My Train Ride Conclusion

The ride was peaceful and since I paid more for the tickets and since it took a lot more time than driving, I decided that I should take note of the advantages of traveling by train so I did some work and drank a beer.

California passed by outside and despite Hollywood and the news, it all isn’t neon lights and surgery enhanced people.  We clickety-clacked along through golden grassy fields, green drooping fields of sunflowers and thickly tasseled rows of corn.  We wound our way across wetlands with tidal channels cut through them and duck blinds waiting for the fall looking empty and forlorn on the dry ground.

Next we slowly crossed the Carquinez Straits and the water of the delta shined green and boats moved up and down the delta.  We passed parks with people playing softball and having BBQ’s in the fresh air.  We sped past the C&H Sugar plant in Crockett and then along the shore where fishermen gazed up at the train as it flew past them in such stark contrast to their easy repose in the sun.  Small smiling children fishing in the San Pablo Bay waved to the train as it whipped past them.  Soon we passed expensive bayside homes in Hercules, the town, formerly the site of the Hercules dynamite plant.

As the train approached the Richmond Station is seemed to speed up as if it wanted to blow past this sad and poverty stricken town.  Buildings and graffiti blurred past the windows until the train entered the station and quickly braked to a halt.  I disembarked and headed downstairs to buy my third train ticket of the day for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train to go ride over to my friend’s house not far along the line.

I found the ticket machine and was trying to make heads or tails of the buttons, none of which said, “Ticket” or “Buy a Ticket” and I was being eyed by a smallish man who appeared to be down and out.  I was punching buttons madly trying to make something happen so as not to appear like some greenhorn who just got off the train from “Cow Town” when the man walked up and asked me what I was trying to do.  I could understand his confusion as it certainly must have sounded like I was trying to play the Pachabel Canon or something as the buttons all dinged out a different tone and I was working them with all five fingers.  He quickly slipped a used ticket into the slot which registered .70 and he said all he wanted for it was a dollar if I’d be so kind as to help him get something to eat.  He skillfully guided me through the maze of “helpful” electronic screens and I was awarded a BART ticket with enough value for a round trip.  I gave the man 1.50 and went through the electronic turnstile that opens and closes like a big pair of orange scissors and headed up the escalator to the platform.

I was in luck and I was able to board a train immediately as one was waiting on the platform and I entered through its filthy doors and sat down on its filthy upholstery and was happy that I only had to ride for a few stops before getting off.  I vowed to bring disinfectant wipes the next time I had to ride BART.  Amtrak was spotless inside, by the way.

My return trip the following day was more or less the same routine in reverse.  I did add a hot dog to my enjoyment of not driving.  There were no late arriver parents in Richmond, I think that people with small children wisely avoid Richmond unless they are unfortunate enough to be caught in the cage of its poverty.  As I was waiting for the train and talking with my mother on the phone I heard a siren and watched as across the street a young kid in his teens clambered over a fence pursued by the police.  He was out of sight for a while until more squad cars arrived and suddenly the young man reappeared beyond and to the right of the fence running across the street, one hand holding up his pants.  He made it to the far side of a vacant lot before he was tackled by a swarthy-appearing female officer.  She probably played some high school football in her day and her belted pants allowed her to run with both hands pumping like an athlete.

I happily climbed aboard the train when it arrived and found a nice seat with a table in the café.   I spent my journey home there enjoying the passing panorama of California on a glorious summer day.

My Weekend Train Ride

I rode trains this weekend.  I didn’t do it to reminisce about my Europe trip long past, I just didn’t want to drive my car to visit my friend.  It turns out that unknown to me, the light rail that runs close by my home ends its route at the train station.  So for $2 I bought a ticket and climbed aboard and rode the train through the city to the station.  It took about 20 minutes.  I de-boarded and went into the Amtrak Station where there were three windows open with people selling tickets.  I looked over at some electronic kiosks where one can buy a ticket with a credit card and could see that both machines were announcing that they were “Out of Order”.  So I got in line and soon was at a window with a pleasant woman who took my card and wrote me a ticket.  Yes, wrote it.  Not typed, not computer generated and printed, she hand wrote the ticket on a multiple carbon document.  I guessed that all of the computers were down or that the purchase order for computers was deep in the stacks on some dusty desk in Washington.

Next I had some time to kill so I bought a soda from the nice immigrant in the corner with the snack bar. He appears to be living the American Dream with a big smile on his face.  I went and sat down to do some reading for a business project.  The terminal is large like most train terminals seem to be with soaring ornate ceilings and a wonderful mural on one wall facing me.  It was a pastoral scene of the golden spike being driven into the final segment of the transcontinental railroad back in 18- whatever in Utah.  Fortunes were made on this ambitious project and the names of the industrialist railroad builders are still all over California, Crocker, Stanford, Huntington to name a few.

I sat back on the slatted oak benches very pleasantly reading and alternatively watching people be people.  I saw young people with skateboards impatiently pacing around the terminal, an old lady and her son and daughter-in-law with three grandchildren all eating hotdogs and soda supporting the newest American in the building.  A little pudgy pink girl with red cheeks was more intent on exploring that listening to Mom.  Two old ladies sat down in my row, apparently more comfortable in my graying white male presence than with the tattooed and hairy young man who was talking on his cell phone a row over.

One of the old ladies approached me to borrow a pen seeing that I was industriously writing.  She wanted to fill out her baggage tag so I of course gave her a spare to use.  She returned my pen appreciatively later and I felt I had fulfilled my inner need to be helpful for the day so the rest of the world was going to be out of luck.

The time came for us all to move out to the platform beside the great beast that would carry us to the SF Bay Area.  Trains are massive, impressive machines and this one was silver and shiny with great black wheels and dark windows.  I stood beside it looking at the wonderful wheels and springs of undercarriage, hearing the spurting hiss of compressed air and the low rumble of the waiting diesel engines. 

I couldn’t understand why the crew didn’t open the doors earlier than they did but we all had to stand waiting for some time.  This is annoying to me as an early arriver who does so for a purpose.  We early arrivers like to get on board first; we like to find the perfect seat.  We do not like to have to form a queue with late arrivers who are inevitably daft as hell about where they should stand and who was there before them; even when we are all standing there when they arrive like a bunch of cows waiting for a bundle of hay to fall off the truck.

Late arrivers with small children are the worst.  They arrive with every conceivable contraption known to man which are supposed to make child-rearing simple.  These conveniences of modern parenthood should enable them to be an early arriver I think.  But no, they arrive with bottles and shoulder bags and strollers and car seats and roller bags.  They have one arm around a sagging, squirming child who’s already bored with the train experience and wants to play with its wheels on the tracks which should possibly be allowed in some cases.  The adults are red-faced and haggard and when they arrive at the line by the door of the train, they simply dump all their possessions and their sniveling brat at the front of the queue looking pathetically for sympathy from the early arrivers who sneer back at them.  Late arrivers with children are not impacted in the least by a sneer.  Early arrivers are fastidiously tolerant people so the parents and their spawn and all related equipment are tolerated and allowed to board first.  We early arrivers – so efficient and unburdened – are not happy about this turn of events but we are too gracious to complain about it in public.

As I waited in line, I was again accosted by one of the old ladies who was mortally confused about the boarding procedures.  We were told that the café car door would not be opening for boarding and that boarding would only be permitted on cars in front of and behind the café car.  I explained the procedure to the old dear and she was fully satisfied toddled off with her purple multi-day pill case and bottle of water in hand.  I decided that to reduce confusion for senior citizens they should be allowed to board any door on the train and I shall write a letter about the topic to the railroad supervisor.  It is enough for them to be burdened with multiple day pill boxes and late arriver parents and spawn.

A man came onto the PA system to announce the imminent opening of the doors and the subsequent open boarding of the train.  The doors parted in the middle and slid back with a hiss.  The parents were madly scrambling to collect their dirty genetic duplicates who by now had gotten filthy crawling around the platform.  They managed to grab up all of their baby shower accessories, none of which had managed to keep the children either clean or in order while on the platform, and they schlepped their loads like Sherpas climbing Everest and were gone.  I entered the car and climbed the narrow staircase to the second floor of the car confident that neither old ladies nor late arriver parents would brave the upper floor where there was neither a bathroom nor a snack bar.  I was right of course and spent a comfortable and uninterrupted passage to my destination.

To be continued…

The Old Man and The Bomb

An old man with a story lived in a house just behind mine at one time.  He has long since died and I moved away from there but his story has stayed with me and the larger meaning of it has grown in my mind through the years.

We were always separated by a gray steel chain link fence.  I in my yard vacuuming the pool or hosing off the decks; he in his yard wandering beneath the trees and smoking a cigar.  The old man’s name has long escaped from my memory.  He was in his eighties when I met him with tired gray eyes full of cataracts and white coarse stubble on an unshaven chin.  His clothing was old and worn but it hung comfortably on his thin frame as he ambled beneath his cherry trees assessing the crop.

Whenever we met across the fence he was smoking a well-worked cigar and I never saw him smoking a fresh and new one, it was always only a stump with a smoldering end.  He’d only remove it from his mouth to talk which he did infrequently.  It was as if he’d lived and talked and heard and in these autumn years of his life he only required his cigar and his yard and some peace to enjoy them.

Every now and then our greetings to each other in passing along the fence he would stop and approach.  I knew then that the cigar was coming out and that he needed to chat.  I always accepted his invitation to converse and so I’d put down what I was doing and walk over to our common section of fence, a place where a gap in my rose hedge and a gap in his trees made a neighborly space.

The old man would lean on the fence with both arms folded and he’d appraise me with those eyes and then he’d mumble a greeting behind his cigar.  I’d ask him how he’d been and he’d remove his cigar and begin to talk.  His teeth were in shocking decay and his lips were stained brown from his cigar.  He’d tell me about his shop across town and the go-carts he built there and about his family in Washington State.  We’d discuss the likelihood of a good cherry crop. He’d remind me that I was welcome to pick all the cherries I could reach across the fence.  So our conversations went for several years until one day he shared his special story with me.

The old man was a skilled craftsman and especially clever with sheet metal fabrication.  He told me a story of his work during World War II.  In that time he was commissioned somehow to work as part of a crew to build “The Bomb”.  He said that he worked at Lawrence Hall of Science at Cal Berkeley building the metal structure of the bomb.  He told me that the government had captured Nazi scientists who were imprisoned somewhere in San Jose.  The old man told me that they would go to these men and consult with them on the design of the bomb.  The old man also told me that his rotting teeth didn’t cause him any pain because of his work.  He said that the bomb’s radiation had killed the nerves in his jaw so he didn’t feel any pain from his rotting teeth.

Our conversation soon turned away from the bomb and the war.  He put his cigar back in his mouth and lit its cold blackened end then eyes followed the smoke upward to the trees and he mumbled something about it being a good year for cherries; he turned from the fence and shuffled off through his thinning lawn.

We never again talked his work in building the bomb.  I thought about the solitary life of this old man and about how history was lost when he died.  I thought about all the history teachers at the high school a block up the street who taught from books about the war but who never knew about the old man who held history just behind his cigar.  It made me wonder how many other old men and old women were there in town whose stories would soon be lost to the dust and never shared with the young.  It is tragic that there are so many people who’ve lived long lives and who have stories and wisdom to share but who have no one that cares to listen.

Pine Sawyer Beetle (Ergates spiculatus) and other species

My aunt and I found this dead Pine Sawyer beetle along the shore of Paradise Lake near my uncle’s memorial bench.

The Madrone trees around the lake are shedding their bark now.

 

The view from my uncle’s bench.  The brown haze is lingering smoke from all the fires.

Wildlife is everywhere around the lake.  We ecountered a deer and this turtle plus some small working insects like this bumble bee.

Friday Was Weird

Yesterday was an odd day.  First my refrigerator made ice spikes out of normal tap water for the second time since I’ve lived in this particular location.  Now these may be standard fare in some of your iceboxes but they are an extreme oddity in my life.  These photos below show the two ices cubes from each of the times this has occurred.  For a complete explanation of ice spikes try this link.http://www.its.caltech.edu/~atomic/snowcrystals/icespikes/icespikes.htm

 The bigger question is why me and why my fridge.  Am I destined to be sucked into my refrigerator by some spectral presence called Zhoul ala “Ghostbusters”?  Am I in danger of inadvertently serving a spiked ice cube to a guest sparking a terrible lawsuit from a punctured pallet?  Is this some cosmic sign from the past? 

 Is it some message about global warming that I should be paying attention to?  Is there Viagra in my water?

I don’t know that the answer.  The significance of these events eludes me.

So after examining and pondering and photographing my ice spikes yesterday, I went for my walk.  As I was nearing the turn-around point the most surreal sight came into view.  This part of my daily route is in this unbelievable area with towering sycamore trees that form a leafy tunnel over the street and the sidewalks.  The sidewalk stretches out before me long and straight crossing streets each block and passing by gardens and craftsman houses and apartments.  The sun shines brightly through the holes in the canopy and lights up portions of the sidewalk in between the shadows.

There far in front of me and in the exact middle of the sidewalk was the most amazing sight and I did not have my camera with me or it would have made a mini-movie worthy of a cinematography prize.  An Asian woman was walking smoothly toward me. She was dressed in jade green clothing and she carried an tangerine orange umbrella. As she moved along the sidewalk she passed beneath the bright holes in the overhanging leaves alternating between shaded and brightly lighted spaces.  The effect was magical as she walked because the umbrella caught the light slanting in behind her and it had the effect of lighting up behind her.  I watched her entranced by the spectacle but it only lasted for a single block as she turned to her right and crossed a street into the sunny day and was gone.  The spell was broken but if I was a movie maker I’d use that image, it was a spectacular effect.

I made my way back home pondering the magical events of my day.  I wonder at times how much magic I miss and have missed by being too busy or focusing too near my feet or by listening carefully to the conversation in my head rather than the rich vibe all around me.  There is such wonder all around when I slow down enough to look and to hear.  There is such detail and intricacy and meaning wherever I care to look. 

Arriving home and I merged back into my computer chair and resumed my work for the afternoon.

Observation v. Judgment

Way back in my posting I said I’d write a post some day about judgment versus observation.  I felt that first I needed to go to the dictionary for the definitions.

Judgment – 1. God’s judgment on an individual; legal verdict; obligation resulting from a verdict; decision of a judge; opinion; estimate based on observation; act of making a statement

“In logic, the mental act of making or understanding a positive or negative proposition about something”

Observation – 1. Paying attention; 2. Observing of developments in something; 3. Record of something seen or noted; remark or comment; act of observing or obeying.

“The attentive watching of somebody or something.”

So observation is what occurs before judgment happens.    In order to make a judgment about a person or a situation one must observe.

The questions then become a) what is the purpose of the observation and b) what is the point of reference of the observer. 

If one wants to observe a person or an activity for the purpose if finding evidence to support a supposition, then their observations will be biased.  We tend to look for evidence to support our beliefs and ignore evidence that counters it.  A simple example is how nature uses camouflage to hide from being observed.  The technique relies on the bias of the observer who expects to see tree bark on a tree and not a moth.  Yet when placing one’s hand on the tree to rest a moth flitters off in the air to our surprise.  If the observer’s bias were to look for moths instead of bark, they would be more likely to see the moth.

In observing humans, someone who has a bias that people are bad will look for evidence that they are.  The bark in this case is all the bad traits that people demonstrate all around us, anger, impatience, and so on.  This person would be surprised – or suspicious – of someone who smiled at them, or held a door for them.  It would be like the moth suddenly coming to life on the tree, the goodness in people would come as a surprise.

My education gives me a point of reference that would render me incapable of making a judgment about the work of an engineer no matter how long I observed that person at their desk.  Oh, I could judge that they do not sit up straight or that they spend too much time on their breaks, but the mathematical formulas and the CAD drawings and all of that is beyond my training.  I have no foundation in engineering that would enable me to judge their work.

Someone who wishes to observe another for the purpose of judgment therefore must have some background and knowledge about what it is they wish to observe.  In religion for example, I often find that regular church going folks are rather judgmental in their views of others.  They commonly reference the Bible as their authority in making these judgments.  Observing people for the purpose of judgment in Church seems to be a principle activity of many.  Yet I would question most people’s ability to even observe the behavior of others with a bias based on at best an incomplete understanding of the Bible.

There is a reason that pastors spend years in school to learn about the Bible.  Many of them study ancient languages in order to be able to read the most ancient Biblical texts for themselves and to study the peculiarities of the language.  They study the known history of the times that the Bible was written in so they have an adequate understanding of the historical context in which the language was used.  As we all know, language changes with time or we would all be having a jolly good time quaffing pints at the pub wouldn’t we?

All of this study to build an adequate background to teach the content of the Bible is crucial in order to use the Bible as a point of reference for observation, and so to make judgments.  The funny thing is that the Bible even advises against making judgments.  Jesus says about judging others, that instead of pointing out the speck in another’s eye, we should work on getting the logs out of our own.

So can one observe without judging?  Should we all just close our eyes so we do not see?  I suppose that a good example here would be a man sitting on a beach.  He is watching the scene from atop his beach blanket with a shady umbrella overhead.  The day is beautiful and sunny, the waves are rolling in and the seagulls are calling to each other as they soar above the sea.  The man watches people walking along the shore, children splashing in the water, others digging in the sand, yet other people are lying half asleep in the sun.  He observes, he takes it in but he does not think about the appropriateness of the activities in his field of vision.

Then the man’s reverie is broken by a gang of ruffians who tumble onto the beach.  They are tattooed and loud and obviously drunk.  They run in a pack for the water and splash in wildly wrestling and yelling and two get into a scuffle the others must stop.  They are obviously drunk he thinks and they are acting like maniacs.  Someone is liable to drown or they might threaten someone on the beach.  They might knock down a child with their carelessness.  The man has moved from observation to judgment.

So observation can be tainted by fear, it can be tainted by bias, it can be tainted by lack of knowledge.  And when observation is tainted by anything then any judgment that comes from that observation may also be tainted.  At the very least, it must be examined carefully for inherent flaws.

I believe that the impossibility of human objectivity is why Jesus said there is only one judge, God.  Only He is qualified to be neutral.  Only He is qualified to observe without bias.  Jesus – God incarnate – advised men not to judge unless they wanted also to be judged.  Jesus advised that we only judge ourselves.  The funny thing is that religion can get so many things right and this key thing so wrong.  The religious drive people away by creating an atmosphere of judgment.  Many people would never enter a church because they understand that the observation begins at the door and that judgment is sure to follow close behind. 

The use of the Bible for the purpose of law making is based on observation of selected behaviors of others and rendering judgment with supposed Biblical authority. Law making based on the Bible is based on a preconceived bias toward behaviors the observer wants to regulate.  It is based on pointing out specks and ignoring logs.  It is based on placing oneself in the judgment seat of God where Jesus himself said there is only room for the One.

I believe that the crucial point in this discussion is that observation of others ultimately leads to judgment.  Conducting observations while lacking objectivity or adequate information may lead to faulty or improper judgments.  Using the Bible as a basis for judgments is a dangerous game because the very practice of doing so is in conflict with the teachings of God Himself.

We Need a Significant Emotional Event

Just a thought before I go to bed today.  I’ve taken a short hiatus from writing to my blog over the weekend and now my trip to the mountains is over and I shall resume my efforts here.

Interesting economic situation we are in with one bank taken over by the federal government and the two main mortgage companies on the verge of collapse.  Phil Gramm would tell all the investors of IndyMac they are imagining the locked doors and the federal takeover I suppose, quit whining, he might intone wisely from Washington.

Where was Washington in the build up to all of this economic trouble I wonder to myself.  I am not uneducated but I am no economist and yet even to me it was glaringly apparent that we were headed to disaster in the area of credit in this country.  The cycle of greed and consumerism was stark over the past twenty years.  The idea of borrowing money against one’s home to buy consumer goods was promulgated by the federal government when they eliminated the tax credit for credit card interest.  Everyone instead was encouraged to borrow against the value of their homes to buy what they needed and get a tax break for doing so.  Add to this the artificially inflated housing prices that created phantom equity with which to sustain an endless shopping spree.

When the greed reached an ugly peak there were still no calls to put the brakes on spending, to stop charging, to stop drawing equity out of thin air to buy consumables.  Washington has been silent and greedily benefitting from the tornado of credit purchasing that has generated taxes of all kinds plumping up the coffers and making legislators appear wise and budget conscious.

People I spoke with over the past ten years all agreed that the housing inflation could not be sustained.  Everyone concurred that children were being hurt when both parents were forced to work to buy a house, when one parent’s salary was earned simply to pay a mortgage.  I never found one person who felt that the housing prices represented reality in the marketplace but rather an aberration that was bound to correct itself.

And yet we spent, and spent and borrowed, and spent some more.  We were careless in many cases and blatantly greedy in other cases.  Fortunes were made and spent in the past twenty years.  We squandered, we accumulated, we grasped, and we stood in lines for the latest shoes or the latest electronics.

I heard a speaker once, a brilliant professor from Colorado whose name I don’t recall now.  He spoke about change and how to change people.  His thesis was that it took what he called a “significant emotional event” to make change in people happen.  I wonder if we have experienced that in this economic crisis to date.  I wonder if the federal government suddenly springing into action after years of allowing this crisis to fester isn’t making a huge mistake.  Are we going to miss the significant event because of government interference and thereby lose the opportunity for true learning and change?

Did the generation that lived through the Depression not gain important lessons from that experience and could it not have been defined as a significant emotional event?  I don’t think we’ve seen it yet in this mess.  True, we are a little uncomfortable, we are a little nervous; we are looking at mutual funds and cringing.  But have we learned the lessons that with an economic upturn would keep us from sliding back into the mall with credit cards in hand only too ready to overspend?  I would argue not in the least.  I think tomorrow if the housing market rebounded and there was suddenly a lot of paper money created, there would be a surge in spending unrivaled in history.  There is a pent up shopping itch waiting to be scratched that would bust out in all its sub-prime mortgage splendor if there were just enough good economic news to spark a run on Macys.

The federal government is taking actions that place more government influence in our lives through things like bailing our Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac through stock purchases, while they also delay or reduce the amount of pain that the citizens of this country are going to feel over the economic mess we have created.

Now before anyone grants themselves a pass on this because, “I didn’t buy a subprime mortgage and then proceed to go belly up on it”, “I didn’t spend all my equity on stuff”.  Well good for you and you are in my eyes less guilty in creating this mess than those who did.

But, did we all take all measures of a prudent citizen to alert our representatives that we felt something was going terribly amiss with all this phony housing inflation?  I didn’t.  I sat back in my lazy boy and I enjoyed rising value of my property.  I knew that it couldn’t last and I knew that people were getting in deep and in trouble but I never wrote a single letter to my congressman on the topic  So I hold myself partly to blame. 

When a guy I knew went to work for Ameriquest Mortgage and he told me about the egregious lying that was going on to get people loans and how the managers were all driving expensive sports cars as a result of their fraud.  I did nothing.  I didn’t call anyone and report what I’d heard.  I sat back in my lazy boy and waited for the bubble to burst.

The bad choices made by so many people that have placed them in jeopardy of losing their homes, and which have placed the rest of us in jeopardy of experiencing a Depression level economic downturn must result in some significant emotional events.  If we are kept from experiencing those, then no learning will occur, and no changes in behavior will be made that will last longer than the downturn in the economy. 

Ever stood behind an old lady in the grocery line and watched her pick through a change purse for the exact change for the cashier?  Or the little old lady that stands and counts each penny put into her hand for change?  I doubt that many people under 50 do either of those things.  We just whip out the extra dollar and dump the change in our pocket.  Money has little value because there is so much of it and it was coming at us so fast that we didn’t even worry about what we had in hand at the moment because in the next there would be more.

I believe the generation that stands and counts out pennies and sorts through a change purse learned to do those things because they learned early on through a significant emotional event, the Great Depression, that money does not grow on trees, and it does not exist on paper, and that to really establish financial security one must work diligently and count each penny over a lifetime.  The only real money in the end is the stuff you can count and hold.

It’s a bad idea for the federal government to insulate this generation from experiencing the significant emotional events that would produce learning that comes from overcoming economic mistakes.  I would argue that depriving the younger generation of this lesson will make the country weaker. The people of the U.S. are tough enough to overcome our mistakes, the federal government doesn’t have to take over and hand-feed us pabulum and mush.

Firefighter Part 11

One time in my first year, I rode way out to a remote fire station in the forest with the Ranger.  I don’t know why I got chosen for that but I did.  The remote station was more than ten miles into the forest I think and the guys there lived a little like a hippie commune.  They got to go to about one fire each year.  I was originally hired to go there but I got out of it before I was sent there by lobbying the captain to stay in the busier station. 

While we were riding in the forest an alarm came in and the ranger who was to retire at the end of that year drove like Mario Andretti through the forest.  We slid around turns, splashed through streams and suddenly there was a huge rattlesnake in the middle of the road.  This ranger had been killing snakes for years and had a huge collection of rattles in baby food jars all over his office.  We skidded to a stop just past the snake and with amazing agility he jumped out of his truck and yelled for me to follow.  He unlatched a shovel in the bed, attacked the snake with skill chopping off its head with one cut (another reason for a sharp shovel), then he sliced off the rattles and flipped them to me which happened too fast to object to.  He flipped the body off the road, dug a hole, buried the head and threw the shovel back in the pickup.   It all took less time than it takes to read about it and we were off to the races again.

The ranger was considered the unofficial station hero, we all wanted to be him.  He was like our John Wayne.  He had worked in the Division of Forestry his whole life and he worked for the Forest Service cruising timber on his days off.  Cruising timber used to be done with a yardstick-type piece of wood called a “cruising stick” (A biltmore stick) and it was used to measure tree height and diameter and even volume of wood.  Kids of the lumber industry never questioned “when am I ever going to use that?” when they were taught geometry because back then it was necessary to use the cruising stick.  Our ranger knew every inch of the woods because he’d been hiking them all his life. 

The ranger knew Brown Dollie since he was young.  Brown was the ancient water master at the local reservoir who’d chase us away at night with our beer and our girls.  Old Brown had driven a lumber truck in the days when the reservoir was the mill pond.  He told me once about the old transmissions with two stick shifts that made you hook one arm through the steering wheel to shift both at once.  He called the new fangled shifters “Sissy Sticks”, the ones that have the little hydraulic shifter you pull up as you shift.,

On the big fire where we left our turkey dinner on the table our Ranger came to check on us late in the heat of the afternoon.  He said to us, you guys look like you could use a beer.   We did and he pulled some ice cold beer from a bag in the back of his pickup and gave us each one to drink.  He was a great guy.

I recall at the end of the fire season that first year when we had our end of the fire season party.  Just the guys and lots of drinking.  None of the bartenders in town would card us, and none of the cops would object.  We did a man’s job for the town all summer and the town wasn’t going to treat us like kids.  We were at a bar drinking tequila and an old mountain man watched us completely unimpressed with our south of the border choice of liquor.  He said to us, anyone who can drink tequila like that oughta be able to drink wild turkey.  We all professed great Wild Turkey drinking skills and he bought every one of us a shot. 

I know we ended up playing ping-pong back at the station but I don’t recall how we got there.  In the morning our Ranger came into the barracks to say hello and to survey the hangovers.  He simply said that we must have had a good time the night before.  He said could tell by the beer cans on his desk.  We loved that guy.

We gave the ranger a great retirement party.  Two of the fire camp stove trailers were brought in and I was in charge of cooking about a hundred half-chickens.  Everyone drank and ate and drank some more.  We all went to the Ranger’s house after the party and we drank even more.  Nobody wanted to let him go.  The last thing I remember about that party is kissing the hand of the Ranger’s wife when I was introduced to her.  It was very debonair for a firefighter, even a completely drunk firefighter.

The next year we got a new ranger.  He was younger and more ambitious and more interested in regulations.  We never left any beer cans on his desk and he never brought us a beer on the fire line either.   It wasn’t worse, it just wasn’t the same.

I thought I’d share some of the things I learned as a firefighter that are a little unique and may not be common knowledge.

Stuff I learned as a firefighter:

1.       Soil is what you plant things in and dirt is what you brush off your pants.

2.       A spanner is a wrench for turning on a fire hydrant

3.       Hydrants are marked on the street with a blue reflective bots dot.

4.       Some gasses burn incredibly hot and invisible so it’s possible to walk into a burning cloud of gas in a building and never see it. 

5.       Our helmets left our ears uncovered so we would know when it was too hot to stay in a building.

6.       When testing for heat, always check with the back of your hand.

7.       Cow patties burn like charcoal.

8.       There are rocks in the Sierra foothills that stick up and are called “tombstones” and which will slice open an engine tire.

9.       Firefighters think they’re better than cops and cops think they’re better than firefighters.

10.   Wild fires can move a lot faster than you can run.

11.   Building permits are good things.

12.   Lighting does weird and interesting things.

13.   Phoscheck burns and it smells bad.

14.   Large trees sound like thunder when they hit the ground.

15.   Semi trucks used to have two stick shifts.

16.   An overly ambitious firefighter was called a “red hot”

17.   An aggressive fire was called a “major rager”

18.   A pyromaniac was called a “match”

19.   It’s possible to back a large engine into a garage using only the mirrors.

20.   I could work for 24 hours or more without sleep.

21.   Fried eggs are good.

22.   Sharp tools are good.

23.   A balloon filled with oxygen and acetylene when hit with a welding torch can explode loud enough to break windows. (my captain was teaching us how to weld)

24.  Smoke is nasty stuff.  It carries up poison oak oils, it carries tar, it can block out every bit of light in a house attic.  It can make you cough up black stuff for days after a fire.

25.  Fire is HOT and large fires are much hotter than you can imagine.

26.  Always keep your fire engine filled with water, even when you’re dog tired.  You never know where there will be a fire.

27.  Only kiss the ranger’s wife’s hand at his retirement party or you’ll have to see him again.

28.  Don’t cover cuts in your arm with an oily glove.

29.  Cedar trees can burn right down into their roots.

30.  A hot fire can burn the asphalt right off the road.

The end…I’ve stretched two fire seasons as far as they will go, hope you enjoyed some of it.

Firefighter Part 10

One of the things that happened at the station from time to time was school field trips.  The captain always led the group of kids around and showed them everything.  We’d do a hose lay and let the kids spray water around.  We’d let them try on a Scott air mask and turnouts and let them climb on the trucks and honk the air horns and sound the sirens.  We’d even show them our spare firefighter.  Well, to be truthful, we didn’t really have a spare firefighter. 

We were each assigned a tall gray locker in the garage where our heavy turnout coats and pants were kept.  We rarely used those because turnouts were only used on structure fires.  To set this ruse up, one of us would put on turnouts, boots and a Scott air mask and get inside a locker and close the door.  As the kids were led around the station and through the garage the captain would say, “… and this is where we keep our spare firefighter,” and then quickly open the door revealing the guy inside.  When the door opened the guy inside took a loud breath with the Scott air mask and then the captain would close the door and walk on as if this was as normal as showing them the racks of hose.  It was quite amusing to watch the various reactions of the kids which varied from frozen in a state of stunned bewilderment to cool, what’s next?

Pyromaniacs are strange and ingenious people.  I won’t go into what I saw about their craft while firefighting.  It would be irresponsible to spread that knowledge on the Internet.  Suffice it to say that ingenuity is wasted on them, they should be putting their brainpower to better uses.

When the lookout would spot a smoke and plot its coordinates we’d all gather around the map in the captain’s office to see where the fire was starting.  Sometimes, the lookout would call out a second smoke minutes later and when the coordinates were plotted it was in a line with the first smoke and usually along a road.  There would sometimes be a third and a fourth smoke and we’d all say, “There a match!”  which is what we called the pyros.

For a period of weeks in one of my two years we were called to a local state park repeatedly.  Small fires kept erupting and each time we’d make the trip up to the park and put out the fire and each time there were some state crew workers there.  One in particular was always staring at us when we came up to put out a fire.  I noticed this but did not report it to anyone, I just thought the guy wanted to be a firefighter and not a state maintenance worker.  Well, it turned out he was starting the fires.  Our captain told us who was caught doing it and I revealed what I had seen  My captain wasn’t happy at all to find out that I had spotted the pyro and hadn’t told him.

One of the least favorite chores each year was to work with a grouchy old captain who operated a grader along the old logging roads in the forest.  Everyone complained about him because he was so crotchety and nobody could please him.  I got picked that year.  I’m not sure why, perhaps I was being punished for the Amityville incident.  Anyway, the old guy picked me up one day in his pickup and we rode for miles into the forest.  He explained that I was to follow him on foot as he graded the road.  I was to carry a shovel and pitch dislodged rocks off the road and backfill holes with a shovel of dirt.  Seemed simple enough.  He went on to explain that he didn’t want me too close or too far back so I had to pay attention.  I never figured out why he cared where I was but he did and that was that.  We worked through the day without incident and I came to wonder how bright the other guys were who had failed at this job in the years before.  Perhaps they simply didn’t like the job and were willing to trade some wrath for never having to go out again.  One drawback of the job was obvious, if you were out filling holes, you weren’t on an engine going to a fire.  Maybe that was my answer.

to be continued…