The Grandpas

I was crazy hungry yesterday, at dinner time, and had a nice conversation with a guy from this incident management team while we were both waiting for the catering window to open and start serving styrofoam.  Usually I’m not first in line, like that, but it was Mexican night and I had  skipped lunch per se.  

COVID-19 hasn’t changed the sack lunch situation, on fires — they’re still bags of junk food, I mean literally stuff you could buy out of a vending machine, if there was a vending machine.  And then there might be a baggie of baby carrots or sliced cucumbers, too.  It feels bad to throw so much away, just to eat a few whole foods — and I definitely eat the junk too, if I’m inclined, but it’s pretty hard to feel inclined that way, especially in the heat.  It was 110 degrees all day long, two days ago, but only 90-something yesterday, and there was a little cold snap in the middle of the night, last night, when I unzipped the tent to pee for the 2nd time.  Back up to blazing now, but sounds like we’re all being released soon. 

The fire’s been out for a minute but the teams get into scarcity mindset, when lots of resources are being soaked up by other fires around the West, and they’re scared to let folks go because if it flares back up, no one will be available to come on back and put it out again.  I’ve been on a couple fires that were, like, the reincarnation of an underestimated first blaze, that got out of hand just as everyone was driving away.  When that happens, and it’s a second rodeo (‘this time it’s political’ lol), the team doesn’t want to let anyone go until they can essentially walk barefoot across the fire.  

We’re not quite in that situation, but sounds like there hasn’t been much fire to fight in the last week at least.  There was 4th of July, though, with the danger of fireworks, the ever-present danger of lightning, and a red flag weather watch through yesterday.  So sounds like we’re in the clear.  

I’m dramatically removed from all the action, of course, which is fine by me, and feeling frankly spoiled, in my new job as mobile shower unit CDL driver.  After three seasons of fuel, though, that’s how everyone knows me.  So I was waiting for my en-styromfoamed veggie Mexican, yesterday, and a guy from the team was like, “Hey — didn’t you used to do fuel?” 

“Yeah, but I found a better gig!,” I said.  

“Oh yeah?  Showers, right?  What’s better about it?,” he asked.  

“Well, the customers are always happy, for one thing,” I said.  

“That’s true!  Everyone loves a shower,” he agreed.  “But everyone loves fuel too.”  

“Yes, but they don’t like paying for it,” I countered.

He thought for a second.  “Isn’t it just, like, charged to the fire on those little tickets?”  

I took a deep breath.  “Less and less so.”  ‘Those little tickets’, little did he know, are a sore spot for me.  It’s interesting to work in this industry that’s influenced so heavily by what I call “government paperwork culture”, which is at least 30 years behind the private sector in just figuring out how to do basic shit.  ‘Those little tickets’ are books of — what do you call triplicate but when it’s six pages and not three? — with infinite little boxes to fill out, almost none of them mattering at the point of sale, but you still gotta write it all in, and you can’t write hard enough to get through six copies, no matter what pen you use.  The last copy goes to the customer, and of course they don’t want it to be illegible, so you gotta write it all in and then write in at least the stuff that’s pertinent to them, again.  

And then all six copies go to five different places, via what needs to be a daily meeting with Finance.  So on a fire where I’m putting out, whatever, 1800 or 2k gallons per day, that could be like two or three hundred ‘little tickets’ per day, multiplied for me by the effort of writing it twice, plus it’s all gotta be written in our actual logs, for our actual records as a fuel company, because we’re a private contractor and have a reasonable, efficient way of doing things — none of which is accomplished via the little tickets, which are purely a governmental fetish.  

So I meet with Finance about it every day, with this enormous stack of now four copies of tickets.  Fires generally happen in windy places, with weather possible — sometimes you write these tickets out in the rain or hail or dark, and almost always in the wind — so Finance actually uses our [private sector] fuel logs to reconcile what the hell’s going on with all these little tickets.  Sometimes they lose one or two, or I lose one or two, or I was in a hurry and market ‘diesel’ instead of ‘gasoline’, or they were in a hurry and put the type of fuel in the wrong column of their spreadsheet; or even worse I, or they, marked the correct type of fuel but the fuel price from the other type of fuel, so all that has to be gone over with a fine tooth comb, on the daily.  

I’ve been up in my fuel truck, after closing, with my headlamp on and my calculator out, going through these fucking tickets well into the night after everyone’s asleep, more times than I can mention.  And then you go through it all again when you demobe, because I’m the one making sure my boss doesn’t get shorted, and they’re making sure the government doesn’t get shorted.  

One silver lining: most of these frequent, mathematically intense sessions with Finance, over the years, have occurred with Buffy, in her polka dot pajamas, toddling around in her full diaper and saying hi to everyone, and me stealing pieces of chocolate out of Finance’s treat bowl, and all of this in the context of an air-conditioned and/or heated yurt, so that’s been pretty cute over the seasons.  

For the customer at the point of sale, they love it, because it’s just a bunch of work they never see, and they get their green copy and drive away and complain about the fuel line taking so long, when they have no idea what the actual bottleneck is.  Going from having fuel gloves on to taking them off to thumb through these stupid fucking ticket books, making sure to reset the meter and get the right numbers and do the math and re-write their copy, which they’ll immediately lose but they make you re-write it anyway.  It’s barbaric.

So then in my last two seasons, Finance teams started really pushing back on all this extra red tape — for which I applaud them — but saying the customers have to just figure out some way to pay with some type of credit card.  That’s fine for me, and minimal work in terms of transaction, but now we’ve got everyone who’s been habituated, for years, to just blithely fuel ad nauseam, it’s someone else’s cost, driving away with their little green ticket like it wasn’t the biggest efficiency disaster on earth to produce that, suddenly being told — by little old me, usually in the middle of nowhere, and no one with any cell phone reception — that they have to pay with a credit card.  

“Well, I just have my personal card!,” they say.

“But you’re in an agency truck — your agency didn’t make you pay your own way all the way out here, did they?  I mean, it says Kansas on your doors.”  Or whatever state.  

“No, that’s on the agency card, but I won’t get reimbursed for fuel on the fire.  That’s supposed to be on one of those little tickets.”  

“Finance says no, everyone has to pay on their agency cards now.”  

“But I won’t get reimbursed!”

“You’ll have to work it out with Finance, and if they tell me to make an exception, I will, but I can’t make exceptions otherwise.”

“But I’m on E!”

“I know.  I’m so sorry.”  

Most people have figured out how to take it in some sort of stride, but I had a situation with a guy two seasons ago that escalated all the way to the Incident Commander’s level, and this was after me spending about three hours talking to him, and a bunch of other people conflict negotiating, out in the tumbleweeds and sagebrush.  So exhausting.  

So yesterday I’m taking to this guy, while waiting for our styrofoam Mexican, and he’s like, “Isn’t it just, like, charged to the fire on those little tickets?”

“Less and less so.”  

“Huh.”

I grinned.  “But with the mobile shower unit, they just walk up, I tell them which stall to go to, and they always come out happy and clean.  No financial transaction required.”  No more late nights for me, sitting with my headlamp and my calculator, trying to see which copy is the green and which copy is the blue at eleven o’clock at night when my ass has to be up at five.  

It’s really glorious.

It’s a little bittersweet, money-wise.  I took a bit of a pay cut to do this job instead (worth it), which I’m not feeling very much because my partner Nick is also earning along with me.  The bittersweet part, though, is that a couple years ago I tried to get on with my main fuel company’s direct competitor, because they paid, at that time, almost double what I was making — $600/day.  That was a couple years ago so they probably pay more now.  They did the hurricane season too, so I could have worked eight months a year, probably.  

I blew them up.  I emailed, called, left messages, left more emails, sent my resume to everyone on the website, nothing.  I had no boyfriend, no other life per se, and just wanted to stay out and work.  Just work work work.  That’s what I wanted.  Anywhere in the US, out of the US, safe places, dangerous places, I was down for all of it.  

Well, I met one of their guys this season, mentioned my total fail to acquire anyone’s interest at their company, and pretty soon he got me connected to their VP.  They were all excited, like “we’re super short and we could really use you, right now!”  I’m telling you, reader, whoever you are — get a CDL with no accidents and your HazMat/Tanker and you can write your own paychecks, practically.  

I told him I hadn’t meant to escalate like that, though, and I’m in a totally different situation, now.  I have Nick, and the two little dogs, and we get standby pay, and we committed to these guys for the season, and they let us buy our meals on a company card, and things are just great.  I mean, the money difference would be, like, insane, if I did jump over, but — I have a family now.  I have a family that I almost lost, to be honest, and I’m not putting any amount of money ahead of that.  But holy shit, can you imagine the money?!  Oh well, their loss.  

I really like what I do, though, and I like being in this employment industry generally, and frankly I’m grateful to the lockdown for pushing me back this way.  I’m still getting emails from my real job all the time, about this that and the other, and — yeah.  Anyway, Nick is struggling a bit more than me with some aspects.  The fire camp food, especially with COVID having knocked out the normal salad bar spread and reducing us all to these styrofoam containers of mostly stuff vegans don’t want to eat, and not enough fresh produce, isn’t sitting well with him.  I don’t think it sits well with anyone, but I’m more psychologically adapted to just spending four or six months a year not feeling the way I’d prefer to, in my tum-tum, most of the time.  Oh, my kingdom for a daily salad bar.  

And then the dry, hot, long days are tough on his beach-acclimated respiratory tract, whereas I’m from the desert and I can breathe no matter what.  We both feel like our eyeballs are being incinerated every afternoon, just trying to walk around and function, and the afternoons are like ten hours long.  He has a strong sense of wanting the right climate for himself (ie the beach), whereas I’m a lot more flexible as long as I’m getting paid and not feeling too cold.  

The little bugaboos are doing fine.  Buffy’s more like me (same shit different day), and mainly just lives for the evenings when we walk all the way back over to the tent, for bed.  At that point, she gets super animated, wildly lashing her tail and toddling with all her might.  She flallops on the grass, in the evenings, and then bounds into the tent and straight into her doughnut bed, where she curls into a comma and will not be budged.  Milo is still thrilled at everything in the world that isn’t a basement, and just wants to give love and receive love every minute of every day, which requires not only Nick and I but also our manager, the potable water tender, the gray water guy, and every single person who comes over for a shower, so this is like ground zero of the Milo adoration storm.  We close at night, so we get to sleep in every morning because Mike opens, so Mike, Larry and Cliff — the various other CDL drivers — are already sitting in their lawn chairs, in the shade of the EZ ups, when we come back across the big parking lot.  The grandpas all stretch out their arms and yell, when they see the bugaboos, and so we let go of their leashes and they run as fast as they can to be snuggled and made much of.  We’re accumulating quite a high ratio of grandpas to little dogs, already!   

We found another little dog cowering under our trailer, yesterday.  Her name was Scarlett, and she looked like a baby black rabbit but with tiny stub ears.  I called the number on her tag and her owners made a beeline straight over, and snuggled her with great relief.  She had wandered off from their camper trailer, nearby.  Nick said, “Well, so much for having a third little dog,” and I looked at him like he was crazy.  We are definitely not getting tricked into a third dog, any time soon — imagine how many more grandpas would be required, to sustain our ratio.  

I wish we could live on a piece of land in a nice place and have a menagerie!  We look at pictures of Capybaras all the time, and skunks, and otters, and goats, and pot bellied pigs.  If we didn’t have to leave to go work, for months at a time, we could just spend every day rolling around in the grass with a bunch of animals.  I really love elephants — not something you can, like, “have”, because they’re so dedicated to their families and require a lot of space and resources, but I do wish I could hang out with elephants sometime, or just admire them close up.  Nick loves big cats, especially the pictures of them sitting in cardboard boxes.  It’s such a wonderful world full of animals, and we’re grateful to have the bugaboos integrated into our work lives, but when will we have our own skunk??

It almost seems like the point of life is to hang out with animals, as much as possible, and life makes that really hard but is there any more direct route to happiness?  Not that I’m aware of.

Well, it’s time to close the showers for mid-day and I guess we’re going to lunch with all the grandpas.  Thanks for reading, readers, and thanks for following, subscribers!               

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