Burned Into Memory: Community Building in a Remote Fire Tower?

924FC749 9CAB 4632 8ECE 79978BC78059

As it turned out, the people I was planning on reprimanding were a pleasant, respectful family from Wisconsin composed of a mom, dad, and a grinning eleven-year-old kid.

I greeted them halfway down the path and the kid, delirious with awe, asked, “Do you really get to live here?” 

He wondered if I’d ever been struck by lightning, or run out of food.  What about ice cream? And why are those flowery things that look like Q-tips called bear grass? Do bears actually eat it? And my favorite question of all, “Does a person have to be really, really smart to get this job?”

He must not have noticed my inside-out pants.

He was able to point out, even without binoculars, three of my neighboring lookout towers, barely discernible white specks on mountaintops miles away. I shared funny anecdotes about each person staffing those towers, and how we use walkie talkies for unofficial after-hours chats. You’d have thought I was telling him I had a direct line to Santa Claus. I think the word I’m looking for here is “enchanted.”

He fired off questions about the lookout tower. What was it like inside? Was there a bed? A telescope? He asked, with raised eyebrows, if the view was even better if you are actually in the tower, but his mother cut him off at the pass with “the look.” You know the one. 

When I was about his age, my family took a trip to the east coast where we visited Washington, DC. I remember emerging from the subway, the first I’d ever been on, and spotting a limousine parked at the curb, the first I’d ever seen.

The driver, wearing a uniform that I somehow remember included gloves, had indulged my questions about the fancy car, and what it was like to drive. I’m sure my modest, Midwestern parents were giving me “the look,” too, but the driver was friendly, if not amused, and must have given them a look back to say I wasn’t bothering him. 

I’d spotted toys in the back seat, and, intrigued, leaned in to ask the driver if kids actually got to ride in the limo. Moments later, he opened up the huge, rear doors, and I ducked inside the cavernous vehicle which felt like a visit backstage, or a trip to Hollywood. After the tour of the car, he presented me with his business card with a slight bow, maybe a tip of his cap, the way that only someone who understands kids would do. I kept that card, which I had him sign on the back like he was a movie star, tucked in my journal for the rest of the trip. It still lives somewhere in my shoebox archives, but even more vividly in my Kodachrome memory.

Meanwhile, back in the present tense, I could tell the question was still burning in the kid from Wisconsin, digging in the dirt with the toe of his cowboy boot. 

“Do you want  to come up into the tower?” I asked the question for him. “I mean, you didn’t come all the way from Wisconsin for nothing.” 

Inside, the yoga mat I’d rolled out at 10:30 a.m. and never used, took up half of the walking space, but he just walked around it. There were dog toys, maps, notebooks, flip flops, colored pencils, and a hula hoop. The only thing missing is a sign that says, “Marie Kondo Doesn’t Live Here.” Truth is, there’s no point in tidying as you go in a 14-by-14-square-foot living space because it’s easier to bring the whole unruly place back into shipshape in less than 10 minutes, all by lantern light while brushing my teeth before bed.

I couldn’t resist my genetic propensity to apologize for the untidiness, but the kid, kneeling on the maps unrolled on the floor, was completely unfazed. “It’s just like hunting camp,” he smiled, surveying the cluttered room in amazement.

I showed him how the fire finder works, let him use my binoculars, and pointed out a big plume of smoke on the far, southeast horizon that made him gasp. 

You May Also Like