So. Sharon was married. And not to me. Guess I had somehow always thought
that we’d end up together. Suddenly I found myself staring at a summer of
Forest Service drudgery, with no girlfriend, probably no chance of finding one…
my life was pretty much over.
There are very few things that are more pathetic than a lovesick 20 year-old.
Talk about self indulged… I was sullen, I pouted, I did everything but cry.
No, I never cried. Truth of the matter is, I was a selfish, moody little shit who
would’ve made a great drama queen… and there are those who will tell you
that, after all these years, not much has changed. Never mind, I discount them.
Strangely enough, my memory of these sad events reminds me that this bad
time was only a month long… not a whole summer. Guess it was a very deep,
sorrowful month, right? Well, yes it was. As I said previously, I began going
downtown every afternoon after work and drowning my sorrows in the Frontier
Bar, right around the corner from The Cowboy.There was a darkened corner,
just back from the door, that I began to gravitate to. I would sit there at the bar,
nurse an Oly and play the same group of songs every afternoon. the Frontier
had a late night crowd and often I’d be the only one in the place, doing my
sad sack routine between 4:30 and 6. After all, I had to get back to the
bunk house for dinner…
The Frontier’s juke box had all the tunes that catered to my extreme
miserableness. One could guess that the bartender grew to dread seeing me
arrive in the late afternoon, knowing he was going to have to endure those
5 same songs… at least twice a day. And what were those 5 songs?
Love Letters – Ketty Lester
I Can’t Stop Loving You – Ray Charles
Born To Lose – Ray Charles
At Last – Etta James
Since I Fell For You – Lenny Welch
My favorites, of course, were the two Ray Charles tunes. Either would begin
to play and I could easily drift back to the last three years of high school,
all the school dances, mixers, parties we went to together… the make-out
sessions in the back seat double-dating with Kathy Anderson and Laurel
McAtee… good god. In hindsight, I probably remember all that better now
than I did then. At the time I was a big loser, lost and alone, dumped and
forgotten… with nothing left but a lifetime of Forest Service grunt work ahead
and depressing evenings in a lonely bar somewhere in SW Montana. Poor me.
A sad, sad case. All of which changed like a lightning bolt on a Monday
morning at the end of June. Our District Ranger informed us that our
crew had been chosen to be one of the 22-man hot shot crews for
SW Montana. First, that news was carried in several local papers in
the area. It seems that, instead of being seen as a pack of aimless,
rag-tag college students, we were quickly vaulted into the heady heights
of respectability, wherein a stranger might come up and shake your hand
and tell you they’re proud of what you’re doing. Secondly, our daily lives
changed dramatically. Instead of planting picnic tables, benches and fire
pits in campgrounds, we were now training for firefighting on a whole new
level. It was hard, and exciting. Our survival skills were now of major
importance and we were all given special equipment and work clothes.
Our chain saw skills were honed and we were taught fire line protocol.
In the middle of the second week of training we were sent into Yellowstone
Park to put out a small blaze about two miles off the main road. We
handled it in the course of an afternoon and all felt very good about ourselves.
That turned out to be nothing, as a week later we were helicoptered into
a 40-acre fire on the top of Emigrant Peak, just outside Gardner, MT. A B-47
had crashed into the top of the mountain, and we spent 3 days and nights
up there, fighting and containing the fire. It was an incredible experience,
(ever sleep in a wet cardboard sleeping bag?) and if we weren’t a top
notch fire crew when we went up there, we were when we walked out.
I received free beers at the Frontier Bar for several days after that. We
didn’t get much time off to recover, but the ranger did give us a 3-day
weekend. Dave Brent, my roomie, and I decided to drive into the park
for the weekend and scope out the waitress action there. Old Faithful,
Lake, West Thumb and Mammoth were the places for ferreting out
the college cuties. We started at The Old Faithful Inn, and that proved
to be far enough. Dave met Linda, I met Bonnie, and we dated those
lovelies ’til the end of the summer.
I still visited the Frontier several nights a week. But now it was a
different deal… instead of gloomy reminiscing with a death grip on a
cold beer bottle, it was more of a satisfied musing over a cold one or two
about how great life was, how much everything had changed, what Bonnie
and I were going to do that weekend, what a rough, tough fire fighter I
thought I was becoming, and how much I loved my summers in West.
I saw Sharon once more, 15 years later, at an Ennis High School reunion.
She was a bit heavier now, but still a beautiful woman. Did my heart
still skip a beat? I don’t remember. She had brought her 12 year-old
daughter with her. As we were walking toward the picnic grounds that
Sunday afternoon, her daughter, walking between us, said, “Mom, is this
the guy you told me about?”
“Yes,” Sharon replied softly.
Her daughter looked up at me, smiled and grabbed my hand. And we
walked to the picnic together.