Until this recent mini “heat wave” we’ve hardly had a summer. Sunday, I went to the beach and the water was 62 degrees! It was so cold people were wearing wetsuits … on the sand. (Drum roll, please.)
Because of dry conditions, forecasters are predicting a dangerous fire season. As it happens, many years ago I worked in the Forest Service in the San Jacinto Mountains above Palm Springs. I even put out a potential forest fire, though with a little “help” from Smokey Bear. (Smokey Trivia: he was created in 1944 because of potential forest fires from missiles shot by Japanese subs, as actually happened off Santa Barbara.)
But back to the Forest Service which, was divided into two competing divisions: Fire Control (prevention and suppression) staffed by macho types, and Recreation (campground maintenance) staffed by hippies. Fire Control had the glory, Recreation had the pot. I worked in Recreation.
One day our wilderness ranger got injured when his horse spooked at a rattlesnake. He was replaced with our garbage truck driver who had horse experience. When our foreman asked for volunteers for the garbage job, I raised my hand. The day before I had accompanied a cesspool pumping truck to a campground outhouse. Garbage collecting seemed like a promotion.
The truck was a beautiful 2 1/2 ton International Harvester. But never having had to rely solely on side rearview mirrors before, I was petrified I was going to back into something. I would circle an entire campground rather than go in reverse. (Puzzling many a camper.) Practicing on my days off, I finally mastered it. Forget my bar mitzvah, that’s when I became a man!
At the end of that sweltering August, the Forest Service was on high fire alert. They even took the radios out of Recreation’s vehicles so they could employ more Fire Patrol technicians. So it was that one blistering hot afternoon, I suddenly smelled smoke. As I proceeded cautiously, peering left and right, the smell kept getting stronger. There was obviously a major fire smoldering and, paraphrasing Smokey Bear, only I could prevent it!
Finally, I got out on foot to investigate. To my horror, I discovered that my garbage truck was thoroughly engulfed in flames shooting 20 feet in the air! I had found the forest fire, only it was me! Two thoughts raced through my mind: this can’t be happening, and I gotta quit smoking pot.
Panicked, I dashed over to a confused camper and, in a voice higher than Pee-wee Herman’s, I “deputized” him to drive to a fire station. Fearing an explosion any second, I drove the flaming garbage away from overhanging tree limbs. I sprayed the fire extinguisher into the inferno but the flames swallowed the foam like it was an appetizer.
As though on orders from on high (Smokey) I grabbed a shovel and, like a machine, mindlessly began heaving dirt on the fire. Meanwhile, 50 miles away, the district dispatcher spotted the smoke and sent every Forest Service truck, plane, and helicopter heading my way.
After 20 minutes of adrenaline-driven dirt flinging, I somehow put out the fire before the first truck arrived. Dizzy, and with my lungs burning, I feigned calm as I greeted the firefighters, most of whom I knew. (Then I almost passed out.)
The tanker foreman had me lie down to wait for an ambulance. As water-dropping planes circled above, it was like a scene from “Apocalypse Now.” I kept hearing radio traffic blaring the status of the “Jack Fire.” The what fire? As a joke, the comedians in Fire Control had named the blaze after me!
A distraught camper later confessed that he’d carelessly put hot ashes in the garbage can. But, from that day on, whenever I’d pick up garbage from a Forest Service station, the guys would start a small fire in a trash can and have a good laugh. Hilarious. Not.
As fate would have it, the following spring, a Hollywood agent contacted me. While on vacation in town he had read one of my columns in the paper. It was about my Jewish mother’s not-so-subtle displeasure with my hippie lifestyle. He was wild about it. “You’re gonna be the J.D. Salinger of your generation!” My head was spinning.
So in summer 1975, full of hope, I moved to Santa Monica. I soon discovered that the agent was a manic-depressive who was in a manic phase when he met me. In his depressed state he’d stay in his robe all day for weeks at a time. Eventually he stopped returning my calls. That was my introduction to show biz. And it’s been downhill ever since. (Or is it uphill?)
Occasionally, I reflect on how different things would have been had I remained with the Forest Service. Then again, if I had, I wonder what you would have just read.
Jack can be reached at Jnsmdp@aol.com