Saturday, February 23, 2013

goodbye jack

I hadn't flown with Jack for years.  I heard he had health problems and had to stop flying, was working as a mechanic, but hoping to get back in the air.  When I remember him though, I think of the two years we flew together in central Oregon.  Now Jack is gone, dead of a heart attack at age 38.

I never liked the platitude "He died doing what he loved."  People say this when pilots die flying.  A helicopter crash is not romantic.  It's a scary thing.  I don't want to think of the pilots I once knew in fear, spending their last moments fighting the machine they loved.  Nobody was there for Jack's last minutes, but I'd like to think, not feeling well, he drifted off to sleep.

It's a strange relationship we have with our pilots.  We are warned during our Contracting Officer's Representative classes: don't get too close; it might be a conflict of interest.  Don't let the pilot buy you lunch, and don't ride in their vehicles.  One overzealous instructor told us we shouldn't even sit at the same table as the pilot in a restaurant.  We aren't supposed to accept the give-away hats the helicopter company has for promotion, lest the public think that we awarded them a multi-million dollar contract in exchange for a five dollar ball cap.  And yet, these are the people who carry us safely through the sky every day.  They bring us back to earth when the weather and terrain seem to suddenly conspire against us.  They hold our lives in their hands.

And, more often than not, we truly like them.  Jack was one of those, genuinely nice, one of those pilots who never yelled at the crew, who was just happy to be flying.

Goodbye, Jack.  Fly safe.

Monday, February 18, 2013

life, afterwards

Four years, two months, nine days.  Plus seven hours, if you really want to get specific about it, which, often, I do.  I can retire then, with twenty years of being a full time firefighter and several more, uncounted except by me, years of seasonal time.  Let's leave the discussion of whether I can actually afford to retire then out of it for now.

I think about it every time the budget gets cut, when there are new, incomprehensible rules, when politicians say from their well-paid lives that they can just give us unpaid furloughs.  I would no longer have to tell temporary employees that they are getting laid off early to save money.  I wouldn't have to wade through 400 applications for one seasonal position because we aren't hiring enough diversity candidates, and this is the solution.  There would be no more endless paper to do things we used to do with two people and a drip torch filled with diesel and gas, not for me, at least.

But there is this:  the massing of dark, angry clouds on the horizon, spitting out tongues of fire, and the crew gathered together, watching trees ignite over on Mt. Snowy, ready to go, half out the door already as it is.  There is the feeling of translational lift as the helicopter pulls itself reluctantly from the grasp of the earth, that sweet letting go, the inevitability of forward flight.  There is standing on a mountain with a friend with fire boiling around you, not enough so you have to run but enough to make you ready to, enough so you never forget it.  And the stand you made to save someone's house, with your hands only, that and a pocket lighter and what you learned over twenty years of fire.

Time passes whether you're watching or not, whether you have a map for your life or whether, like me, you let the crosswinds take you somewhere you never thought of going.  Fire was a place I fell into.  I didn't know how much it would take away and how much it would give me at the same time. It will be hard to leave, whether it's four years from now, or when it's mandatory, when you get kicked out at a certain age because years ago it was decided what was desired was a "young and vigorous work force" (never mind that times have changed and there are people in their 50s who are more "vigorous" and fit than some in their 20s).  But the good thing about not being on a straight road is that there are always corners ahead.  What lies around them you never can tell.  I choose to believe it's something good.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

running with ghosts

The forest is silent.  There is one car at the trailhead, but I don't see anyone; a person could be anywhere in this maze of snowy paths.  Even the sun seems reluctant to rise, hugging the horizon low and surly.  My spikes bite into the ice.  I run slowly, alone but not alone.

Today I run with ghosts. They keep pace beside me, these lost women, the ones who were taken and murdered while running.  Have you heard of them?  Let me say their names:  Amy Bechtel. Sara Kuszak.  Sarah Hart.  Laura Smither.  Chandra Levy.  Wendy Ladner-Beaudry.  Chelsea King.  Sherry Arnold.  And there are more of them, women who tied their shoes, put their hair back in a ponytail, and started out in the sunshine and the rain and the snow, maybe happy, maybe tired, all now no longer here.

I am running in memory of Sherry, who was senselessly murdered by two men last year in eastern Montana.  She was a beloved teacher in a small town who ran by the killers' car and said "Hi."  That was enough for them.  Doing drugs as they drove to Montana, they talked about finding a woman to kill, to see what it would be like.  It didn't matter to them who she was.  It could have been any of us, less than a mile from home, the road so familiar with our footprints all over it, no evil could ever overtake us there.

As I run I am angry, I can't help it.  When something like this happens, we, the women, are supposed to change our behavior.  We are supposed to run with a dog or with pepper spray.  We are supposed to give up running alone even though we love it.  We are supposed to stick to the roads, in the middle of the day.  We are supposed to be afraid.  A man would never think of these things, if he found himself without a running partner and found an inviting trail at dusk. We, the potential victims, are told to stop doing what we love, instead of it being this simple: men need to stop preying on women.

I come to the place where the path crosses the creek. The sun has decided to come up after all, but there isn't much warmth in it.  "Hey, Sherry, " I say out loud, as if she was right beside me, her steps loud as mine on the frozen trail.  And maybe she is, along with Sara and Sarah and the rest.  Maybe they are all out running somewhere on a road that is wide open, in a world that holds them in its arms like a haven, and they are not afraid.

Running for Sherry