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Above and Beyond

Having never been a drinker or a smoker, I should have been a monk – leading the ascetic life. My addictions have always been speed and heights. Unfortunately, either one can get you killed.

When I was about a junior in high school, for example, I can remember riding down Highway 49, between Wiggins and Gulfport, perched on the fender of a 1951 V-8 Ford, with my feet braced against the bumper and holding on to the hood ornament, doing about 90 miles an hour. With each bump in the pavement, I would bounce up and down. They say the Good Lord looks after children and fools, so I guess I had double coverage. I should have been in school that day.

Along about my senior year, my buddy and I were speeding down Highway 11 just south of Purvis, and the Highway Patrol got after us. I turned off at Talawah, went the back roads, and came back on 11 at Seneca, just above Lumberton, thinking I had evaded the Law. The highway patrolman was sitting there, however, waiting for us, with a smirk and a “you’re so dumb” look on his face.” I really should have been in school that morning. We were what passed for “bad” in those days; today, what we did wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.

So much for speed. When I finally graduated high school, I had to wait a few months to get a seat in Navy bootcamp at San Diego, so I got a job with the Mississippi Forestry Service, putting out woods’ fires all over Lamar and Marion counties. What attracted me to that job was that I was able to drive the Caterpillar that we hauled around to plow fire lanes, but, more importantly, it routinely involved climbing the fire towers at Hub and on the Purvis-Oloh Road. I had already been climbing them for the view when no one was looking. This just made it official.

Our Cat and the truck that carried it were mismatched, with the tracks of the tractor hanging off either side of the truck, making it a challenge to load and unload. Thinking back, this was probably a metaphor for our whole operation. For example, our two-way radios were basically line of sight, and we often had to stop and borrow a telephone to check in with the tower. When we got to a fire, we sometimes had to deal with a farmer who had set the fire himself and was in no hurry for us to put it out. This could be a problem, especially if the fire crossed over into someone else’s property or if there was a burning ban in effect in the first place. I’ve read that President Trump said that the current forest fires out west were caused by a “lack of raking” (forest mismanagement). I’m still processing that.

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