by John Christy – Assignment May of 2020
As we moved slowly up the hill, trudging through the destroyed landscape, my mind persisted in leading me away from the mission at hand; back to my injuries. My right hand was bleeding again. The pain in my hand temporarily distracted me from the pain I was enduring from the load bearing web gear that was digging into my shoulders. I didn’t want to look at my right hand; but an assessment of the damage to it and an adjustment of the bandage would be necessary before my injury compromised our night operation.
I focused my flashlight down and unwrapped my right hand. The agony caused me to wince as the dried dressing pulled loose from my freshly bleeding tissue. The flaps of the blistered skin, still attached to my hand, ripped loose when I pulled off the last wrap of dressing. A low growl escaped my lips, as tears formed in my eyes and turned to muddy rivulets behind my goggles.
“Hey Christy, why are we stopped up there?” It was the voice of the Crew Chief, Thomas Sullivan. I could hear him heading in my direction by the sound of his equipment rattling, to the rhythm of his long strides, climbing up the hill to my position. Inside of five seconds Sullivan was at my side.
‘Sully’, as everyone referred to him, was my Fire Crew Chief on Crew #2, for the El Cariso Hot Shots. Our Hot Shot station house was in the Laguna mountains above Lake Elsinore, California. Sully had been on this Hot Shot crew since 1965. He was one of 19 survivors of the ill fated 1966 Loop Fire disaster where 12 Hot Shot crew members had burned to death on Loop Mountain in the Angeles National Forest. Sully survived with 2nd and 3rd degree burns trying to save members of Crew #1.
“Looks like a handful of hamburger there, Knots”, he said, shaking his head and thinking about what he was going to do with me. “You got any gauze wrap?” I asked, trying to cover my open sores with the dirty dressing. “Sorry man, you’re SOL there. I’m going to put you back at the tail on a McLeod. Trade tools with Junior. Junior, get up here.” With that Sully turned and went back to his middle position of fire spotter.
The pain of losing my spot of 2nd Hook on Crew #2 nearly took the place of the pain in my hamburger-ed right hand. I’d worked my way up here all summer by showing that I had the stamina to keep up with the Lead Hook, George ‘Uffa’ Malafua.
“I tole you not to wear globs. Dey fug you up every time, Bro”, George offered. “Look a my hans.” George poked this thing at me that looked like an over-done pork loin, with fingers. He turned his fat paw over as though it was on a rotisserie. The dark brown on the back of his hand turned to a cappuccino colored palm with yellow raised dots across the middle. “See Bro, I got’s callups. I gid dem ‘cause I don wear globs”, George said with pride. I didn’t want to hurt Georges’ feelings but I got these blisters because I wasn’t wearing gloves. I removed the bandana from around my neck, wrapped it around my Tabasco colored hand, and went to the back of the fire line. On the way Junior passed me running up the hill with a McLeod in his hand. He grabbed my Hook and dropped the McLeod at my feet. With a laugh, he ran up to take his place as 2nd Hook behind George. I took one last look at my spot and George, but he had already advanced forward, looking at a 12’ high Manzanita tree that wouldn’t be there in the next 45 seconds.
Our Hot shot crew had been mobilized from our home base, in the Cleveland National Forest, to the San Bernardino National Forest, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. We had been on this fire, the Morongo 10, since Tuesday. Today was Saturday and we had only 7% containment of the fire.
It was now 7AM. The sun was just peeking over the ridge tops as we arrived back at Fire Camp. Hot Shot crews fought fire, by cutting line around it; mostly at night where we could more easily see the underbrush burning. We had been cutting line around the fire since 6PM the day before. Back in Fire Camp we could eat, maybe shower, sharpen our tools, and sleep until that evening when we would start the process all over again. But my first stop was going to be at the Red Cross tent to get some medical relief for my blistered hands.
As I got down from our truck, an inmate crew, from the California Division of Forestry (CDF) was walking to their truck, heading out to the fire line. A career felon named ‘Sleep’ yelled over to me, “Hey Chris, ya’ll got any spice?” I reached into my pouch, produced a metal film can, and waved it in his direction. We all carried pepper spices like cayenne, mace, and Tabasco because the K-rations that we ate on the fire line had little flavor beyond the taste of too much salt. They were well preserved, having been left over from the end of the Korean War.
Sleep jumped out of line and ran over. He pulled out an empty Chesterfield cigarette pack and I poured about a 1/4 of of my stash into it. “Thanks Chris”, he said, as he pointed at my bloody glove, “Hey what’s wrong with your hand?” I pulled off my bandage to show him the damage. “Wow, that looks like crap” he said with real concern in his voice. “Yeah, I know; that’s why I’m heading over to the Red Cross tent, soon as I ground my tool”. This made Sleep stop to warn me, “Oh no man, don’t go over there.”
The angry voice of the CDF crew boss could be heard over the entire Fire Camp, “Come on Sleep! Load up, we’re waitin’ on You!”. Sleep started running toward the already rolling truck. I yelled at his retreating figure as to why I shouldn’t go to the Red Cross. All that I could make out, as he shouted over his shoulder, was, “You’ll see. Good luck with that”.
Dust rolled through the camp and didn’t cease until the big red truck finally got on to the paved road and headed west to the San Bernardino mountains and the convection column of smoke on the north side.
As I walked away from the medical tent that morning, my hand throbbing with renewed torment, Sleeps’ warning seemed all the more surreal. I was still processing what had just transpired, as I got into the chow line behind Scotty Hamm.
When Scotty asked if I’d been bandaged up at the Red Cross, I related my sad story to him. “What?’, Scotty yelled, “They want you to pay for bandages? The Dead Cross charges for that stuff? That’s un-fuckin’ believable!!”
Scotty Hamm, when not fighting forest fires, was a surfer and a beach bum. Scotty believed that Brian Wilson was the worlds greatest philosopher, a musical genius, and probably a god. His hobbies were drinking and bar fighting. He considered surfing a profession. He and Sully and I would surf Huntington, San Onofre, and Encinitas on our weekends.
I went on to explain my predicament to Scotty. “It hinges on the fact that we get paid to be out here to fight fires”.
I looked into Scottys’ ever reddening face. He looked like a thermometer moving up from the high 90’s into the 100’s. Suddenly he stomped off, heading in the direction of the Red Cross tent; a trail of expletives swirling around his head like exhaled cigarette smoke. I didn’t try to stop him. I’d already been the wing-man at the onset of too many of Scottys’ bar fights. I decided to not be the one answering the questions of the San Bernardino Sheriffs deputy who responded to the call from the fire camp, because a persnickety woman at the Red Cross tent managed to stop a fist from traveling all the way through her head using only her nose.
I was balancing a tray of what appeared to be food on my bloody stump, when Scotty returned. A quick check behind Scotty revealed no shouts or screams or people running after him, so we must safe; for the moment. “Here”, Scotty said, holding out a hand filled with miscellaneous bandages, gauze and tape. “Uh, Okay. where’ed you get all that?”, I asked cautiously. “One of the Cons in the CDF gave it to me. I gave him some weed on the Oak Peak fire last month, so he owed me one”, said Scotty, grinning with almost all of his front teeth.
On the way back to the fire that night, in the light of the setting sun, I admired the work Sully and Reggie Soto, an ex-Army Medic, did putting the mediocre bandage materials to use on my hand. They managed to employ the entire roll of gauze tape to a point where, with force, I could just barely get my hand into my glove.
After a mile long hike from the paved road, we began cutting cold line up the mountains’ south face. We started several new lines because fingers of burning forest would creep down the mountain, trapping us, and cutting off our escape route.
Al Khune, our fire boss, walked up the cleared line, handing out fresh batteries for our headlamps. “How’s the hand doing, Christy?”, he asked. The dressing was coming off and my hand was bleeding again. “It’s fine Al. Thanks for the batteries.” I got back to work scraping the forest floor. After Al left, I moved to the very last position on the fire line where my slow pace couldn’t hold up our progress. I felt helpless to control my pain and useless to the crew.
After four hours of climbing and cutting we managed to beat the fire to the ridge top. Working on the south face of the mountain, where the forest growth was sparse, we could make better progress. However, the cold-line was soon to become a hot-line, with flames closing in on our left flank. George and the hook crew went down the north face to cut fuel away from the ridge top. George and Junior began singing Samoan war songs as they cut a ten foot wide swath across the north face of the flaming ridge.
“Ground your tools!”, was the order yelled by Sully. “Take a water and meal break. And don’t forget to sit on your tools. We don’t need any of them getting away down the mountain.”
Most of us tried to lay down with our feet up hill, drink some water, and maybe sleep for 10 minutes; but no one was interested in eating. Especially K-Rats. I immediately fell into a deep, dreamlike slumber. This is when the little man appeared.
“Hi there fellers.” Said the voice in my dream. There was a bright light floating above my head. The voice of the little man continued. “Ah seen your lights going up the hill from down on the road: so Ah figgers ‘there’s some boys werkin’ hard, an needed some comfort’, so’s here Ah am.”
This was the first of several times in my life where the vividness of my dream state would amalgamate itself into my conscious world. This cheerful voice leapt out of my dream and onto the ground next to me.
I opened my eyes and the little man was still there. I focused my headlamp onto the ground where a light, coming off of a brilliantly polished pair of black low-quarter shoes, shined back at me. Following up from the highly shined footwear, my light found a pair of dark-navy blue wool pants, with cuffs, accompanied by a matching navy blue wool, four-button, coat. Under the neatly pressed coat, complete with red epaulets and red lapels, was a white shirt and black tie surrounding a crisp white collar. On top of the collar was the face, I swear, of Walter Brennan! Resting sedately upon his head was a navy blue cap with a shiny black brim and a red band that proudly announced that the little man was from The Salvation Army.
Sporting a hugely compassionate grin, standing less than 5’2”, 110 pounds, silver haired, and in his late 60’s, the apparition began speaking again.
“You boys must be tired an hungry from that excellent fire line you jus cut.” The little man reached into one of the two satchel bags that criss-crossed his uniform coat, and produced fresh ham and cheese sandwiches! It was at this point that I began hoping that this wasn’t still a dream. “You want one of these son?”, the little man asked me. He used his genuine Mickey Mouse flashlight to illuminate this Sunday evening dinner, wrapped carefully in wax paper. “It’s all yours”, he said. “I got plenty more.” I was staring at that ham and cheese sandwich as though it were the treasure of the Sierra Madre. “When you git fed there son lemme take a look at that bloody glove”, the little man said as he continued up the line, handing out more sandwiches to our crew.
I finished the sandwich and a canteen of water before the Little Man returned. He produced a pair of bandage scissors like I’d never seen before. Without questioning, the Little Man from the Salvation Army cut through the back of my glove and my bandages. He next poured a bottle of hydrogen peroxide over the dried gauze. With the skill and caring that only comes from years of experience, he removed the old bandages. Delicately he cleaned and debrided my wounded tissue. He covered the open tissue with a pain-killing ointment and closed it up with non-stick pads and a gauze wrap.
I took out a piece of parachute cord and began tying my glove back on to my bandaged hand, but the Salvation Army man stopped me. He removed from a coat pocket his personal pair of well worn, yet serviceable gloves and handed them to me.
Not able to fully process these last few moments, I had ask, “Why are you doing this?” His answer came crisp and fervent, “Blood and Fire, son. It’s my calling and my duty.”
With that, he said his howdies to all of our grateful crew and headed down the mountain. One of the guys said he caught his name as ‘Jerome’, but I just called him ‘Walter’.
In the years since, those bandages have cost me some where around $17,000 in donations to the Salvation Army; thanks to Jerome. I may have missed a few years through forgetfulness or poverty; but I always kept in mind that, out there, somewhere there was another Jerome. That is why, in his memory, I always write on the space provided on the lower left corner of the check, where it says
Jerome, ‘Blood and Fire’.