When I joined the California Department of Forestry in Redding, California in June of 1956 I was seventeen, the minimum age for the tough summer occupation of fighting forest fires. Fire fighting had the reputation of quickly separating men from boys. And as a tall boy approaching manhood I had a keen desire to be viewed as a man. However, there was an unspoken rite-of-passage among fire fighters that could not be ignored. Young mettle must be tested before sanctioned. My test began at dinner during the second week on the job.
The rattling clang of the fire bell brought a chorus of groans followed by sounds of dropped utensils, scraping chairs, and running boots as the dining hall emptied. Scrambling outside, I sprinted with the others toward the equipment lockers.
Crowding through the wide garage opening we drew up in front of foreman Chet Stone who announced in his quiet voice, “A small grass fire has started south of town near the river. We’re dispatching only Blackie’s truck to check it out. Two firefighters will go with him.” Looking at me he said, “Avery, you and Malone grab your gear and climb on the back his truck.”
As Malone and I settled onto the thin cushions, the diesel engine came to life, red lights flashed, the rotary siren spooled to a scream and we went roaring out of the yard, then streaking through the south end of Redding. Clinging to our metal hats we ducked to avoid the relentless slipstream. Fire trucks were limited to 45 miles per hour in town, but making efficient use of all emergency devices, Blackie was pushing it a little. Wide lanes opened in the home bound traffic and we raced on.
It was a great honor for a new boy to be selected to ride with Blackie. He was well liked and respected for his quick thinking and good sense. His way of doing things built confidence in men. I was privileged to ride in his crew. To disappoint him was unthinkable.
Fifteen minutes later, heading along an unpaved river road, the dual tires of our truck kicked up a steady plume of dust, however our attention was focused ahead on the grayish white smoke rising beyond a stand of pines. Approaching the site we saw the fire had ignited close by the road, but was now one acre in size moving steadily up a hillside thatched with dry grass. A light breeze coaxed the flames toward the crest and a grove of tall trees beyond.
No time to dawdle. It was imperative the flames be stopped before reaching the trees, otherwise this small fire would grow into an inferno and spread beyond control. Before Blackie brought the truck to a stop Malone and I each grabbed a five gallon back pump from a bin in the rear and strapped it on. Malone was a quiet older fellow, and though his body was strong and wiry, he had slowed some with age. With the energy and agility of youth, I leaped from the truck and raced toward the faster moving flames on the right, barely aware of Blackie’s voice on the radio calling for a second truck and crew. I thought, “He doesn’t think an old man and a boy can get this fire out.”
The water-filled back pumps were galvanized metal tanks concaved to fit the back. Webbed straps laid over each shoulder then buckled together across the chest. The single hose descending from the right bottom of the tank was affixed to a slender hand pump with a nozzle which adjusted either for fine spray or a serious stream with knock-down power.
I pulled hard on the hand pump sweeping from left to right. A jet of water shot out of the nozzle and six feet of leaping flame disappeared, sputtered then attempted to rise again – down but not out. Over my left shoulder I shouted to Malone, “I’ll knock it down. Set your hand pump on spray and dampen it, keep close so it doesn’t flare up.”
In less than ten minutes, and just before cresting the hill, the flames on the right side were extinguished. Breath came in gasps and smoke stung our lungs.
From the foot of the hill Blackie gave us a thumbs up then motioned toward the left side. There the fire was trying to surge forward but the light breeze was holding it back. We quickly extinguished the flames working our way back down to the road.
Opening a bin on the far side of the truck, Malone selected two large hoe like tools each with twelve-inch blades honed sharp on one side and three-inch teeth ran along the other – a McLeod. The McLeod’s purpose was to scrape a path around the perimeter of the fire. All tinder must be hoed back. The two of us moved again up the right edge of the burned area, this time with less urgency. A crooked earthen trail three feet wide lengthened behind us.
Before reaching the top of the hill we saw the second truck arrive bringing Chet Stone and several firefighters. They soon were working up the left perimeter. Blackie motioned for Malone and me to come down.radio strap
As we approached, Blackie directed a thumb back over his shoulder toward the other firefighters, “Chet says they’ll handle the mop-up. We can head back. The cook’s keeping our dinners warm.” During the excitement of the fire fight, I had forgotten about dinner.
Blackie walked over to where Chet stood looking up the hill. I overheard him say, “You can assign Avery to my truck anytime, that kid’s a fire fighting fool.” His praise washed over me like a wave. The pride swelling my chest overpowered the gnawing hunger in my belly. Only seventeen and accepted as a man. Dang, that was heady stuff.
There is a thin line between being a young boy and a young man. Every young man should be able to point to a specific event which propelled him across that line. Important in the process is the approval of men. This is not woman’s work, but work reserved only for men; men mature in the ways of men; knowing men; men of strong moral character; men understanding in the ways of the rite-of-passage. Pitiable is the lad who wanders into manhood without the nod and approval of men.