True ecologists and proponents of chaos theory will say everything and everyone is connected. With a gentle half-smile, they will explain how the slight air movements made by the flitting wings of a butterfly in China will have effects around the globe. Pondering such fundamental connections, I know with certainty that a man I never met influenced the course of my life.
It was early June of 1979 and the second day of the long drive from California to Idaho. I was due to report to work on June 11, as a rookie smokejumper at the McCall smokejumper base. With five previous seasons of firefighting experience under my belt on engines, hotshots and helicopters, I felt comfortable with my technical skills and had been working out extensively in preparation for the physical demands of smokejumping. The required physical fitness test of a 1.5-mile run under 11 minutes, 25 pushups, 7 pull-ups and 45 sit-ups was given on the first day. It was understood that passing this test only indicated a minimum fitness level for success in the rookie program. I had also been consuming large quantities of high-calorie food, to gain the 5 pounds I needed to meet the minimum smokejumper weight requirement. Ice cream, cookies, pastries and candy were regular menu items each day. On the day of my departure, the bathroom scale satisfactorily recorded exactly 130 pounds.
Two days of driving allow a person much time to think. As I considered the challenges facing me in my new job, excitement and exhilaration alternated with apprehension and nervousness. Parachuting from a plane, carrying 100-pound packs on mountainous terrain and climbing trees posed the most difficult tangible aspects of the job. The intangible challenge was the fact that, if successful in completing rookie training, I would be the first woman smokejumper in the United States. The smokejumper community was close, much like a fraternity, and there would be some who would resent and resist a woman's entry into an exclusively male world.
Fit but Underweight
At McCall there was no women's barracks, so I settled into a small trailer in the married smokejumpers' housing area. On Monday morning, I reported to work along with ten other nervous rookies. After an orientation period, two of us who appeared outside the regulated acceptable weight range (130-190 pounds) were separated from the group and taken to the hospital to be weighed. A nurse took me to a private room with a scale, asked me to undress and formally documented my weight at 125 pounds. I knew my weight had dropped since leaving California, primarily due to nervousness, but I had not expected this to be an issue. Later that afternoon, the physical fitness test was administered to all the rookies. As I finished the last pull-up and dropped from the bar, one of the experienced smokejumpers gave me a secret wink of support. There had been much speculation among the jumpers on my fitness test performance, and it seems I had passed the first hurdle.
The following morning, I was called into the Base Manager's office and terminated for being underweight. After having passed the fitness test the previous day, I was stunned and devastated. Fighting back tears, I left the office facing an uncertain future. As I made my way across the compound to the trailer park, some of the jumpers approached me with comments:
"They can't do this to you, you passed the fitness test."
"Don't be upset, you probably wouldn't have made the pack-out anyway."
"Go talk with the personnel officers at the supervisor's office."
"Call Allen Owen (Cave Junction '70), alias Mouse. He is a 4'11", 120-pound Vietnam War vet who got Congressional waivers on the height and weight requirements. He'll know what to do."
Towards the end of my walk across the compound, a smokejumper furtively approached and spoke in a low voice, "There are two smokejumpers at Missoula who weigh under 130 lbs. They haven't been fired."
After visits to the personnel office that afternoon to discuss the situation, I gloomily packed up my truck in the evening and left for California the following day. It was a long brooding drive back home, as I considered options and tried to envision another future. Somehow, it just didn't seem fair.
After finding a job as a fire prevention technician at Lake Tahoe Basin for the summer, I told a few trusted people my story and asked for advice. Through these conversations, I discovered there had been and continued to be occasional cases of smokejumpers outside the regulated height and weight requirements. Apparently, although the upper height and weight limits were based on parachuting safety considerations, the lower weight limit was based on the Forest Service estimate of a minimum body weight to successfully pack out 100 pounds of gear. This estimate failed to take into account individual strengths, motivation and determination. It seemed to me rather presumptuous of the Forest Service to assume body weight as the only determinant of a person's ability to carry heavy packs.
A phone call to Mouse, the 4'11" 120-pound ten-year Cave Junction smokejumper squad boss, was particularly inspiring. He was indignant and outraged at the infringement on my rights as an American citizen. His philosophy was that each individual has the right to compete for any job and proven performance should be the only criterion for success. If a person could do the job, regulations for minimum height and weight were extraneous. I had passed the fitness test and had every right to continue through rookie training. My rights as an American citizen had been violated and I should file an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint. The gender issues of whether women "ought to be smokejumpers" seemed completely irrelevant to him, and I loved him for that.
On June 22, 1979, after much thought, I sent the following letter to the Payette National Forest Supervisor.
TO: Payette National Forest, Forest Supervisor
DATE: June 22, 1979
I was offered a position as smokejumper at the McCall Smokejumper Base on the Payette National Forest. On June 11, 1979, I reported to work. On June 12, 1979, I was terminated because I weighed 125 pounds, five pounds under the 130-pound weight requirement as specified by the manual. I am not objecting to the legality of my termination of employment. I was indeed five pounds underweight according to the employment specification.
But after further inquiry and much thought into the matter, I feel I must bring certain points to your attention.
- Upon questioning various people, I found evidence of inconsistency in the strict application of the physical requirements of height and weight to all persons employed as smokejumpers. Some persons, who are a few pounds overweight or underweight, or a few inches too tall or short, are still employed as smokejumpers, although they are not within the required height and weight range. In essence, minor deviations are sometimes allowed in order to accommodate individual cases. Perhaps my being a woman was the factor that promoted such an unusually strict application of the requirements in my particular case.
- The weight and height restrictions are 130 to 190 pounds and 5'5" to 6'3". The weight requirement is based on the size of the canopy of the parachute. A heavier person tends to land with too much impact and a lighter person tends to drift with the wind. The height requirement, as far as I could discover, is based solely on the sizes of the smokejumper suits. In examining these physical requirements, it is quite obvious that a much higher percentage of physically fit men fulfill these requirements than physically fit women. Therefore, men and women do not have an equal chance for smokejumper employment, simply based on the design of the equipment used. A wider size variety of smokejumper suits needs to be designed. Research needs to be done to modify the existing parachute or have different size canopied parachutes, so that otherwise qualified women have a truly equal chance for smokejumper positions.
In the near future, as more women enter the firefighting field, this problem will have to be dealt with. At the present time there are no women smokejumpers, and there have been none throughout smokejumper history. Hopefully, when the problem of unequal opportunity is resolved, others will not have to face what was for me, months of physical and mental preparation, all in vain, and a bitter end to a dream.
I would appreciate a reply to this letter.
Deanne Rae Shulman
On July 12, I received a bureaucratic response from the forest supervisor, with assurances that my termination was in no way related to being a woman. I was angered at this impersonal response to what had been such a momentous decision impacting my life, and at the moment after reading the letter, decided to pursue an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint. I was stubborn and focused, and I would not allow my dream to fade so easily.
My formal Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, filed September 24, 1979, was based on two premises. First, the height and weight regulations were inconsistently applied and my termination would therefore constitute disparate treatment; there were no previous instances of a rookie termination for not meeting height/weight requirements. Secondly, the height and weight requirements were discriminatory towards women and smaller men, and were arbitrary as indicated by the presence of current smokejumpers not meeting requirements, yet still performing satisfactorily.
Over the next nine months, my complaint was investigated and sluggishly moved through various offices of the Forest Service. In late May of 1980, a resolution was reached with the following agreements. I would receive the difference in salary and overtime for that summer's work period, between the GS-4 fire prevention technician and a GS-5 smokejumper position. I was offered a job non-competitively as a smokejumper at McCall for the 1980 or 1981 fire season, providing I met the minimum weight requirement of 130 pounds on the day of appointment. I was not required to maintain this weight after the initial weigh-in.
By this late date I had already accepted a job offer on a helicopter rappel crew in Oregon for the 1980 season, and I decided to wait until 1981 to return to McCall. I needed the time to prepare psychologically as well. In the meantime, I had kept in occasional telephone contact with Mouse, who had been very encouraging and offered advice on how to prepare physically for the program.
During the winter of 1980/81 while working out in preparation for the 1981 rookie program, I received a package at home from Mouse. It was his pack-out bag and a letter
February 20, 1980
Enclosed is my pack-out bag as promised. It's made of nylon so water won't bother it, but it should be kept away from heat or nylon-dissolving chemicals. You should shoot for 80 pounds over two miles of level ground at least once a week. Retraining for experienced jumpers begins the last week in April, so if you could return it then, I'd appreciate it.
Good luck, and keep the faith,
Allen (Mouse) Owen
I practiced dutifully as per his recommendation and returned the bag as requested.
In June of 1981, I returned to McCall, weighed in at 132 pounds, and successfully completed the smokejumper rookie training on July 10. My rookie training experience constitutes a whole other story, best left for another time.
Late in the busy season of 1981, I returned to McCall from a fire and found this note addressed to me.
September 1, 1981
We jumped the West Yellowstone National Park just a few hours before you landed at McCall, so I missed seeing you. Congratulations on making the grade as a jumper. I hope it was worth everything you went through to get the job. We leave for Fairbanks tonight at 1800, so it doesn't look like I'll see you at McCall this year. A few hard cores still don't like the idea of a woman jumper, but most of the rest had lots of good things to say about you. Guess that's all for now. Keep up the good work and lots of luck.
I had been looking forward to finally meeting Mouse in person that season and, although disappointed, figured we would meet some time in the future. Smokejumpers are mobile, and given time, we all meet each other somewhere -- on a fire, in a plane or in a ready room. But time, a gift much taken for granted, was not given.
Five days later, I heard of Mouse's death. The base received this notice from the Alaska Smokejumpers.
On Sunday, September 6, 1981, at 1400, Allen "Mouse" Owen was killed at the North Pole Skydiving Club, twenty miles south of Fairbanks, Alaska. He had been participating in Relative Work Competition, a contest where four-man teams attempt to form various hook-up patterns while in freefall from 8,000 feet. On his fatal jump, Allen's team successfully formed five separate patterns, capturing the weekend record. At 3,000 feet, immediately after their parachutes had opened, Allen and another jumper collided with each other. They both were using square ram-air canopies that have a considerable forward speed. Somehow, due to the collision, Allen's canopy began to malfunction, putting him into a strong spin. Apparently, his lines were entangled with his body, preventing him from jettisoning his main canopy that would allow a safe, clean path for his reserve deployment. At 500 feet, his canopy collapsed completely. Observers saw his reserve pilot chute flash out and entangle into his main parachute lines. His reserve parachute never did deploy. A Registered Nurse immediately made full resuscitation efforts. An ambulance arrived on the scene within ten minutes. Doctors at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital believe that Mouse was killed on impact.
None of us here at the Alaska Smokejumpers can really comprehend that Mouse is gone. He was our cheerful friend and one of the toughest, most careful, and skilled smokejumpers. Mouse has become a legend within the whole Smokejumper World, not only because of his small size and powerful strength, but also because of his vivacious spirit. Mouse lived more fully, did more things, and was more active than any one of us. We will miss him.
The Alaska Smokejumpers
That evening at dusk, while sitting alone among the trees, I felt the breath of a breeze on my cheek and knew it began as a flutter of a butterfly wing in China. Mouse's spirit was strongly present and there was a connection to it all.