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The Weight Of Desire - She Had The Look

by Cameron Chambers (North Cascades ’04) |

When she came through the door for the first day of smokejumper rookie training, everyone saw she was tiny. When she went to the weigh-in, the foreman rolled the heavy metal fireproof door shut so no one could watch. Outside the door they didn’t need the scale to know she was tiny.

She had the look. Most rookies show up like sheep. Wide-eyed, they flock closely, waiting in jumpy anticipation to run. Not her. She had the look. A combination of knowledge and determination – that’s what makes a good one. That’s why they let her stick around.

She had the look, even though she was tiny. She had a smile, too. The smile belied her innocence and good nature. The look and the smile made it easier to keep her around. They should have taken one look and sent her packing.

There were six who showed up for training that year. All women. The regional office decided the base needed more women, so there were six of them. No men. Only women.

Everyone turned up to watch. They would have shown up anyway because they were rookies, and it was spring so there wasn’t much work. Guys made a point of hanging around to watch. They watched like they waited for a car wreck or the tiger to take a swipe at the trainer.

The first day they did the physical testing. Sit-ups, pull-ups, and push-ups, a run, and a weighted pack test. Two of them failed on the pull-ups. Then there were four.

She just flew right through the tests. She was tiny so she pumped right through the tests with her little arms blasting her little body along. Looked like she could have done twenty pull-ups.

She trained hard. That was the look. You don’t get the look if you just show up. The pull-ups – that’s where the women have problems. Upper- body strength isn’t the same as men’s; that’s what they say, anyway. Not her; she ripped right through them. Then, she’d been training – and she was tiny.

She was going good. You can tell that first day who’s going to make it, who’s not, and who’s going to be a superstar. She was going good. They said her father was some forester in Idaho, a real big shot. Worked her a-- off all winter to get in shape. Wanted to prove to the guys that she didn’t get in on her old man’s tab.

But she was going good, that and the look. Nobody said much about her father like they would have if she failed on the pull-ups.

She was going good. Even the old timers, the real a--holes who stood along the walls and commented in hushed voices, saw she had the look. They saw how tiny she was and they knew what was coming. They wanted her to make it because the ones with the look always work out in the end.

The sheep, they knew from experience, become whiners and wastes. They leered from the wall to run off every sheep they could. Keep the ones with the look, though. They pulled for her with their eyes, but she was tiny and they knew she’d never make it.

There were only four in the afternoon. The two on the pull-ups – they were sheep. They didn’t have the look. They didn’t train and nobody cared they were out.

In the afternoon the four got their packs ready. They were the big packout bags. Top loaders for hiking off fires like big 55-gallon drums with backpack straps.

The rookies make their own packs. Forty-five pound cubies of water, iron plates from the weight room, sleeping bags, cargo parachutes – a pile of stuff lay on the floor for them to push into their huge bags. When they thought they were done, they dragged their bags across the floor to the scale. They needed a hundred and twenty pounds of weight.

It’s amusing watching them stuff a packout bag the first time. The seasoned guys get good. With parachutes, jumpsuits, chainsaws, Pulaskis – there’s a lot of gear to fit into a pack to get it off a fire. It might be seven miles to a road with all that weight.

Don’t pack it well and it rubs sores into the back like pack sores on a government mule. Pack it well and it’s liable to give sores like a government mule. They’re the kind of raw, pussy abrasions that don’t heal up. By the time they do start to heal, it’s time to pack off again.

The scabs are torn off in a cycle of increasing pain. They get good quick. It doesn’t take many sores to get the packing down. Can’t make it comfortable. One hundred twenty pounds is just too damned heavy; no way to make it comfortable.

Get it so it doesn’t make you bleed – that’s the best one can do. The first time, they don’t know any of that. They just see the eyes following them and the hushed jeering. Makes them throw a bunch of that heavy s--- in the pack to make weight – no planning.

You can see the hard edges sticking out where it will meet the soft flesh of the lower back. If they make it, they’ll learn. Now it’s the first time; they’ll bleed for sure.

The packs are huge. Fifty-five-gallon drum size and heavy. She was tiny. The foreman had closed the big sliding metal door, but they knew the pack outweighed her. It was damned near as tall as she was and three times as thick. Took two of the regulars to heave it up into the back of the truck. Everyone saw it coming. She was tiny.

On the road they unloaded the four big sloppy packs. Three miles on the pavement. A mile and a half down and a mile and a half back in three hours. All flat, but with those packs a hundred yards is hell.

She kept on with the look and the smile. Standing next to her pack with those eyes and the unflinching smile, she welled the empathy of the onlookers. The old guys stood afar and cheered with their eyes.

She was so small next to the mountain of pack. They could all see it coming, but they couldn’t do anything but watch. It was the foreman’s call and he had closed the big metal door. Everyone wanted to scream, “stop.” No one could, so they just hoped. She had the look, so when she stood next to the pack the hearts said “maybe,” but their brains knew more than
their hearts; they’d carried the pack enough times.

Two guys lifted her pack so she could slip her shoulders into the straps and tighten it up. It stuck out a foot and a half above her head. From behind two little legs sprouted out the big orange pack. She was tiny. They should
have sent her home.

The supervisor’s office wanted more women, so the foreman closed the big metal door. Everyone saw what would happen.

When the guys let the weight of the pack settle onto her shoulders she staggered and the guys grabbed the pack again. She tried again and found her feet. One of the foremen asked if she wanted to go through with it. She had her smile and the look.

She trained all winter to get there – maybe all the previous summer as well. She’d trained hard enough to get the look and the look doesn’t come easily.

They could have put 200 pounds on her back and she’d have smiled and said, “go.” They could have saddled her with 300 pounds and she’d have tipped right over and looked up from the ground smiling and said, “go.” She had the look. That’s why they should have sent her home. Too damned tiny to have the look.

A group of the regulars stayed with her. A few cheered. No one told them to shut up. After a half-hour she went too slowly. The foreman with the watch knew the minimum pace and he said she was too slow. She smiled and said she’d go faster.

From behind, little toothpick legs stuck out from the pack. They didn’t move faster. The pack was too big and she was too tiny. They could see it coming. She kept moving. Maybe.

She was too tiny and the pack was too big. When she went, it pulled her over like a heavyweight cross. Her ankle buckled, folded in half, taco- like, sideways to the right. The pack just dragged her over in to the dirt and gravel of the road’s shoulder. The group ran over and she was smiling. Embarrassed, but smiling.

Didn’t even mention the ankle. When she went, it should have snapped in two. Bent so far over like a taco, you’d have thought the foot would be flopping loose of the leg. Didn’t even mention the ankle – just smiled and apologized and tried to get back up.

That’s the problem when they got the look. Can’t stay down.

The foreman came over to take a look. She wanted to go again. Don’t know how she stood up. And she wanted to go. Don’t know if it was the region wanting more women, the look, or that smile, but the foreman let her go.

Most expected her to go down right off. She managed a limp, but managed. Tough one; should have been in a cast. Instead trudging again with that mountain of a pack and smiling through the sweat.

Everyone saw it coming when she showed up. Too tiny. Then it happened right there on the road into the dirt and the gravel. Now the foreman was letting her go again and everyone saw it coming. They wanted to say “stop,” but they didn’t have the authority. Only the foreman called “stop,” and he’d closed the big metal door. The region wanted more women.

She wouldn’t stop. She had the look. She had it bad, would’ve crawled to the finish. Smiled the whole time. Wasn’t a man there wouldn’t have taken the pack himself. Had to do it on her own. With the look there’s no other way.

The second time was just like the first. Same side. Legs tired. Weakest link went out. Fortunate it wasn’t the knee. Bitch to repair knees. Ankle bent in half again. Calf about touched the asphalt before the big pack pulled her off her feet. Did the smart thing. Didn’t fight it. Just toppled.

Might have been too tired to fight it. Good thing. Might still be able to walk. Lots of ways to get to a fire. All of them require walking once you get there. Ruin her ankle and she can’t work. That’s all there is to it.

Everyone saw it coming. Too tiny. Should have sent her home from the get go.

Tried to go a third time even. That’s what you get with the look. That’s why the old guys want them to make it. Foreman’s got to be the one to say “quit.” Clock man came back. Said she was way behind pace. She said she’d go faster. She was getting hysterical. She couldn’t go faster. Her body couldn’t even keep her upright any longer with that mountain of a pack.

Most of the regulars left. They saw it coming. They saw it the whole time. Didn’t want to have to watch it happen again. Left. Went back to the truck.

The other three with the big packs were at the trucks. They didn’t have the look. They were bigger and they had made it. Nobody cared about them.

The foreman called it after two and a half hours. She had just under a mile to go. She wouldn’t stop on her own. Two guys had to take the pack off her back. No way she could have made it. Lucky to be walking. Still smiled. Started crying and mumbled about keeping going. The tears and the sweat mixed and ran in a stream right over the smile. Those who were left turned away. They could see it coming.