• Robert Bennett

"A Good Night's Sleep"


They came to an unusual place in the deep green foliage along the seaward side of the Coastal Sikiyous—an open area where a small grove of giant sugar pines stood to poison the ground with needles. The trees left an acidic chocolate dry surface, plowed by ground squirrels whose business it was to plant pine nuts and the acorns of tanoak. The coastal breeze combined with the squirrels’ tillage produced an acrid dust that hung in the air and plugged the nostrils of the men who’d come to breathe it. It was a pungent smell of withered needles, dried madrone berries and decaying acorn husks soaked with the dripped turpentine of the pines.

Finlay Arbuckle had seen many such sites over the years, but they were on the dryer, inland side of the coastal range. The seaward side was normally choked with green underbrush, drenched with dew, dense fog and rain. But this was an abnormal year for weather. It hadn’t rained in more than two months, and that, Finlay understood very well, was the problem.

He could think of a thousand places he’d rather be at the age of fifty-six. But he found himself too young to qualify for Social Security and too old to hold a job on a high-lead logging side—operations that had become smaller and fewer in number with every passing season. And realizing his unemployment claim only had two weeks left to run, he signed up to fight this fire.

Fighting forest fires wasn’t new to him. He’d fought a number of them over the years, but that was back when the woods were full of loggers and there was energy in the air. Now he found himself on a crew that reminded him of a chain gang. Mope, Finlay quickly came to discover, was the operative word here. And the Grand Wizard of moping was his crew-boss, Ignacio.

Ignacio did speak functional English, which is probably how he’d obtained his position. He spoke English into the two-way radio he wore on his belt, but he seemed embarrassed to speak it in front of his countrymen, as though it was a language beneath him. And having a man as old as Finlay on his crew was a thing he appeared to take as a personal insult.

They’d been tramping along for the better part of three hours when they stopped at the small stand of pines to take a breather. As they stood there, Finlay looked west to see if he could see the ocean, but he concluded they weren’t high enough yet. He could see a haze of heat rising off the green foliage of the forest though—fumes, he thought, waiting to ignite.

They hadn’t been there long, when Ignacio held up his hand and turned to face the wind. He seemed to be re-enacting something he’d seen in an old movie, featuring Douglas MacArthur about to order the amphibious assault on a Japanese held island. Then he announced something in Mexican Spanish that Finlay didn’t understand, and members of the crew began to shuffle about. But Finlay just stood with a confused look on his face.

“He wants to make camp here for the night,” said a young Latino boy who was standing beside him.

“But it’s only a quarter-after-two,” Finlay said, after pulling out his old pocket watch to back up his statement.

They boy simply shrugged.

“You speak English,” Finlay said to the boy.

“Second generation,” the boy said with a smile. “I went to school in the San Joaquin Valley, growing up.”

“Where in the San Joaquin Valley?” Finlay wanted to know.

“Fresno, Modesto, Stockton, Bakersfield,” the boy said, “wherever my folks could find work.”

It was a concept that seemed strange to Finlay. “What’s your name?” he asked.

“Lupe.”

“I’m Finlay,” he said.

The boy nodded.

Other crew members were throwing their gear down wherever they could find a flat spot, but Finlay moved away and picked a place between a pair of small tanoaks, deciding to accept a bit of a steeper grade for some shade. Lupe went to join the others.

He looked around for ants before laying out his bedroll, then he pulled out his packages of MREs (meals ready to eat) and put them in a plastic bag. He hung the bag in a tree, thinking birds would be less interested in the MREs than creatures that crawled on the ground.

Finally, he sat and turned his back to the sun—still high in the sky. He thought back to the events of the day while the rays baked his shoulders. First, it took two hours to get out of base camp; then they stopped to eat lunch. Shortly after that they stopped for the day, where they were now, right in the middle of the afternoon. And all the while there was a fire burning out there someplace, a fire that had been started by a dry lightning strike the day before.

How big will the fire be by the time we finally get there, he wondered? Then he stood up, grabbed a roll of toilet paper, and started out into the brush to do his business.

He noticed some crew members gathered around an old rotten stump. Two of them—he’d come to know as Ruben and Ortiz—seemed to be up to something. Then he saw the McLeod hoe. This is the oldest game in the book—he thought.

A McLeod hoe—a firefighting tool often called a hazel hoe—has a wide flat edge on one side, and long spiky tines on the other. If a hapless pedestrian inadvertently steps on either side, the handle will jump up and smack that pedestrian in the face. It used to be a right-of-passage, to engineer a new and creative way to get a green firefighter to step on a hazel hoe. But that was back when raucous, foul-mouthed tobacco spitting loggers did it for fun—often with side bets on the outcome.

This was a game that Finlay was inherently onto—and he knew by the looks on the faces of the onlookers that he’d been selected as the fall-guy. Aside from knowing the game, another advantage he had was his second wife—a woman who’d gone through a square dancing craze at a time when Finlay was still madly in love with her. And though he really liked the fiddle music, he’d hated the dancing. At the time, though, he did it to please the misses.

So when he got up to the trap that had been laid for him, he simply sidestepped the larger man, Ruben. Then Finlay grabbed Ortiz by the shoulder with his left hand and put his arm around the smaller man’s waist. At that point, he swung the shorter guy around in a little do-si-do—and, at just the right instant he nudged Ortiz back with his left elbow.

The surprised little firefighter put his left foot back to maintain his balance, and, in so doing, he stepped on the tines of the hazel hoe with his heel. True to form, the hoe handle popped up and whacked the little fellow in the back of the head.

All in the same motion, Finlay simply completed his do-si-do, emerged on the far side of the group, and went happily on his way. But he could hear the howls of laughter coming from the crew as he picked his way through the underbrush to find a secluded spot.

Having gotten the best of Ruben and Ortiz, and knowing they’d be looking to get even, Finlay checked through his bedroll a second time when he returned—searching for both ants and things more sinister that might have been placed there. Not finding anything, he stretched out on top of the nylon cover to take a short nap.

When the last of the sunlight began to dim, Finlay partook of an MRE. Then he slipped into his sleeping bag for the night. But sleep didn’t come. His thoughts went back to the year after he’d gotten out of high school. He was living in a logging camp high up in the Cascades. There was an old WWII veteran on the crew there who often told of his wartime experiences in Burma. His name was Oscar.

Oscar had been stationed in Burma, and his job was to transport munitions and materiel from the coast to inland British forces who had engaged the Japanese invaders. There were no roads, rails or bridges, so Oscar and his fellow soldiers had to transport their cargo on the backs of mules.

As British demands for supplies continued to rise, the US Army began to replace regular American GIs with Burmese volunteers who were theoretically loyal to the Crown—though one element of the Japanese strategy was to recruit and incite bands of Burmese natives to revolt against their colonial overlords. There was no way, however, for the Americans to distinguish the loyalists from the rebels. So Oscar found himself surrounded by folks who not only didn’t speak English, but who very well might not want to see the supplies reach their desired destination.

Feeling they couldn’t trust their allies, Oscar and his fellow Americans would band together at night, and they made sure that somebody was standing guard while the others slept. But as the needs along the front lines climbed, things got to a point where the mule caravans had to be comprised completely of Burmese natives, with only one American supervisor in charge of each company.

As he told his story, Oscar used to laugh and say, “They made us all sergeants,” but the way he said it made it pretty clear that it had been a promotion he would happily have done without. Anyway, once he found himself to be the only American in the group, Oscar was afraid to go to sleep at night. He said he kept his sleeping bag close to the mules, hoping the animals would stir if someone came around.

The caravans took three days to get where they were going and two days to get back, with a one day layover on the British end. When he was in the company of the Brits, Oscar informed us, “That was the only night I could get any sleep.”

“The Brits used to tease us,” he’d chuckle. “They’d say, ‘These yanks, they seem to sleep like the dead.’ But me and my friends, we figured it was the only reason we weren’t dead.”

On his first trip out with an all native caravan, Oscar laid awake all night with his rifle close by and his trench knife unsheathed and in his right hand. After that first solo experience, he asked his commanding officer for a 45 caliber pistol, and his wish was granted. The American officers seemed to understand what the crew chiefs were going through. Most of them could be seen walking around the base with their service pistols conspicuously missing from their persons.

At night in the logging camp, Finlay recalled how Oscar would toss and turn in his bunk. He’d mumble in his sleep and sometimes he’d yell out and suddenly sit up in the darkness with a loud gasp. Oscar told the crew that he suffered from yellow fever and malaria in Burma, and it would sometimes come back to haunt him at night. And while Finlay understood how things from Burma would come back to haunt Oscar at night, he wasn’t at all sure it had anything to do with yellow fever or malaria.

And now, as Finlay lay in his sleeping bag, listening to the Spanish speaking voices of his crew members, as they told each other stories and laughed in the dark, he came to understand how Oscar must have felt, all those years ago—all alone, in a mostly forgotten part of the Pacific War, stuck in the bowels of Burma.

On one occasion, Finlay could hear Ignacio’s raspy voice rise about the others to yell something that sounded like, “Boxes nagrows hasten caters verdicts,” and all the firefighters laughed uproariously. But Finlay had no idea what Ignacio had said.

He did finally manage to drift off to sleep, in the wee hours of the morning, but when he awoke to the bright morning sunshine, he realized he’d been dreaming of pack mules.

And I could use a pack mule right now, he thought.

He hadn’t been up for more than a few minutes before he realized that the rest of the crew was gone. Ruben and Ortiz again, he thought, but he knew they couldn’t have pulled off this shenanigan without Ignacio’s complicity.

Knowing the pace at which the crew traveled, Finlay realized it wouldn’t take him long to catch up to them, so he took his time, getting things stowed in their proper places, and he ate a packaged breakfast. The trail wasn’t hard to follow. Ortiz carried a machete, and he loved to whack at things as he went.

Within forty-five minutes Finlay came up behind them, as they moped their way up the hill. He looked out again, hoping to see the ocean, but it still eluded him.

Lupe was hanging back a little behind the main group, and he greeted Finlay with a nervous smile.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?” Finlay wanted to know.

Lupe, acting more nervous than usual, said, “Ignacio told us that you were an old man, and we should let you sleep.”

Finlay knew he should have been ready for that, but he wasn’t really. He didn’t reply.

The group continued along for another couple of hours. Finlay had begun to wonder if there really was a fire out there someplace—and if there was, were they going in the right direction to find it?

After another hour or so, Ignacio decided it was time to eat lunch. Finlay sat behind the main group, with Lupe perched on a large rock between him and the others. Finlay watched as Lupe scrunched up closer to the main group when Ignacio came back to check on them.

No one said anything. Ignacio simply nodded. Then he returned to the front of his party and spoke into the radio. Conversations on the radio were conducted in English, but he was too far away for Finlay to hear.

Shortly after lunch, they started hiking again and Finlay began to smell smoke. Half an hour after that, he started to see drifting pieces of ash and embers. He knew from past experiences that these embers could land on a patch of dry grass, an old pitchy stump, or some dead pine needles and ignite a fire behind them—they could become trapped. He nervously glanced in Ignacio’s direction, wondering if the crew leader was aware of that.

But Ignacio was standing on a large rock outcropping, peering through a pair of binoculars at the origins of the smoke, half-a-mile away on the hillside. Finlay could see that the flames were bright and hot, and the fire was beginning to roar. It was drawing air in from the surrounding area, creating its own wind. That meant the embers which had concerned Finlay just a few moments earlier were now being sucked back into the blaze. But he also knew this was only a momentary reprieve. As the fire gained steam, it would throw embers much higher, to catch other winds and air currents, and those embers could start fires miles from where the crew stood now.

Ruben joined Ignacio up on the rock, and the crew boss let the big guy share the binoculars while he got on the radio to check in with headquarters. After Ignacio returned the mic to the clip on his belt, he stood facing the group with his arms stretched out. His gaze went from one man who was talking to his neighbor, to another who was drinking from a canteen. When he was absolutely certain that he had everyone’s attention, he announced in a loud happy voice, “Ha sido declarado que el fuego está fuera de control.”

With the exception of Finlay, everyone cheered.

He looked around until he spied Lupe standing at the back of the group with a slight smile on his face. He made his way over and asked, “Why is everyone so happy?”

“The fire has been declared to be out of control,” he said.