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Lessons learned from a special summer

Silver State Post of Deer Lodge, Montana

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Country musings

It was the best summer ever. After graduating high school, I was hired by the Forest Service and sent to a fire lookout on the Helena Forest. It was the first job I ever had that didn't involve pitchforks and cows.

It wasn't the stereotypical lookout on a windy, ridge miles away from anyone. They sent me to Strawberry Lookout, south of Helena and just above Montana City. It was accessible by car, and I had occasional weekend visitors. It wasn't pure, but it was enough for a kid.

I lived in a cabin below the tower, which was a metal structure, 60 feet high, with an 8x8 foot enclosure at the top. I was to spend 20 minutes per hour in the tower, from daylight to dark. After thunderstorms, I took a couple books and spent the entire day reading and glassing the area for smoke.

I had a telephone and a radio. Once a week I'd call in my grocery order, and someone from the office would bring it up to me. I had it good.

After my first month, the office urged me to take a day or two off and come to civilization for a warm shower and a movie. I always refused, and stayed the full fire season without leaving. I had plenty of books, and a five gallon bucket, left in the sun all afternoon, provided a perfectly good shower.

The lookout was directly above Clancy, on the Townsend side of the highway to Butte. I had a full-length view of Lump Gulch, which the locals called Lightning Alley.

Many of the storms came over the continental divide, down the gulch, and then over my tower, headed for Townsend. Some were amazing in their intensity.

The protocol was for me to stay in the tower during thunderstorms. The frequency of the strikes in Lump Gulch was impressive. During one episode, I counted almost 300 strikes in less than an hour.

At first I felt vulnerable in the tiny enclosure, but relaxed after the first few storms. The lightning was on the leading edge of the systems, with very few strikes in the middle, when the rain was the heaviest. The trailing edge of the moving downpours always had a few strikes-like afterthoughts to show me they meant business.

My weekly food order during the summer was macaroni and cheese, Rice a Roni, a pound of hamburger, a pound of bacon, and a dozen eggs. Although I was too young to drink legally, they would bring me a six pack of Lucky Lager beer when I asked.

At first, I had one can of beer every day at dusk. But after a couple weeks, my propensity for alcoholism manifested itself, and I began to forgo the evening beer, preferring to wait for a special night and drink all six cans at one sitting.

Like many, but not all alcoholics, I was the type who saw no practicality in social drinking. It seemed a waste, and it still does. If I can't get pig drunk and wake up in the weeds somewhere, alcohol has no appeal.

Ridiculous, I know, but that's the way it is. One can of beer would only make me thirsty for more, and I might not be able to handle that. I have beer in my refrigerator, now, but it's for visitors and I'm not interested, because I know what could happen. Twenty-nine years of sobriety aren't worth the risk.

The summer passed too quickly. I spotted five fires, so I guess I earned the $i.93/hour they paid me.

To be truthful, I stole one fire. I was in the cabin with a young fellow who occasionally came up to chat, when I heard the spotter plane call the office with the code for a fire.

I tore up the 60 feet of stairs and spotted the smoke with one glance. I was quicker with the map, and located the burning snag with in a 40 acres in just a minute. I phoned the dispatcher and gave him the legal description of the fire, and when the airplane called in with his location, the dispatcher was happy to tell him that the teenager on the lookout had beat him to the fire. I never told them the truth.

So I learned two things in preparation for adulthood: 1. If you can take credit for someone else's work, do it. 2. Don't waste alcohol by drinking in a controlled manner. Drink all you can at one sitting, and wake up on a cabin floor the next morning, hung over and depressed. That's living right.

With that modicum of knowledge, I should have been a success in life. I became an expert in alcohol, but never mastered lying as an integral ingredient for success.

It's too late, now, but maybe I'll get it right the next time around by avoiding the alcohol and learning how to lie.



Copyright 2014 Silver State Post, Deer Lodge, Montana. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

Original Publication Date: November 19, 2014



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