I sit in the Box, watching helicopters fly. On my right a VHF radio spits static as Air Attack and the tanker pilots debate strategy. In front of me is the air to ground radio, and to my left the Command frequency and the radio with the Deck channel. The Air Guard radio, for emergencies, is tucked up on a shelf.
In the Box it is easy to daydream, to find thoughts filling your head. Thoughts like, what am I really doing with my life? Can I afford to take a year off from work and write? What happened to Sue, who borrowed my zip-leg skinny jeans with the stripes back in the 1980s and tore them climbing over the Grand Hotel golf course fence? What if I had married someone different? How come my co-worker is asleep and should I wake him up? Will there be salad for dinner?
Thump thump thump, the K-Max is coming in to land. K-Maxes look like a praying mantis gone wrong. With no tail rotor and counter-rotating main rotors, it is an exotic creature among the more mundane helicopters on our base. "2 Kilo Alpha," I say over air-to-ground. "No reported traffic, winds west at five to ten, land at your discretion."
The pilot responds with an affirmative, leading me to wonder, not for the first time, why all helicopter pilots sound alike. I break into the VHF chatter and ask Air Attack if he wants the K-Max to load and return. He does, so I call on the Deck frequency to let the manager know. He forgets, again, to give me the Hobbs reading, so I know how many hours to record for this last cycle.
This Box is like many I have sat in. A long rectangle, it faces the bleak field that this fire team has rented for a temporary helibase. Before Boxes, we sat under a flapping yellow tarp, our papers held down with rocks, straining to hear the radios that we placed in cut-out cardboard stands. Miss a call, and you could change the course of someone's life. It could be a pilot reporting an emergency landing, some division supervisor pleading for air support, or just two helicopters trying to land at the same time. Boxes started appearing a few years ago, making this job high-tech.
Most people don't like being recruited for the Box. A last resort for helitack crew members without any work to do, it is viewed as a punishment and a boring sentence. I don't mind the Box much, though. Crewmembers pass in and out, seeking air-conditioning, and bring games to play, like the one where you try to attach a string of plastic monkeys using one hand only. Being in the Box feels like I'm doing something worthwhile, unlike the line of helitack I see now who are napping in the shade. In the Box, I can pick up information on what the fire is doing. I hear the air tankers being ordered, which means things are going to hell. I eavesdrop on the pilots, chatting about how the west line looks or if it is safe to land at a helispot. I know what the crew bosses are ordering: if it's hose and a blivet, that means we won't be here much longer because we are in the mop-up phase. If it's more MREs, shuttling crew gear to a distant point, or requests for more bucket drops, I might as well settle in for the long haul.
Two impossibly clean guys drop in, looking for flight helmets. They're overhead, wanting a recon. They pull out maps and show me that the fire has crossed over the river and is making a run into the wilderness. As soon as they leave, the helibase manager comes in and says that we are getting two more helicopters, a Blackhawk and a light. Helitack rouse themselves and scurry across the field, pounding in more pad markers. This will bring us up to 12.
Some kids show up, wanting to see the K-Max, but they will have to come back later. They stand outside the Box, their eyes full of awe as they watch it lift lightly off its pad. A horse trots onto the field, and I laugh as I watch two helitack try to catch it.
Cool evening air pours in the screen door. Soon all the helicopters will finish their fuel cycles and come in like roosting birds. This is so familiar that sometimes I forget which fire I'm on, which state. Our tents line the field, a colorful parade of different types and styles. This could be Montana or California or a dozen other places in between.
I think about all the other people in the other Boxes across the West, thinking their own deep thoughts. Maybe they are wondering how to break up with someone who loves them. Possibly they are contemplating doing something radical--quitting their job, striking out into the big unknown. They could even be pondering how, even when you've been told different, how it really must be magic that keeps helicopters in the air.
My co-worker wakes as his chair tips over. "Only five o'clock," he groans. "When will this hell be over?" He pounds on the window. "Hey! Go see what's for dinner!" His buddy drops his newspaper and hotfoots it toward fire camp.
On the other hand, maybe the Box doesn't inspire deep thoughts. Maybe it's just an oversize singlewide, tricked out to look fancy. Maybe we're just passing time in here like all the others. Maybe it really is all about what's for dinner.