It was the summer before my senior year in college. I had time and was in need of work. Wandering about the Student Employment Office, I had caught sight of the California Department of Forestry recruitment for seasonal firefighters. With a why-not attitude, I signed up.
To say it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done is a still very accurate assessment. Wake up at 6:00 am to go hiking up the nearby hill. Sometimes we would don our shrouds, a piece of fire-resistant cloth that hangs off the back of the helmet and velcros closed in front to cover your nose and mouth. Hiking up a rocky hill with limited air via a shroud is something very near hellish. Other times, when the Capitan was looking for a workout, he would have us bring our packs, the choice of stuffing going from heavy rocks to a 25-foot coil of hose.
After the work out, breakfast and then we would have fire science classes. Lunch was varied and refreshment was always Kool Aid. Then, we would have exercises. Put on your structure suit in under a minute. Breathing through a regulator.
Afterwards, dinner was served and then you turn in. The next day, it started all over again.
We had two different suits: one for forests and another for structure fires. The structure suit was the typical one you’d see on TV, big and bulky. The forest ones were thinner and made of fire-resistant material.
It was one day that I had a test which required me to connect a hose to the truck, open it, pull it as far as it can go (25 feet), clamp it, close and take off the nozzle, put on the 25 feet of hose I had on my back, put on the nozzle, unclamp and extend that second 25 feet.
All this while wearing the forest suit while having the shroud closed around your nose and mouth.
I had already failed a previous test of backing up a truck using only the rear view mirror and it was important that I did this one well so that I can continue in the academy.
Determined, when the capitan gave the go, I screwed on the hose, the nozzle and turned on the water. I tugged on the hose and opened the nozzle.
That’s when I knew I was in trouble.
What most people don’t realize is that the water that is pumped from a truck is highly pressurized so that it can shoot as far as it does. That calculates down to 14 lbs of pressure per square inch.
That pressure made that damn hose very heavy.
Now, I’ve got very strong legs but I had to throw all my weight into it to pull that hose as far as I could go. It was excruciatingly slow going and when I finally got to as far as it would go, I had to clamp and put on the next hose.
It was early afternoon and the desert sun was growing all the more intense. As I pulled the second hose, I could feel the heat and my breath growing shorter and shorter. I was wheezing through the shroud and started swaying.
The capitan ordered me to turn off the hose and as it closed, I fell to the ground. I was suffering from hyperventilation and dehydration.
And then frustration. It was the first time that I was put to the test and didn’t make the cut for something that I thought I had wanted so badly.
I sobbed in the truck ride back to the bunk.
That summer I will remember for a couple of reasons. It was filled with the intensity that I needed to be a part of. That was one of the last times I saw Gen’s mother alive. It was when I discovered that instead of considering it a failure and a limitation, I saw it as a step forward into a realm that few would ever dream of wandering into.
And every time I see a fire truck pass by, I always hope those firefighters come back safe because it is one hella hard job. More power to you.