My Peace Corps buddy Clint and his wife Kathy live in Colfax, CA, but have been traveling about the country in their RV working on Habitat for Humanity houses since we all mustered out of Peace Corps. They've been having a great time of it, and besides being a helluv'an artist, Clint often emails me about their travels and the places they camp, and he paints a wonderful word picture.
But recently he sent me another email, and I asked if I could share it, because it's a reminder that no matter how jaded and disillusioned the older generation becomes, their are those in each new generation ready, willing and able to step up to the plate:
We live in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, near where gold was discovered in 1848. Aside from its romantic history, the area is a tender box. It seems almost every year there is a wildfire nearby, in one direction or another. Logic would suggest that on some date it would be our turn.
I remember standing in our driveway, watching the spotter planes circle plumes of smoke rising from hilltops way too close, and the retardant bombers coming in low and slow to dive on the source. I thought, “Wow, where do they come from . . . these young people who choose a uniform and serve. Some rescue, some warn, some fight, some separate bent fenders, some study wildlife and some protect it. All make our way possible.
Argue politics if you want, but you can’t deny that there continue to emerge from each generation a few who step forward.
Today, we visited the Missoula Smokejumpers training facility and museum, tucked between the fire science labs and NOAA. We watched videos, read displays, talked with interns, and joined a small tour. We learned about the history, logistics, training, hours, tactics, equipment, statistics . . . we even saw a practice flight make ready, take off, and jump on a nearby ridge.
I didn’t know these men & women make there own clothing and jump equipment, everything but boots, helmets, and parachutes, or that some rig and repair the two kinds of chutes, or that 30% fail to finish the training after being selected from thousands of applicants. There are less than 300 smokejumpers in the country. Theirs is a very elite group.
In the ready room are personal lockers, much as are seen on TV shows. Names and nicknames identify, and thin plywood partitions separate, one jumper’s yellow Kevlar jump suit and 80+ pounds of gear (Nomex clothing and survival gear) from another’s. There are bumper stickers and buttons that celebrate the facility and the nationwide association, and hand written phrases like, “Die trying” and “Stop it early.” There are pictures of wives and children, cartoons, promises to bring you back and requests to mourn naught.
In a hallway are plaques of honor. These names have jumped on 50 fires, these 100, and one man is credited with jumping into 500 wildfires. There is also a list of names who won’t jump again. A fairly new banner pays tribute to the Hotshot crew who recently died in Arizona. Before the tour I asked about them. I was told what they did. Nobody knows why. There were no survivors to tell the tale.
From the shade of the Visitor’s Center, I watched the blue and white chutes open, two at a time, over a ridge across the narrow state highway. I teared up, wondering, “Where do they come from, these selfless individuals who step forward to serve?”
Thanks Clint. Well said.