questions. And I asked lots and lots of questions. Of course I had questions. I had no idea what cutting a fireline had to do with putting out a brush fire in chaparral. I was dumb. But without the basic training all rookie firefighters attend, how was I to know? During training exercises I’d ask,
“Uh, why are we cutting this trail? What does this have to do with putting out the fire”?
“Shut up Scopa”!
“But I was just wondering….”.
“Shut Up and DIG”!
First Summer of a Forest Service Newbie
That’s how my first summer went fighting fire for the US Forest Service. I loved the physical aspect of the job. I loved being outdoors, sharpening my assigned tools, hiking and I absolutely loved fighting the fires. I already knew my future was not going to be on this crew. I would learn what I could on my own by watching and go on to another District and another crew next year. For now I had to have some fun and learn on my own. There were some good guys on that crew that I felt safe and friendly with. But I was an outsider compared to all the locals. One of them even kept making unwanted crude sexual comments towards and about me. But no worries, I would stick it out because I was more stubborn than they were. But how to survive?
“Uh, do the guys on the fire engine cut line too”?
“I said Shut Up Scopa!”
“But I was just curious…”
“SHUT UP AND DIG”.
Wrestling With Arms and Ego
Slowly I learned I could get some satisfaction from asking dumb questions of the crew boss. The more questions I asked, the hotter the crew boss got. Most of my questions were legit but some were asked just to get a reaction. I’d act all innocent when I was asking the questions, but in reality I got some enjoyment from pissing him off. I already knew he hated me. So if I could get a giggle from my fellow crew members when they saw him get mad from a seemingly innocent question, that was satisfying in an odd sort of way. I was already on his shit list. Might as well enjoy the ride.
One evening, the crew went out for beer and pizza. This was a very rough town. And you didn’t go out to a bar by yourself if you didn’t want to get beaten up or worse. Those evenings that the crew went out for a beer together made me feel like I was really out with my brothers. While drinking pitchers of beer down at the old Wheatfield Pizza and Bar, we started arm wrestling. No one thought I had any chance of being any good, but I won a few rounds. Then it was my turn to take on the crew boss. We were both already under the influence when he sneered at me and said,
“OK Scopa, your turn”.
I didn’t say anything. I had no thought that I could beat the almighty crew boss in an arm-wrestling contest. He was a tough guy. He’d been a firefighter for a long time. On the other hand, I knew I was kind of strong but c’mon… this was the crew boss I would be arm wrestling and I was the lowest person on the crew. So I sat down across from him. The crew all stood around the table which was covered with pitchers of beer and half full glasses. He had that same old goofy look on his face that he always had. He hated me and I wasn’t too fond of him either, but he had all the power. Well he did, but not that night. That night I beat him in an arm-wrestling contest.
The crew started yelling. The crew boss jumped up and was pissed off!
“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it. This is Bullshit”! “How could Scopa beat me”? “Bullshit”!
Heck, I couldn’t believe it either. I just stood up with a big smile on my face not knowing what had just happened. I didn’t say anything. I just walked around the bar while everyone slapped me on my back. I had gained some status that night. But by tomorrow, once again I’d be lower than whale shit on the bottom of the ocean.
Poking the Bear
One of the projects our crew worked on while not assigned to a fire was building a barbed wire fence around a recreation site near town. It was on top of a steep mountain. We worked on that project all summer. We cut juniper for the posts and carried them up and down slopes so steep we were often on our hands and knees. Digging holes for the corner posts and H braces was like digging through solid rock. You know how that can be. It’s hard work.
Now that the entire crew had watched me beat the crew boss at an arm-wrestling contest, the crew boss was being particularly nasty to me. Not too far out of his normal, but I couldn’t even get a civil response to any comment or question I might have. Even if those questions were about how a particular H brace was to be built or how tight the barbed wire was supposed to be. Now, even legitimate questions were scoffed at, the familiar response rang in my ear.
“Shut up Scopa”!
At this point it became comical. My fellow firefighters began to laugh and roll their eyes when they heard the crew boss yell at me. I figured if I was never going to work on this crew again, I might as well go out with a grin and a giggle.
During one of those days up on the mountain building fence, our lunch spot was in the shade under some big old Doug firs. We were all eating our sack lunches, telling stories and laughing at each other’s misfortunes of bruised knuckles and torn jeans from the arduous work. As is often the case, hard work can often be a team building experience. This was that opportunity and the crew was enjoying the cool shade and relaxation before we went back to the afternoon’s toil.
A Joke Backfires
At one point while we were all relaxing, the crew boss made a comment that my smart-ass self just had to respond to. I mean, I could not pass up an opportunity to mess with the boss. He had been ridiculing me all summer and then I had the audacity to beat him in an arm-wrestling contest. How dare I? The crew boss wasn’t the smartest guy on the crew. So I had to be subtle with my comments. I couldn’t just come out and call him a monkey with a redcard. All these years later I don’t remember what he said and how I responded, but I made sure my comment was a delicate attack on his intelligence. I assumed he wouldn’t get the joke but if he did get it, I’d be in big trouble.
I was lucky. The verbal jab went right over his head. But it didn’t go over everyone else’s head and a few of my friends started laughing while looking at me. The crew boss wasn’t happy. He knew something was up and looked from face to face of the crew trying to figure out the joke. I assumed my innocent face and looked back at him. All of a sudden his face changed, he got the joke. Oh no, I’m in trouble now.
“Scopa, you think you’re so smart. I’ve got a project for you. After lunch you can just drop this Doug Fir snag right there”.
Next to our lunch spot was a Doug Fir snag that had been dead for many years. It was hard as a rock and about 6 feet in diameter.
“I can cut that down, awesome”!
In all my time on the crew, they never once let me touch a chainsaw and for some reason, I thought all of a sudden the boss was going to let me drop a huge dangerous snag. Forget all the environmental and safety red flags this raises. I thought this was a chance to drop a monster tree. It would have been my first time with the saw. Of course it made no sense and of course he had no intention of me using the chain saw. There’s status in using the chainsaw and he would be conferring no status to me that afternoon.
“No, no chainsaw. You’re going to drop it with your Pulaski”!
Everyone on the crew starting snickering and laughing under their breath. No one wanted to get involved and incur the wrath of the crew boss. But one of my friends who had gotten the joke and was now laughing out loud, was soon singled out by the crew boss.
“You, Smith. You’re going to help. The two of you drop that snag after lunch… with your Pulaski’s”.
Now the entire crew was laughing at us. How could we possibly drop a 6’ DBH hard as rock snag with our Pulaski’s.
Lessons in the Oddest Places
The crew stood around and watched us we sized up the tree before they hiked off to work on the fence for the afternoon. The tree was so big that one of us could start hacking at the face cut while the other worked on the back cut. We couldn’t even see each other while swinging our Pulaski’s. My face cut had to have been close to two feet tall and my arms were falling off from the fatigue of wailing away on that old tree. We’d stop to sharpen our tools and rest our arms every so often. We were sweaty and tired but amazed that our old “project” Pulaski’s had cut as much wood as they had. But after a few hours I was swinging with my whole body. It was as if my arms were wet noodles. I was now swinging at my waist to get the Pulaski to move at all.
By now, the crew had reassembled at the lunch spot waiting for us to finish the job. We had been cutting on this behemoth for over 3 hours now and there was still at least three feet of holding wood. My face cut was the ugliest face cut you’ve ever seen. Imagine a beaver with dull teeth gnawing at a giant tree. That was my face cut. It was a rounded off half moon of a cut. It was ugly and my arms wouldn’t be usable for days. Everyone was getting antsy. They wanted to get back down the mountain to clean and up put away the tools before it got too late. But the crew boss needed to extract his due for a bit longer.
Finally when he saw our progress had slowed to some miserable little chips coming out of our mining operation, he finally called one of the sawyers over to finish our job. This ancient tree that had been standing for a few centuries, came down after a couple minutes of saw work. I was happy I was done with that one.
I finished the season with that crew. I think they were just as happy to be rid of me as I was to move on. I went on to have a long career in the fire service, both with the US Forest Service, BLM and several Fire Departments. But I still smile and laugh when I remember asking my questions, some innocent, some not. I laugh at the memories of trying to act and look guiltless that summer while trying unsuccessfully to fit in.
I learned a lot that summer. I learned what not to do on a crew and with a boss that didn’t like me. Even though I never received any formal training, I learned a lot about fire tactics. I learned about line construction. I even learned about leadership. Because you can learn a lot whether the leader is a good one or not. But I learned a lot about me too. One thing that I learned that summer is that a good laugh is worth a few days of limp noodle arms.
Both Sides of the Fire Line is Bobbie Scopa’s uplifting memoir of bravely facing the heat of fierce challenges, professionally and personally. It’s due out in September and available for preorder now.
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