This is a continuation of my post "Down off the Mountain." Again, names are changed.
We’d only gotten the news the day before that Paul’s wife was flying down with the department’s deputy chief. Their expectation was to fly back on the DC-3 with Paul’s body. This had complicated things. It had already taken a huge amount of work to get authorization to use a US Forest Service plane to transport the body of a non-Forest Service employee. But a great guy who was well-connected made it happen. And now we had to get authorization for two civilians. I left that up to other folks, folks who had the time and energy to deal with the red tape.
Paul’s wife, Joanne, Stephen the Deputy Chief, and a couple others had chartered a plane to fly into our tiny non-commercial county airport. They would come to the office, and then go the funeral home. Stephen called Andy as they got close to the office. Joanie, Bill, and I walked outside to meet them. Joanie and I kept looking at each other as if to say, “If you cry, I’ll cry, so don’t cry.” We made a silent pact that we both ended up breaking later anyway.
The white SUV pulled into a parking spot. A pretty, dry-eyed brunette, Joanne, got out and walked right up to us, the department folks in their dress blues behind her. We shook hands and did introductions. As we led them all inside, she commented on how beautiful it was flying over the mountains into the airport. How she was comforted that Paul died in such a beautiful place. Jesus. We walked straight to Ellen’s office where Ellen, Carl, and Mr. Big from the Regional Office, waited. They all sat down, introductions were made again. What the fuck do you say in this situation? Blessedly there was a knock on the door. The guy in charge of the investigation team and the lead investigator both walked in. I was pretty surprised. I thought they tried to keep their distance from family. They were very nice and respectful. They gave a short overview of what they were tasked to do. Then they left and we were all there again.
I barely remember anything that was said, but I do remember this: Joanne asked how the guy was who’d made it out. Who chose NOT to deploy his fire shelter but run for it instead. Out of nearly sheer luck, or divine intervention if that’s what you want to believe, he made it out to a road. Unharmed but for a few scratches from fighting through the brush. Anyway, she was worried that he would suffer survivor guilt. That he would blame himself for not doing more to somehow make Paul run with him. Joanne didn’t want that to eat away at him. She said that she’d been married to Paul for over 25 years, and she knew that once he made a decision he stuck with it and you couldn’t budge him. She wanted us to tell the other guy that. I said I would (I later did). Her compassion for others at this time of unbearable grief staggered me.
Finally, after a truly short time that seemed to last forever, we all stood to go. Joann and the department folks would head to the funeral home and then we would be there in time for the procession to the airport. I went down the hall to use the restroom. As I came back towards Ellen’s office I could hear Joanne talking to someone. Her voice had taken on that tone that verged on hysteria, rising higher and louder. The men milled around uncomfortably in a group as she sat in a chair in the hallway, speaking on a cell phone. These men each looked anywhere but at her. She seemed so isolated and alone. I'm not exactly a nuturing person, but I just couldn't let her sit there alone in her sadness. I sat in a chair next to her and put my arm around her shoulder as she continued speaking on the phone. She finished the call, turned to me, looked me so deeply in the eyes that it physically hurt and broke down sobbing. I put my other arm around her and just held her while she cried. It took every will I possessed not to break down, too. But I just knew if I started, that I would not stop. And this was not the time for me to lose it. I would have time for that later. After a few minutes she composed herself and thanked me. I handed her a bottle of water and showed her where the restroom was. And then I got the hell out of there.
I pulled my vehicle out in front of the hearse, the red lights flashing, the siren silent. Ahead of me was a state police cruiser and a county sheriff’s deputy vehicle. Their lights were going as well. I checked the rear view mirror and saw vehicle carrying Joanne and Stephen slide in behind the hearse and then the engines spread out behind. Ellen sat silently beside me, my dear friend Ben and Mr. Big in the back seat. We wound our way through town, city police officers halting traffic at the major intersections. Major for our small town of 7,000. We finally turned onto Highway X towards the airport. I was a bit surprised when oncoming vehicles pulled over. As I rounded a long, sweeping turn, I looked in my mirror and could see all the way back to the last engine. The green engines of the USFS, the red state engines, the other engines from the city and local VFDs. It was a beautiful and tragic sight.
We turned into the airport and could see the DC-3 parked on the tarmac. The US Forest Service Honor Guard was in place. The hearse split off to park near the open door of the plane. The rest of us followed the directions of the guys waving us to our parking area. Instead of having us stand next to our vehicles, they had us walk across the tarmac and stand to one side. There were over a hundred of us. I saw Jack and fell in beside him, near the front. Jack would be going with me to escort Paul home. I looked down the line at my firefighters, young and old, in their US Forest Service uniforms. Joanne and Stephen got out of the hearse and stood to the rear. Andy, Mike, Carl and the other two fire department folks stood behind them. They looked so handsome in their dress blues.
The Honor Guard came over. As they removed the casket from the hearse and carried it to the DC-3, Joanne broke down. This was not just crying, this was pure, raw, heart-wrenching grief. She sobbed so loudly, it echoed across the concrete tarmac, out beyond the grassy pastures. One of the smokejumpers squatted in the open door of the plane and pulled the casket inside (the DC-3 is one of the planes that carries smokejumpers to fires. This one was from McCall, ID. Any time they fly for any mission, a couple smokejumpers serve as load masters.). Joanne thanked the Honor Guard and then took the hand of the smokejumper and climbed into the DC-3 by herself. She didn’t stop crying, and the bare metal walls inside the airplane only served to amplify her sobs. And that’s what undid me. I finally wept, silently. Jack put his arm around me and pulled me tightly next to him. I lowered my head and just cried into my handkerchief. (Later, Ben and I talked about how, as hard as it was, we thought it was "good" for our firefighters, especially our young ones, to witness this grief. To see what happens to those we leave behind. To realize it's not all glory when one of us dies in the line of duty. Personally, I’m tired of us glorifying the deaths of our firefighters. And there was nothing glorious about this.)
Stephen walked up into the airplane, and Andy, Mike, and Carl walked over to all of us. They began working their way down the line shaking every single person’s hand and thanking them for sending off Paul in such an honorable way. When they got to me, I hugged each of them tightly. When they finished, they walked back to the plane. Andy would be flying with us. A smokejumper came over and asked who else was going. Jack, Mr. Big, and I walked forward to the plane. I could hear Joanne still sobbing inside.
One of the jumpers helped me into the DC-3. It’s an old “tail dragger” as they call it, so it is tilted nose-up. When I climbed in I saw Paul’s flag-draped casket secured in the back. I walked past Joanne and Stephen up the steep aisle towards the front. They had only bolted in a few seats (when the plane flew smokejumpers to fires, they all just sit on the shiny metal floor of the plane -- can't have their parachutes catching on seats or armrests). Jack sat next to me, Mr. Big sat by himself. Andy sat next to Stephen. I was sad that Joanne sat alone, but not sad enough to sit beside her. I just couldn't do it. One of the jumpers passed out ear plugs, showed us where the barf bags were stowed, and then took his seat up front. I put on my air sickness wrist-bands (my magic bracelets, as I call them). Jack leaned over and said, “Cheater.” It was the perfect thing to say, and he smiled gently when I looked at him. I smiled back and told him it was also in his best interests that I didn’t puke on the plane.
Once the engine started it was so loud that it was nearly impossible to carry on a conversation. I was glad. I didn’t have much to say. And, God help me, I was glad the noise would drown out Joanne’s grief. The plane rose up over the valley and we headed north. It was a beautiful warm, clear day until we made our way farther into Oregon. The DC-3 climbed above the clouds. As the plane flew Jack leaned over and talked into my ear, pointing out the volcanoes along the way – the Three Sisters, Mt. Hood, the flat, blown-off top of Mt. St. Helens.
After about three hours we descended below the clouds, and the Seattle area came into view. Jack spotted the small airport into which we were flying. It was on an island. As we came in for the landing we could see the fire engines at one end. The DC-3 taxied over to their location. We sat patiently as they unloaded the casket. We got up and stood near the doorway. Stephen and Andy got out and then helped Joanne. A group of firefighters dressed in Nomex formed a “receiving line” and received the casket; more firefighters in their dress blues formed a line back to an ambulance. Stephen put his arm around Joanne, and they walked through the line of people behind the casket. Once more she began wailing. Her family met her at a limousine. We stood awkwardly next to the plane. A few people from the local fire department came up and shook our hands, thanking us. And then they all left in a somber parade of fire engines, motorcycles, police cars and SUVs.
The plane needed to refuel, so we headed over to the small office to use the restroom. Mr. Big immediately got on his phone. I don't think he said more than two words to me. Shouldn't he have asked "How are all of you holding up? Is there anything we at the regional office can do to help? How's the investigation going?" There was none of that. No comfort from the regional office. Whatever.
After about 45 minutes on the ground, we loaded back up. Jack was staying on the plane to fly on, so when we landed back at XXX, just Mr. Big and I got out. I didn’t have much to say to the man, couldn’t really warm up to him. Again, he didn’t make any more of an effort to talk to me, either. I went over to the tanker base office to call for a ride while Mr. Big talked on his phone. Important man.
Soon Ben came and picked us up to drive us back to the office. I jumped in the front seat; fuck it, Mr. Big could ride in the back. I was so glad that part was over. But I knew more still awaited me – memorial services at two fire camps, and the funeral the following week. Not to mention the endless interviews from the various investigation teams. And we still had fires burning. The air was heavy and hazy with smoke as we drove to town. I sat back and rested my head on the seat. I closed my eyes, Joanne's sobs echoing in my head.