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The Story Behind The Picture

by John Culbertson (Fairbanks '69) |

It was my third season jumping, and we were operating during a lightning bust.

The base was filled with outside jumpers, including the "regular Missoula booster crew," which came to Alaska each summer, plus several loads of Zulies up for the bust. As was the custom at that time, all fires throughout the state were manned as soon as possible, with a few Alaska jumpers being left behind as overhead for the village crews. As soon as a jumper returned to Fairbanks (or to McGrath or Anchorage), they were jumped out again.

The shack was located at the east end of the runway on the side opposite the current base. The visiting jumpers were staying at the old Creamers Field Dairy, and a busload from Missoula had just shown up at the standby shack looking sleepy and tired. I was standing in the shack, which consisted of a Butler building full of fire packs, cases of "C" rations and cargo chutes. Next to it was a funky trailer filled with empty pop cans, cigarette butts and military goose-feather sleeping bags, which we used to snooze away standby time. Some of those bags were pretty ripe, since Vitalis was still popular with jumpers who favored the (pre-) "urban cowboy" look.

I was headed over to the trailer to beat the Zulies out of the best sleeping bags, when Al Dunton (FBX-67) told me to get a load out on the ramp, since an empty DC-3 was due in shortly. There were only four Alaska jumpers at the base—myself, Bob Stockman (FBX-67), Gene Hobbs (IDC-61) and Al. While Bob and I made up a 16-man load, Al was talking to dispatch about some new fires in McKinley Park. Soon, a contract Doug came chugging and popping onto the ramp, and we formed a chain to load her up. Rumor had it that this craft's last assignment had been hauling horsemeat in Argentina. As I recall, none of the Missoula guys had been to Alaska before, and they didn't seem too impressed with our operation. That made me nervous, but Bob told me they were okay guys, and that skepticism is normal under quickly changing circumstances.

Al came out on the ramp in his usual easygoing manner—cigarette, coffee cup and map in hand, calling "suit up" in a quiet voice. The jumpers call that demeanor "coolness under stress" in a sort of mocking way, but it really did help settle things down. Gene was the spotter, and he and Al headed up to talk with the pilot. Soon, we were bumping and swaying along down the Tanana Valley. All eyes were glued to the windows, and headers were visible around us.

Over McKinley, on the Lake Minchumina side, we found three fires, two really cooking. Al decided to split the load and go back for another load of jumpers. He turned to me and asked if I could handle that hot fire with a load of jumpers who were not used to Alaska firefighting.

So there I was with Al and Bob—both cool and calm and very much my seniors—and 13 other guys who were looking at us with that big question mark jumpers are so good at producing under such circumstances. Leaning against the cargo, bouncing along in a turn, I was pretty nervous. I wanted to do a good job, and I was proud of getting asked to take on the fire, but I had doubts about myself. I was kind of wild then and often had one wheel spinning loose in the sand. I guess I was telling myself to get serious. Somebody took a picture while all that was in my head, capturing what, for me, was an important moment in time. Years later, when I saw the photograph, I knew instantly what was going on. I wish I could thank the photographer.

Well, we jumped that fire, and those Missoula guys worked like there was no tomorrow. They took my orders and gave back great advice. I couldn't have been working with a better crew, and it may have been the best fire of my life.

As soon as I stood up, I knew it was a hot fire—several acres of black spruce moving uphill with the wind into tall white spruce. We split the crew and tried to flank it for an hour or so, but the ember drop began igniting too many spot fires, and group torching was frequent. I decided to go parallel and indirect, suppressing our firing line as we went. It was touch and go, but we were able to hold our firing line. Eventually, we tied into a creek on the back slope, and with the help of two B-25s, Bob Schlaefli's advice and another load of jumpers—and with many drops from a scooping PBY—we picked it up in the early-morning hours.

Taking a break along the line, we started to get to know one another, and I was all nervous laughter sitting there with these guys who had done such a great job. Some of the guys were heating cans of rations in the embers, while others squabbled and traded pound cake or canned chocolate for those little cartons of WWII-vintage cigarettes. The PBY got low on fuel and came by for a final fly-by, opened a window and waved. Just then, all his maps got sucked right out of the window and came drifting down to us as shredded bits of nonsense. Caught up in the silliness of the moment, the jumpers made ridiculous attempts to find matching pieces, running around on the dry, windy hillside while trying not to spill their meatballs with beans and "Ham, Water Added, Eggs, Chopped, Canned."