I need to be here, hiding and grounded. My sensory geometry triangulating the distance between me and the fire and the sirens.
I’m lying face up in the crisp sun-dead blown-down grass of Great Grandma’s fallow strawberry field, straining to see the refueling nozzle of a KC-135 Stratotanker. Here I can settle my back into the muck of a lake bed, watch white pike bellies fly by, twirl lazy elodea tails in the current between my fingers. I can imagine my body as thin and weightless as Scotch tape, sticking the earth to the sky. I twirl a drought-stunted strawberry runner and rub the dust off a tiny berry that emerged through decades of heat and neglect. That heat refracts my view of rustling poplar trees on the edge of the field— timbers vibrating and nervous. The ground crickets sound their minor-chord alarm in a cacophony so high-pitched and mesmerizing and yellow it’s indistinguishable from the rippling horizon. They play a different tune on these dangerous hot dog skin snap baseball crack afternoons. Kids like me don’t worry about smell-sounds on those city- type fields; but here, in the far away, something isn’t right.
You see, often when I’m alone I experience sight, scent, and sound as one. When my imagination is not fractured by interruption. Today I’m heightened to the crickets’ concern. An arid breeze blows across the field where I lie trained to acrid molecules of smoke. Electric fear bonds my body to the ground. To the soft-shouldered ghosts of old plow rows. Adrenalin now—that jaw taste, that lung rust—has me licking my lips for a second opinion. I exhale fully and hold my breath to prevent my nostrils from desensitizing to the discovery. With the next breeze I slowly inhale to bloodhound more scent clues. Jack pine smoke. I know it well. It’s first to burn in our sauna stove. Once more just to be sure; and, yes, that’s Jack. I’m 12 years old but in that moment I bolt into adulthood. I know this because my knees feel weak and strong. There’s a forest fire in the distance and I’m the only one who knows it. It smell-tastes like turpentine crown fuel and that means it’s up to me to save the world. I tell those knees to buck up and run.
When I reach the house my chest is vice-clamped and burning from the desperate quarter-mile. “Dad!” I scream as I throw open the door to see him startle from a nap. Like punching a rising loaf of dough, like quick-setting concrete, his face hardens from its soft resting state, forehead furrowing and cracking.
“The hell you doing?” he belts from his upholstered imprint.
“Fire in the pines!” I yell. And that’s all I have left. I swallow a ball of dry air and my body hinges forward. I need his knees to take over.
“Get in the truck,” he flatly instructs. With our township fire department ten miles away and a Forest Service brigade that’s staffed by few and a father unsteady with my proclamations, we don’t discuss why he didn’t make a call. Our relationship is efficient, mostly based on oxygen. The unnecessary expenditure of resources. The less I say, the less I ask, the more I save him. That’s farm life and most days I don’t much mind. I choose not to mind because I don’t have much choice.
We drive north past the blacktop and onto the washboard gravel logging roads that twist and fade through the mixed hardwood stands. We keep the windows rolled down to let the smoke guide us. Dust coats the rim of my soda can, making every sip gritty and urgent. Past the standout wooded tracts of private property, the road pours out onto the clear-cut expanse of the Barnhardt River plains. In the distance—maybe four miles, but I know I got that wrong—the plains rise up again to hill country. There, not in a column or plume like you’d see from a house fire, but an orange-brown dullness sounding from the horizon line. Tinted not from the flames but from the dust storm created within the torrent of the foothill blaze. That’s too much trouble for so few men. Then again, at 12 I’ve begun feeling that about every horizon.
“No spotter plane. Gotta get home and call it in,” Dad says, truck crunching forward to find a turnaround. Nobody else would have detected what I heard in his voice. Picking and dusting at his words with the precision of an archeologist, I could tell he was nervous. Maybe too nervous to say he was proud of me for getting this one right. Who knows how bad things could have gotten without me, he meant to say. I could hear it in his hands upon the wheel. With all this talking, maybe I should offer him a sip of my Coke.
I’m crouching for 20 minutes alongside the road in front of our house before I hear the sirens. My legs quiver and I give up trying to keep the knees of my jeans out of the damp of the embankment. I need to be here, hiding and grounded. My sensory geometry triangulating the distance between me and the fire and the sirens. I’m terrified in every direction. The trucks wail closer with a red rumbling torque. I need them; and in this moment I don’t realize that I always will. Swallowing repeatedly and shivering, my body is burning off its fear. What will happen when I see them crest the hill and descend into our valley? Do I stay alongside the road or hide in the woods? What if I’m too close? Will they hate me? Will they hurt me? Will they save me?
They don’t all pass by at once. There are first responders in civilian pickups and a lonely green township tanker. I question the usefulness of an old red ladder truck coming up on retirement, but that will soon be forgotten. Because then it’s three Forest Service engines that overwhelm and gratify. Short, stocky, mean—they make city trucks look like Matchbox toys. They rumble the road with the sound of get out of our way and this one’s bad.
With dad planted back in his beige threadbare recliner, I remain in the ditch for a darkening hour. I’m memorizing the colors of reverence and obedience; making notes on the blue sound of diesel exhaust. I did all this, I bite blood into my lip. I summoned their vibration, from the asphalt to my knees, sending my heart into a new rhythm. I calculate and recalculate how long it could take the fire to overtake us. Counting the seconds between rusted wind gusts, like on stormy nights when I count the distance between lightning flash and thunder clap. I count the hope between engines. The thunder between wishes that they’ll stop and bring me to the front line. That they’ll forgive me if it’s a dust storm false alarm. Will take a sip of the Coke that is all I have to offer. Will pull me from this ditch and take me to a proud father. Will savor the warm red strawberries from this cool steel colander. Will lay with me in the rustling of this fallow field. Will listen with me for crickets singing in a crown fire pitch. Will train me to trust the sight-scent-sound that hinges my knees and tosses me into ditches. Will stop and say, “Go back underwater. We’ll take it from here.”
Header photo by Bradley David.