Notes from a Flood Plain

Our job as mobile shower unit operators consists of pulling a lot of hair out of the drains, on the women’s side.  The men’s drains remain more clear.  Every now and then a downright grizzly will be the exception that proves the rule.  I just observed to Nick yesterday, “Do you notice how many fire type gals have long, pretty hair?”  

It is a male-dominated industry — as per ridiculous anecdote I’ll circle back to in a moment — and our trailer is divided into 16 individual shower stalls, and we have it currently baffled off so that there are 12 for men and 4 for women, which works just fine, for instance.  The women who come shower are either of the (what I call) “Finance Lady” variety, which I’m almost always right about — think your first grade teacher but if you grew up in the 80’s in rural Oklahoma — or the gentle variety of everyone else.  So, the Finance Ladies are not the ones clogging our drains.  Not that they get clogged, because we clean them out all the time, but you know what I mean.  

Oh, the quick anecdote about fire being male dominated — a couple fires ago, I was coincidentally and legally double-dipping because I’d gotten a little narration work for the US Forest Service at the same time.  They were doing a short promo video on a new leadership module for women specifically, in wildland fire management.  I’d received the script, narrated the script, and sent it off for digital polish, all in plenty of time to leave for this fire, so I was on my game.  Then, the night before the very early departure, I had to narrate it again because the higher-ups of my higher-up had decided to change the script.  It had formerly said something to the effect of shit being male dominated in general, in this industry, ergo ipso the evolution of this leadership module and the variety of good reasons for that — women have a different command presence and they benefit from networking with one another about it, essentially, rather than feeling they have to emulate the typically male command presence just because that’s what dominates.  

The higher-ups x 2 wanted to massage the language and make it clear that no one was keeping women out of command, in fire; the module was just kind of a good thing that hadn’t become obvious yet, and they are now proud to be rolling it out.  Keep in mind this was all occurring in the same timeframe as race riots, and cancel culture getting turnt up to eleven, and Ulysses S. Grant statues being no longer in vogue, etc, so it was easy to read between the lines.  

So at whatever o’clock at night, before I have to get up at dark-thirty, I re-record the new, more carefully worded script, which says absolutely nothing new or interesting, and is only intended to offend fewer hypothetical people who might be intent on becoming offended, nevertheless.  So then at my fire, I find out the higher ups x 3 now have backpedaled on this script as well, and want an entirely new one that makes it painstakingly clear that women have always been in fire, their perspective has always been valued, no one has ever felt anything but good supportive progressive things about women in fire, and that this module is evidence of that, etc.  I’m like “um…I have to charge you all over again because I’m in a whole new acoustic environment now —” that acoustic environment being either out in the wind or right next to a generator and I have no idea how to pull this off —“and I’ll have to pay my sound engineer in full again, because he’ll have to edit for this different room tone.”  Higher up x 1 is like, “Whatever, yes, we’ll pay again, just please re-do”, so I’m like fine.  I got that 3rd version done and still haven’t been paid, is the state of affairs there, but long story short the timing, in tandem with the accelerating cultural pissing contest about who’s woker than who, turned a tidy, lucrative little job into quite the headache, with absolutely no value being added in my perspective.  

Anyway, yes, there are women in fire, and quite a few of them have long, lovely hair, and one of the things I enjoy about working the mobile shower unit is that they sit or stand outside, under the EZ-up, after their showers, combing through their long wet hair, in the slanting sun or the evening glow.  It’s just beautiful.  The younger gals will congregate at the cloudy mirror above the handwash station and talk softly amongst themselves, and borrow each other’s eyelash curlers and blow dryers.  They look like young deer, in Nomex pants and hiking boots.  Some of the older gals (I mean like late 20’s, younger than me) will come to the shower trailer with their long hair in a sensible bun, shower, their hair is glorious, but they wrap it back up in that sensible bun straight away, as tightly as they lace their boots, with their eyeglasses firmly back on their faces.  The Finance Ladies have the least hair to work with, as an occupational caste, but they tend to fuss with it the most, I’ve noticed.  

The interesting thing about the Finance Ladies is that they are the actual big dawgs, and everyone knows it.  When you think ‘wildland fire’ you probably think hot shots, smoke jumpers, men with radios, hand crews, that kind of thing, and there’s definitely no shortage of badass around these incidents.  But we’re all getting paid quite a bit of money, from the government, to be out here doing this, and only the Finance Ladies can utter the appropriate incantations in their rightful order to alchemically transmute this dirt into gold.  That whole process is extremely obscure and esoteric, so whatever the ostensible pecking order is, we all know who butters our bread.  They can fuss with their 3 teaspoons of hair all they want, and I’ll hold their bottle of gel.

I’ve noticed that Nick’s criticisms of young men, generally, and young women, generally, are softening through exposure to fire people, because they’re so excellent, respectful, and self-possessed, even in youth.  Well, I’ll have to ask him if that’s true — he might have more to add.  We’ve had quite a bit of friction between us, at times, relative to our varying experiences of “normal”, with gender.  Specifically, we were operating in two radically different paradigms, when we started dating, about what dating even meant, with catastrophic implications when we got far enough along to compare notes.  We realized that even the simple given of having acted in our own self-interest relative to our individual expectations of our own gender and each other’s, up to the point of merging interests, had meant radically different things.  

I’ve been frustrated, historically, with what I perceive to be modern, and perhaps urban, but certainly digitally-driven, distortions of gender performance, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually thrown the baby out with the bathwater.  Or I hope not?  Whereas Nick had.  As the much older person in the relationship, you’d think it would be me who was jaded, but I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I like men.  I think they’re pretty great.  And I think it’s in embracing and exploring their own masculinity they get even better, not worse, as the critics of masculinity would have us believe.  

This was a text conversation we had pretty early on.  Nick was very negatively reactive to the term “toxic masculinity”, which had been assigned to him on occasion as a young, white male from the economic upper strata who happened to like to lift weights and get swoll.  Just red flag after demographic red flag, right?  I wasn’t reactive to it because I think masculinity can be really fucking toxic, but only because it has the power to be so good, useful, and cohesive, when channeled appropriately.  Otherwise, why bother with the qualifier?  

I could tell his feathers were ruffled and strategically, but also honestly, asserted that toxic femininity is easily just as rampant.  He hadn’t heard that term before, and hadn’t expected to hear it from a woman, which just goes to show that we get pretty sidetracked by dominance.  What I mean is, especially right now, we’ve decided that whatever represents dominant culture deserves scrutiny, and whatever represents minority culture deserves a pass.  I get it, on a meta-analysis level, but as let’s say a woman in what is no doubt a masculine-thought dominated world, I’m not going to sit around and wait for a matriarchy to happen before I self-reflect.  So yeah — is some of the toxic stuff women do in response to men’s behavior?  Yep.  Whose job is it to level up first?  Well Jesus Christ, whoever can.  Everyone, as soon as possible, ideally, because thankfully it’s contagious.  How do you get other people to level up, though?  Well, you don’t.  You fucking don’t.  You just level up anyway. 

So yeah, I like fire people, the men and the women.  I don’t mind pulling hair out of drains, and just to be fair we pull a lot more snot and buggars and mystery items out of the drains on the men’s side. 

The drive out yesterday went well.  Fire season commercial driving is my favorite because it’s rarely icy (hence: fires), usually beautiful, often rural.  Colorado is gorgeous this time of year.  The bugaboos reacted typically, but evolvingly; Buffy is a veteran of travel and not much impresses or startles her.  Milo is learning, a little more each time, that each forever home turns out not to be forever, but that similar things can be expected at each un-forever home, and that no one’s going to abandon him or neglect him in his series of homes.  

Milo continues to be the more attention-getting type of cute, with the public — Nick and I watched a very nice woman literally walk right past Buffy, who was in her polka dot fleece pajamas, sitting politely and asking to be petted, and beeline for Milo instead, last night.  This is an outrage, but a common one, post-Milo adoption.  Nick and I looked at each other.  

“I feel like you’re gonna to break up with me,” he said.  

“How the fuck do you just walk past a tiny dog in fleece pajamas asking to be pet?!?” I replied.  

My entire fire camp persona has evolved, over the years, in response to the fact that everyone loses their mind over Buffy.  I don’t even know who I am now.  I’m that horrible mother on Instagram asking everyone to heart more of her one son’s pictures so he doesn’t grow up with a complex; as if having a mother who attempted to advance his toddler self esteem through Instagram wouldn’t be enough to give him a complex.  I mean, Milo’s cute but this is insane.         

Anyway, the incident had allocated a spot for us that was definitely not big enough, nor very accessible, so I finally got a taste of what that would be.  I’ve been in lots of tight spots with Class B fuel trucks but it’s just like a car, but longer, and full of fuel.  Since driving Class A this year, our previous fire camps have been big and expansive and just an issue of pulling up onto reasonably level ground, but this camp was a tangle.  

We nixed the originally allocated space, took some great pains with management to agree on another.  Our best case scenario ended up being a flood run-off area at a rodeo fairgrounds, with steep embankments all around and an entirely non-negotiable entrance turn that was very narrow, with culverts on each side.  That didn’t work, so I had to drive back to a previous turn off (and Colorado has like ten roundabouts for every single dispensary — I had to navigate through two in a row, yesterday morning, just to get myself onto the damn interstate), and then drive through not only the rodeo staging area but Supply’s entire operation, just to get parked here.  The guy at Supply had to move like ten pallets out of my way, with the pallet jack, and then move them all back, and it was still threading the needle.  I’m frankly not sure how to even get myself out of here, now that we’re set up, short of backing through all that mess again, which was hard enough going forwards.  So, problem for another day.  

I was anxious about exactly this type of scenario, doing Class A fire equipment, so it’s nice that it’s actually happened now and I can congratulate myself on having risen to the occasion.  Working at the truck school has helped me enormously — just seeing over and over what happens, geometrically, with different types of angles and approaches.  I’ve got a better sense than I’ve ever had before of what’s not going to work, in advance, which is priceless.  I don’t want to jinx myself, though — with Class A commercial driving, the day you get cocky is the day you fuck up.  

I was on a fuel truck two years ago at one busy fire, and spent some time talking to the heavy equipment transport guys, who have literally nothing better to do than sit around getting paid, once they arrive.  I’m always hustling up possible work alternatives, because that’s how I get all my jobs, so talking to other commercial drivers is not only fun but smart.  

“You got your Class A?,” the transport driver asked, speculatively.  

“Yeah.”  

“You any good?”  

I thought about this seriously.  It’s not a question like, are you going to leave un-rinsed coffee cups in the office sink.  It’s, how likely are you to accidentally destroy property and kill yourself or someone else.  I said, “I’ve had better days and worse days, but I’ve never had a really bad day.  If you know what I’m saying.”  He gave me their boss’s contact but I’ve never followed up on it.

So, it would take a lot more of this before I’d even risk approaching complacency, or “unconscious competence”, and I’m thankful for every trip that goes well.  For me, it’s a much higher level of attention than driving my car or even commercial Class B; even HazMat Class B.  Like, if I eat while driving, I’m literally being careful not to aspirate any chunks of apple or anything that would derail my attention.  I feel tired, after even a short trip.  I’m grateful to have the opportunity to do Class A in this industry, because it’s a perishable skill with very little room for error.  I miss teaching at the school, sometimes, but overall I’m happy with the pandemic cards I’ve been dealt.  

Obviously none of this would be possible without the Finance Ladies, so: props to them.

4 thoughts on “Notes from a Flood Plain

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