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Monday, May 18, 2015

FIGHTING FIRE IN THE LAND OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN

 TWO EXCERPTS FROM THE ALASKA SECTION 
OF SCREEN MEMORIES

EXCERPT # I

 Hot Spot
or
Fire in the Land of the Midnight Sun 
[from the ALASKA chapter of SCREEN MEMORIES]
By Michael Roloff
A Prefatory Note:
Hot Spot is an out-take – an episode - from the final, the Alaska chapter - of my self-analytic memoir SCREEN MEMORIES [A Self-Analytic Memoir of a Mid-20th century German-American Youth].

My first recollection of the two consecutive separate forest fires that I fought (fought during one 24 hour stretch, followed by six weeks mopping up & transfer for two weeks to a fire in the Brooks Range) - a continuous two month stretch  at very different locations  -  is of being, standing, finding myself, in Alaskan midsummer midnight dimness, on a fire-line, at what might very well have been the summer solstice in the land of the midnight sun, where the now either finally disappearing or already re-appearing orb is now obscured by smoke. If at that moment I had  been in Fairbanks at the Timberline, a jazz joint south of town that I frequented while waiting to be called to fight a forest fire, and had just left I might have been under the impression that I had spent the entire night drinking and listening to some of the best jazz in the world by performers who came north during the summer because the money was so good.
   But I am not at the Timberline, where Edna Ferber allegedly wrote Iceberr, but near the jet interceptor base Galena adjacent to the Inuit village Galena on the Yukon, seeral hundred miles further north than Fairbanks and the Chena River, and although I have the sense that I recall the two fires that I was delegated to in their entirety, I completely blank out when it comed to recalling how I got from Fairbanks to holding a Pulaski axe – which is/ was like my trusted double-bit in having a perfectly weighted, balanced head, but an adze instead of a second bit to bite
trees with, and with which adze I am rolling up carpets of moss that the bit part of the axe has cut out of the thick layer that covers the permafrost that is as solid as concrete, and - and what an AND it is! - of a P-38 occasionally screaming low overhead and
Alaskan Moss with Tussock
dropping whitish fire retardant, so that you and not just the moss come out looking speckled. I write “a P-38 occasionally screaming low overhead” as though it were the kind of everyday experience like being buzzed by crows is now.
   However, the first time a P-38 buzzes you in that fashion – I mean I take it on faith that it was a P-38, I was in no position to identify what flew so low overhead in the dusk or dawn whatever it was – or any other plane will insinuate the willies into you, especially if, like me, you have an early apprehension of fighter bombers of all kind, if you have seen fighter planes machine-gunning roads with vehicles on them, if as a child one of your chief trauma connects to the first bombs, a screen memory of mine from (and for!) age four (and everything pertaining to it) where tears turn into dewdrops on spring flowers among shattered window glass, and I am as terrified and infuriated as the German shepherd who commits suicide by catching his collar at the top of the fence of her enclosure when the first bombs fall nearby, and I am quickly packed up and evicted from the paradisiacal place I lived at – that a primal screen memory, of age four, is what transpired when two bombs fell within a hundred yards in spring 1940 near the house I lived in in some woods outside Bremen. That in 1944 a crashing B-17 swooped screeching like the fairy tale bird nearly grazing our reed-thatched house, crashing into the woods a quarter mile off, and that for a period of five years there was continuous danger from the air, that from 1943 to 1945 nearly daily bombing attacks will make an unexpected P-38 flying just overhead at the very least be one of the most memorable item of such an experience that might just remain forever fresh in the junk yard of a now seventy-eight year old mind.
    However, properly speaking, in good order, the first thing to come to mind ought to be the moment when fire fighting head-quarters, on Airport Road in Fairbanks, Alaska, finally informed me, or Mom & Pop at whose firefighters tent camp I was waiting, that there was a forest fire and of the time that I ought to appear at their shape-up, which more likely than not had been “at once.” However, as soon as I try to reconstruct how I got from Fairbanks, from Fire Fighters Headquarters on Airport Road, where we must have assembled because that is where firefighter assembled, a quarter of a mile from where I camped at Mom & Pops Firefighters Tent Camp, to the outskirts of the air force interceptor base Galena on the south side of the Yukon some hundreds of miles away, I draw a total blank. And this lacuna, this utterly unanticipated lacuna in  my memory bank where I had expected easy access to a simple transport recollection, bothers me, not just irks, disturbs me - because it calls into question what is to follow, and introduces deep doubt as to its  essential wholeness.  However, while writing this chapter and other sections relating to my puzzlement why there were entirely unanticipated memory gaps I came on a piece in the New Yorker that describes how one needs to sleep on a day's events for memory to be inscibed: and did not sleep that night of the first fire-fighting until 24 hours later. I did not sleep for 48 hours, a matter that then cast doubt on forgtten matters during my childhood existence under nightly bombing attacks, from late 1943 to Spring 1945.
   We are supposed to have been transported in the DC (Douglas-Craft)-3 that did/ does the transporting of fire-fighters for the Department of the Interior.


 


 But I have no recollection of assembling or of flying or of landing or of how I got from the airbase to where I am now, none whatever. I had flown in a DC-3, but that was during the Air-Bridge to Berlin in 1949, from Hamburg I think, or Hanover or Frankfurt, although I don’t recall the take-off, only landing at Templehof in Berlin. So I knew that a DC-3 of that transport kind, at least the one I flew in, is not really an ordinary passenger plane, you sit in long facing rows along the fuselage: as firefighters we must have had out backpacks and our recently issued Pulaski axes, but that is sheer inference, sheer supposition on my part and is based on my Air-Bridge experience. Not a shred of memory returns, it’s as though that one small section (how do I know or how can I tell) of that Alaska fire fighting experience, which seems like a whole, had been wiped out, strip-mined. Very unusual. Did something so untoward occur that I decided to block it out at once?
 I also know the sound of a DC-3 engine, or I think I do, and I can still hear it but I am hearing its roar, or maybe the roar of other large propeller engines in Europe, not in Fairbanks. Actually, such propeller engines do not roar at once. Their start is a sputtering, the German knattern is a fair onomatopoeic representation, like a haphazard series of shot gun shells exploding as these 16 + cylinder  
Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engine on DC-3    
engines warm up. But I am drawing a complete blank. In the instance of the Air-Bridge DC-3 it was chiefly U.S. military and a few U.S. Army dependents such as myself. In the instance of the DC-3 that flew to the interceptor base, it was fire-fighters with their backpacks and their gear, whom I recall distinctly, but I do not remember them on the plane, as little as the flight itself. Of course I did not know any individual fire fighters until I got on the fire line, but might have talked to one or the other on the plane: Nada, nothing, and I remember quite a few of the people I worked with during the following eight weeks.  Especially the Texas cutthroat in his large green and black checkered lumber shirt, the fire chief. One look and you too might recall him for the rest of your life. And all I did get was one look, and at his scars that made me name him, the following day, the only person with a gun on the fire in charge of one hundred fifty by and large unknowns, a motley crew from “down under”, come one and all and get on the list, who knew who they were? The BLM (the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management under whose auspices we fought and who at that time threw smoke jumpers fire fighters at any whisp of smoke in the vastness of the Alaskan interior) sure did not do background checks, a social security number, a driver’s license sufficed.  Nor do I recall landing at Galena. I have a fine recollection of the amphibious plane, allegedly a 1928 Goose (that date instilled instant fright) I flew back in – because its take-off made us apprehensive: that plane’s sister had crashed into a tree line that summer, the “runway”, i.e. the lake, had been too short for the weight it was carrying. We had seen the walking and broken-boned wounded hobbling all over Fairbanks. Alaska is rife with bush plane accidents, even now.  The Goose had lifted off from the Yukon, the twenty four of us, the entire crew was on its way back from two weeks in the Brooks Range, and it took the Goose seemingly forever to get lift-off. But we were on the Yukon, the Yukon is forever. I have this recollection that the Goose seats did not face forward as they normally do in airplanes and that I saw the river runway rushing out behind. But I also see the river runway in front and waiting for the moment that the plane and its load of twenty four men and their gear might lift off. It was the most gradual lift off I experienced, inch by inch as the plane’s speed increased incrementally, and I recall it for its gradualness.                        But I do not recall our landing in Fairbanks. Was it on water between the fair banks of the Chena River or on the tarmac of Fairbanks airport? In that case the Goose had not only pods but wheels.
     To make matters short, the only flights I recall are those that contain memories of great danger or of erotic pleasure, or spectacular or unusual sights from the air: the sight of iron-ore rich Wabana Island in the Bay of Fundy as a slab of rust in the water is all I recall of a flight from D.C. to St. John’s where I caught an iron ore freighter to Hamburg. Of an Air Icelandic flight to Luxembourg all I recall is an Icelandic Sheep who pretended to be a stewardess asking me if I did not feel like spending a week at her pen in Reykjavik, and my replying wasn’t that something we could talk about on the John on her  break, and… what is now it turns out an actual category among the pornographic film offerings, which proves that that experience is not that unique; or the Electra, a notoriously dangerous plane, one of whose wing tips nearly scratched the tarmac as it landed at a crazy angle at La Guardia Airport, New York City, about half a year subsequent to my  P-38 encounter; or waiting for hours for a DC-10 to take to the air from LAX whose sister plane had disintegrated in Chicago a week prior; and the pilot of the 727 on an early morning Zurich-Frankfurt flight making believe that he was still in Vietnam with his F-16 and dipping in an out of mountain valleys! That roller coaster ride was sure exciting once you got the hang of it! and of course the one time I did fly on a DC-3, on the Air Bridge to Berlin for Christmas 1949, so that I knew the inside of a DC-3 and that  its military version has two facing rows lengthwise the fuselage, and that I can infer what we fire fighters ought to have looked like with our backpacks and our freshly issued Pulaski axes, but I don’t know how to stir the memory pot to fill in the blank. Was the inbetween that boring, that unmemorable? Did something so untoward occur that absolute denial sets in? Was the pilot the most beautiful woman in the world who left me for another man? I have the most distinct of recollections of the pilot of the Bell helicopter who would pick me up in a few hours: an all-American stud who had flown choppers in Korea. No recollection of assembling at the fire-fighting headquarters on Airport Road which I visited occasionally to check where I was on the list of those to be called.  No recollection of mounting or of disembarking or how I got from the airbase to the fire line. So it was not a dangerous experience, I guees, the flight was just a couple of hours north. Still. This bothers me no end and I think it’s proper that it should, because into question comes the rest of my account: what else might I blank out? When I came to what I knew would be the final chapter of my memoir Screen Memories the nine month Alaska experience itself struck me as an event with a beginning and an end that itself contained two long nearly self-contained stretches of experience, two months of forest fire fighting followed by three months of geological surveying. And now one of them has a serious gap! It’s as though a part of my mind has been strip-mined. I have a sense that I recall everything about these two fires: the weeks of just routine clearing, the mopping up, the securing of the perimeter and the series of truly memorable incidents – such as hot spots, chasing a bear, an Eskimo who has no idea how to handle an axe because he’s never seen a tree chopping off one of his toes; Dominick our Inuit from across the Yukon bringing us a big fat salmon which we keep cool in our permafrost fridge; I, now a straw boss, getting lost, disoriented in nature for the first time in my life, in a 20,000 acres of Alaskan moss that has turned to ash; of the immense comfort of sleeping on this huge mattress that extends from the Yukon south, so that giants would be comfortable resting on it, but for the mosquitoes and the no-see-ums that call the moss home; me taking down one of the huge trees in the Yukon spring flood plain where the permafrost thaws a bit and not just the tree but the entire forest starting to come down on us because the fire has destroyed the root network on the surface on top of the permafrost, the root network on top being what holds the monster trees upright that cannot sink their roots into the ground; waiting by the Yukon for Indian Joe but then riding across in an outboard not in a canoe, the Yukon with “Indian Joe”; the festival in the one room dance hall church and the local musician playing a single tune over and over, You ain’t nothing but a Hounddog, without of course the least idea that my future held acquaintance with the composer lyricist team Leiber-Stoller in store for me; the Indians beating up their women once they were seriously drunk and when they were too drunk the women beating them up;  the fish wheel, the drying salmon, the huskies that had howled like wolves, the long stretches of dureé, waiting for the fog to lift during the second fire, in the Brooks Range; catching one Grayling after the other: it all seems continuous, I don’t sense a gap, an erasure, even in the routine that both fires became within a day or so, but for these initial few hours, which are gone, and gone in a different goneness than the sheer surfeit of recollections are for someone who in those days would even recall the minutiae of box scores, incidentally, without trying, and not with a photographic memory.
   Nor do I feel as though a perverse joker in the mind, in my unconscious, is making me forget, blocking, a he can on occasion at the very moment that I am trying to retrieve a name a word. That joker sooner or later relents and allows me to retrieve the piece of junk. In this instance the lack of sleep appears to be to blame.
==================
At the time of the fire-fighting experience (in 1960) I had just gone dead in graduate school at the prospect of spending my life as a professor of German in a German department. The department was the problem, exclusive company of Germanisten, as they are called, I enjoyed the courses, the material, and teaching, especially the marvelously flirtatious pretty Stanford co-eds. However, I had spent for too many years at institutions of learning, which induced a sense of “as if” existence. Life in Fairbanks, especially its Southside became very real very quickly. - The prospect of writing life-long in standard scholarly fashion about beautiful texts also proved problematic to someone who felt that the only proper response to poetry is more poetry! {1) So what had drawn me to Alaska was its wilderness, the kind of environment that fit my roots as a child who, for reason, often sought refuge in the woods and who, subsequently - three years as a camp counselor in the Poconos in Pennsylvania - had thrived. With all the wonderful jazz and bookshops in San Francisco’s North Beach, bohéme was not my destination then.
I was a good woodsman, on graduating from high school I had sought summer work as a lumberjack – yet how 145 pound me would have fared among the really brawny? I don’t think the fact that I really knew how to take down a tree - where to apply the cut, how to judge the inclination where a tree would crash once the right cut with the proper heft with a double-bit axe had been applied - would have sufficed. I had even made my own ax handle at age 16 - in the respect of ax work I was confidant. However, I had no experience of forest fires, much less so of the quite different conditions that you encounter in an environment with  permafrost – that, too, the frost unthawing would, it turned out, connect to an early trauma.           My friend Rick L., a medical student and avid mountaineer, and I had driven up the Al-Can highway in a Nash Ambassador.  We had an accident, the cast iron bell housing (the transmission casing) of the Nash Ambassador shattered at an encounter with a British Columbian pot hole. We lost a week cleaning up a hillbilly garage owner’s cellar and yard in exchange for a new bell housing. Rick was catnip handsome to the waitresses on the way.
   Because at first there were no fires at all and we would not be the first to be called for the year’s first fire just a few lightning strikes off, we had gone mountain climbing in the Alaska range, an experience I enjoyed, also for “liberating” some of the gear that a mountain division had left behind, but mountain climbing proved to me that there might be reasons to climb mountains simply because they seemed to ask to be climbed, actual mountains, however, in that respect, were not my deal. Rick had been called sooner than I who was on my way to becoming part of the furniture of the Timberline, a Jazz Club in South Fairbanks, where Edna Ferber was said to have written Iceberg.  The Timberline featured the jazz of wonderful down-under, chiefly West Coast, musicians who, like the rest of us, had gone north for the excellent wages (because you needed to earn a year’s wages in half that times). The Timberline had its own still in back: the owners were American Blacks from the South who had come to Fairbanks as part of the crew that had constructed the Al-Can Highway on which I had driven north. The Timberline and the “easy life” the jazz singer King Pleasure (“Jim Moody, you can blow now”) and a double for Lena Horne, whose daughter I had gone to school with, both claimed to be in love with me. King Pleasure was just too gay for words to say how funny I found his harmless advances, although as usual under those circumstances I sought to remain friends while averting, who also played at the local Air Force Base club. The female singer indicated that going out with her would be entirely cool under the circumstances, but even though I had gone to the kind of American high school – Oakwood, a Friends, that is Quaker institution, where crossing the racial divide in dating might give you the entirely wrong idea about these matters in society at large – I was not reassured. This would have been serious, and I was still smarting from a breakup   with the college sweetheart.       I recall the female singer distinctly, her lithe light to dark brown figure, but don’t recall her name off-hand, she was first rate, so I imagine she is listed and recorded. I knew it was not LaVerne Baker or Roberta Flak, it might have been Nancy Wilson.
   Musicians headed to Alaska from down under were chiefly from the West Coast and I had spent a lot of time at Jazz clubs in San Francisco during my two Palo Alto years and had a formidable collection of jazz recordings. It had been a formative way of becoming an American, as of Spring 1945 if not before considering my mother’s records of her time as young woman in the Berlin of the late 20s and early 30s. More strong-willed as a child I would have insisted that someone teach me to play the piano in our house onto whose keys I occasionally banged angry elbows.
And then it appeared I had finally been called, or Mom & Pop had conveyed the call to me. Nor do I recall how - marching? A truck? Certainly not the little Bell Helicopter assigned to the fire, not then – my first encounter with a fire line with a forest fire, the first crackling of a forest fire, not all that far away.                             There is no wind, so there are no sudden flare ups, gusts of fire. It, the fire, is crackling away, merrily as they say. It is smoky, it is near midnight. Occasionally one of what I discover are the scrub spruce and pine and fir typical of Alaskan plains – which I a fir forest native quickly learn to detest for their stunted puniness - decides to end its life as a brief Roman candle.
I have evidently been given a Pulaski axe and instructed what to do with it: hack out moss carpet, roll it up, toss it to the side, create a break. Next to me is someone who has evidently never handled an axe, he seems rather diminutive to be doing this kind of work. I remember him as distinctly as anyone in my life! He is “the Florida shrimp.”  If I weigh in at 145, he’s 110, a fly-weight! Moreover, poor fellow, his visage is also a shrimp’s. I have recollections going back to the age of four and earlier. For example, I distinctly recall the German shepherd dog Mara committing suicide during the first air raid that dropped two British bombs nearby in Spring 1941 – no, Mara did not commit suicide, she leapt up in fright and terror and her collar caught on her Zwinger, her enclosure, fence – It is I whose impulse on having to leave our idyllic place was suicidal, and at being in a different kind of Zwinger, an enclosure that enforces, and probably as terrified as the dog. It is my tears that mingle with the dew on the broken shards of glass not merely the dewdrops. Something that occurred mingles with what I felt about it and is inscribed that later I can call it a “screen memory.” 
Thus, if being on the fire line the first time and what then follows is a “screen memory,” what is it a screen memory of? The answer is just a day or so off!                     
I work at creating a fire break for several hours, perhaps I am even allowed a break, dawn is breaking if you can call it that since the sun never set but has only been smoke-obscured. Suddenly a two-man Bell Helicopter swoops in and sets down next to us, on its sled. Out steps a stud, a blonde cowboy, a once Korean War helicopter pilot, and tells me and the Florida Shrimp to put our gear on the right and left side luggage racks, sleds, we get inside what is now a three-man or four-shrimp Bell Helicopter plastic bubble, and he takes off, flies a ways, I get a sense of the extent of the fire, it is quite extensive that ring of fire, I see the vastness of the Yukon to our right! The pilot lowers the chopper and hovers above what he calls a “grass lake” - a meadow that was once a lake whose water had been replaced by grass, that has now sunken and left a ring of tussocks at the edges which, so I am about to discover, present a series of problems, an obstacle course, a most uncomfortable one, as you try to maneuver through the tussocks, like clambering through sets of tightly placed cones, a major nuisance; extremely memorable, as is their name “tussock.” Cossacks of the Grass Lake, ringing it all around! The grass lake is perhaps a mile long and at most a third of a mile wide at its widest point. The wind, which has now picked up, is driving a wall of flames down the lake, red on yellow grass, straw, the wall has reached the 1/3 mile post, it is a wall of flames, between eight and ten feet tall. The chopping blades of the chopper flatten out the grass below the chopper, waveringly, the pilot lowers his plastic bubble and sets its sled tracks down on the grass, tamps down the rotor revolution, all you hear now is the gentle chop chop chop of the air and he says to cut some fir branches from the forest, which suddenly is a real forest on our left with substantial trees, not just a near jungle of scrub spruce and pine and fir at most fifteen foot high set in foot-thick moss. We take our gear off the racks and do as told. I cut myself a spectacular broom of a fir branch and advance into the on-coming wall of ten foot flames… and beat them down and am not even singed by the thin scrim-like surface of flames that leaves no embers in its wake, only black burnt straw. Straw seems to burn especially black – glistening black like anthracite – at least in my recollection.  
Those then are distinct apparently ineradicable recollections. The first time on a fire, the Florida Shrimp, the first ride in a helicopter, the first and only wall of flames I walk through, and a few to come, a tree trunk like an elephant’s leg approaching me, trees crashing like serried soldiers, a “hot spot,” a Texas cutthroat, the mass of near-silent water as it flows and is called Yukon.    Well, that was nice, and where’s the rest of the crew? It takes the chopper a while to ferry the rest of the crew, a 24 man crew that is divided into four groups of six men each. One crew boss, four straw bosses. This crew stays on the side of the grass lake with the stand of substantial trees, both deciduous and evergreens. Someone explains that we are in the annual alluvial spring Yukon flood plain and that therefore the shore thaws in early spring and trees have a chance to grow, the permafrost thaws too, on top, nor is the moss as thick. Well, that sounds nice. Glad of those real trees, a real forest. I already despise the scrub spruce and pine, the layers of moss however, are deeply intriguing.
----
Fire headquarters is established on the opposite side of the grass lake and someone points out the fire chief, a gnarly Texan, medium height, 165 pounds, only about 15 pounds heavier than I, but all sinew, he is wearing a shirt of large dark green and black checkers and has cuts in his face. I will think of him forever as the Texas Cutthroat. His age is difficult to place, late thirties early forties. He has definitely been around. I think of him as the Texas Cutthroat. He is the only person with a sidearm on the fire, he wears a pistol tucked into his belt.  We have our Pulaski axes – I do not recall or hearing of a single act of violence among this very motley crew during the eight weeks that I am on two successive fires. The Texas Cutthroat is in charge of containing what is now a 20,000 acre fire; eventually he will have one hundred fifty men to help him do the job. 20,000 acres has a minimum circumference of about 20 miles. 150 men to contain a fire that extensive strikes you as impossible. However, if the fire is burning in just one direction and if he can create firebreaks, he will later have the time to encircle the fire and extinguish its edges. His main objective is to protect the jet interceptor base. A secondary objective is to protect the growth of real trees. As compared to the prevailing scrub jungle, this growth has real value, you can build cabins with it - along the shores of the Yukon - and that objective involves the crew of which I am one of the few competent ax men.                  The fire that had swept halfway down the grass lake and which the Florida Shrimp and I had contained by beating it down with fir branches has crept into the healthy real forest to the left along that half mile of grass lake it has burnt, and the immediate task assigned to us is to quash, exterminate, root out that edgy part of the fire.        One feature that differs along the forest edge is that the one to two feet layer of moss is not quite as thick, it has evened out, has even turned into the kind of ultra-green evergreen moss that you associate with moss, even less or non-existent where it has burnt. Here you can’t really build, hack, construct the same kind of fire break that we had initially, in moss; roots, their linkages interfere, the trees are too formidable although not necessarily too tightly packed.    There was a series, a stretch of trees, where the fire had burnt the cover and the crew boss said these trees needed to be taken down to create a real fire break. Finally I was able to work as a kind of lumberjack, albeit only with a Pulaski axe, whose cutting edge I sharpened –   sharpening stone and oil were part of the gear I had packed – and retained a bit of the boy scout despite the abysmal troupe I had been a member of in Sour Orange and learning to be a woodsman at Camp Pocono. I am tempted to give a long description of sharpening my double-bit ax, only one of its two blades of course needed to be ultra-sharp in most cases, the pleasure I took in this activity, the smell of the oil, was it linseed? rises to my nostrils, the grey residue of the sharpening stones turns the clear linseed into a grey paste. Periodically you wipe clean the blade. But I will desist! And I still knew the kind of cuts you have to apply to a tree to fell it, so it falls where you want it to fall not where it wants to, and I was well into my work, having completed the first cut, and working on the second, when the tree turned out to have mind of its own… and turned and twisted and started to walkk fall… and toward me! How dare it! This was a good-sized beech type tree, I recall its smooth grey trunk starting to lean in my direction, sort of the sizee of a full grown Elephant’s hind leg! as I scrambled to the side, alacritously, as the tree started to fall and then… all adjacent trees started to fall in tandem and in its wake as it fell forward and the whole crew that had been admiring me the ax-man scrambled… and all because of me… because I misjudged what that tree would do… and what an impressive and most unexpected sound that is of a series of large trees crashing in the forest, in that bowl of silence that is interior Alaska. - What I, or someone, had misjudged, what I ought to have been alerted to was that the fire had not just burnt the light forest moss cover but weakened the root network, which, because of the underlying permafrost, lay on top, so that if the network burnt and was weakened… it did not even take me chopping down a single tree… we could have just pushed over that series of trees and they would have fallen just the way they did! They had sunk no roots! And if only they had fallen in serried ranks, but no: they fell helter-skelter, topsy-turvy, all over the place, as in a game of Mikado, they did the twist as had mine, they – gravity twisted them every which way once they became unloosed, the surface root work wobbled, seemed to quake, it shimmied like all sisters Kate! It was like a surface of an earth quake!                       
   We were incredibly lucky that the trees fell slowly, that they did not plummet, or a lot of us would have had seriously broken bones, if not been killed. Memorable, no?                     This incident was the first of three or four really close calls I had during my nine months in Alaska. Had I made a mistake? No, not I, perhaps the crew boss might have been better versed, out of consideration had been left the fact that the fire had not just devoured the moss but eaten into, destroyed the interconnecting, the connective root work tissue the web of the forest floor, and that even though these trees were so substantial that you might think they had sunk deep roots into the ground, they had done nothing of the kind, the spring thaw allowed them early access to nutrients but did not really thaw the permafrost at a deep level, the icy layer into which no root will sink. - That has to be a screen memory of some kind, no?                           The edge of these shoreline trees, about a mile to half a mile off the mile wide Yukon river that rolled toward the Bering Sea in ever-widening sinuous curves
were of that kind, they could not sink actual deep roots through the permafrost. The trees supported each other with a thick interconnecting surface root network; once that was compromised the magnificent trees fell like bowling pins, like dozens of soldiers, entire ranks of them. These trees had been pushovers, the fact that they had not started to fall as soon as I put the ax to the first was near miraculous, and this is what we then did: we pushed against strategically placed giants and the ranks fell. Once they were down they showed us their monstrous more or less burnt undersides and the filigree roots and we were in a
position to put out the embers, the smolder, with “piss cans” as these three foot tall water containers with a hose and hand pump that remind of vermin eradicators were/are called.        Where did we replenish the water? Memory is really bereft. Did the chopper that occasionally resupplied us with Army k-rations actually bring the kind of vat that would have held the amount of water for piss cans to extinguish the edge of the fire?    There were no nearby lakes or streams. Or were there? The Yukon was at least half a mile off.   To safeguard, say, the half-mile critical length of the grass lake where the fire had crept into the forest, to extinguish that stretch, took our 24 man crew about a week, then we moved, say, half a mile further north, and kept creeping, say, at most a half mile at a time, to extinguish the edges of the fire where a firebreak had been created initially. To extinguish these contained edges of the entire 20,000 acre fire took 150 men six weeks. All the excitement had been at the beginning, the rather dreary work came later, the mopping up. The word “painstaking” comes to mind. However, that is what you were being paid for, I may be not entirely precise but at the rate of 2.78 an hour, 24 hours a day, when the then minimum wage of $ 1.00 bought what $ 13.00 will now, you made quite good money, the more so because where were you going to spend it? No bear came by to sell you a beer but in a dream. We had no outboard to take us to the nearest Indian village with a store. – So that was the reason why students traveled thousands of miles for the adventure.                      As I had begun to notice during the first month in Fairbanks while waiting to be called to fight a fire, you needed scarcely any sleep, four hours sufficed. That would change by November, at which point if you did not get your fourteen hours of sleep you were as angry as a bear with disrupted hibernation. Bears and I had the same sun-clock inside.
    Moreover you were fed, K-rations to be sure, and once a week the chopper brought or you picked up at Fire Headquarters, a home cooked meal. You had a sleeping bag, the essential mosquito net for the millions of mosquitoes that lived in moss. Worst were the so-called “no-see-ums” – pinhead size black gnats that sought out the moisture of your every orifice, your mouth, eyes, ears, and that bit, and managed to get in under the netting and turned into a halo that might drive you mad; and that loved to be near heat, near a fire!
  Several Inuit Indians, Athabascans, had become part of the crew. Rumor had it, but it appeared rumor had it like that each year, that “the Indians had set the fire” to replenish their finances. Officially the cause was listed as summer lightning. It took just one spark to set the dry surface of the moss on fire; the moss was pure tinder, it was asking for it! I had never seen moss like this, moss thickets. The saying also went that the Indians invariably disappeared after ten days. Sure enough,  they did, but not before asking us to join them across the river for their festival. Ten days sufficed to bankroll enough beer to get seriously tanked.
    Dominick is the one I remember because we made quick friends – finally an Indian! A first! The Florida shrimp I think didn’t last. And what an Indian! Like the Indian who could have been an Indian Sugar Ray Robinson. 185 pounds, marvelously brown, marvelously black haired, the face for the back of a banknote, and eager to instruct in hunting ways. Just to follow him as he walked through a forest! When all the white trash, including me, Pulaski axes raised, started to rush after a black bear that had decided to cross the grass lake into the forest I was glad to note a few silent gestures on Dominick’s part, explaining why chasing a bear was not a good idea, sufficed to put a quick stop to the chase. Dominick then explained the respect he had for the bear’s prowess, and why you did not want to anger a bear, much less a bear sow with a cub. This had been a black bear, fleet as a stallion, a filly, I noted as it galloped through the grass.    Yet there was danger in this picayune cleaning up work too, I barely averted it by not stepping into an ashen spot where the ash was unusually white and it appeared extra hot, you could sense the heat from many feet away, fascinating! White hot! – the crew boss’s “no” saved me from having a foot blown off where the fire had gone underground, thawed the frozen peat and consumed the turf, the rotten wood, whatever, and created an ultra-hotspot bubble which waited to be pricked, the way a boil does, to explode. Hotspots that waited to explode or that exploded became a fine metaphor for anger that might finally irrupt, for ancient wounds that had turned into scar tissue but that it took not all that much to make sore again.          That was my second close call on that fire! And as I contemplated the experience over the years, as it stuck with me throughout my life, it became the biggest screen memory of them all.  For me, who is or used to be a "slow burn," "hot spot" signified when I came on it - it was the moment of a kind of epiphany of having found the metaphor for a state of mind that under certain conditions and in certain situations I would find myself in. However, I was not in the state of mind where a potential sore spot was besieged. Rather the opposite, conditions were verging on the idyllic. I was in open nature, albeit its vastness was daunting. I was in good enough company, although yet there was no telling whether any of the companeros might become life-long friends (I suspect that Eric Carlson, the Minnesota Swede, who was the other reader in that crew, and who also stuck around in Fairbanks at the end of fire fighting season and witnessed and commented on my “Euraka” moment, might have been if he’d come to N.Y. Dominick, the Inuit hunter fisherman, for sure if I’d stuck around to live his kind of life. I was paid even while I slept, albeit only $ 2.78 an hour. I only seemed to need to sleep four hours at that time of year at that latitude, a matter that was still puzzling this bear at that time. However, when I slept I did so on the most comfortable natural mattress God had devised. I was fed, albeit K-rations, with which we were quickly fed-up. The company I kept was not fractious. Indeed, the work we were doing, making carpet rolls of moss, creating a fire break around a 20,000 acre circumference quickly became routine, tedious, and if we’d been told early on that we’d be doing the same old same old for six weeks this prospect might have been off-putting. I was getting into excellent shape, I was finally getting over the last effects of a case of mono and some other infection that I had picked up during my Junior Year abroad. I was thriving, as I had so often and would again in nature. The only thing that was seriously bugging me and everyone were real bugs, the mosquitoes, one of the great surprises was to discover them in a region that was fast frozen for six months of the year, and the no-see-ums, tiny flies that leched for all orifices that were moist, and since all human orifices are moist, no-see-ums in your ear canal could quickly drive you mad. Thus that beautiful white spot of moss that had burnt into white hot ash was epiphenic, infinitely memorable, but also neutral. It acquired the weight of a screen memory only in the course of the psyche working over the memory of the Alaska fire-fighting experience and connecting it unconsciously to ancient wounds and angers. It’s a metaphor, nothing more but also nothing less than a first rate metaphor. Screen memories are a lot prettier than what they screen, than what they conceal. “Hotspot” comprises a deeper nearly metaphysically universal psychotic anger-rage that is not confined to a singular event. I had not only the 2nd screen memory of age four but one of a catastrophic train wreck, a few months earlier, and prior to that of a nightmare that laid me low where a Billy goat that four year old me is not supposed to tease then is about to bugger me as I wake up terrified. Prior to that a traumatic event, a perceived abandonment at age nine months, did not leave or become psychically transformed into a single concentrate, but split into two opposite qualities: extreme, demyelating heat and extreme arctic cold; fear of extreme cold, the search for warmth. Thus the proximity of fire and of a hotspot to the permafrost, that characterizes the environment at those latitudes, supported the creation of, are the linkages to that particular screen memory, to that metaphor and which does not or I hoped would not require the kind of explanation I am offering here if you knew Screen Memories in its entirety. – Here in Alaska I appeared to have sleep-walked into an explanation!
#
Some Eskimos were imported from way up north and added to the mix, it was said that they, too, needed the work, the money. They were tubercular, had never handled an axe before because they had never seen a tree and promptly cut off their toes. I failed to ask whether they then received disability pay, that pathetic lot.                          I was promoted to straw boss, which meant that I now was in charge of, say, five Florida Shrimp – I am exaggerating. The Florida Shrimp as an ingénue on forest fires was unique. However, they were all college kids and had little or no experience of the woods, much less of the special Alaskan conditions. I was in my early 20s and was meant to lead, and now came one of the most frightening moments of my life. We set out, I the mother quail set out and need to cross a very large wide ashen space to get to wherever I was meant to go. I have a hunch to fire headquarters to transport supplies.                         Have you ever seen a quail with her young. The young have just been hatched from these delicious speckled quail eggs and it seems as though the quail chicks were hatched to roll like eggs the way they seem to roll after the mother quail hen. My chaps trusted me, so far it had seemed I knew what I was doing. I did not have a compass, which surprises me retrospectively. I entirely trusted my internal compass, the way I can trust my sense of time so as never to be off by a few minutes. I had never needed a compass. I would find my way in cities by getting lost in them, the Berlin rubble field? No problem. Paris, it was marvelous to get lost in Paris and eventually be unlost, the discoveries on the way!  I had compleat trust in some ultimate way of orienting myself, at least physically, socially had been a different matter ever since first setting foot in Sour Orange Junior High, then nearly ten years prior. But suddenly, amidst an ashen waste, high noon, that is the sun is directly overhead, I lost all sense of direction. I became deeply uncertain. There were no tell-tale signs, all scrub spruce and pine had burnt, we were not anywhere near the forest that lines the Yukon. Have you ever seen a mother hen or a mother Quail with half a dozen chicks rolling behind suddenly not know which way to go? How disorienting that can be to the babies? It puts them in instant disarray.                              That was me in midsummer in a twenty thousand acre ashen burn near Galena Alaska, a wasteland of ashen moss right next to the wide Yukon River.    
    Others had already crossed the area and left their trails, no way to tell which trail of footsteps to follow. I was so delighted to come on one of my writer heroes Handke titling a play, Traces of the Lost. If only I’d been alone, I could have figured it out, or figured out something. The point is that at that time of year the sun affords no orientation as it does elsewhere at all day times. And I was not about to ignominiously retrace our steps back to our camp site! Eventually I picked a set of tracks and a direction to follow and we found headquarters. If Dominick had been with us he might have had an idea how to orient me, but he, too, a first rate woodsman, was made straw boss and had his own six man crew. Back at our camp ground after I had told the story of how I’d got lost Dominick asked did I want to accompany him to catch a Salmon. I did and it was interesting to see him negotiate the forest by the Yukon, finally, after all these years of reading Karl May as a kid in Germany and dreaming of finally meeting a real Indian in Amerika I had a real authentic Indian guide.           Dominick of course knew exactly where he was going, he knew his domain as well as I had Fir Place and its surround in childhood. This was one of his hunting grounds, especially that heavily wooded strip along the Yukon. The cool forest after the heat of the ashen plain, yes one doesn’t expect forest fires in Alaska until you realize that from mid-April until mid-August it is a sun-drenched state and twenty-four hours straight for a time.            
    Dominick, it turned out, did not take a fresh path, as I who was waiting for a “real Indian” to find his way through the woods, but an accustomed trail, not that I myself would necessarily have detected it unless he had pointed it out to me, it was a path that he took during his hunts.                      I asked him his Inuit name as he told me his name was Dominick, and he replied that the Russian priests, who had been at the village until Alaska was sold to the United State in the 19th century, had given everyone Russian names. However, I did not ask Dominick how he felt about being sold by one monster to the other. At the shore he pointed across the way, the Yukon is nearly a mile across there, depending on whether it is drought or flood time I suppose, that was his village with its fish wheel and the dogs tied up, what we heard howling a night were not wolves but their huskies. We ought to come over during their 4th of July Festival. Sure. Here, this was the spot where he would pick us up. He had whittled a sapling into a spear and used that to spear a good sized 20 pound salmon, cleaned and beheaded it and we walked back to our camp. Half the salmon sufficed for our group of six plus crew chief, the rest was put under a piece of moss that had been cut out - Permafrost makes for a year around fridge, the moss the fridge seal and door.           Then Dominick and his brother were suddenly gone. Old timers said, “That’s just like Indians, they fight for ten days, then they have enough money and they drift back into the forest.” Ten days meant about $ 750! You could buy a lot of beer and liquor with that from the one village along the Yukon that had a liquor store, Koyukuk I think or maybe Galena. You could buy a fair amount of gas for your outboard. I looked forward to the festival date, I was sure I would make it and we did, four of us, including the one friend I made in the crew, a fellow reader, Eric, Eric Carlson, a Minnesota Swede who studied engineering.      I had no difficulty finding the spot where Dominick was going to pick us up. I followed the Indian pass to where a big branch reached out over the water, the spot itself was well trodden. It was their landing when they crossed. It’s a shame of course that it had to be an outboard and not a canoe. However, the Yukon, which is about a mile across in the Galena area, is quite swift despite its size, it carries a huge amount water, and outboard motors are more beloved than wives I realized after this night, as are Huskies I suppose. But I missed the quiet of a crossing of a river that size and tried to make believe that this was the Mississippi and that I was Huck Finn, whereas I had managed to suppress all fantasies of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand during our walk through the woods.
  The village, I think its name was Koyuk, not Koyukuk which was a ways upstream where the river by that name flows into the Yukon, was quite small, maybe one hundred souls. Koyukuk and Galena are about four times that size. Koyuk had an all-purpose meeting and dance hall and church for festivities. This square lodge with a peaked roof seemed to be constructed of logs, it was all dark wood, including the oily wooden dance floor, benches on all four sides. No pews. There was one musician, an electric guitar player and he had one amplified loudspeaker and he played one song over and over again all night. It was Leiber/ Stoller’s Hound Dog which Presley had picked up in the 50s from Big Mama Thornton’s original recording, and made famous. Later I befriended lyricist Leiber and told him of this night in that forlorn part of the world, and he was quite pleased, of course. The song was repeated over and over and the beer everyone consumed had its expected effect. I was unusually smart in not taking up with Indian maidens who asked me to dance. I wasn’t being a hound dog as my marvelous Indian friends proceeded to get tanked on the liquor they had bought with the money they had made fighting fires, and then proceeded to beat up their women. This was not attractive. We sought and found refuge in a cabin where a woman then beat up her drunken husband, and I don’t think we did more than doze off. It wasn’t until later in the morning of the next day that we found someone, I don’t think it was Dominick, to take us back across the river.

EXCERPT # II 

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