Dear Liz,

How does this sound for something interesting to do? Follow people around for the day and see what their work is like. One person, one job, one day, for as many people/days as one wanted. I would get up early for that.

I would like to follow you around. You love books, so you work in a giant bookstore. You work in marketing and you work in the literature section of the store. Okay, but what do you do? What are the little details of your work that are in your head but for me I have no clue? It would be neat to find out.

Remember the time your mom and I were in the bookstore and you came to us carrying a book? You remember. You had just left a customer who had asked about the monetary value of a book. You told us you had explained to the customer that the similar books on the shelf before her had quite different values. Book A was worth $50 because it was a first edition, as indicated by an obscure notation on a page. Book B was worth $15 because it was a later printing. And then the part I liked the best, book C, which you were carrying, was worthless because it was a book club edition, as indicated by a little dot pressed into the cover.

Who would ever know those things? How did you learn that? See, to me, that is very interesting. I think all jobs have little details like the pressed-in dot that make them much more than they seem.

In my college days, I was a ditch-digger for a gas company. There is a certain way to dig with a shovel that yields twice the ditch with half the effort. My sixty-four-year-old workmate then, Pappy, watched me dig for a few days before he finally got fed up with my inefficiency. He showed me the secret of how to use a shovel, and then I was a ditch-digging machine. Later, Pappy showed me the biggest secret of all, one of life’s greatest mysteries, how to back up a trailer.

People driving by while we worked saw a bunch of sweaty men doing manual labor. Grunt work. No knowledge needed. Little did they know. I still use the things I learned from Pappy today, thirty-five years later. Use your knees and legs on the shovel handle to leverage your effort. No, I will not tell you how to back up a trailer. It’s a secret.

So, with which persons and jobs would you like to spend some days?

Here’s what a day would be like if you were flying a helicopter on a forest fire.

You’d leave the motel at 6:30 a.m. or so. Sometimes the motel is a tent near a mountain stream a hundred yards from the helicopter. On one fire it was a room with a view on the fifth floor of the El Dorado Casino in downtown Reno. Drive forty-five minutes to the helibase, which usually is a large roadside meadow outside the fire danger area. Your helicopter, a large twin-engine S-61, is parked alongside its service van and fuel truck at the far edge of the meadow, segregated due to its strong rotor wash from the eight other smaller helicopters parked there.

The five of you, two pilots, two mechanics, and a fuel truck driver, prepare your respective equipment for use. You pilots and mechanics climb over the helicopter and inspect it for general airworthiness, making sure things are tight and fluid levels are full. You end your inspection by washing the soot from the previous day’s flying off the cockpit windows.

At 8 a.m. the dozen or so pilots at the helibase attend a briefing where the Forest Service helicopter manager gives you about a dozen radio frequencies to use on the fire and a map of the fire. The map is current, measured accurately last evening by helicopters carrying infrared cameras integrated with GPS satellite navigation radios. Be ready for a mission at any time, you are told.

You return to your helicopter and prepare your clothes: one-piece fire retardant Nomex coveralls, olive drab in color, cost—$140. Boots, leather, $100. Nomex flight gloves, green, $45. Helmet, lightweight Kevlar, with internal speakers and attached microphone, $800. T-shirt, Harley-Davidson, $17.95. Then you wait for the call.

If the fire is a barnburner you will go up soon after the briefing ends. Typically, and today, by 10 a.m. you are still waiting, stripped to shorts (Wal-Mart, $9.95) and T-shirt and wondering what will be in the sack lunches the Forest Service will soon deliver.

The lunches arrive. You did not get a Snickers in yours today. You did get four slices of bread, lunch meat du jour, condiment packets, two small cans of juice, an old orange, some kind of sour fruit candy which you will throw away, a Grandma’s cookie with an expiration date of next year, and a napkin. This lunch will have cost the Forest Service $15 and they bought 200 of them for today. Lots of businesses love forest fires.

Your Forest Service person walks up and hands you a piece of paper. On it is written, “Division C, contact Air Attack.” You have been called up.

You have ten minutes to be airborne so everyone hustles. Suit up, strap in, plug in your helmet, start the helicopter, launch. A minute into the air you call Air Attack, the airborne person-in-control, and tell her you are inbound for Division Charlie, which is a specific area on the fire line as shown on the map. Air Attack tells you to contact Prineville Hotshots on air-to-ground, the radio frequency designated for this sort of thing. Their fire has jumped the line.

Prineville is the name of the town in Oregon where this group of firefighters stays. The name Hotshots denotes an elite crew that is first in line to fight a forest fire, as opposed to a crew that will come by days later and put out smoking logs and such. The Prineville Hotshots have a long, storied history of fighting forest fires. They have also suffered too much tragedy in that history.

You stop over a small mountain lake two miles from division C and fill your water bucket, which is attached to the end of a 200-foot-long cable dangling from the belly of your helicopter. Five minutes later you are talking to Prineville Hotshots while you fly a slow circle over their location.

“Six six four, we’ve got a spot fire over our line here,” Prineville explains. “We’ve got a crew digging a hand line around it. Can you hit the hottest flames in the spot? The crew is backing off. I’m the guy in the blue hat.” A mirror flash catches your eye.

“Roger, Prineville, I’ve got you there. I see a flame in the smoke. I’ve got your crew walking sidehill.”

The smoke billows several hundred feet in the air. The flames rise twenty or thirty feet.

“Roger, 664. Make your run on the west edge of the smoke. That’s the hottest part. Make a trail drop downhill, please.” Prineville stands where he wants the water to first hit. He points downhill. “The crew is clear.”

“Six six four, roger, I’ve got the target,” you answer. Prineville moves off to the side.

You’ve got 6000 pounds of water in your bucket. You try to keep the bucket positioned under the helicopter to minimize the bucket’s pendulum effect as you fly a circle to line up with the target. You roll out level uphill of the flame, heading downhill, the bucket twenty feet above the treetops. Airspeed is thirty knots. You open the bottom of the bucket electrically with your thumb-tip switch, leading the target a bit so the water has time to fall to the flames. The 700 gallons of water falls out of the bottom of the bucket in four seconds, making a sixty-yard long line of wetness through the edge of the burning brush and wood.

“Good shot, 664. We’ll take several more there.”


You head to the mountain lake for a bucket reload. Air Attack says you are soon to be joined by two other helicopters. You talk with the pilots of the other helicopters, switching to a different radio for this. Air-to-ground frequency is busy with the chatter of a different water drop on division Delta, a mile away. You arrange with the pilots of the two new helicopters to fly a racetrack pattern between the lake and the fire. One of you will be over the fire at a given time, a second will be over the lake, and the third will be between the two. Right hand turns off the lake and fire, keep to the left when en route. This will keep you from running into each other.

You fill your bucket, dipping it into the lake, and head back to Charlie. Prineville calls.

“Six six four, give me another drop like the last but five yards into the black. Then for our next drops we’ll tie in downhill.”

The wet line of your last water drop basically needs to be wider so Prineville wants you to move toward the flames a bit and drop the same pattern as before.

“Six six four, roger.”

You circle uphill, looking through the smoke for the wet line of your last drop. You spot it and turn to line up just to the inside of the wet line. The bucket is swinging a bit and pulling the helicopter off target, so you add left cyclic to correct. Things look okay a few seconds before the release point – airspeed is good, no ground people nearby. You hit the release switch, the water pours out, the wind drifts the falling water a bit and leaves a little gap between the wet lines, and Prineville calls the results.

“Good drop, 664. Keep coming back.” You turn right – race track pattern, remember? – and head for the lake.

There are two pilots in your helicopter. One flies, the other monitors the radios and looks for other aircraft. See and avoid and live.

“Man, the radios are crazy!” the other pilot says. “The bombers are talking on one VHF, Air Attack is talking on the other, the helicopters in division Delta are talking on FM air-to-air, plus we got our radio. You wanna listen?”

Four different simultaneous conversations enter your brain through the earphones of your helmet. “Oh yea, sure. No.”

“Seven echo hotel is at your one, 664.” One of the other helicopters calls his position to you. He is at your right front and has just left the lake. The third helicopter is behind you, at the fire.

“Gotcha, 7EH.”

You refill the bucket and are back with the Prineville Hotshots.

“Tie in with that last drop, 664, on the downhill end. Double up like before, then we’ll start digging line uphill, going direct. We’ve got lots of work for you.”

You’re going to double the length of your wet line with your next two drops. This will slow the fire a lot and give the Prineville crew time to dig a shallow ditch in the dirt, a hand line that will surround this one-acre-sized spot fire. The flames will reach the bare dirt of the hand line and go out, since dirt doesn’t burn. As the day progresses you will continue to lay a wet line up the hill in front of Prineville, slowing the flames for them. They will dig more hand line, going as close to the flames as possible so their work has an immediate and positive effect. Occasionally, you will fly back down the hill to douse a flame that threatens to jump the line. Steam billows out from where the water hits. You smile.

Every two hours you return to the meadow to refuel. Refueling takes eight minutes. You keep the helicopter running. You and the other pilot will trade seats. He will fly now. You will listen to four simultaneous conversations through the earphones in your helmet and look for the other helicopters in the racetrack pattern. You will also assemble and eat your sandwiches, using your Nomex lap for a counter top. Mustard and relish in this one, taco sauce in that one. At teatime you eat the orange. Later, you will find out that was also your dinner.

By 7 p.m. you have stopped the advance of this part of the fire. You continue to fly until 7:30 p.m., hitting targets of opportunity just inside the fire line, at which time you reach your forest fire limit of eight hours of flying in a day. Your helicopter will have dropped 45,000 gallons of water on the fire. You return to the meadow for the night.

The Grandma’s cookie is still in your lunch bag. You toss it on a shelf in the service van. There are a half dozen others there already. They’ll keep.

Your Nomex flight suit can be worn for at least one more day. The fire smoke you’ve been flying in has sort of neutralized the day’s perspiration odor. You hang the suit on some wire bundles inside the helicopter. When you get back to the motel at 9 p.m. you notice the Harley T-shirt is used up. You toss it in the laundry bag. No problem. You brought ten more with you.

You call the company office and tell them how much you flew that day. Shower, then into bed.

At 6:30 the next morning you leave the motel.