“Do you smell smoke?” I question the captain.
He takes a long sniff and looks around. “Not really. Must be something from the kitchen.” I take another sniff to make sure, but the faint hint is gone.
Boodean is right, Starvation MacFarland did make corn bread for dinner, along with beef stew; plain fair, but tasty. Starvation has also made donuts dipped in sugar for dessert. I don’t know if all the CCC camps feed their men so well, but the fellows at White Rock have nothing to complain about.
As we return to the clinic, I raise my head again. There it is, the smell of woodsmoke! “Come on, Boodean. Don’t you smell it, the smoke?”
He looks around and takes a few breaths. “Could be the men are burning trash. . . . Probably shouldn’t, not with this wind. And there’s a patient on the porch, smoking a fag.”
Frustrated, I ask the camp secretary to come out. Maybe women have better noses. “Do you smell smoke, Mrs. Ross? Like woodsmoke?”
She looks at me out of the corner of her eye, as if this is some kind of a test and she wants to give the right answer. “Maybe a little . . .”
“See,” I tell Boodean as we enter the infirmary. “Mrs. Ross smells it too. Can you find the captain and ask him to have some of the boys investigate? After that, check with Drake at the tower, see if he’s seen anything?”
“Not likely to reach him,” the older lady reminds me. “The shortwave radio still isn’t working. The two fellows trying to fix the antenna were going into Liberty for a part. If they don’t find one there, they’ll try Delmont.”
I let out a sigh. So there’s no way to communicate with the outside world and no way for Drake to communicate with us either, but that’s really not my worry.
“Okay, Boodean, bring in the next patient.”
By three o’clock, there’s no doubt about it. There’s a fire somewhere, and though the sky is still clear, even Boodean can now smell the smoke. The captain is tense and has called in the four camp officers. I stand listening at the open door as Wolfe takes a seat behind the superintendent’s desk.
“Listen, guys. I know this isn’t regulation, but without Milliken someone needs to take charge. Until we’re able to contact District Five, I hope you won’t mind if I step up.”
Loonie Tinkshell makes a joke. “It’s your funeral!”
“Right,” says the captain. “So here’s what I need you to do. People have smelled a whiff of smoke for a couple of hours. It’s getting stronger and if I’m not mistaken, there’s a haze coming over the mountain. We need to take about twenty boys off their usual assignments and get them out looking for the source. They need to go all the way up to the cliffs and maybe a little way over the mountain. The fire may be on the other side.
“The cook can keep his crew, we have to eat”—here there are a few chuckles—“and Lou Cross still has his guys out building a fire trench, but that’s a big project and will take the whole day. Maybe some of the men from the sawmill could look for him. We need to be on the alert. Otherwise, it’s business as usual. Surveying class tonight, Ed?”
As the camp officers leave, the captain steps out on the porch, runs his hands through his hair, and stares at the sky. I go out and stand beside him, trying to keep my nurse’s uniform from blowing up over my knees. “The smell’s getting stronger and the wind too,” I observe. “And look up by the cliffs, there’s an orange haze.”
The captain goes back into headquarters and returns with his binoculars. “Son of a bitch, Milliken! He would pick today to abandon ship,” he grumbles, adjusting the focus of the lens. “There’s smoke all right and it’s thick at the base of the cliffs. Probably came from the west side of the ridge. The whole damn county might be burning, and with our shortwave radio out, we’re the only ones that don’t know it.
“Boodean!” he shouts. “Get on the bullhorn and alert the fire suppression teams. I want two trucks of men dressed in protective gear, with their tools in their hands, water packs full and on their backs in front of headquarters in twenty minutes. This is not a drill.
“After that, you better work on the radio. I don’t care if you have to send a monkey up the pole, see if you can get Drake Trustler and the ranger station in Delmont.”
He turns to go back to the superintendent’s office but stops for a minute to squeeze my hand. That’s all. One small squeeze but it means a lot. I’m glad you are here, the touch says. I appreciate you. We are friends.
Twenty minutes later, two trucks loaded with firefighters dressed in long-sleeved green shirts, heavy army pants, and gray metal helmets pull up in front of headquarters singing over the roar of the wind, a popular Cab Calloway song. “Hi de hi de hi de hi—Ho de ho de ho de ho.” They act like they’re going to a Sunday school picnic instead of what will probably be a brush fire.
The drivers and foreman get out to consult with Captain Wolfe. My medic is still up on the roof fiddling with the antenna and Mrs. Ross is inside repeating in her high voice, over and over into the radio mouthpiece, “This is CCC Camp White Rock, does anyone hear me? Urgent message. We believe there may be a forest fire. This is CCC Camp White Rock, does anyone hear me?”
“Boodean, take these,” the captain shouts over the roar of the trees bending back and forth in the hot wind like wild women dancing. Leaves and small branches fly through the air and it reminds me of the time last spring when we had the tornado, but there’s not a cloud in the sky.
My medic leans over the roof as the captain stands on the porch rail and hands up the binoculars, a recipe for a fall, if you ask me, but I keep my worries to myself. “Can you see the fire from up there?”
We all wait while the medic crawls to the peak of the building, stands up, and scans the mountainside. “To the left,” he says. “I can see flames in the ravine to the left. A ground fire . . . Holy shit!” We all turn where he points and watch as the top of a pine in the distance bursts into flames.
“Go. Go!” Wolfe shouts while the drivers and foreman run to their trucks and head out of camp. The corpsmen have seen the burst of flame too, but it only increases their enthusiasm.
“Hot potato! Let’s hit it,” one fellow yells. Another starts up an old army song. “Over hill, over dale. We will hit the dusty trail! And those caissons go rolling along.”
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