Chapter 6 - Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos

Smokejumper: A Memoir by One of America's Most Select Airborne Firefighters - Jason A. Ramos (2015)

Chapter 6

AFTER THE DOCTOR SHOWED me the x-ray, my next medical appointment was with a specialist in the same building.

I cursed myself the whole way over. How could I get this close and screw it up?

In the specialist’s office I told him I was about to start training to be a smokejumper. He gave my leg a quick exam and shook his head.

“You cannot go,” he said in a heavy Asian accent. He explained that if I landed on the leg wrong, the bone could snap completely.

“I have to do this,” I said, almost pleading.

He thought for a moment, then told me to roll up my pant leg. He started to probe around the injury with his fingers. Before I could react, he dug a thumb right into the most tender spot.

I clutched my fists and gritted my teeth and fought the crazy urge to rabbit-punch him right on the top of his head. My eyes watered like I had just gotten punched in the nose.

He looked up at me and nodded like I had passed some kind of test.

“Okay,” he said. “You go, but it will hurt.”

I left the office with a slight limp, a customized training plan, instructions to take strong anti-inflammatories, and a soft cast to keep my leg from getting worse.

The next hurdle was the mandatory government physical. My leg would have gotten me instantly disqualified, so I kept my mouth shut.

In the months before training started, I tried to learn as much about smokejumping as I could. I found a few writeups here and there in books at the fire station, and there was one documentary I found and watched, over and over. (This was back before everything was on Google or YouTube.)

Anything to give me a leg up, so to speak. There wasn’t much.

Every day I had to face down a little voice of self-doubt in the back of my head, the one that wouldn’t stop asking: Are you good enough? Strong enough? Brave enough? Smart enough?

I’d heard stories about firefighters I knew, guys who were tough as hell, washing out of jumper training in the first week. Even on their first day.

It dawned on me that making the cut wasn’t just about being in top physical shape. The mental component was just as important, if not more. Having some common sense and luck didn’t hurt. But you had to be tough and sharp enough to pass.

Was I? I asked myself this question a lot in the run-up to rookie training.

Finally I reached what you might call a mental point of no return. I will pass this program, I promised myself, because the only way I’m leaving is in the back of an ambulance.

Two more calls came in with offers to join rookie classes at other bases. One was from Redding, in Northern California, which I politely turned down since I had already committed to NCSB.

The other offer really pissed me off. After the usual chitchat, the base manager asked something that caught me by surprise. “Where does your last name come from?” he said.

Having worked for the government for over ten years, I knew about affirmative action. I understood the thinking behind it, but in practice I thought it was bullshit.

I had seen too many people given jobs they weren’t qualified for. Sometimes this led to situations that put people’s lives at risk.

The only thing that should matter is having the skills and experience to be a good firefighter—period.

“I’m Puerto Rican,” I said mildly.

“I’d like to offer you a job,” he said. Nothing about my training, or if I was in good shape, any of the normal smokejumper questions. Not even whether I could cook a decent plate of black beans and rice.

I didn’t have to think twice.

“No thank you, sir.” There was a moment of silence.

I explained I had already committed to NCSB. But I think he got the message that I wasn’t going to take a job just because of my nationality or the color of my skin.

The call ended with a simple, “Thank you.”

IT WAS A LONG, slow drive to Redmond, Oregon, in my 1974 Econoline van, with its top speed of sixty miles per hour (downhill, when aided by a tailwind).

Jumper training can last for five or six weeks, and this year—1999—the rookie classes from NCSB and Redmond were training together. Part of the instruction would be held at each base. Redmond was first.

I got there on a Saturday, a day early. The first jumper I met as I stepped out of my van was a big, serious-looking Native American guy with a chest that looked as wide as my one-ton camper van. He showed me the barracks and told me where to go for the first meeting the following afternoon.

Other candidates drifted in throughout the day, close to two dozen men and women in all. We made small talk and sized each other up. Everyone was between their midtwenties and early thirties. Each had at least two seasons of wildland firefighting experience, just to be here. Most had five to ten. There were more hotshots than anything else.

All clearly badasses, just to make it this far. Beyond that, my fellow trainees were a mystery.

None of us had any idea what we were in for.

AT A QUICK BRIEFING on Sunday afternoon, the lead instructor took roll call. There were six candidates from NCSB and another half dozen or more from Redmond. When he got to my name, he looked up. “I heard about you,” he said.

Great, I thought. We haven’t even started yet, and I’m already on the head trainer’s Christmas list.

This was going to be an interesting month.

After going over the basic rules for training—when and where to show up, what to wear—he told us to go get a good night’s sleep. We’d need it.

The next morning was the minimum physical standards test, the one I’d been preparing myself for for so long I’d almost forgotten what life was like before. If you don’t pass, you can’t even start training.

First came the calisthenics: at least seven chin-ups, twenty-five push-ups and forty-five sit-ups in a row. The trainers watched us like hawks to make sure there was no cheating: pull-ups with palms forward, no kipping, push-ups all the way down to the ground.

That was the easy part.

Next we had to run a mile and a half in eleven minutes or less. My leg throbbed as we jogged over the flat course. Even so I made the cutoff with time to spare. Remember, these are the bare minimums. Some guys are known to have run a mile and a half in 7:25.

Last was the infamous pack-out test: a three-mile hike, carrying 110 pounds, in under ninety minutes. They called it an “easy” pack test, since it was on level ground. Like the rest, it was pass or fail. No second chance.

I crammed my pack full to bursting with random gear until it weighed enough. I tried not to think about what happened back in my parents’ workout room the first time I had tried to pick up a pack that big.

All those years of effort came down to the next hour and a half. The timer started and we took off. The straps dug into my shoulders as I tried to hit the perfect pace: fast enough to finish in time, slow enough not to flame out too soon.

Aside from some aches in my leg, I actually felt pretty good as we plodded along. I crossed the finish line in a little over an hour. Not the fastest in the group, but not the slowest, either.

One guy didn’t make the ninety-minute cutoff. Just like that, he was gone.

A little over a month isn’t very long to absorb even the basics of something as complex as smokejumping. In a way that was the point. The brief intensity of the training reflected the job itself.

On a fire, there’s no time to putz around. Since 1939 jumper training has been designed to show who can think on their feet, act quickly and decisively, without having every little thing explained to death.

Our instructors were all experienced jumpers in senior positions that are collectively known as “overhead” at jump bases. Five or six of them shepherded us through the whole program, with other trainers coming and going as the weeks went by.

That first day, after the minimum standards test, each trainer gave a short briefing that was part introduction, part pep talk. Most of it boiled down to three simple things: listen to what your trainers say, do what you’re told, and give one hundred and ten percent.

As one trainer told us, “You need to be heads-up from the minute you pour milk on your cereal every morning. Smell your milk, guys!”

When they were done, the air felt charged, like before a storm.

“Training has now started!” one trainer shouted. “You have two minutes to get your PT clothes on. Move it, rooks!”

We scrambled for the door, pushing and shoving, as the instructors shouted, “Go, go, go!”

The first week consisted mostly of fitness tests designed to push us to our limits. Every day included at least two PT sessions. There were endless calisthenics and runs.

We did another pack-out test, this one with a four-hour time limit, over terrain that got steeper and rougher as the course went on. Luckily our packs were lighter: only ninety-five pounds.

Trainers stood along the course to track our progress and offer commentary. “You can give up any time,” one said. “We’ll carry your pack for you. We’ll even help you pack and find you another job.”

“Just take a break,” said another, waving a psychedelic-looking drink. “Who wants a milkshake?” The word made my mouth water. I couldn’t stop thinking about the malted shakes my dad used to make.

Then I passed another trainee writhing in the dirt with the worst leg cramps I had ever seen. That got milkshakes off my mind for a little while. He ended up washing out that week.

The instructors were expert at finding that fine line between maximum effort and putting someone in the hospital. But it wasn’t just suffering for its own sake. The physical side of jumper training shows who can keep going and going and going, long past the point you thought was your limit back in the normal world.

Can you keep pushing through even though you’re hurt, sleep deprived, hungry, dehydrated, in the middle of nowhere, with a wall of flames or a Sasquatch on your ass? Those who can’t—often up to half of each class—wash out. Sometimes they give up and quit the program, wash out due to medical or physical issues, or they’re thanked for their efforts and advised to try out another year.

Nearly half the group was gone by the first Thursday. It happened quickly. There wasn’t any ritual, like in fire academies or the military. The person just disappeared. You’d just notice someone’s gear piled in a corner, or an empty seat, or someone’s name missing on the list at roll call one morning.

Sometimes you saw it coming, if someone was lagging behind the pack on runs or just doing stupid shit. Those were the ones the trainers focused their attention on, and they usually didn’t last long.

I learned never to categorize or underestimate someone. Some of the biggest, fittest athletes alive have keeled over on the first day or week of training. Others who just squeak in at either end of the size limits—five feet to six feet five inches tall, 120 to 200 pounds—end up jumping successfully for years.

Dropping out of something you put so much effort into can be mentally crushing. Many candidates who wash out end up pulling out of the fire service completely.

One afternoon near the end of the first week, I entered the bunkhouse to find one of my classmates, a stocky guy, sitting on the floor in the hall with his back against the wall. His head was down and he was clearly upset. He had just failed one of the PT tests.

All of us were at our limits. No one had time or energy left over for sympathy, no late-night bonding sessions or hand-holding. At that point it was still every person for him- or herself.

I just walked past him to my room and closed the door.

As they put us through the paces, our trainers would offer occasional reminders to keep things in perspective. “Give yourself a round of applause at the end of the day,” they said. “You finished today, but you might be gone tomorrow. Have a good night, ladies and gentlemen.”

Not exactly encouraging. But it was the truth.

To keep the pain and swelling down in my leg I was popping Advil and Relafen, a prescription anti-inflammatory, like they were candy.

To make things worse, the entire arch on my right foot turned into one big blister by the first weekend, the result of a poor choice of socks on one of the pack tests. One morning before a PT run, a trainer pointed at my shoe.

“Ramos!” he barked. “What’s up with your foot?”

A faint red stain was seeping through the white material. I wished I’d had the foresight to buy some damned red shoes.

A few days later my foot started sprouting white lumps like alien pods. The blister had become infected. I called my pops for advice, and I could hear the concern in his voice.

“Son, if that gets any worse, you’re going to have to get some assistance right away,” he said. Meaning see a doctor.

“No way,” I said. “If I do that, I’m out.”

“Well, then you’re going to have to clean it out yourself,” he said.

I knew he was right. After I hung up, I closed my door and sat on the edge of my bed with a bottle of hydrogen peroxide.

I stuck a toothbrush between my teeth, silently cursing those shitty socks. I was so mad I wanted to howl, but I didn’t want anyone to hear me. I held my breath and dumped the peroxide under the infected flap of skin.

Leaning back on the bed, I wished I could punch something nice and satisfying but all I could do was bite on my toothbrush. Holy shit, that stung. After a few more pours, the pain ebbed and I scrubbed the blisters out as best I could.

I wished I had a few bottles of saline to wash the wound out. But if I had asked for any, or gotten caught trying to sneak some out, it would have meant a first-class ride to the doctor—and a ticket home.

Irrigation was the key. It took a few more days, but the alien pod infestation finally cleared up.

BY THE SECOND WEEK of training the days settled into a carefully structured pattern. After roll call and morning PT, the rest of the time was divided between classroom instruction and field exercises where we put our new knowledge to the test.

You learned damn quick to stay awake in class, which was especially hard right after lunch. If the instructors caught you dozing off, they’d reward you with long wall sits or some other punishing exercise.

The day typically ended with still more PT, anything from trail running to tree climbing, maybe with a few dozen push-ups and lunges thrown in for good measure. We always brought our running clothes on field exercises, since the trainers could always decide to drop us off in the middle of the woods with nothing more than a direction to go and a loose promise to pick us up again in the vehicle. Eventually.

We learned about the standard Forest Service smokejumper parachute, the FS-14. The simple, round design goes back to before World War II and has been perfected over decades of use. It does exactly what it is meant to: get a jumper safely to the ground in some of the roughest terrain anywhere.

Imagine a huge radio tower chopped off about forty feet from the ground. That’s what the exit tower looked like, and we spent most of the second week of training either climbing it or jumping off it.

The top level had a mock-up of an airplane door for practicing our exits. A good exit is critical. If you don’t leave the plane correctly, it can cause a chute malfunction, make you miss your jump spot, or worse.

The trainers watched as we double-timed it up the stairs in full jump gear, clipped in our static lines, and assumed the correct prejump position. When you jumped through the fake door, everything else was as close to real as possible, from the few brief seconds of free fall to the shock that followed, hard enough to make my neck and jaw hurt for days.

Instead of a parachute, you ended up dangling from a long cable that slid you down to the ground like a zipline. After landing and unclipping, you hoofed it back to the tower, trotted up two flights of stairs, and did it again, over and over, dozens of times a day.

The middle tower level was for practicing tree letdowns. Smokejumpers often don’t have the luxury of nice, open landing zones—especially in the Pacific Northwest, where steep mountainsides and old-growth forests are the norm.

If you end up landing in a tree, your next job is get to the ground safely. I already knew how to rappel, but doing it from a parachute stuck in the top of a hundred-foot Douglas fir was another story.

Every jumper carries a 150-foot letdown rope coiled in a leg pocket. On the tower we learned how to anchor the rope to the tightest side of our parachute riser, the webbing that connects the harness to the parachute.

The next step is to detach from the canopy by pulling on two metal releases called Capewells, one on each side. Then all you have to do is rappel down. In a tree that means navigating branches and foliage.

Everything has to be smooth and easy. If your canopy isn’t hung up securely—ideally over the very top of the tree like a pillowcase on a pole—you have to anchor the letdown rope to the tree itself. The last thing you want is to Capewell too early and end up with a parachute shroud wrapped around your neck, which resulted in a fatality in 1966.

Sometimes you can do everything right and still find yourself dangling. In 1970, an NCSB rookie ended his third jump in the crown of an old-growth monster in the Olympic National Park. When he rappelled, he found the end of his 240-foot letdown rope was still 30 feet off the ground. A buddy had to help him swing over to a nearby tree.

We also practiced climbing trees to retrieve parachutes and cargo. Our instructors showed us how to strap on metal heel spurs and wrap a steel-cored flipline around the trunk. By flipping it upward, you climb the trunk like a telephone lineman.

As with everything, the instructors gave us a quick explanation and demonstration, then stepped back to watch us work it out for ourselves. They critiqued our technique and timed us up and down.

Tick tock, tick tock.

Of all the tower exercises, the one that almost did me in was at the very bottom.

Most jumper injuries come from bad landings. Even if you hit your landing spot, with an FS-14 on a normal day, you are still moving up to eight to ten miles an hour forward with a descent rate of approximately ten feet per second. To absorb the shock with your whole body, you do a controlled tumble called a parachute landing fall, or PLF.

The lowest level of the tower had a pair of platforms, five and seven feet off the ground. We used them to practice PLFs by jumping off and rolling in the dirt.

It’s hard enough remembering everything you’re supposed to do as the ground rushes up: first and foremost, face into the wind. Don’t forget to keep your legs together, bend your knees, tuck your elbows in, and rotate your body to spread the impact across your thigh, your butt, and the side of your back.

It’s even harder when you know one wrong move could break your tibia. I couldn’t help favoring my left leg when I hit the ground. It got so bad an instructor pulled me aside for some one-on-one training.

“Like this, Ramos!” he said, demonstrating how to do it correctly.

Up to this point I had somehow kept my condition a secret. But now I was clearly falling behind. Next week we would start jumping for real, and doing a good PLF was one of the mandatory requirements for moving on.

One day after yet another shit show, one of the instructors from NCSB came to my van and asked what was up. I came clean about my injury. “I’m pushing as hard as I can,” I said.

His answer was brutal in its honesty. “I don’t care,” he said. “You better pick it up. On a fire it doesn’t matter if you’re hurt. You need to perform. I want all NCSB up front on every PT!”

A few days later, the NCSB base manager asked me what was going on. I told him the truth and held my breath.

“Well, Ramos, maybe you should try next year,” he said. My heart lurched.

“No sir,” I muttered. “I’m not leaving.”

He didn’t waste words. “Then get your ass out there and fix it.”

I didn’t know if I left that talk with extra brownie points for hanging in there, or one step closer to going home. They could easily have chosen to wash me out, if only for the liability. All it would have taken was one order to get an x-ray and it would be adiós Ramos.

I just knew the only way I was leaving was on a backboard. I wanted to provide extraordinary service to my country, and this was the path I had chosen to do my part.

When I get stressed, it’s hard for me to eat or sleep. The night before the practical tests we had to pass to move on to jump operations, I managed to cram down some Gardenburgers. I still can’t stand veggie burgers to this day.

We all passed our practicals on the second Friday. “If you have questions, ask them now,” the instructors said by way of congratulations. “Because come Monday morning, you will be on your own, folks.”