In the early 1990’s, when I was a single mother living in Arizona, I spent a summer working as a seasonal employee for the U.S. Forest Service at the Prescott Fire Center. I worked in the building known as the “Fire Cache” which is also more formally called the National Emergency Incident Supply Center. The Cache was an enormous warehouse filled with the equipment necessary to fighting the raging fires that crop up every summer throughout the southwest and beyond. Shovels, Nomex uniforms, Meals Ready to Eat (MRE), sleeping bags, first aid, and anything and everything you can image necessary for battling forest fires were stocked there in large quantities.
When “fire season” started, the Fire Center hired seasonal employees to handle the increased demand on the Fire Cache. Orders would come in from fires all over the western United States and the large crew of workers would quickly load trucks with needed food and equipment, sending them on their way as quickly as possible to outfit the brave men and women who spent all summer battling fires in unbelievably rough and dangerous conditions. Other times the trucks would return filled to capacity with used dirty equipment, clothes that had been worn for days or weeks, and sleeping bags covered with dirt. The smell of smoke clung to everything. We found all sorts of things in the used supplies that returned to the cache, but most unwelcome were the times we shook out a sleeping bag or article of clothing and found a scorpion or a tarantula that had been hiding inside. The Fire Cache employees would have to clean, inspect and restock all the returned equipment so that it was ready and waiting when the next big order came in.
It was hot, physical labor. Much of it happened outdoors under the blazing sun which shone with relentless intensity all through the Arizona summer. Our boss was a wonderful woman who urged us to hydrate often and rest regularly, sometimes even pulling us aside and insisting that we take a breather if she noticed any signs of over exertion. Safety was her first priority. She was fully aware of the brutally hot and dry conditions that we worked in and watched us carefully to make sure we didn’t hurt ourselves or push ourselves beyond our individual capacities. A case of heat exhaustion was never going to happen on her watch.
It was by far the hottest, dirtiest, most exhausting work I have ever experienced – and I loved it. To someone else, I might just appear to be sorting filthy laundry or stocking shelves, but I realized that the Fire Center and the Cache warehouse were absolutely essential to the protection of our forests and the residential areas that were frequently threatened by raging fire. The firefighters – the “Hot Shots” – were counting on us to properly outfit them, so that they could do their jobs – their incredibly dangerous jobs – properly.
I happily looked forward to work each day because I loved the people I worked with. It was amazing how quickly the seasonal employees banded together and became a real crew, working together and watching out for each other. We reminded each other to take frequent drinks of water. If we saw someone struggling with a piece of heavy equipment we rushed to assist – and gently chided them for attempting something alone that should have been a two man job. We ate lunch together every day and spent our breaks together, laughing and sharing stories from our personal lives. Nicknames were handed out and friendly teasing happened regularly. Sometimes the talk got salty, but it was never mean spirited or offensive. The Fire Cache crew quickly became my “work family.”
Even so, I was still taken completely by surprise one day when I arrived at work and opened my locker. Inside I found an envelope with my name on it. It contained a note that complimented me and encouraged me on my abilities as a parent. It also contained $50 – a small fortune to me at that time. I was as thrilled with the note that praised me for my efforts as a single mom, as I was with the unexpected monetary windfall. I was both happy and humbled. A lump filled my throat and I fought back tears.
There was no signature on the note. I never discovered who my mystery benefactor was, despite my attempts to find them and thank them. To this day, I still don’t know who looked at me – a young, single mother struggling to make ends meet – and decided to help. Almost every person on that crew needed money or encouragement at least as much or more than I did. I realized that whoever gifted me, most likely did so at their own personal expense. They had chosen to go without, so that I might be blessed.
Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. It surprised me that someone – a person I had only met a few months before – would even think to do that for me.
I think of those crazy summer days now and again – the heat, the work, the ever present aroma of smoke and sweat, but what I remember the most is the camaraderie. I remember that rag tag crew – teachers working through their summer vacation, seasonal laborers, forest service regulars, college students, retirees and single moms – and how we seemed so different from each other in June and how we all knew each other so well by August’s end. I have forgotten some names, but remember their faces.
But mostly, I remember the lump in my throat when I read that note, and I smile.