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  • Prose

Aidan Folbe - The Ground Between Us

Swamper/ˈswämpər/

Noun: A worker who assists sawyers by clearing away brush, limbs and small trees. Carries fuel, oil and tools and watches for dangerous situations.

  --National Park Service | USDA Forest Service


“Tree-huggers can’t save no trees in McCall.” That’s what my father used to say anyway. I can still remember the fire in his eyes, ignited each time we’d pass protestors chained to trunks on the way home from school. “Don’t be one of them,” he’d say. He didn’t hate trees, he just didn’t see how hugging them could do much saving. In fact, my father saved more trees in a day than any teenager wearing a drug rug. He was a hotshot. A hero. If the Payette National Forest went up in flames, my dad and the rest of the McCall Hotshot Crew would be the first to fight.

Temperatures in July and August of 1978 had been higher than normal. Meteorologists predicted El Niño patterns would delay fire season until early October. To prepare, the town of McCall sent a twenty person Handcrew into the forest to start firelines around dry zones. The town needed at least a few experienced swampers. My dad, a Type I Interagency Hotshot, was overqualified for the job. He hadn’t been sent on a precautionary Handcrew mission since he was first starting out. The money was good, but the thought of missing a fire was what really made him take the job.

Those early September mornings, when my sister and I were still asleep, he’d buckle on his cargo chaps and set off into the cool crisp forest with his oil, wrenches, and radio. His grizzly blonde hair poured out of the sides of his hard hat. He’d leave our small metal cabin on East Side Road, hike along Lemah Creek, and meet the rest of the crew in Payette. During class, I would imagine him on the western ridge of Snowslide Peak, hauling thick, barky trees out of the newly cut strip. He and his buddy Tom would walk home, arms over shoulders, gear dragging by their hands, singing Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guard”. They had worked together for years. And Tom being the sawyer, my dad would try and make jokes, but I don’t think he or anyone in our part of McCall read any Mark Twain.

I used to ask my dad why he wasn’t a sawyer like Tom. “I love the smell of gasoline on my clothes,” he’d say. “Funny, but honest.” At dinner, he’d get all riled up and talk about work which he described as his purpose. He’d stand on chairs, throw back his arms, and with his gaze to the ceiling he’d yell, “Bring on the fire!” Once, Maggie asked why people live so close to wildfire areas. He got down and looked her straight in the eyes. “I can’t tell you why others are so far out here. But I can tell you the reason I’m here. It’s to fight fires. Me and Tom spend sixteen-hour days on the fireline working a couple feet from each other. I have brothers out there. And the greatest damn gift is seeing the smoke build from miles away, hiking toward it with your chaps, gas, and pack slung over your shoulder, knowing you’ll soon be battling with hell.” My sister didn’t have any more questions for Dad after that. She could see the inferno in his eyes, and not just the reflection.

I chased him down the stairs and into the shed where he kept his equipment. I wrapped myself around his leg and tried to keep him from leaving.

“Why do you have to go?” I cried.

“It’s my job,” he said.

“I’m scared,” I cried harder.

“You’re a big kid now. There’s nothing to fear.” He tried to shake me off his leg while he continued to pack up his equipment.

I gathered myself and took a step back. “I’m going with you,” I said, sniffling and swallowing my tears.

“Who is going to look after your sister?” he asked.

“Who will look after you?” I responded.

“Listen.” He took me by the shoulders with both hands. “There are brave men and women out there risking their lives to protect me and everyone who lives around here. I must offer that same protection. And if I don’t come back, I’ll still be here. No matter what. I’ll be part of the Payette, just over the horizon, where future Hotshots, like you, will continue protecting me forever.” I watched as he left for the forest, faintly lit by the blazing horizon. Slowly, the woods consumed my father. And the words he left behind floated with the ash to the ground between us.

I closed the door and crawled into the darkest corner of the shed. I took out a spare hard hat and pulled it over my eyes. I waited and waited for the sound of his voice, singing alongside Tom’s. The light creeping through the crack under the door began to fade. When the door finally opened, I lifted the hard hat and saw Tom. He stood silently as black tears rolled off his face.

~

Temperatures in July and August of 2000 had been higher than normal. Meteorologists predicted a dry September. I was living in Lake Fork, just a few miles down Highway 55 from McCall. Maggie lived nearby. She got married and settled down. For a while we had a good thing going. We had dinner. We talked. I was seeing a few people here and there, but nothing serious. Work always seemed to get in the way. Maggie felt it, too. She didn’t like me working the way Dad did. Our relationship quickly became a heated battle, built on a conversation we had over, and over again. After the last argument, we were both too tired to keep it up.

“You are obsessed! You’re trying to get yourself killed!” she yelled.

“I’m protecting people! I’m protecting him!” I screamed back.

“He’s dead!” she cried.

My rage drowned in the reflection of her tears. I wiped them away and hugged her goodbye.

Tom had a good little business. He fixed up saws, lawnmowers, dirt bikes— anything with a small engine, really. I would help when I could. We worked in silence most of the time. Tom took on the longer projects that needed manuals and parts ordered. He let me take on the smaller fixes like broken starter ropes. We’d talk occasionally, but always about the same things.

“Don’t go rushing into no fires,” he’d say. “Wait for the team, then attack. It’s the only way to win the battle. A sawyer needs his swamper.”

Every time news of a fire came over the radio, the mood would shift a bit. He’d spend less time working and more time looking up at his wall of photos.

“Shame about your dad,” he’d say. “He always thought he could do the job alone. Man, sometimes I didn’t know whether I was fighting to control your father or the fire.”

I got the call at the shop. Lightning had struck some dry brush east of Sawtooth Peak and things had really picked up overnight. The usual entry point, Lick Creek Road, had already disappeared. When I arrived at the station in McCall, the cabin on East Side by Lemah was set to be the base and entry point. It wasn’t the first time Dad’s cabin had been used for entry. A few days after the 1978 fire, Maggie and I got moved out when Lick Creek went down. In 1991, Dad’s cabin was used again. I was over in California for that one. I had been sent to Oakland for the firestorm, a suburban fire that killed 25 people and injured hundreds more. Something like 3,000 homes were destroyed.

Luckily, the Payette doesn’t have many homes. Dad’s cabin was the closest to the fire, only three miles away. The rusty red metal looked the same as it always had. Built into a perfect cube with a single window on each side. The black aluminum door still dragged on the floor as it opened. The shed around back was still made of tin. Even after all those years, it was still the same.

There must have been fifty trucks packed onto the property. Sawyers and swampers, Hotshot or not, were all gearing up for entry. Columns of smoke rose in the distance. The air was thick and full of soot. It looked as if the Payette had cracked open, revealing Earth’s hot core miles beneath it. Veins of red and orange scattered their light though the smoke turning the whole sky gold. Men were arriving back at base with ashy faces. Their yellow Hotshot uniforms had turned black in the woods. “Time to go,” my swamper said.

Isaac was new. He joined us in the beginning of June. Originally from Montana, he came to Idaho for more action. As we set off toward the mountains, I could see the excitement in his walk. His blond hair swayed with the wind. He floated from root to root, rock to rock, moving up the mountains and into the haze. Once we reached our part of the fireline, I stopped for a moment to check our distance to the fire. We were about 50 yards away so we didn’t have much time to waste. I started up the saw and began cutting down trees. The Ponderosa pines fell the hardest. I’d cut them up a bit so Isaac could haul them away in parts. After fifty trees or so we had our strip connected to all the others. All the Hotshots took out their shovels and began digging down to the soil. A little strip of dirt doesn’t look like much, but it’s a hard line for a fire to cross.

By time we finished, the fire was close. Other Hotshots had set up pumps in Snowslide Lake. They were spraying down fire-side firs so they wouldn’t catch as fast. There must have been a pile of dead leaves somewhere further in because a fire shot up quick just a short distance from the fireline. Everyone with a hose rushed in to spray it down, but I remained on the line. The wind picked up and embers started buzzing around the air like flies. A tree down the strip got hit and the top went up into flames. I ran over with my saw to assess the risk and make a plan. It was a younger pine, twenty-years maybe. Thick and sturdy. It burned quietly and alone, unfazed by the danger, and seemed content being scorched to nothing. The flames poured out from the canopy and waved on more heat and more fire.

The pine bordered the narrowest part of the strip. If it fell, the fireline would be breached. I had to change the direction of the fall to be along the strip and not across it. The pine began to crackle and snap, shouting for my attention, distracting me from the plan. I had no time. I started a top cut into the tree at a sixty-degree angle. I made a horizontal undercut that met the top cut a quarter of the way through the trunk. The notch faced a wider part of the strip where it couldn’t cross the fireline. I moved to the backside of the trunk and sawed a horizontal felling cut a few inches above the level of the undercut to make a hinge. I took out my felling wedges and a hammer and began pounding the levers into the tree. The pine starting screeching and whistling, crying out its last bit of moisture.

I saw Isaac coming down the strip, but it was too dangerous to wait. The wedges were already in the tree. Tom’s words rang through my head. “Wait for the team, then attack. A sawyer needs his swamper.” I pushed his words aside.

“Go back, Isaac!” I yelled. “I got this.”

He continued down the strip.

“Isaac, get back! Go help the others!”

“It’s not safe!” he shouted.

“Get, Isaac. Get out of here!” I yelled.

Even from down the strip, Isaac could see the flames taking over my eyes. With two more big swings, I screamed, “Bring on the fire!” as the pine fell to the forest floor. I dropped my saw, grabbed my canteen, and unbuttoned my shirt. I dumped the rest of my water on the branches and tried covering the flames with cloth. Nothing was going to keep the pine from burning up. He was asking for it.

I moved toward the trunk and wrapped both my arms around his waist. After a couple bounces, I got him up to my shoulder. Slowly and painfully, I dragged the fire-covered tree toward the inferno. His hair covered in flames and his body burnt to a crisp. I could see the extent of the fire, but I wasn’t going to make it. He was too heavy. Too hot. I couldn’t just drop it. Another fire would start up all around me. I fell to my knees and the back of the pine slammed on the ground. Embers flew in all directions.

Suddenly, I felt the weight of the pine lift off my shoulders. I looked back, but the fire was too bright. Grizzly blonde flames poured out of a hard hat beside the blackened bark. A golden shadow.

“We have to take him further in!” he yelled.

“I can’t!” I cried.

“Yes, you can!” he screamed.

“Who will protect Maggie?” I thought.

I rose from the ash and locked my legs. I adjusted the pine on my shoulder and leaned forward to march. With pain and sweat and tears we moved the pine the last of the way there. We reached the extent of the fire and the heat singed my skin. We dropped him to the ground and took a few steps back. And then a few more. He was returning to the soil once again. I put my arm around Isaac and watched my father burn. The whistling stopped, and there were no more tears.

“That’s one tough tree,” Isaac said.

“Yeah, he is.”



Aidan Folbe graduated from Dartmouth College in 2019. He majored in Environmental Studies and minored in Film and Media Studies. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, Aidan now resides in Los Angeles, California where he is pursuing a career in Film/Entertainment. He plans to continue writing in his free time.


Aidan's short films can be found at the links below.


Press X to Respawn

https://vimeo.com/323304260


DIRT

https://vimeo.com/275654248


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