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Going Full Circle: A Jump Home

by Cameron Chambers (North Cascades '04) |

I woke in the sterile hotel room at 6 a.m. - day five of a boost and sore after a three-day fire on the Lewis and Clark. By seven I stood in front of the box for roll call.

I grouped in among the 20 other jumpers at the Missoula Aerial Fire Depot (ADF) between lockers hastily strewn with Kevlar jumpsuits and nylon parachutes. The pungent odor of stale fire smoke hung in the air. Everyone was bleary-eyed and zoned, some from a hard night in downtown Missoula and others from the fatigue that busy weeks of fire season accumulate - most from both.

Standing among the walls of records, the ops guy rambled the morning briefing - a predictable oration on the day's weather, fire reports, extra safety conditions, and whatever else got spouted that day.

Thirty-five years earlier, my father stood in the same spot getting about the same briefing. It was my first boost to Missoula, the duty station of my father's jump career. I'd been to the base several times - as a curious kid - for interviews, but never as a jumper with a chute hanging on the rack. And while a hungover 7 a.m. briefing is too early to piece together a major insight into the father/son jump connection, I found myself falling back to childhood memories.

There was the burn pile at the ranger station heaped head high with red needles, where I learned to drop fire from a drip torch. Lunches with Old Mike, the groundskeeper, and scavenger hunts in the back forty for discarded treasures.

These were the memories of a child euphoric with his forest playground. Then I recalled my high school days in suburban Helena, thinking my father a moron for sticking with the Forest Service.

I'd watched him move through the ranks, move the family for promotions, get passed up for promotions, and grow frustrated with the agency once studied as a model of efficiency.

As he moved up, he found himself inadvertently moving from the wood of the forest to the hard-planed wood of a sterile government desk. In the office environs, he was a man of action ground down by the lethargy of bureaucracy and politics. I watched for two decades a losing battle of a principled man fighting the standstill of productive forestry practices.

I recalled a vow made as a high schooler, among living room stacks of topo maps and legal briefs 400 pages thick, not to follow my father into the misery of a green uniform. But there I was at the AFD, eating my words in place of the breakfast I skipped. Seven years into a Forest Service fire career and a permanent position later, I stood poised in the same exact position of my father.

After just seven years with the agency, it was clear the bull-nosed efficiency of 'Pinchot's Boys' - for which the Forest Service staked claims on competence and land - no longer existed. I saw an agency riddled with problems, both self- and congressionally imposed, striving to cope with changing times and the changing values of Americans.

It lacked a true sense of itself or even what type of metamorphosis it would accomplish, given the opportunity. It seemed as if every year a new management philosophy, program or paradigm came down the pike. The agency expended its limited time and resources on implementation, only to disregard it the next year when the latest-and-greatest, end-all-be-all policy arrived. And despite two generations of observations, I broke my high school vow and laced my crusty boots for another day.

An hour after the morning briefing, the shrill sound of the siren echoed through the concrete walls. Smokejumpers hustled to get their 85 pounds of gear on in the right order. As I hung my reserve parachute in place and grabbed my helmet, I overheard the spotter say 'the Lolo.' It was short for the Lolo National Forest and was, coincidentally, where my formative years were spent while my father served as the Superior District ranger.

The plane was off the ground into the dense smoky air that has become summer in Missoula. Crammed next to each other, we tried to steal glances out the boxy windows of the Shorts Brothers Sherpa, hoping to be the first to glimpse fate as if a fractional second head start might somehow prove an advantage.

Out the left side windows, our fire burned mid-slope. It grew from two acres the night before to 15 that morning. The local fire staff wanted the 10 smokejumpers to bolster the efforts of the local firefighters already on the ground and corral it before it became any larger. Their real concern was that the fire might spread to the nearby town of St. Regis, the location for the Superior District ranger's government housing.

Too focused on the tight, steep jump spot into which I was trying to maneuver my parachute, it didn't occur to me, but as I made my way from sky to earth I could easily see the brown shingled roof of my first home. It was there that I got my first feel of fire and I'm sure the culprit that led me to sign up for a Forest Service fire crew during college summer breaks.

I lived in that brown-shingled house in the summer of 1988 when I was 6 years old. For me that was just old enough to start remembering, and those images of '88 stay with me longer and stronger than most.

The fire of 1988, and probably the decade, was the Yellowstone Park Fire. It burned 793,000 acres of America's favorite national park and, to this day, continues to maintain such a preponderance of importance that many forget that the rest of the Western United States was on fire as well.

While my father was called to Yellowstone, along with 15,000 other firefighters, there were also lines of yellow school buses and rows of yellow-shirted firefighters outside our front window.

They had been brought in from places like Harlowtown, Hardy and Big Sandy to deal with our local fires. They came in every evening around 8 o'clock to eat hot food out of big white buckets and fall asleep in disheveled rows of rectangular, yellow government sleeping bags.

Sometime between that summer's catching of turtles and building of forts, the images of my father discussing plans for the Yellowstone Fire on the NBC Nightly News and haggard, black-faced firefighters on my lawn must have stuck with me.

For an impressionable adolescent in a forestry community, it all seemed so heroic. It was the closest thing I had in real life to the GI Joe cartoons I watched every Saturday - uniformed men carrying dangerous-looking tools and talking in gruff, Copenhagen-lipped voices.

The blood-red sunsets of smoke-filled skies and images of 200-foot flames shooting from running crown fires solidified my notions that those firefighters were going to battle. They were real American heroes, and of course, I wanted to be one.

On the ground safely, we 10 smokejumpers made our way to the fire to begin constructing our rudimentary fire line. Using chain saws and Pulaskis, we chopped, dug and scraped what looked like an ill-used trail to stop the advance of the fire.

Aided by the weather, and gallons of sweat, we managed to line the fire and contain it. With numerous other fires in the area, we hiked out of the fire by 8 p.m. to get picked up at the nearest road and shuttled somewhere to rest in preparation for another fire.

As I sat in the back of the green truck motoring down the road, the landscape felt familiar. When the truck took a left turn over the rusting yellow cattle guard, past the St. Regis Work Center sign, I had the distinct familiarity of being home.

A half-mile up the road on the left, past the big old warehouse and the caretaker's trailer where I ate lunch with Old Mike, was my first home. I'd bounced over that cattle guard and past that sign on foot, bicycles and wagons several hundred times before, but I was back bouncing over it as the one thing I had idolized while I had been there - a firefighter.

Walking around the short loop of the compound's road system, the grass was longer and less cared-for than I remembered, our house painted a new color, and the trees thinned. It was, after all, a government facility, and they don't tend to change much. It all appeared about as it had 20 years earlier when we made the same loop in the '72 Dodge pickup and headed out over the rusted yellow cattle guard for my father's promotion in Helena and the last time as residents of the St. Regis Work Center.

Even seven years into a fire career, I'd never conceded to it as a career. While I love the work, the people, the excitement, and give it my all, I hinged my complete commitment to the job on the fear of it becoming a career - becoming my frustrated father. When I worked seasonally as a temp, I convinced myself it was just an indulgence of youthful fantasies.

I planned to put my business degree to use and utilize those internship contacts from college. I saw myself joining the world of Corporate America where common sense, hard work and performance were measures that still meant promotions. Of course, those plans drift away little by little - like fire smoke into a dark sky - every year they wait. Those idyllic notions of both the business world and the Forest Service become increasingly tempered by time.

That leaves me standing in my 10-inch leather fire boots on the lawn of my first home, looking so much like an image of my father that I can't deny it any longer. Being home has brought the eye of reality back upon me and I am undeniably confronted with the fact that I am becoming my father.

There are all sorts of counter-arguments I can, and do, make to keep me living in ignorance and bliss. We have different personalities; we could take different paths within the agency; it was just the time period of the 80s; and on and on. The simple truth, however, is that the agency is as static as the work center I'm standing in, and I'm on the verge of becoming a lifelong part of it - just as my father has, and not too different than the paint-peeled warehouse down the gravel road.

Standing on my first front lawn, surveying the small work center, it's easy to get a feeling of proprietorship. If only from a longer history with the compound than the others assembled, it wells a sense of pride and ownership.

Surveying the grounds, I get what must be but a small shiver of the feeling my father received standing in the same place - looking out not only at the small compound of his charge, but the miles upon miles of National Forest for which he was directly responsible.

It's an undeniably enchanting feeling. Add to this a steady paycheck, generous retirement funding and educational allowances, and it starts to make more sense why my father still wears green jeans to work.

For my part, jumping is hard to beat and the old Forest Circus is still less messed-up than most government agencies. From inside the fence I see what kept my father going through the frustration.

While there may be impenetrable bureaucracy littered with mind-numbing irrationality, the government pays good money to play in the woods. Hard work, yes, but the toys are big, cool and expensive. More than one firefighter has remarked that it's not dissimilar to getting paid to be a kid again.

There's a reason senators, astronauts, mountaineers and a slew of successful Corporate America-types say fighting fire was the best job they had. There's been more than one time I looked around and thought I can't believe someone's paying me to do this.

And that's why I'm still in it - 'living the dream,' as the old smokejumper saying goes. Most smokejumpers, however, didn't watch their fathers climb the ranks and see both the frustration and the favorable.

The thing about sleep - and to some degree, life - is that it's done unconsciously, leaving the door open for dreams to drift into nightmares. And waking at midnight in my yellow government sleeping bag on the lawn of my old home, it's hard not to read the big yellow rectangle as a gigantic caution sign.

To causally slip down the hereditary path or to fight the fire of momentum? It's a question with no right answers. It's a question best answered by another old smokejumper favorite: 'Hard sayin', not knowin'.'

Cameron Chambers jumped for three more years before taking a job with the Seattle Fire Department. He now believes all agencies are riddled with bureaucracy, but gets to wear a blue uniform.