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Smokey’s Rock Pile And Uncle Kenn

by Guy Hurlbutt (Idaho City ’62) |

There was a time when “smokejumping” was a foreign term to me. My introduction came through Tall Timber Pilots, a book about the Johnson Flying Service whose aviators flew smokejumpers for many years. The book, published in 1953, eventually found its way into the library of the high school I attended in South Carolina.

Already considering forestry as a career, the title caught my eye and the contents changed my life. Jumping out of airplanes, fighting fire in the wilderness and back-country flying appealed to me. I graduated from high school on a Friday in June 1960 and the following Monday began my first of seven summers with the U.S. Forest Service. Five of them were with the smokejumpers.

In the early ’60s the minimum requirement for the smokejumper program was two summers on a ground crew. I applied as soon as I met the minimum and in March 1962 received a letter signed by Del Catlin (MYC-47), the foreman at the base in McCall, Idaho, informing me that I had been accepted. I was 20 years old.

Some college classmates gave me a ride to Boise, but I had to hitchhike the remaining 110 miles to McCall. My last ride dropped me off at the base, and I entered a different world.

To my surprise, most of the 15 trainees (known as “Neds” in McCall) for the 1962 class were stronger and in better shape than I was. But I was strong enough with some aces in the hole. One was a work ethic instilled in me from childhood; the other was determination.

These qualities were not lost on my instructors. They saw me as a “keeper,” and I was not among those who “washed out” of the program. One of those instructors was Kenneth R. Smith (IDC-55).

Even as a very young man, Kenn was charismatic and gregarious. He was raised in Caldwell, Idaho, and attended the local high school. He was not exceptionally tall, but he was well-built with broad shoulders, muscular body, black hair, rugged cowboy-kind of face, and a deep, booming voice that clearly commanded respect. He exuded athleticism, and it is odd that his prowess on the football field was not as one of the players. Instead, he was a cheerleader, whipping the fans into a frenzy for dear old Caldwell High.

Kenn’s formal education ended with his high school diploma. Following a common path for Western ranch and farm boys who developed their bodies through hard work in the fields, he hired on as a firefighter for the Forest Service and became a smokejumper in 1955.

By the time I arrived in 1962, Kenn was a seasoned veteran, an assistant foreman at the base in Idaho City, and an instructor at the Smokejumper Training Center in McCall. His outgoing personality, work ethic, love of practical jokes, generosity, wit and creative spirit endeared him to colleagues and subordinates alike. He was held in awe by the trainees, and he became somewhat of a pied piper within the smokejumper organization.

When encountering smokejumpers from other bases within the Western system, his name usually came up when Idaho was mentioned. “Do you know Kenn Smith in Idaho City? What a character! How’s he doin’? Tell him I said hello.” As time went on, his reputation grew.

The first time I met him he was wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, and a baseball cap sporting a large, black feather pointed toward the sky. He was, for us trainees, a figure larger than life and enveloped by an aura as big as all outdoors. He gave most of us nicknames, and his was “Uncle Kenn.”

After assessing my Southern heritage, he announced one day that my name would be “Reb,” a name that has followed me down to the present day and is still used by those who knew me as a firefighter.

Two other instructors stood out during training. One was Ken “Moose” Salyer (MYC-54), a former college wrestler and prime physical specimen. No one doubted his qualities as a leader in the smokejumpers.

He was my project leader the first week of training and taught the five of us assigned to him how to do the “Allen roll.” Sadly, he was killed in a plane crash three years later while dropping jumpers on a fire. (See Watts, “Norton Creek Disaster,” Smokejumper magazine, July 2012).

In addition to Kenn and Moose, there was James B. “Smokey” Stover (MYC-46), foreman at Idaho City. He had reached what was then the maximum age of 40 and could no longer jump out of airplanes. Smokey was not as active on the training field as some of the others, but he was respected for his experience and many years of service. Small, wiry, in his early 40s, and prematurely wrinkled from cigarettes and a life outdoors, people were sometimes surprised by his stamina and strength.

When a “Ned” originally bound for Idaho City washed out of the program, we were informed that a volunteer was needed. Even though I was assigned to McCall, I felt comfortable with Smokey and Kenn and wanted to work for them. I alone stepped forward. Walking into the office of the administrative clerk, I said: “Hi. I’m here to volunteer for that slot in Idaho City.” It seemed like a logical step.

The clerk looked at me with surprise. “IDAHO CITY!” he exclaimed. “You ever been to Idaho City?”

“No, sir,” I responded, a little taken aback.

“Well – hell, boy, that’s an old mining town in the middle of nowhere. Whole place dredged out during the gold rush days. Nothing there now but a pile of rocks, is all.” I learned later that this was partially true. In fact, when our National Reunion was held in Boise in 2007, someone prepared T-shirts for ex-Idaho City jumpers emblazoned with the words “I JUMPED SMOKEY’S ROCK PILE.”

Like smokejumpers themselves, their bases are unique. Each one possesses an appeal, a culture, its own slice of history, and fond memories for the jumpers who were lucky enough to work there. Mine, of course, was Idaho City, and I hope to convey a little of the culture of the town, its characters, and why it is a special place for all of us who served there between its opening in 1949 until its closing 20 years later. A lot of it has to do with Kenneth R. Smith.

The McCall clerk may have been partially correct about the rocks, but he had no way of knowing that my main reason for volunteering was to work with the legendary Smokey and Kenn. Nor could he appreciate the characters who were there, the town’s unique culture, or the history brought to life through its 19th-century buildings.

And finally, he had no way of knowing the extent to which a 20-man crew of smokejumpers in an isolated mining town would bond as brothers. One of the seasoned jumpers when I arrived, Dick Estes (IDC-59) put it this way: “When you’re together most of the time, working, playing, laughing and crying together, seven days a week, you end up being family. That’s what we were in Idaho City.”

So I arrived in town and joined a cast of characters, including Uncle Kenn, who boisterously set the standard. There was always something afoot. We had, for example, our own awards program. At the end of each season, a plaque was presented. It was a statue consisting of the rear half of a donkey, presented to the jumper who had the summer’s biggest foul-up. It was appropriately known as the “Dumb-Ass Award.” The plaque remained with the recipient until the end of the following season, when it would be passed along to the next deserving person.

Not as formal but equally meaningful was a jar of elk droppings, known as “Dumb-Ass Pills” and handed out as appropriate to a deserving individual. Unlike the plaque, the “pills” could be apportioned out whenever they were needed. The threat of receiving such recognition kept us on our toes.

We had our special games, as all smokejumpers do. There was “heads out,” played by flipping quarters for whatever was at stake. After each flip, all whose quarters came down “heads” were out. The last in was the loser. We played every afternoon at break time to see who would pay for pops.

“Heads out” was also used in the marvelous game of “Nook.” Perhaps unique to a handful of smokejumpers, the loser of each round received a thump on the forehead from all other players. This continued until someone had a lump on his head sufficient in size to declare a winner – or loser. If nothing else, this game supports my premise that smokejumpers occasionally march to a different drum.

Thanks to Uncle Kenn, even our project work in Idaho City was from time to time unorthodox. Our 1962 crew included Horace Cordova (IDC-61), an artistic individual from Silver City, N.M. Seeing his creativity, Uncle Kenn set him to work on a special project. When not on a fire and otherwise in camp, Horace studiously applied himself to his one-of-a-kind assignment. Kenn’s brainchild was to develop roadside “Prevent Forest Fires” signs using a theme other than Smokey Bear.

Horace completed his first masterpiece. As requested, it had nothing to do with Smokey Bear but sent a similar message. Painted on a canvas approximately 4 feet by 6 feet were two people – maybe smoking cigarettes; I don’t recall – standing in the woods, carrying little pails. The message was in large letters and clearly made its point:


I helped build the log frame that would display the masterpiece. It was loaded in a truck and taken to a highway. It lasted less than a day.

Foreman Smokey emerged from his office puffing on his cigarette even faster than usual. He had received a call from the supervisor’s office. The sign would come down immediately. The double meaning of “butts” and departing from the revered bear were not appreciated by management.

Kenn was irate. “Ah, hell,” he complained. “That was a great sign and a great message. Folks like something different. Those head-shed people in Boise don’t seem to know that. No sense of humor at all.”

I’m more seasoned now and know that “sense of humor” had nothing to do with it. The Smokey Bear symbol is carefully guarded by the Forest Service. But we were more innocent then. I felt sorry for Horace, who later became a nationally recognized artist. His creation fell prey to a bear in a pointed hat.

I worked for Smokey Stover five fire seasons and four for Uncle Kenn, who broke his back in a helicopter crash while being ferried from a fire in 1969, just a few months before the Forest Service closed the base in Idaho City, moving it to the Boise airport. The accident ended his Forest Service career and began a life of pain. My last year was 1970, but I remained his friend.

They say no one is perfect, and this included Kenn. A handful of jumpers claimed he had a mean streak that caused him to “get even” if he thought someone had crossed him. He drank too much, especially in later years. To his credit, though, it never affected his work. He expected this for himself and for the rest of us as well.

“Drink if you want,” he would say, “but stay out of the bars if you can’t handle alcohol. Tyin’ one on’s no excuse for coming late to work or messing around when you get there. No excuses. You get called out on a fire, you got men depending on you. Don’t let ’em down. You copy?”

To that point, the local bars did receive our faithful support. Aside from hangovers, though, only one serious alcohol-related incident occurred while I was there.

A jumper who had celebrated too much at the bars one Friday night headed out on the treacherous road to Boise. He was back about midnight sporting torn clothes and carrying only his golf clubs slung across his back. He had wrecked his car about five miles from town. We loaded him in another car and returned to the scene, arriving about the same time as the highway patrol.

Our friend was cited for driving while intoxicated. The following week he pleaded guilty in front of tough Judge Ariel Crowley and received a week in the Boise County Jail. He did not return the following season.

As sad as this was, it did have a lighter side. Due in part to the strong and positive relationship between the jumpers and citizens of the town as fostered by Uncle Kenn, our friend received lenience from the Boise County sheriff, albeit in an unusual form. It occurred as follows.

Our annual season-termination event (known as the T-Party) was scheduled right in the middle of our friend’s jail term. His date for the party was the sheriff’s daughter. Learning of this conflict, and trusting the integrity of all Idaho City smokejumpers, the sheriff made a decision.

“I’m letting you out that night so you can take her to the party,” he announced. “But no drinking. And be back in your cell by midnight. I don’t want to come to work next morning and find out you’re not here.” I suspect Judge Crowley would have disapproved of this, and it would have been hard on the sheriff if something had gone awry. But all went smoothly, and everything was fine.

So even though Kenn drank too much and probably had other faults, he was respected in the town and was a legendary smokejumper. I remember his stamina, willingness to work, generosity and general love of nature.

“You know, Reb,” he told me one day, “firefighting is a great profession. When we are flyin’ over the Forest, I look down and see miles and miles of green. It wouldn’t be that way if it were not for us.”

I also remember his humor and love of practical jokes. He could give them and he could take them. Once, on his birthday, he received a nicely wrapped package. He tore off the wrapper to reveal a box of assorted chocolates. “Well, look-a-here,” he exclaimed. “Something sweet for someone sweet.” He removed the cover of the box to sample one of its contents. We drew near, hoping he would share.

Suddenly, he shoved the box across the parachute packing table. “What the – well, I’ll be go to hell!” he shouted. As the box skidded to a stop on the table, we saw that each compartment contained, not an assorted chocolate, but assorted pieces of horse manure, delicately displayed. We waited for a tantrum. Instead, he opened his mouth about as wide as a baseball, as only he could do, and came forth with an “AH! AH! AH!” – the standard Smith laugh.

He never ceased thinking about something new to try. With the seasonal nature of firefighting, he considered it a shame that we would not be together during Christmas, his favorite holiday. Not to worry, though. Kenn announced that for us, Christmas would be celebrated each year on July 25. We exchanged presents, had a party, and sang Christmas carols. One year, he talked a local pilot into setting up a loudspeaker system in his Cessna 170 airplane. Late “Christmas” night, when many were asleep, the pilot circled low over Idaho City, playing Christmas music. Some in town did not receive this well, stating that, in their opinion, we had “by God, crossed the line.”

One citizen, we discovered, was especially incensed. About a week later, we awakened to a tremendous noise in our barracks. Someone had a chain saw revved at full throttle. Over the piercing noise, I was barely able to hear him shout: “So how do you like that for noise, you sons-a-bitches?” And then he was out the door. The nearest jumpers boiled out in hot pursuit. But it was too late. He had a getaway car and driver and was speeding toward town. All we saw were dust and tail lights.

Despite our best efforts, the chain-saw intruder remained anonymous. About 25 years later, I finally found out who it was. I was a little surprised in view of his stature in the community. But not too surprised. He was, after all, a logger. And apparently a man who went to bed early – even on “Christmas” night.

Uncle Kenn made his permanent home in Idaho City, where he was known as an active community leader and tireless volunteer. Through him, most of our jumper crew came to know the townsfolk. Despite our propensity to stay late in the bars and make too much noise on July 25, we had a great relationship with most of the local residents.

In addition to the sheriff, whose friendship paid dividends for at least one of our crew, there was Mayor John Brogan, whose home was open to smokejumpers at any time. Physically challenged by polio in childhood, it never affected his spirit, and he was regarded by most of us as an honorary smokejumper. John was one of my closest friends until he was killed in a car accident a few months following his retirement from the state Department of Lands in 1991.

Even the harsh Judge Ariel Crowley was friendly as long as we followed the law. He once invited Steve Carlson (IDC-62) and me to his home to check out his observatory and discuss the various constellations and other stars of interest. Because of him, I still know how to find Arcturus, the fourth-brightest star in the sky. The judge was an erudite man.

Few, if any, of these relationships would have been possible had it not been for Uncle Kenn. Using his powers of persuasion, he was able to enlist most of us at one time or another to volunteer for various community projects during our off hours. We cleaned and maintained the local cemetery, built a city tennis court and laid out a baseball field, among other projects. And we shot pool with the locals regularly at Lonn’s Place.

Even today, Kenn’s presence is readily apparent in the town. He was active in the historical association for many years and lived in a house filled with antiques and hundreds of 19th-century bottles that he collected from abandoned mining sites. The house remains today as one of the town’s attractions. Some of this popularity transferred to the rest of us. A room in the town’s museum is dedicated to the Idaho City Smokejumpers, where memorabilia are displayed.

Uncle Kenn was eccentric. That’s what made him interesting. He drove an antique car and had a crow for a pet. There was Geraldine and, when she died, Geraldine II.

I was in Lonn’s Place after work one day when Kenn came in with Geraldine in tow. He set her on the bar, where she proceeded to waddle along, sipping from available glasses. When Kenn left, she was on his shoulder, but took off once outside. She rose about 10 feet, lost control, almost stalled, and made an emergency landing near the center of the street. She was clearly intoxicated. Kenn wasn’t fazed. “AH! AH! AH!” I heard through the open door.

Kenn’s name still comes up frequently in smokejumper and Idaho City circles. Last year I attended a monthly coffee meeting for former jumpers. Someone mentioned that he had heard that the legendary Smith had once lost his cool.

“That’s true,” I said. “I was there.”

We left Idaho City one hot afternoon in a two-engine Beechcraft carrying four smokejumpers. The target was an Air Force fighter jet that had crashed in nearby foothills, starting a small fire.

As our “spotter” (jumpmaster in the Army), Kenn was responsible for safely dropping the jumpers. We soon reached the fire, now burning in sagebrush with considerable smoke. We circled while Kenn tested the winds. We would jump one at a time. The first in the door was John Hall (IDC-66), nicknamed “Smerd.”

The pilot lined up to cross the landing site in an upwind direction. Kenn kneeled near the door as the plane slowed down.

All of a sudden, there was a commotion. Kenn had not given the “GO” command, but the jumper was gone. His static line was waving in the prop wash. Kenn looked flabbergasted. It was obvious what happened. Smerd, who was in a sitting position with his legs dangling outside the open door, got too close to the edge and simply fell out. He disappeared in smoke, headed toward the fire. No one spoke. The only sounds were the roaring engines and wind whooshing past the open door. Time stood still on the threshold of eternity.

I glanced at Kenn. He was on the verge of tears and was shaking uncontrollably. He reached for a cigarette but couldn’t light it. Suddenly, we saw Smerd. He had landed safely outside of the fire and was not hurt. I thought the jump would continue. I was wrong.

“We aren’t doin’ this again,” Kenn let us know. “Get the hell out of here!” he shouted to the pilot, Haynes Burrus.

“Did you hear me, Haynes? I said get the hell out of here. We’re goin’ home.”

That left Smerd on the fire alone, with no tools. I’m not sure what happened next. He either joined the ground crew when it eventually arrived or, as a fellow jumper told me not long ago, hitched a ride back to base on a helicopter that was in the area.
Even our pilot was a little bit excited. When we returned to the airport, he stepped down to the tarmac, looked at us, and exclaimed: “Holy Joe! When I saw that kid go out over the fire, I thought he was a goner. He was lucky, that’s for sure. Holy Joe.” That’s about as excited as Haynes ever became.

No one mentioned Kenn’s momentary loss of control. The managers assumed he made a reasoned decision to abandon the mission due to high winds. But those of us aboard knew the weather was fine.

I learned from this that all of us are fallible. Even the toughest have a point where they are stretched too far. It may be physical; it may be mental, but somewhere it is there, waiting in the dark. As far as I know, Kenn only went there once. For the rest of his career, he was calmly in control.

I received a phone call 14 years ago from a former smokejumper buddy, Bob Montoya (IDC-62). “Hey, Reb. This is Bobby. Got some bad news. Kenn died this morning. They found him on the ground in his back yard, near his coffee cup, out by the goddamned crow’s cage.”

I was silent for a moment, unable to respond. Idaho had lost one of its true characters. I was intensely sad. The “Rock Pile” jumpers, Kenn’s sense of humor, fighting fire under the stars at 3 o’clock in the morning, the good times, all the hard work, my Idaho City friends, and even Geraldine came tumbling down through memory. For me, it ended an era.