1. A Letter From Dad
“I don’t know yet if you are a boy or a girl, but WELCOME to the family. I apologize right now for all the mistakes I will do— You don’t have an instruction book. I have asked your grampa a for advice on raising you and all he has done is laugh! I guess I will find out as you grow.”
She read on, the words written in business like block lettering with a pen on a notebook that must have shaken while riding in a transporter.
“Right now, we are flying into the back country for a fire spotted by a mountain lookout. I’m flying in a helicopter with eleven other firefighters, the person next to me is Linda Martinho watching me try to write, and she says “Hi from the past!”. A nice lady, quite, pretty and tough as they come. (A secret, she is tough, but smallish, about the size of your gramma Ida). We are flying outbound to the fire lines, our assignment is to cut lines around a large burn and — Will need to finish this later, we are landing now. To be continued.”
The smell of smoke was still on the paper that was also stained with his perspiration after riding in his pocket for an unknown amount of time.
She held the paper to her nose and close her eyes. Imagining her dad young and strong. Appearing as he did in the pictures. Broad shouldered, smiling, soot covered. He was handsome as they could come. Her mom always talked about how he looked wearing cut-off jeans, in lieu of swim trunks, she almost always blushed and giggled like she must have when she was only eighteen.
Broad shouldered and red-headed. Her dad often told her stories about the history of their family with the joy of the legends of the O’Danu family dancing in the glittering green eyes. As she grew, his red hair became laced with white. There was no middle ground with her personal hero. Like him, the hair would not find an in-between color of fading red. It was red or white.
Smoke was heavy as the “helo” came in for a landing on the mountaintop. Winds were unpredictable, but the hand crew deployed quickly as they expertly handed out the tools of their trade.
Brush hooks – a kind of ax that looks like a shepard’s staff with a razor’s edge that they used to cut and drag brush out of the fire break
Pulaski grubbing tools – An ax on one side and a trenching and grubbing tool on the other. Looks like a cousin to a pick.
McLeod – a hoe and rake combination built on the toughest proportions. Probably the least favorite tool that the crews used, but the most useful.
The R-5 Fire shovel. A short-handled round nose shovel with a sharpened edge for cutting through roots and digging quickly. Used for scraping ground and throwing dirt on fire for direct suppression. Often used to do final clean up by the firefighter crew and are last in line of a firefight often called the drag shovel.
Firefighter bodies were ready for this. Trained, hardened by repeated morning abuse called “Physical Training”. The team of men and woman would perform a series of stretches and aerobic exercises that ended with a five-mile run. All before sunrise and breakfast.
All summer, they would sweat more before breakfast than most people did all day. Polishing and sharpening their tools, checking equipment, then a half hour after breakfast they would load up and head to scheduled projects for inspection or maintenance of brush clearing on roadways in the back-country. Gloves and hard-hats worn, they would test or inspect construction areas. There was little area of the mountainous terrain that they did not step foot in, a thousand square-miles that they protected with their brethren of other operational bases or centers. Dad often called her “Princess” and told her of things he did during the days he was away in his letters.
“Continuing: It is twelve-hours later, we have cut almost five-kilometers of line in an area that is too hazardous for bulldozers. I’m seriously tired, but we need to eat here in a bit, the sun has gone down and we are now in a parking lot-sized area where the helicopters land. I see a comfy rock that we are going to sleep on in a little while. In the meantime, my meal is cooking in a can. Someone brought some spam (Yes, I know, but when you are hungry and tired, everything is a banquet!) and we are cooking it over a candle powered stove in its own can.”
“We need to eat and then get back to the line, we are to join up with another crew that is cutting towards us. The fire is about two miles off.. probably you use metric when you are reading this so that would be a little over three kilometers and moving in our direction. We are cutting this line below the ridge top and backfiring as we go. (That is, we are burning it up to the ridge.) Food! Be back later. Don’t go away.”
She laughed. Writing on paper and he puts her on hold. “Don’t go away.” She remembered his sense of humor.
“Back! It is now another ten-hours later, I’m on a hike out. We had crews airlifted in, but we were out of position to get a ride, so… While we are on a break from our walk out I need to catch you up, quick. We cut a line around this old hill and hooked up with the Pine Mountaineers crew, your mom’s old party station. My crew, Iron Canyon Kings were with them when the USFS lit a giant backfire. It was not planned. (HAHAHA!) the small backfire kinda backfired. But it stopped the main front in the end. It was USFS’s game plan, but the vegetation was dryer than predicted and a bit of an uphill wind did more than expected. No one was hurt, but I do not think the US Forest Ranger will handle a drip-torch like that again. HAHA! The backfire flared a bit more than planned and there were a few moments of a significant pucker factor.”
She laughed. His stories of the line were always of adventure.
“Anyway, we’re hiking again. We have fifteen miles to go, after that? I get on a bus and head back to the deployment area. We have been out here for two-weeks now and I expect the fire will be fully contained by the end of our down-time. Three days before this all started your mom said we were expecting you to join us in less than a year. This is simply awesome! Anyway. Not much to write as far as a letter goes. This little bit o’paper will get stuffed into a file somewhere along with many others I hope. Anyway. Love you, (baby boy or baby girl!) Dad.
PS. Need to get used to that now, don’t I?”
She missed him, wherever he was. The advertisement in the magazine for wildland firefighters to go to a third world country that was suffering from a severe drought and fires that were threatening to devastate the ecology and economy.
The large salary offered was too tempting to pass up. So Dad went when it was winter in the northern hemisphere to fight fires at the bottom of the world for six months.
And never came home.
A year later, a the government sent a half-dozen boxes back. The helicopter transporting firefighters crashed with only one broken radio call for help. The identifier of the transport called with “Mayday!” then silence. Destruction of the air transport was complete and some of the local war-clans had stripped the aircraft and burned the rest.
Of a dozen-firefighters and two pilots in the flight, the charred remains of the only ones that could be identified were in coffins.
The search and rescue reported that the area around the Blackhawk transport was:
“Complete combustion of airframe and personnel.”
Official speak for nothing was left.
So she sat there with a file folder of hand-written letters, looking over the rail of the bridge and a jar of ashes that a fire liaison had collected at the scene and sent to each of the remaining six families.Five years since the crash, mom still talked as if he were just about to walk through the door. When she was fifteen, it made an odd sense of being closer to him and she was wishing she was a witch practicing “white magic” and had said a spell over a few hairs she had recovered from a brush he used and some glitter that she had used to make a family portrait years ago. She and mom had a huge fight over that, it was disrespectful mom said.
That was the last time she tried any kind of magic, until now. Now it was in the water, the final act of the spell. She had one last thing to do, it was an immature effort, perhaps, but it was all she had.
Cassiopeia O’Danu dropped a yellow rose into the waters as they flowed out into the Pacific ocean with the wish.
“Dad, come home.” Cassi whispered to the universe.