The email title “Looking for Bird Cage ;-)” referred to a nickname I was saddled with 35 years ago and had largely forgotten.
“Bird Cage” suggested my something less than imposing physique when I began wildland firefighting for the Forest Service in Santa Barbara. So of course it had to stick through the years, right? Eventually, folks knew me only as Cage.
The email came from the girlfriend of an older crewmate. She remembered my interest in writing at the time and googled my name (my real name) and “hotshots.” Up popped a column I wrote last summer about that ill-fated Arizona crew.
And so on New Year’s Eve I received one of those “Are you that Don Rogers … ” emails, and a gate swung open to a rich period when I was my kids’ age and younger, mid- to earliest 20s.
I was jazzed that she even remembered me, one of those shy, fumble-tongued guys who girls might call “innocent” or “sweet” (and probably quite dumb). These weren’t her precise words, but I have to own all that, as I recall. I was pretty goofy and wide-eyed when we met.
I remember her as one of those gorgeous, unattainable beauties even by the rarefied standards of Santa Barbara. My girlfriend at the time was a housemate of her boyfriend, and I worked on an engine crew stationed about 45 minutes away.
Her boyfriend was one of the squad bosses on the hotshot crew, which I hoped to join. These were the top dogs in the biz, the special forces of wildland firefighting who took on the toughest assignments on the toughest fires. I remember I was awed by these guys, who had a well-deserved swagger to them and worried whether I had the right stuff. Her looks made her at least as intimidating in a whole ’nother way.
In the email, she mentioned enjoying watching me grow up from earnest rookie dying to make the team to dependable veteran.
Life was more complicated for her than me, as it turned out, and in ways I could not have imagined at the time. Seems innocence has its advantages, although that might simply be self-absorption, an occupational hazard for all writers, especially in your earliest 20s.
She reminded me about my early interest in journalism while fighting fire, along with a host of characters and memories from the most formative time in my life. I recalled people and places and events in our exchanges of emails that had lain fallow for decades, and she told me about grittier things that I didn’t know about.
I began firefighting while underage, still growing mostly peach fuzz for a beard, and nearly a decade later closed this chapter marrying my wife, 29 years ago this week.
My 20s by far formed me the most, I believe, and I suspect that’s the same for most of us. Firefighting for me was much like the college experience, which I also tasted. It just was more intense with all the time the crew spent together for six to nine months at a time, depending on the fire season, along with the inherent dangers and the personal limits we pushed past with ourselves.
This was when I grew into manhood, not to put too fine a point on that. I muscled up a bit, though not nearly enough to shed “Bird Cage.” I learned that not only could I make the cut, but I was pretty good at the work. My wife says I had a little swagger in me when we met toward the end of my hotshot days, although she wasn’t much impressed. I tell her that was just my bad knee.
The even bigger challenge was with women, of course, and it took a few relationships before I started to get a clue. Eventually, though, that worked out well, too. I fumbled and stumbled my way to the greatest prize of my life to this day. Only thing is, the awe I hold for her I know I won’t outgrow.