Authors: Bill Leviathan
Set Me Alight
Copyright 2014 Bill Leviathan
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It was so God damned cold in there. Not much else you could expect when there was only a thin layer of tarp and pizza boxes shielding you from the cold Pennsylvania winter air. There wasn't much I could do to occupy my time. My weary body was aching for a good night's sleep, but the cold was keeping me up in a borderline delirious state. There's no one else to keep me company in the drafty little home I had. No one except "Authentic Tony". He stared at me with his fat little face, mocking me with his stupid little grin and that warm, fulfilling pizza floating right next to his head. Authentic Tony lived in a dream world of never ending pizza and eternal smugness, something I could never hope to achieve during my futile existence. I kept telling myself I was going to turn that box around, but who else would I be able to direct my hate and anguish towards then? Myself? I already spent most of my day doing that. I didn't need to spend my nights doing it as well. Tony would stay, his haunting glare watching over me as I drifted into an intermittent sleep.
Day time hardly brought any relief. If I stood directly in the sun, I could warm up a little bit, praying that a gust of wind didn't pass by, piercing through the tattered rags I called clothes. The sun's warmth on my skin was the only relief I got during those winter months, a little bit of feeling returning to my arms and legs as I basked in the sun. Most of the day was just a dreary reminder of what life had become for us ‘workers’ or ‘commoners’ or whatever you wanted to call us. I would wake up, walk out of my tent, and shamble around our little village of cardboard box and tarpaulin homes to see what I could scavenge for warmth or sustenance. Every now and then I would get lucky. I would find a half-eaten apple or a moldy crust of bread. Most days, the best I got was discovering one of my neighbors wouldn't be waking up any more, providing me a few more tattered layers to wrap myself with.
After I stopped hating myself just enough to get motivated to move out of bed, I made my way out of the village in a search for work. There wasn't much to be found in those days. The only people who seemed to be paying were cleanup crews. You would spend the whole day picking up other people's shit. They had you go into the gated communities to remove their trash, head to the nearest factory to pick up their dumped waste, and sometimes they would have you carry off the half frozen bodies from the benches downtown. I would stand around in a group of a hundred guys, wait for a pickup truck to pull up, and hope I was one of the lucky three people picked for the job. It was a good day if even a quarter of the group got selected to work. Most of the time it was closer to one tenth. The good days always seemed to come after particularly cold nights.
I missed out on work once again. I was looking at another wasted day. Without the work, it was doubtful I'd get anything to eat. Nothing substantial anyway. What to do to take my mind off the crippling hunger pangs? Sitting around the little fire in the center of the village was always a good way to pass the time. There would always be some old geezer telling stories of what it was like before the crisis, or some young kid detailing their dreams of making it big one day and how they'll still remember us little guys. Those were always the best. The delusions of breaking free from the circle of poverty, a delusion that only a teenager who spends too much of their spare time standing outside the windows of television shops could have. At the very least, I'd hear a story from some poor woman who witnessed their entire family waste away before them just last week. It’s nice to be reminded there's someone out there worse off than me. It's the little tragedies of everyone else's lives that get me through each day.
Before I could make it to the village center, I saw my neighbor Jon heading toward me. It seemed like it was every day he'd cooked up some sort of scheme to get us out of this village. All of them were half-cooked ideas and concepts his 8th grade education level couldn't even begin to comprehend. My favorite of his had always been to somehow extract the grease from all the discarded pizza boxes and take-out containers, and then sell it to the government as an alternate fuel source. The food in those containers was 90% artificial grease, but it hardly provided sufficient fuel for our poor bodies. How was it ever going to power something useful?
"Hey, Pete, how's it going?"
"Same as always, Jon. I'm cold, I'm tired, I'm hungry, and there's no end in sight. At least I still have my sunny disposition."
"Jesus, Pete, first thing in the morning and you're already rattling off about how shit humanity's existence is. Shut the fuck up already. I've only just saw you and I'm already tired of your God damned cynicism. I've got something important to talk to you about."
"Yeah? What is it this time? We going to try your plan of breaking into rich neighborhoods to siphon off gas to sell it to other neighborhoods? You still haven't quite figured out how to get past those high fences or armed guards."
"I've already warned you, man, quit it with the tired cynical shit. Winter is almost over, man. I heard on the radio they're predicting a dry spring and summer out in the West. You know what that means?"
"I don't have the slightest idea what that could mean."
"Summer forest fires, and lots of them. They need people to fight those fires. Desperate, dumb kids who have nothing else going for them. And they pay a lot, man. A lot. Work for three months out of the year, and then faff about for the rest."
"That's just great, Jon. There's a big problem with this master plan of yours, though. We live on the East Coast, not out west. There are no fires here. There are about 2,000 miles between us and the fires."
"Good thing we have a few months to travel those 2,000 miles to get to those fires."
"Ok, and how are we going to train to fight fires on this trip? They may be looking for 'dumb and desperate' kids, but it doesn't sound like an easy job. We're going to get ourselves killed awfully quick if we don't know what the hell we're doing."
"You know Old Jim from the other side of the village? He was a volunteer firefighter in Philly before the crisis. I've already run this by him, and he's coming. He said he would help 'train' us as best he can along the way."
"Alright, alright. When are you two planning on leaving for this little adventure?"
"Tomorrow. We haven't told anyone else, so if you're interested, show up tomorrow at the train yard. We'll be trying to hitch a ride from there."
"If I decide to go, I better not end up standing in the train yard alone with my dick in my hand, you hear?"
"Don't worry, man, Old Jim and I are one hundred percent committed. See you tomorrow."
"Don't be so sure I'll be there Jon."
I don't think I slept at all that night. I wracked my brain over what to do the next morning. Was Jon being serious? Did he think we stood a chance out there in the West? It’s a long ride out there, and we had no provisions to speak of. Though, what exactly was I hanging onto there? My little starring contests with Authentic Tony? Maybe we could find a train heading down south, warm our bones a little before what I thought was the inevitable - us starving to death while tucked away in the back of some train car. A train yard worker would find us, our bodies frozen stiff and huddled together in a desperate attempt for warmth. They’d pry our frozen bodies apart from the floor of the train car with crow bars, and then dump us on the side of the rails for the summer vultures to pick at.
The warmer cities were overrun with us 'workers' that time of the year. Where exactly would we be heading? The "West" is a pretty big area. Texas? California? Those places already had too many mouths to feed, they may not give us the warmest of welcomes. Though, we would have time to decide where we'd be heading along the way. It would take a lot of train hopping to get there. Lots of opportunities to get caught by some train yard guards. I'd lived in Pennsylvania my whole life, never really had much of an opportunity to travel. I had a car when I was sixteen. Wasn't long before I had to sell it for scrap to buy some food. I'd been able to pick up some national news over the radio or on the screens in the television shops, and it didn't seem like they were living any different throughout the rest of the country. I shouldn't have been that much of an outsider. We'd all had the same experiences for the past decade. Hunger, shame, and a complete loss of our dignity. That's what unified the common man, a cold emptiness that permeated through all of us. Or maybe not. That could just be the ever cynical East Coast attitude that radiated through me. Maybe they really were just happy out there. ‘West coast is the best coast’ as the saying went, right? We may not have made it all the way to the coast though. Might not have made it past the Rockies, or somewhere in the Great Plains. There's a lot of fires out there, no reason to keep going further west. We'd just be another couple of outsider Okies in an already overcrowded California. I'm not wasn't getting anywhere stewing alone in my hypotheticals. Maybe the dawn sunlight on my face would bring about some sort of revelation. A little vitamin D should help clear up my thoughts, or at least have made me less likely to kill myself.
Well, dawn came around sooner than I hoped. What was I going to do? There wasn't much packing to be done if I decided to go. A blanket, maybe a couple of plastic bags to wrap around my feet to keep them dry. I didn't own much more than the clothes on my back. Shit. There's no better reminder of what little mark you're leaving on the world than preparing to move. Nothing, I had literally nothing to claim to my name. If I left there, no one would notice. Just a small empty spot for another down-on-his-luck bum to set up their tent in. I could only hope they would have a happier existence there than I ever did.
Ok, that was it. I'd made up my mind, I was going to the God damned train yard to meet up with Jon and Old Jim. I had my blanket, my tarp, and a few plastic bags that weren't too riddled with holes. My neighbor Bob never returned to his tent that night. He left behind a pair of shoes. The soles were only half attached, but they would do. I'd find some duct tape along the way to attach them. They were size 10. It was my lucky day, only two sizes too small. Almost enough space where I can pretend to wiggle my toes. Life was looking up already.
It was quite a hike to the train yard. An hour and a half walk. I left early, so it would be eight or nine in the morning by the time I got there. Jon never said what time to meet him, just to be there. Fuck, what if he was already gone? I would have robbed Bob for nothing. How long would I wait there? Fifteen minutes, an hour, two hours, five hours, until dusk? It's not like I had plans or anything for that day, but at least I would be able to stew in my own self-pity in the comfort of my own home.
Thank God, Jon and Jim showed up. Old Jim was a lot older than I anticipated. Grey haired and hunched over a cane. His name wasn't ironic. I already had a feeling that he was going to be a liability on our way out. His dentures would probably fall out while catching a moving train, and I'd be forced to spoon feed him his meals. That, or he'd just going to keel over and die before he did anything useful for us. I was sick and tired of people dying off before I could fully exploit them.
"Pete! Glad to see you've made it," Jon yelled out.
"Might as well rot away out West if I'm just going to rot away here."
"You always bring the best attitude," Jon said.
"So, Jon, have you and Jim decided on where we're going? Or are we just seeing where the trains take us?"
"We're going to Montana," Old Jim replied.
Nothing worked out as planned. Old Jim proved to be the liability I expected him to be. Jon and I ditched him somewhere in Oklahoma. What he taught us about firefighting was borderline useless. He hadn't done that kind of work for almost three decades, and he was a city firefighter, not a forest firefighter. All we were able to get out of from him was that forest fire fighting is a whole different ball game. Great. Nothing gained from him, and nothing lost when we abandoned him. We were at least kind enough and waited for a warm, sunny day to kick him off the train. Still, I doubt he would even be able to survive the walk from the train yard to the nearest town.
Jon still liked the idea of heading to Montana, though. Neither of us knew anything about the state, except that in the second grade I had to memorize that the state capital is Helena. So that was where we ended up, Helena, Montana. Fortunately for us, the hobo traffic through Montana in the winter isn't too high. I wasn't able to sleep at night when we first arrived, afraid that my toes and fingers are going to freeze off, but at least there was a bit more work there. All of it was from the mining companies. There was a lot of silver and lead in the ground there. The engineers there make a killing, but us common manual laborers were still making just enough to get by. Just like in Pennsylvania, I was always picked to work on some cleanup crew. The waste those mining companies generated was nasty stuff. The work they had us do wasn't too difficult. Grab a shovel, shovel the waste into barrels, pack the barrels onto a truck, and watch the driver take it all away. The work would break my back before I turned forty, but it wasn't difficult work. Or that is what the intellectuals tell us manual laborers anyway. I'm not sure where the mining companies were taking the waste, and to be honest I didn't much care at the time. If they paid me to care, I'd consider it.
“Hey there, Pete, I've got some good news.”
“Let me guess, Jon: You found a nice girl in a cave who you fell in love with and want to marry. A bit hairy for your tastes, but you'll let it slide. I'm happy for you, Jon, just be careful waking her while she's in her winter sleep. I hear that's when they get the most ornery and violent.”
“That's... Jesus, man, where do you come up with this shit? No, that’s not why I want to talk to you. I wanted to tell you that I got offered a driver's spot today. Twice the pay to sit on my ass while you bust your ass shoveling.”
“Thanks for rubbing it in my face, Jon. You're a real great friend.”
“We share the same ragged tent and bed, man. What I make is yours.”
“And not vice versa.”
“I'll be working a little bit later than you, so I'll meet you at the bar afterward. Might as well celebrate this with a couple of drinks on me, right?”
“Whatever you say. As long you’re the one who's paying.”
I guess it was Jon's lucky day, him getting assigned to a driver position and all. That's as far as his luck took him, as the truck he was driving hit a patch of ice and flipped. His head split open as it smacked against the side window of the truck. Since it was his first day as a driver, he had someone else driving the route while he was just in the passenger seat so he could learn the route. The driver survived, and was able to walk back to the waste facility without a bruise or a scratch on him. That's how I found out, and that's how he ended up losing his front teeth.
Have you ever felt like laying down, just staying there completely motionless until your body wastes away into dust? That's what I felt like after Jon died. The only thing that would make me stand up was my need to fuel my alcoholism. I didn't not like to admit it, but he was the only person left who I cared about even the slightest. Plus, after he was gone, I realized just how warm being forced against his body in our cramped little tent kept me at night. There was no one for me to be snarky to, no one to steal any warmth from, and nothing to keep me motivated to continue to exist. There was nothing to stop me from meeting my end at the bottom of a bottle.
After that, I was a complete mess. Jon helped keep me straight. He even had me saving some of my wages. Not in a bank or anything. There's no way I could afford the minimum deposit to open a bank account and all of the subsequent fees. It was all stored in a small metal box buried under our tent. We had cut out a hole in the bottom of the tent floor for easy access, and always had it covered in blankets so any one snooping around wouldn't see it right away. Now the only thing my money was good for was a couple glasses of cheap liquor or beer to numb my senses. That's another good thing about Montana. There was a lot of cheap alcohol there. What meager savings I had were dwindling fast. As it got warmer, more and more workers arrived in town, meaning there was less consistent work for me, and less money for alcohol. I can’t think of a worse punishment for my life’s sins.
I had to go somewhere to take my mind off of Jon. The place I went to was called “The Sink Hole”, my go to bar. The lights there were dim, no one was ever there to bother you, and as long as you kept paying, they kept serving. The grog they tried to pass off as beer there wasn't much to look forward to unless you were a raging alcoholic looking for a fix. Perfect. It was brownish in color, minimal carbonation if there was any at all, an aroma of wet garbage left out in the summer, and a strong solvent flavor to let you know you were doing some real damage to your liver. I hit my limit quick that night. Doesn't take too long when you forgo eating anything during the day. Well, I guess I swallowed some tooth paste that morning. A better breakfast than most days.
New faces aren't common in The Sink Hole. Lately though, this old man had been coming in. He would sit on the opposite end of the bar from me, nursing a single beer for hours, and occasionally he'd shoot me a glance. I did my best to send him a scowl in return, but more often than not I just ended up slobbering all over myself in the attempt. During one of the rare chats I'd have with the bartender, I mentioned I originally came here to learn to fight forest fires, and saw the old man perk up a little bit. I think that may have been the first day I saw him in here.
My stomach lurched. I wasn't able to hold the grog down any longer. It all gushed back up. The harsh mix of stomach acid and whatever caustic shit was in the beer seared the back of my throat and my nostrils. At least I made it outside of the bar that time. The owner said if I vomited inside without making it to the bathroom one more time I'm banned from the establishment. Not sure what I'd do without the reliable Sink Hole. I'd probably just buy myself a bottle of something more reminiscent of rubbing alcohol than actual liquor, curl up on a park bench, and hope that by the time I saw the bottom of the bottle I'd still have my senses to get myself back home before I freeze to death. Then I'd wake up the next morning blind from the wood alcohol.
“You doing alright there kid?”
I turned around and saw that old man from inside standing near the alley entrance to the bar. I think this is the first time I'd ever heard him speak.
“Yeah, I'm fine. Don't worry about me, gramps. Just go back inside and mind your own business.” I tried my best to look as dignified as possible with snot and vomit dripping from my nose.
“Listen kid, I noticed you in the bar a few days ago, I figured you could use some help.”
“Stop calling me kid. I'm twenty five God damned years old and I don't need no drunk geezer looking out for me.”
“You sure don't seem to have the wits of a twenty five year old. All I ever see you do is drink until you can't even stand and then vomit all over yourself.”
“Most of it's on the ground, not me.”
At that point I'd had enough. I started to walk away, hoping he'd take the hint. Not this guy though. I guess he was determined to get something through to me.
“When I first saw you, you told the bartender you were looking for firefighting work.”
“Yeah, so?” I quickened my pace, and tripped over my own feet and fell to the ground. The old man helped me up, even as I tried to push him away.
“Firefighting is my line of work, kid. I've been doing it for decades now. The summers keep getting drier and hotter, and the state keeps getting less and less resources to properly manage the forests. The end result being, we get a lot of forest fires around here.”
“Yeah, ok, and why are you telling me this?”
“We need new people every year. It's seasonal work, so most of the labor force moves away. Come the end of September, I’m the only guy left on the team.”
“Are you in need of a completely inexperienced drunk?”
“Experience, you'll get in time, but lowlife drunks aren't the sort we're looking for.”
“Then what are you doing talking to me?” I'd had enough of his lecture. I tried to bull past him. He stuck out his hand and pushed on my chest, stopping my getaway. I was too out of it to put up much more resistance.
“Stop for a second, son, so I can look you in the face when we're talking. Right now, you're no good for anything. You're on the way to drinking yourself to death, and it isn't going to take much longer for you to get there. I see kids like you every year. They come here because they had nothing left for them back home. They think they'll find something here, something to at least pass the time and scrape a living off of. Over time they all realize the same thing, life's rough here. The work is harsh, the weather is harsh, and the drink is harsh. Even the water here tastes rough. You, though… you seem a little different. I don't know what it is about you, but you seem like the kind of person that can buckle down and focus toward a real goal. That's why I'm talking to you. You've fallen into the same trap as every sad sack who comes through here does, but I can see you climbing out. You just need a little guidance, and I think I might be able to help you out a little bit.”
“What makes you think you can help me?”
“To be honest, you remind me a lot of my son when I look at you. I-I lost him a few years ago. Working down in the mines.”
“So what? You want to relive your father years through me? Find someone else to fulfill your fatherly needs, gramps.” I started walking away again. I hoped he would get the right signal, but the old man grabbed me by the arm and twisted me around to face him.
“Listen to me. I just want to help you, you stupid son of a bitch. Firefighting takes a lot of training. I can help you with that. It will be worth your while if you're willing to put in the work. Trust me on that.”
“Whatever, old man. I don't even know you. Why should I believe anything you're saying?”
“I'm not going to force you into anything. If you want my help, stop by the forests service building downtown tomorrow morning. Ask for Paul.”
Sleep came easy for me that night. The tradeoff were these bizarre dreams I had the entire night. I kept going back into The Sink Hole, over and over. The only thing they would serve me was tap water. The bartender would always give me some strange, random response to anything I said to him. ‘Drink up, it'll put scales on your chest’, ‘Have a sip, it’s good for your brain, or at least the one in your second head’, ‘Drink enough of that and you'll shit out a mighty fine necklace’, ‘Trust me, you’ll get a better buzz off that than any alcohol we have here’, ‘You’ll get all your vitamins and minerals drinking that, and then some’. Paul was there too. Something terrible was always happening to him, but he didn't seem to mind. Once he was on fire, completely engulfed in flames. Another time he had a knife sticking out of his back, his body covered in bloody bandages and his wrists bound. I think I saw the crushed body of his son sitting next to him, trying to take a drink but his crushed throat wouldn't allow it. Paul wasn't wrong, looking at his son was like looking in a mirror. That is, if the image of a man I’ve never met in one of my own dreams is anything to go by.
When I finally awoke, I reached for the nearest bottle. Empty, everything was empty. Not the best start to my day. My head was killing me, and I had nothing to calm it down and wipe those dreams from my head. I stumbled around looking for some cash. I couldn't find anything. Just the lock box under my tent. On the box I could still read Jon's handwriting, ‘Save it for a rainy day’. It wasn't raining, but if it's always 5 o'clock somewhere, it’s always raining somewhere too, right? Screw it, I thought, I don't need to make excuses to myself. I wanted to get drunk, even if it meant wasting everything I'd earned up to that point. There was a combination lock on the box, and I'd be damned if I could remember the combo. I figured I'd have to break it open, though I lacked any real tools to break the lock. I slept on top of enough rocks, one of them should have been good enough to break open that cheap lock. I'd have to dig in the ground under the tarp to get to them.
What the hell was I doing? Digging in the winter earth with my bare hands just to get some cash to stupefy myself for a few hours? That couldn't have been the only thing I was good for. Fuck. The headache was killing me, and my bowels felt like they were taking a ride on a roller coaster. Was I even enough of a man to go through alcohol withdrawal at that point? I couldn't remember the last day I didn't get drunk. The collective hangover could have quite literally killed me.
Screw it, I thought. I took a walk downtown. The old man was right. I wasn't going to survive much longer if I continued on as I had been. I needed a change, but firefighting? That's dangerous, hard work. I guess shoveling around toxic waste all day isn't that great for you either, but at least it didn't involve being burned alive. Just the slow death from inhaling carcinogens all day long. I'd be making near four times as much as I did then if I became a fire fighter. If the old man was everything he claimed, I might just have a shot at making a living out of it. Something one day I can look back on and think “Yeah, I could have done worse things with my life”. The American Dream.
I had arrived at the forests service building. I convinced myself it was purely by accident. I was just "out for a walk." I started to snoop around the building, looking inside the window. It looked like there was only one person inside. I guess that kind of made sense, though. It's not like they're going to make everyone work in the God damned lobby viewable from the outside. This is it, I thought, I'm going in. I had five seconds to work up my courage. If I turned tail and ran, only one homely looking old lady was going to see me in my humiliation. Not a huge dint to my pride, but enough to have made it sting a little. I opened the door and stepped inside. I walked up to the old lady and said, “Hi, I'm here to see Paul. Is he in today?”
“Hold on one minute. Please have a seat over there.”
This was going to be just great. I was going to sit there and wait with my thumb up my ass only to find out she'd never heard of anyone named Paul. If there was one thing I could always count on, it was that nothing ever worked out for me. Regret and disappointment. That was all I'd ever have in my miserable life. Maybe one day I could experience hope and fulfillment and a sense of accomplishment. Probably at the same time I experienced the sweet release of death.
“Hey there, kid, have you decided to take up my offer?”
Paul was one tough bastard. Every day we'd be up by sunrise, every night we were up to nearly midnight. Three square meals a day, and absolutely, positively, no drinking. ‘Square meals’ might be a bit of an overstatement. I ate a bit of cornmeal sludge and some beans three times a day. Every now and then we threw in something green if we could find it. Well, mostly green with a decent amount of yellow and brown. There was even the rare occasion we'd get to eat some real meat. We just needed to hope we find something dead on the side of the road to do so. Certainly much better than what I was eating before Paul. Living with Paul had made me realize that I must have been getting around three quarters of my daily calories from alcohol. I no longer got to look forward to chugging some cheap whiskey that burns all the way down to my stomach as though I swallowed a lit acetylene torch. Three meager servings of over boiled cornmeal and mushy beans was what brought light to my days then. That's what I told myself anyway.
My life really had turned around since Paul took me in. I lived in a house. Well, as much as what you can call something a house in those days. When I was a kid we would've called Paul's home a ‘shack’, and a pretty run down one at that. There were four wooden walls, a roof, and a floor that was not made from dirt. It was pretty sturdy, or at least sturdy enough for us to suspend two narrow hammocks. There wasn't enough space in the place for the two of us to live in and also have beds. All of the furniture folded up, and in total there were two chairs and one small table. The only source of heat and ability to warm up our meals was a makeshift brazier. It looked like a 50 gallon steel drum that had been torn in half and then propped up on three cinder blocks. Every time I had to reach in to grab the food it became a tetanus risk, having to avoid cutting open my arms on some jagged rusty edge that was sticking out. Between the brazier and the insulation blankets Paul had nailed to the wall, the place stayed surprisingly warm, and was a huge fire risk. I guess having a trained firefighter and a firefighter-in-training helped to mitigate that risk somewhat. We were mostly through spring at that point, but I think that was the first winter where I was able to feel my toes at any point during it.
The training Paul had been giving me didn't seem to have a whole lot to do with actual firefighting, but then again, what the hell did I know? The first step he had me take was quitting all my vices. No drinking, no smoking, no whoring, no being a dumb ‘down on my luck’ kid who blamed the rest of the world for all of my problems. Paul hadn’t been all that successful at the last one, but I can't fault him for trying. Everything else though had worked. I tried to convince Paul that, if I'm going to be working around smoke, I should toughen up my lungs by smoking burning ash on a regular. Just a cigarette or two a day would suffice He didn't take too kindly to that. His ‘punishment’ for all of my grievances was a disappointed look on his face and silence for a day or two. I thought I was getting off easy at first. I was used to cane beatings that I'd get at the youth shelters I had hopped around to and from during my later adolescence. It was only a week before a day's long silence and the occasional cold, empty glare was enough to make me wish for the simplicity of corporal punishment.
The rest of my training consisted of reading some books and trying to entertain myself while Paul was at the office. The Forestry Department had no office jobs available at that moment, and certainly not enough work to warrant paying another person, so I had to wait until fire season to get a real job with them. In the mean time I had been looking for ad-hoc work maybe once or twice a week to help contribute to the food costs for Paul and myself. He could easily pay for it all with what he made, but he was beginning to rub off on me and I didn't want to feel like too much of a mooch. Anyway, there was only one book that Paul gave me that was actually about how to fight fires. It was a whole bunch of high level stuff that I didn't really understand at the time. Different technologies that were used, like airplanes and helicopters, how to dig the trenches to create fire lines, and how to survive in extreme environmental conditions. It was all great to read about, but I still wouldn't know what the hell to do if I got thrown out there right then. The book also mentioned that firefighters would work in teams, called hotshots. There would typically be about twenty people to a team, with hundreds of teams positioned all across the US. According to Paul, it would be remarkable to have a team as large as ten back then, and there were maybe fifty total spread around the country. The rest of the books were all memoirs of firefighters who I assumed were long dead, or some outdoors fantasy crap like ‘Call of the Wild’ or ‘Hatchet’. Those had been by far the most enjoyable books to waste my time reading. I was supposed to learn ‘what it takes’, mentally and physically, to be a firefighter. From what I'd read in these memoirs, the main thing I needed to learn was to become accustomed to loss.
Paul just walked through the door, back from work. He was there a bit earlier than usual.
“Office life as titillating as usual today?”
“I didn't go into the office today. I took a personal day.”
“I had to buy all of the equipment for your training”
“Great. Presents. What did you get me, some more dog-eared books?”
“No. Up to this point, I've just been slowly trying to detox you from the crap life you've been living. Now it’s time for the hard work. I've got you a good pair of boots, some toughly built clothing, a backpack, a tent, and other various tools for the outdoors.”
“What are we going to be doing?”
“We're going to be living off the land for the next few weeks. They don't really need me at the office until fire season starts, so I can manage to take the time off without affecting the department. I'm going to be teaching you survival skills. How to fish, hunt, and forage for food. How to make a fire without a lighter or match, how to build your own shelter, and how to do it all with minimal effect on Mother Nature.”
“I'm nothing but an ignorant city boy. How do you expect me to learn all that?”
“You'll have to learn, kid. If you don't, I'll let you be taken by the elements.”
“Doubtful. You’re too much of a softie for me to take that threat seriously.”
“Don't try me. You need to know all of this stuff when you're out there in the wilderness doing actual firefighting work. I've spent entire seasons without ever returning to HQ. This isn't hard stuff, kid. It's what they taught ten year olds in cub scouts for crying out loud. I think a halfway put together twenty-something can handle it.”
“Alright, alright. Calm yourself down, old man, before you have an aneurysm. You're just hitting me with a lot of stuff right now, ok?”
“Good. Get yourself ready. We leave tomorrow at dawn.”
“Not like I have anything to 'get ready'. You're the one who has all of my equipment.”
“I meant mentally kid. Get yourself a good meal, a good night's sleep, and prepare yourself for a month of physical hardship.”
“I spend my days half frozen and shoveling shit into barrels. I think I'm properly prepared for a little bit of physical hardship.”
I should have heeded the old man's advice. Begrudgingly shoveling some mining waste a few days a week hadn't done anything to prepare me for what was to come. While it was light outside, we never stopped moving. Paul always had me foraging for something. Trying to find firewood for the night, looking for plants that are edible, learning how to spot the poisonous ones, finding a fresh water source, looking for animal habitats. All the while I was carrying a pack that weighed more than I did. That wouldn’t have been so bad if the pack was full of equipment to aid in my survival, but half the weight was coming from rocks Paul put in. The extra weight from the rocks was supposed to help with my physical conditioning, and to help ‘toughen me up’ or some other nonsense Paul seemed to have made up. We never slept in the same spot either. Every day, a new location, which meant I needed to find a suitable campsite, clear it out, make sure we weren't going to accidentally light the whole forest on fire when we built the campfire, and try and find a place with natural surroundings to utilize when building our shelters. We had a tent, but Paul tried to make me construct our shelter with nothing more than a single piece of rope, and if there isn't much to work with in the area, a canvas sheet. I made lean-to's by stacking branches and leaves and moss and any other wilderness debris against the rope tied between two tress, makeshift tepees made from a couple of long branches I found lying about, and Paul even had me try to rig up this hammock between two trees with the rope and canvas. I think we made it to three in the morning before my knots gave way and we both nearly broke our tailbones after we crashed to the ground.
“You've been doing well with the shelter building, Pete. It’s about time I showed you how to make a fire without a match.”
“Shouldn't you be showing me how to put out fires, not how to start them?”
“Cut out the sass, kid. I need you to find your tools now. You're going to need a relatively thin stick. Get one as straight as you can manage. You're also going to need a big, flat piece of wood, or at least something you can make flat with your hatchet. It’s important that you get something as dry as bone. Collect some dry grass and brush for the kindling as well, then get back to me.”
The old man's instructions always got to me. It seemed simple enough, find two pieces of wood and some grass, and then bring them back. I couldn't help but think he meant something more than that. Every time I ended spending three times as much time as needed to perform the simplest of tasks he asked for. Screw it, I thought. I was going to get this task over with quickly and without any fuss. Right by our camp there was a stick, a piece of wood, and some dead grass. Done. All within a few steps from the camp.
“Good job Pete. Now, take the stick, and on one end use your knife to scrap off the bark and whittle it down to a point. Don't worry too much about making it pretty and precise. Then, take the flat piece of wood and carve a notch or a long groove into it. With the notch, put the point of the stick in it, and rub it between your hands. Keep the kindling nearby to catch any embers. With the groove, put the kindling at one end of the groove, and then start scraping up and down the groove with the pointed stick. Do whatever method suites you. It doesn’t matter. The end result should be the same. It might take a while to get anything going.”
Hours. I was at it for hours and hours and hours. My hands were blistered, and all I had accomplished was making my pieces of wood a slightly darker color of brown. ‘It might take a while.’ Thanks for the heads up Paul. He forgot to mention the constant thoughts of: “Why am I so inept? Have I become a new species that has devolved from Paleolithic man? How many boy scouts are out there right now laughing their asses off at the thought of someone with the audacity to call himself a 'man' who can't even start a fire without the use of man-made chemicals.” I gave up. I thought I wasn't made for all that survival crap. I just needed Paul to come over there and tell me what a pathetic little parasite I was. How I was never going to amount to anything in life. Once a bum, always a bum, no matter how many kind, benevolent souls like Paul and Jon tried and reach out to help me.
“Having some trouble there, kid?”
“You're not going to like to hear this, but this is the 'hard' way to start a fire. It's the way you see it done in movies and TV shows, except they never show you the patience and determination required to get it to work. To be honest, it’s not a method I'd ever use unless I absolutely had to, or if I'm feeling particularly masochistic that day. There are a few, somewhat easier ways to do it.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. You're a God damned asshole, you know that Paul?”
“At the very least you learned a valuable lesson in futility, kid. Now, do you want to learn any of the other methods I know?”
“Yes, and right after that, show me how to kill an old man in his sleep without alerting him.”
“The latter's fairly simple. We're in the middle of nowhere so just do whatever you want once I pass out for the night. Now, for the fire, if you're going to rely on friction to start a fire, I'd suggest using a bow.”
“Go on, old man.”
“You already have some of the tools you need. The flat piece of wood and the stick. Now what you need is a flexible stick about as long as your arm, some string or rope, and a small flat rock or another piece of wood, preferably not that dry.”
“And what exactly am I to do with these items?”
“Take the long, flexible stick, and tie the string to either end to make a crescent shaped bow. You can use one of your shoelaces for this if you want. Then, take the stick you were using earlier to start a fire and loop it through the string of the bow. Then set the pointed end of the stick in the notch you made before, and use the flat rock to push down on the top of the stick to put pressure down into the notch. Make a sawing motion with the bow to get the stick spinning in the notch. Soon enough, you'll get an ember, and then you'll have yourself a fire. Now hurry up, you've only got about an hour of daylight left. Fortunately for you I've been collecting firewood throughout the day, so just worry about starting one for us, ok?”
“I'll do what I can, but don't expect much from me. I hope for both our sake's you have a backup plan for warmth tonight.”
Maybe it was because my expectations were already so low, but using the bow was surprisingly not that soul-crushingly difficult. It wasn't exactly what my novice self would call 'easy', but it was better than spending hours jamming and ramming and rubbing a stick against another piece of wood to no end. Finally, I had accomplished something. I had a small little glowing ember that looked like it was about to go out.