Oh yes, title got you interested? This is an anecdote from one of the last days of our firefighting detail.
It was supposed to be our last workday. We were covering up bulldozer lines where the dozers had stripped everything off of the ground, leaving only dirt, so that dickhead fire couldn't cross. That's right, after we finished annihilating portions of the woods to keep the fire from spreading, we had to go back and UNDO what we'd been doing. Sounds like the army, right?
So we cover the lines up with fallen trees and brush and pretty much anything we can get our hands on so that no one uses the lines for dirt bikes or whatever. Yeah, I didn't understand that one either. Soon enough, we get a change of mission. There's some spotfire that we need to lay the smack down upon. Once we get there, we realize its nothing. Let me tell ya, there is nothing more terrifying than two inch flames and tiny whisps of smoldering dirt. After that patronizing bit of work, we all rested on the hill while one of the chainsaw operators from our team cut a tree stump into a toilet. We took photos, laughed, the usual bit. And then one dude actually used it. Number two. I'm telling you, there are some weird fucking people in the army.
Because of these charades, and since it was nearing the end of the day and our spirits were high, I expended all the exposures I had for my crappy disposable camera that I still havent developed. Moving on, we walked down the hill and to a road to take a "shortcut" back to the buses. Does anyone else smell bullshit here?
By some magical coincidence, we come across ANOTHER line that needs to be covered up. One of the worst parts about working on these hills is the grapefruit sized rocks that roll down and clip you in the ankle. After you shriek in agony, someone from up the hill will yell, "ROCK!" because apparently that's supposed to be funny.
We covered this line up as well and were finally ready to get the hell out. Our path (or lack of it) happened to be a steep downhill trek, which was something we had become accustomed to. But this time, it was so far down and so steep, it was just killing our knees. I'm a young buck and I'm bitching about my knees? Yeah.
We slid and stumbled down, using our tools for balance. And like I said, this damn route we were taking went on forever. I was really starting to get impatient, when our path took a turn around some trees and rocks and then up a short hill. I followed my cohorts only to find a cliff. A large one. Right in our path. Way the hell below, you could see the road. I can't even begin to describe my frustration. Everyone was bitching, I hardly said a word. Wait, no, I'm sure I was bitching up a storm. Come on, its me.
The LT that was with us felt it was necessary to take a different avenue. We walked off for a bit until we came to a spot where it wasn't so much a cliff as it was an INCREDIBLY STEEP ROCK BED, WITH JAGGED EDGES AND NO STABILITY. IT WAS DEATH IN A LANDSCAPE. We're all standing there going, "Ah HELL no..." and eventually the first guy starts moving down and a few follow, and they initiate a slight rockslide. We make the decision to keep a healthy distance between all of us. One of my buddies even played Traffic Cop, directing our order of movement. It was cute. Almost as cute as navigating a rock quarry.
The first seven or eight guys slowly begin to navigate the Face of Demise when my turn comes up. I start my slow, deliberate descent, just wanting it to be over. And that's when I hear the rockslide.
A wall of dust is kicked up between me and the guys ahead of me (at this point, they were actually to my left, as we were snaking down the hill). I couldn't see anyone, and these bowling ball+ sized rocks are tumbling over each other. It was loud, like river rapids. And it just kept going on....and on...and on. It must have gone on for twenty or thirty seconds.
There I am with my mouth open with that dumbfounded I-Just-Saw-A-Guy-Get-Hit-By-A-Car frozen trance. And I remember thinking [....I'm pretty sure someone just died. Holy shit...]. I stood there, watching and waiting, craning my neck to one side as if I'll somehow be able to see around the veil of dust, waiting for shouting or some kind of acknowledgement to come from the guys ahead of me. Finally the dust clears enough and everyone is still slowly moving along. Shaken, not stirred.
I turn to my friend who's about ten feet behind me and give him that wide eyed frat boy shit eating grin, "Dude!!! Did you SEE that shit?!"
He nods and says, "If anything happens out here...I just want you to know...I always thought you were cool."
I laughed, and then we told another guy that we always thought that he was an idiot. He announces that that is thoroughly fucked up. Then my friend makes a reference to a running joke I have.
"Hey, what are you gonna do when you get home?"
In war movies, you do NOT talk about what you're going to do when you're done. Because its always THAT guy, right when he's giving his sentimental monologue, that gets WAXED because filmmakers love irony and tragedy. I respond.
We continue to descend, taking each step carefully. At pretty much all times, I'd have a foot, a hand, and my tool in contact with the rocks, since there really was no ground. I'd test each rock for stability before I stepped on it. Pissed off and deliberate.
How many rants about blaming my recruiter have I gone on now? I've kicked that dead horse til my boots wore out. No, this time, I went straight back to the source. I cursed my parents for conceiving me and bringing me into this world where such colossal challenges lurk to torment me. And then I hit my shin on a jagged rock. This initiates a string of bizarre and random expletives. As I attempt to navigate this hill, my mind is constantly filled with images of me and my friends slipping and rolling with the rocks down the hill. Yellow helmet flying, heads striking the edges of rocks, painting them in splatter-patterns. Twisted and contorted limbs and crushed bones.
Yeah, so I decided that I was going to let my arrogance mingle with my meticulous care for safety. Call it a compromise. It beat the "We're all gonna die" mentality, atleast until it became more funny. We stopped for a break after a few million miles, and I offered a friend of mine, a non-smoker, his Last Cigarette. He took it. It was awesome, everyone had this "We're So Fucked" mentality. Most of us were joking about it, a few others were just straight up pissed off.
We finished resting our weary bruised and scraped knees and rolled ankles and decided to meet Death head on by continuing our mission. Around this part of the bend, we had a better view of the road, only now, the bus was there waiting for us. But GOD was it still far away. And behind the bus was our commanding officers pickup. And outside the pickup, standing with his arms crossed, very pissed off, was our commander. Apparently he wasn't pleased with our improvised route. The Sergeant Major apparently had already driven by and seen us. Rumor has it he laughed.
We finished our death march and all snatched powerades out of the back of the bus and guzzled them down, feeling like we had just slew an army of giants. Then we took a few team photos and headed back to camp. Once we were there, it was kind of funny, we all quickly learned not to even bother telling anyone about it. You'd start to explain how RIDICULOUS it was, especially without hazard pay, and then some dumbass would go, "Yeah, we had to walk X number of miles uphill and downhill today too, its sucked so bad (etc)" and that was about the point where I laughed and walked off to clean myself up. Any time any of us from our team would run into each other, we'd just kind of look at each other and shake our heads, letting out a kind of exhausted chuckle. A quote from one friend, in his southern drawl.
"Man, I've seen some crazy and stupid shit since I've been here at Fort Lewis, but this is by far the dumbest, most out there, unreal shit, bar none. That shit was crazy."
So yeah, we didn't REALLY almost die, but I'll be damned if you weren't curious when you saw the title. The best part though, is that I can do what we did with the members of all the other teams and say, "You couldn't understand unless you were there."
Yes, I am an ass.