Springtime is my favorite time of the year. I can see for miles down the valley, and the forest, covered by a thin layer of gentle rolling clouds, welcomes me to a new day. The warm breeze energizes my old aching muscles. As the breeze whips the thick forest canopy, it creates a “conversation” amongst the birdlife and trees. As the morning sun grows warmer, I see the dew evaporate, and I’m invigorated for another day which will be like every other, serene, marvelous, but lonely.
I’ve been walking about the tower with a 360-degree view of the forest, peering through my long-range binoculars for signs of fire for hours, and a stretch is welcome. I’m pushing seventy-five, and have been fortunate to work many seasons atop this fire lookout tower which I call home and work.
I remember growing up on our family ranch in Montana. I would look up in amazement at the beautiful mountains in the distance, the towering trees hovering over me, and realize how small, and vulnerable I was. Time moved slowly as a young man, and each new day was magical.
I sip a cup of something resembling coffee and remember awakening to the aroma of the freshly brewed coffee awaiting me in the kitchen, fondly prepared by my wife of fifty years. I’d enter the kitchen wearing my freshly pressed, Forest Ranger uniform, and enjoy small talk with Marge before heading to work, after finishing a grand breakfast of bacon and eggs or flapjacks.
When Marge passed away, I couldn’t tolerate living in our home without her. I handed the keys to the Realtor, saying, “Sell it as quickly as possible, furnished, and everything in the closets. I’ve boxed my framed photos and will only be taking them with me.”
I needed to relinquish the pain of losing Marge, and the only way I knew possible was to get back into the forest. I had a stellar record and many friends in high places within the Forest Service. I was fortunate to be assigned as a volunteer “Fire Lookout”.
My lookout station is a 52’ tower, surrounded by windows and an exterior catwalk, deep in the woods of Montana. My equipment includes binoculars, a telescope with a tripod, a compass, maps, a two-way radio, and an “alidade,” which is a combination of a telescope and a compass to determine the distance to a suspected fire. The lookout season started March 1st and will end on November 1st when the snows come.
The tower has no telephone lines, no cellphone coverage, internet cables, gas, water, or sewer systems. I fill buckets of water from a storage tank at the base of the tower. There is an electric generator with an adequate supply of petrol for the season, and a septic tank also located beneath the tower.
I sleep in a bunk bed, cook on a two-burner propane cooktop, have a portable heater, a table, and a few chairs. I have a toilet with a tank above it which I fill with water allowing me to flush the toilet. I shower in a corner of the tower, surrounded by a plastic curtain, with water sprinkling down from a bladder hanging above the shower which I must replenish with water. My showers are short, cool, sometimes cold, and remind me of those showers we took in the Army during battle.
Climbing the many stairs up to a 52’ tower with jugs of water and propane tanks is becoming more arduous. I struggle for breath with each step, and at times, must sit as I become dizzy from the climb. My heart is beginning to “skip a beat”, which tells me it’s getting ready to fail. It’s all worth the struggle, because, although, my living conditions are sparse, the work of spotting potential fires is important, and my “office” has a better view than any Park Avenue executive suite.
As autumn approaches, bright flashes of lightning light up the valley, followed by tremendous thunder, and the rain falls. I love the rain and the beautiful melody it provides. The sound of the pelting rain is similar to a pianist’s fingers pounding out notes on a grand piano. The rain invigorates me, but I remain vigilant, and carefully scan the horizon for any fires started by the lightning. It may take days for the smoldering tree to burst into flame, and I remain on high alert for days.
I noticed a bolt of lightning split a tree apart, revealing what appears to be a tower that had been camouflaged by the dark patch of the forest surrounding it. I raised my long-range binoculars in the direction of what appears to be an abandoned fire lookout tower, caught a glimpse of somebody in a raincoat and hood, ascending the final flight of stairs, and closing the door behind them. According to my alidade, the tower is thirteen miles away. I was excited to have a new neighbor.
It became my practice to occasionally swing the telescope towards the tower in hopes of catching a glimpse of my new neighbor. To my surprise, my new neighbor was a beautiful woman, likely in her late sixties. How delicate, graceful, and elegantly she walked about her tower, like a dancer! She was slender and wore her long, straight, gray hair in a braid. I felt rude intruding upon her privacy and turned the telescope away. I surmised she was one of the lucky few who rent these vacated towers to enjoy the quiet, solitude, and privacy of the woods.
I want to introduce myself to my neighbor, but how can we communicate? We’re thirteen miles apart, and I can’t abandon my tower. I can’t physically undertake the long walk at my age, and I have no vehicle.
My only mode of communication is a two-way radio connected to headquarters. I attempted to locate somebody transmitting on my old, vacuum tube, short wave radio which hadn’t been used in decades. As I slowly turned the dial, all l could pick up on each frequency was static. I decided to give it a good cleaning, hoping the cleaning would awaken the tired old vacuum tubes. If I’m lucky, she’ll pick up my communication, if she has a shortwave.
After cleaning up the old shortwave, I turn it on, and it struggles like a sleeping old soul, to awaken. I slowly turn the dials and hear only static. I may wear out the old vacuum tubes, and keep it on for only short periods of time.
I also attempt to get her attention with sunlight bouncing off a mirror. No response.
For weeks, I tried to get her attention with the mirror and old shortwave. I noticed that with each session on the shortwave, I was able to pick up barely audible, unrecognizable chatter, or music. I remained hopeful.
One sunny afternoon, I placed the mirror in her direction. After no response, I gave up and returned to my work. A flash of light began dancing about the walls of my tower. I ran to the catwalk with my mirror and replied. We made contact! I brought out my telescope and shortwave to the catwalk, hoping she would see both through her binoculars or telescope. As I peered through the telescope, she pointed to both a telescope and modern shortwave. I pointed to my shortwave, and gave the “thumbs up.”
For days, we’d peer through our telescopes at each other, after sending a message from our mirrors. We waved and attempted to communicate with crude sign language.
One evening, the dark sky was the clearest, I remember. The forest was still. I fired up the old shortwave, slowly turned the dial, and clearly heard a ballet. I wrote down the frequency, ran to the telescope, pointed it towards my neighbor, and to my delight, saw the beautiful woman, dressed in a leotard, and ballet slippers, dance to what I believed was “Swan Lake,” the only ballet Marge had ever “dragged” me to. My neighbor was nimble, leaping about, and completed a Pirouette, which Marge had explained to me. I watched until the dancing concluded. Assuming she had finished, I grabbed the vintage hand mic to the shortwave:
“This is Forest Service Lookout Station 8. Calling an unidentified tower inhabitant previously contacted via telescope and mirrors.”
There was no response. She must have had her shortwave off or on another frequency. I repeated my call for a half-hour, but fearing the wear and tear of the old vacuum tubes, I was ready to turn the old shortwave off when I heard,
“This is Gracie calling Forest Service Lookout Tower 8. Can you hear me?”
I was so excited, my heart almost leapt from my chest, and I dispensed with the formal radio communication chatter.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Gracie. My name is Brad. I’m the Fire Lookout you’ve been communicating with.”
“The pleasure is all mine, Brad.”
“May I suggest you write down the frequency you reached me on?”
“I already have you on “autodial,” Brad. How far away are you?”
“13 miles according to my alidade. I’m transmitting on a vintage shortwave with vacuum tubes which are barely holding on for life. I suspect you have a modern shortwave system.”
“Yes, I do, Brad. I came prepared. I don’t want to lose communication with you should your shortwave go down. May I suggest we speak again tomorrow, say, after dinner, around 8:00 pm?”
“That sounds wonderful, Gracie. I hope the weather conditions are conducive to the great reception we’re experiencing tonight?”
“Don’t worry, Brad. We’ll let nature take its course, but I’ll say a prayer, just in case. Goodnight!”
My conversation with Gracie awakened the long-dormant feelings I hadn’t felt since I met Marge for the first time. I couldn’t wait to speak with Gracie tomorrow.
It was Sunday evening and I felt it appropriate to treat our conversation like a date. I cleaned up, put on fresh clothes, and turned on the old shortwave to the frequency I had written down. At 8:00 pm, sharp, my shortwave came to life with an angelic voice,
“Calling Brad. Are you there?”
I reached for the hand mic,
“I’m here, Gracie. Good evening.”
“Good evening to you, Brad. How was your dinner?
“I had beans and franks. How about you?”
“I made a dandelion and ‘Miner’s lettuce’ salad along with ‘Stinging Nettles’ soup.” I was able to gather the ingredients from the woods.”
“You eat healthy, Gracie. Please be careful of what you pick from the ground and trees to eat as many are poisonous.”
“Thank you for the warning, Brad. I came prepared with an illustrative text of wild, edible plants, and berries. You can do better than beans and franks. What else do you eat?”
“I have a supply of ‘MREs.’ ”
“What are those?”
“ ‘Meals Ready to Eat’ in plastic pouches containing entrees which heat up once you tear open the pouch. I have quite a variety of different meals.”
“Are they tasty, and what do you drink with your meals?”
“You’d be surprised how a little Tabasco sauce makes them palatable. I drink water and coffee, but miss a cold beer!”
“I brought a variety of freeze-dried gourmet meals including Thai Curry with shrimp, Miso Salmon, and Tikka Masala. I also made certain to bring a case of red and white wines. I wish I could share these with you, Brad.”
“If this old body could make the 13-mile hike, I’d be right over, but I can’t leave the tower. Even for a seasoned hiker, the trek is very hilly, full of hungry wildlife, and the weather can change quickly. My advice is not to hike too far from your tower, Gracie. You were smart to come well prepared for your stay.”
I could tell the old shortwave was tiring as it was becoming harder to hear Gracie. It would be prudent to give it a rest.
“I’d enjoy speaking longer with you, Gracie, but my old shortwave is telling me it’s growing tired, and I don’t want to permanently damage it. When would you like to speak again?”
“I understand, Brad. Let’s speak again next Sunday, same time? We can say ‘hello’ during the week with the mirrors and telescopes, OK?”
“Your idea sounds wonderful. I enjoyed speaking with you Gracie and look forward to getting to know you. Goodnight.”
I enjoyed our impromptu “mirror conversations” and amateur sign language while peering at each other through telescopes. We developed a habit of saying “good morning” as the sun rose with the mirrors. We resorted to flashlights in the evenings with two on and off signals denoting, “Goodnight.” Our daily “chats” enriched my life in the tower.
I treated the old shortwave as if it was a valuable antique. I gently cleaned it and kept it covered, hoping it would stay alive.
On Sunday evening, at 8:00 pm sharp, my shortwave came to life,
“Hello, Brad. Are you there?”
“Good evening, Gracie. It’s nice to hear your voice.”
“Likewise, Brad. It was fun communicating all week with the mirrors, flashlights, and sign language.”
“I enjoyed it also, Gracie. Tell me about yourself and what brought you here?”
“I recently retired as Chairperson of the Literature Department at a small, liberal arts college in the northeast. I’m writing a book on Frost and Thoreau. I believe the solitude, quiet, and beauty will give me the inspiration to write about these giants of literature.”
“My knowledge of literature is limited to Zane Grey and Mickey Spillane. I knew you were a learned and sophisticated woman the moment we spoke. Was your retirement mandatory?”
“It was a lifetime appointment but the politics, workload, and pleading for grants burned me out. I was happy to retire. Tell me about yourself, and why you became a Forest Lookout?”
“I was born on a ranch in Montana. Mom died from cancer when I was a toddler. Pop raised me while running a cattle ranch with a dozen ranch hands who taught me the ‘cowboy way.’ ”
“What is the ‘cowboy way?’ ”
“Wake up early, work hard, keep out of other people’s business, and be kind to wildlife. They worked hard, and played hard, but, despite their drunken brawls, and womanizing, they told me not to emulate them, respect women like I would my mom or sister if I had either.”
“I’m happy to know they were a positive influence in your life, Brad. What about school?”
“I attended kindergarten through high school, in a tiny schoolhouse with twenty kids who lived on ranches miles away from the schoolhouse. It was quite a trek to get to school given the distance from home, especially during winter.”
“How did you get to school?”
“I rode my horse, ‘Linebacker.’ He was a big ‘Draft’ horse, strong as steel, and could plow through the heaviest snow. Pop gave him to me when I started kindergarten, riding alongside me on his horse until he was certain I could ride alone. Linebacker passed away when I was in Vietnam. I heard the old fella died in his sleep. I loved him. Pop buried him with a tombstone in the local cemetery.”
“It’s unimaginable riding a horse to and from school! Your life springs from the pages of a Louis L’Amour novel. What about Vietnam?”
“I enlisted in the Army so I could become a paratrooper.”
“Why did you want to become a paratrooper? Getting shot at is dangerous enough!”
“Montana is called ‘Big Sky Country’ because the unobstructed skyline overwhelms the landscape, averting your attention from the beautiful mountains, valleys, and plains. If I could parachute, I’d enjoy the landscape parachuting down. I was assigned to the 101st Airborne Division and served two tours. My fondest memories were the beautiful landscapes of Vietnam I witnessed parachuting into a firefight. I’m sorry we destroyed much of that beautiful country with bombs and napalm.”
“I’m grateful you survived that bloody, unnecessary war, Brad. What did you do after the war?”
“After I was discharged, a Greyhound bus dropped me at the end of a ten-mile dirt road leading into pop’s ranch. I was wearing my full-dress uniform carrying a duffle bag over my shoulder when Ranger Rudy stopped and offered me a ride. After welcoming me home, he noticed my ‘Airborne’ patch, and said, ‘If you can jump out of planes into battle, you sure as hell can jump out of planes and fight forest fires. Check out the Forest Service Smokejumpers as a career.’ I saw pop out in the distance on his horse racing to greet me at the house.
“I witnessed the ugly side of life-fighting in Vietnam, and working hard on our ranch, in the wide-open space, helped me work through some emotional trauma I suffered from battle. It wasn’t long before I craved the exhilaration of parachuting into danger, and I found myself reporting for Smokejumper training.”
“Were you married and have children?”
“I met Marge as a young ‘Smokejumper.’ She was a nurse in the E.R. treating me for smoke inhalation. When I awoke from being on a ventilator, the most beautiful eyes and angelic face was staring at me. Her hands delicately held my hand as she took my pulse, and I noticed she wore no rings. Marge said, ‘You have the biggest, most beautiful smile, I’ve ever seen!’ I replied, ‘When a guy awakes to an angel like you, it’s easy to smile!’ She blushed. I reached for her hand and held it tight. She later told me, ‘When you reached for my hand, I felt an electrical charge run through my body, and I knew I found my beloved.’ ”
We married a few months, thereafter. My wife and I had a stillborn baby. Marge couldn’t conceive again. We were married for fifty years. She passed several years ago. I’ll bet a beautiful and brilliant woman like you had her choice of suitors?”
“You were a fortunate man to have a long, successful marriage, Brad. I’m sorry for the loss of your wife, best friend, and companion.
“I was an only child of academics. Before I was born, my father was a professor of physics at the Technical University of Munich. The United States was hard at work on a secret weapon and smuggled mom and dad out of Munich as Hitler was sending Jews to the concentration camps. My parents settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Dad was hired as a full professor of physics at MIT and mom taught Art History at Radcliffe.
“I dated a few men and found their masculinity appealing, but their inability to access any emotional awareness was unfortunate. I became ambivalent towards dating, never married, and chose to concentrate on my teaching career. As I matured, my emotional and sexual feelings changed and were not in keeping with the traditional sexual mores of the time. I feared they could negatively affect my career, so I chose abstinence.
“You’re the first man I’ve had dinner with alone, and by shortwave radio!”
“Gracie, you’re the only woman I’ve spoken at length with since marrying. After Marge died, I had no interest in finding another woman.”
“Why did you remain in ‘The Big Sky State,’ Brad?”
“In Montana, I can stare into the pitch-black sky, dotted with shining stars, revealing a moon so large, I believed I could pull it from the sky, but Mars and Venus would scold me. They all resemble sparkling diamonds, rubies, and emeralds on the Creator’s wrist.”
“That’s very poetic!
“Weren’t you frightened parachuting into wildfires?”
“It was like jumping into the flames of hell, Gracie. I had some close calls. They issued us fire retardant blankets to cover ourselves, because when the wind changed, and suddenly the fire was roaring towards you, your only escape was to wrap yourself within the blanket and let the flames roll over you. I have sympathy for barbecued meats to this day.”
“How did you become a Fire Lookout?”
“I volunteered to become a Lookout after Marge passed, wanting to put my experience spotting fires to good use. They have a forced retirement age of forty within the Smokejumpers. I spent ten years training jumpers, and fifteen years as a Forest Ranger. I had some close calls as a Ranger.”
“What were they, Brad?”
“I was called to rescue a little boy who crawled out on a limb above a freezing, raging river. I assembled a pole from a long, thin, tree branch, attached my belt to it, and instructed the lad to place the harness around himself. He complied, and I pulled him safely back to land. He was no worse for wear. I gave him a Hershey bar from my lunch pail.”
“I’m certain his parents were grateful to you.”
“When I confronted his parents, they simply grabbed the boy by the hand and walked away without saying a word.”
“What was the scariest part of your job, Brad?”
“I was driving along a narrow trail and came upon a bear cub. Sometimes a cub strays from its mother and gets lost. They’re unable to survive without mama at that age. It’s risky to approach a cub because its mother is probably close by, and mamas are very protective of their cubs. I slowly passed, noticing the cub was alive, and parked down the trail, watching the cub through the rearview mirror. I waited fifteen minutes before I decided to rescue the lost cub. I slowly rolled the rig back to the cub, kept the rig running, scooted across the seat, opened the passenger door, and reached down to pick up the cub. Suddenly, heavy tree branches parted like twigs, and an 800-pound mama bear, shot out of the woods towards me, howling for my blood. I recoiled backwards into the driver seat, unable to close the door, and hit the gas pedal just as mama reached in with her razor-sharp claws, shredding the upholstery inches from my body as I roared away. Mama and her cub walked back into the forest.
“Thinking back, the most frightening part of my job wasn’t fire or wild animals, but drunken campers. The war taught me to handle myself in hand to hand combat. Fortunately, I found rational conversation would quell any confrontation with drunks, and never pulled the 45 Colt holstered under my shirt.”
“We’ve been speaking longer than usual, Brad, and I’m concerned about the health of your shortwave but, before we sign off, I want to tell you how impressed I am by your bravery, humility, and sensitivity. I don’t want to embarrass you, but you embody every facet of the ‘Noble Savage’. ”
“What’s a ‘Noble Savage,’ Gracie?”
“A ‘Noble Savage’ is an extraordinary man, not corrupted by civilization, and symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. November is quickly approaching and my lease expires on the first of November at which time I’ll be moving out. Would you have dinner with me in town?”
Gracie’s invitation revived my dormant feelings of emotional attachment. For the first time since my wife’s death, I felt the desire to engage with another woman, possibly romantically. I took nothing for granted with Gracie and prepared myself for simply a platonic meal.
“It would be my pleasure to dine with you Gracie. November 1st coincides with the expiration of my volunteer contract as a Fire Lookout. All the towers are closed for the winter and won’t reopen until March.”
“Where do you suggest we dine, Brad? I didn’t see any restaurants on my way up the mountain.”
“I suggest the ‘Pine Cone Diner.’ Don’t let the name fool you. The diner is a ‘Michelin 2 Star’ restaurant. The chef is a New York City transplant with the ability to whip up more than the basic staples you’d expect out here. He’s quite an expert preparing wild game entrees.”
“My tour guide will be moving me out and taking me down the trail into town at 5:00 pm. May I suggest we dine at 7:00? I’ve made arrangements to spend the evening at the ‘Big Sky Inn’ for the night. My transportation to the airport arrives the following morning.”
“Sounds like a date. Excuse me, Gracie, sounds like a wonderful opportunity to finally meet in person. The ‘Big Sky Inn’ is nearby and I’ll have the Forest Service rig with me to drop you off at the Inn after dinner.”
“I’m looking forward to our rondeaux, Brad. Goodnight, my Noble Savage.”
Sure enough, the old shortwave finally wore out, and I’m only able to communicate with mirrors, a flashlight, and sign language. Time no longer stands still. Each moment is electric and bursting with anticipation. I believe we both developed the ability to read into the sun’s reflection off the mirrors, and through amateur sign language, our thoughts and feelings. Gracie’s hand gestures and facial expressions convey to me she marvels at the ability to see for miles, revels in the warm sun, and gazes in wonderment at the moon and bright twinkling stars. She’s overwhelmed by large puffy clouds rolling across the sky. I’m certain Gracie marvels at how quickly the sky changes from blue to gray before a storm. How blind and selfish I was to consider each day as mundane and ordinary! Gracie has reminded me to revel in each moment. Time moves quicker now as we enjoy our moments together. I no longer take time for granted.
My heart beats rapidly when I think of meeting Gracie! Each new day is full of eager anticipation of our dinner date. I awake with eagerness and vitality.
Life was beautiful, and I counted the days to meet Gracie on November first.
I was eager to meet Brad and felt the “butterflies” of a first date that eluded me my entire life. I primped in the woman’s bathroom before returning to my table to find the cup of hot water with lemon I ordered. I selected a beautiful, tan, cashmere skirt, black silk, turtle neck, and stylish ankle-high, suede, and leather booties. I wore my hair, unbraided, which fell neatly to the midpoint of my back, and covering my shoulders. I watched the clock, and patrons enter, none of which resembled Brad. The clock showed Brad to be fifteen minutes late, but I refused to believe a man of Brad’s character would “stand me up”. I began to worry about Brad’s safety.
The door opened, and a tall, handsome, Forest Ranger, entered the diner, scanning the room with his eyes. I was embarrassed to think the Ranger could be Brad since he was young enough to be my grandson. The Ranger approached my table,
“Excuse me, Ma’am, are you Professor Roth?”
“Yes, I am, Ranger. How may I help you?”
“I have some tragic news. May I sit?”
“Certainly, Ranger. This must concern Brad. Please tell me where he is?’
“I drove to the tower to pick him up and deliver him to the diner to meet you. I found him sitting in his chair, in full dress uniform, smelling of cologne, his hair neatly combed, freshly shaven, all suggesting how eager he was to meet you. He was still, Professor. He passed with his eyes open as if staring out into the valley, one last time. He passed with a big smile on his face. I’m very sorry for the loss of your friend. We all miss him at headquarters. If it’s of any consolation, he asked me to find and deliver to him, a gift he selected for you, along with some wrapping paper. He planned on presenting it to you tonight. Here’s the gift. I’ll excuse myself now, Professor. Please accept my condolences. He’ll be given a dignified and beautiful Forest Service funeral. You’ll receive an invitation.”
I was stunned. My hands trembled as I held the gift. It was light, rectangular, and wrapped in beautiful paper depicting autumn leaves, including an orange ribbon. I carefully unwrapped the gift to find a familiar book,
Selected American Poems
G. Roth, Ph.D.
I noticed there was a bookmark on page 8, and a poem I included by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was highlighted in the center of the page,
Ships that pass in the night, and speak to each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak to one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again, and a silence.
At the bottom of the page, Brad wrote,
I’m a fortunate man to have lived and worked within the forest nearly my entire life, which chose to reward me with a beautiful, and lovely neighbor. Thank you for awakening the wonderment of newfound love within my old, saddened heart.
I reached for the cup of lemon water, and my hand continued to tremble as I raised the cup to my mouth, and sipped, struggling to hold back tears. I reached for a napkin, placed it against my face, and began to cry tears of love for a man I never met. My tears inspired words, as I wrote a note back to Brad, within the margin of the page above his inscription.
We may have been only ships passing, but our signals, looks, and voices, joined, speaking romantic poetry to my heart. Marge would be pleased you crossed over with your big smile she fell in love with. Goodbye, and, thank you, Brad.
I made a note to the editor of my new book, titled, Robert Frost and Henry Thoreau: A Comparison and Contrast, to include the following dedication:
This book is dedicated to my “Noble Savage” whose friendship and life inspired me.