Forest Service Reminiscing

One of the most unexpected events I can remember in my summers working for the Forest Service is the hot day my Forest Service pickup fell out from under me. I can look back on it with humor today since it’s been over 4o years, and I am still reminiscing about this galvanizing event. It must have made an impression on my young, naive mind.  I was employed as a Fire Guard on the Big Piney District of the Bridger National Forest. It seemed to me that Fire Guard simply meant that I did whatever the ranger told me to do from fixing and building fence, to cleaning outhouses, picking up trash along the road, building corrals,  fire pre-suppression and control, fighting fire and anything else he could think of to keep me out of trouble and out of his hair.  Sometimes that even worked but not on this day, at least not our of trouble.  It wasn’t even my fault. Really is wasn’t!

I had just crossed Edwards Creek, a small, clear, mountain stream tumbling on its way to larger streams and on to the Green River. The drone of the tires almost hypnotized me as they pounded over the rock and gravel of the road.  Hot, dry air rushed through the open window irritating my eyes with noxious smelling dirt filtering into the truck cab.  Speeding along about 20 mph, without warning I discerned a peculiar racket.   Thud, kerwack, wham!!  Thud.   Feeling the loss of control of my rear end; the truck’s, I mean, my stomach went queasy.  Sensing the left rear side of my truck dropping,  there was no time to react much less panic.  I was going nowhere fast.  Instantly I came to a screeching halt. I was stopped dead in my tracks.  Road dust poured through the open windows burning my eyes.  The air tasted like dirt as I sat there trying to figure out what had happened.  I was dumbfounded.  Dumbfounded pretty much fits me at that age of life anyway, but, just leave “founded” off and it would be more accurate.  Had the world stopped?   “Flat tire” came to mind.  I had experienced those before, but they didn’t act like this.  They would usually have a popping sound proceeding the thump, thump, thump of the flat,  and I might have trouble steering the green beast of a truck.  In short order I discovered a nasty flat wasn’t the problem at all.

The pickup truck was, as I recall, a 1957 Chevy, and, of course, Forest Service green. Not my favorite color, but that’s a different story.  It drove smoothly and usually caused no problems except this day it did.  Or I should say the left rear wheel had problems on this day.  Wheels are supposed to turn round and round,  but they aren’t supposed to turn so much they rip out of the lug bolts.  This was later diagnosed as metal fatigue.  Who would expect that?  I sometimes found myself fatigued and could understand that, but not metal!  At the time I was more mechanically challenged than I am today.  Yes, I know, in the 1960’s we didn’t use that term “challenged”.  That’s a newer term,  but it’s nicer than the term used then…. mechanically stupid would probably been used in that era.  And I was, but it wouldn’t have mattered if I was a mechanical genus.  Metal fatigue would catapult this into my memory.

I jumped out of the truck, somewhat frantic and befuddled, hoping no one else would be driving up the reddish-colored dirt road as I was stuck in the middle of it and couldn’t move the vehicle if I wanted. That Chevy reminded me of a green, macabre monster just sitting there defeated and unable to budge, road dust still tainting the air around it.  At first, my mind rebelled at the ludicrous spectacle perplexing my vision.   Examining the view more closely, I discerned that the frame of the truck was ensconced on the ground and the left green-colored rear wheel fender was buckled under itself.  The Lug bolts were still attached to the hub. The rest of the wheel, with a gaping hole in the center, was laying next to the truck as if someone had just pulled it off and deposited it there. I’m sure I was being laughed at by someone or something.  It was a sorrowful looking scene, the truck all crosswise in the road with the wheel hub sitting on the ground sticking into the red dirt.  It wasn’t pretty. Scratching my head I examined the situation.  Slowly it began to dawn on me what had happened. Accessing the circumstance as only a twenty year old could, I thought about panicking.  Instead I began to ponder a solution.  Solution, oh solution,  Wherefore aren’t thou, oh solution?  Slowly I developed a response to my predicament.  No problem;  just pull out the handyman jack; jack it up and mount the spare. Piece of cake.

I really appreciate handyman jacks.  I’ve employed them for various reasons besides jacking the truck up to replace flats including winching me out of mud holes into which I should have never steamrolled.  Don’t mention that to the the ranger.  This is another story of my lapses of judgement he doesn’t need to know about.  I knew how “handy” these jacks could be, but I didn’t really use it very often as who really needs to take advantage of a jack every day or even every week.  I jerked the jack out and noticed it was dirty, clogged up with gunk, and smelled kind of yucky. Next my thoughts changed to “ut oh”.  The words of Ray Lewis came back to me.  “Sam, keep your jack cleaned and oiled and wrap the spring apparatus so it won’t get dusty and dirty.  Someday you’ll want to use it and need to have it ready.”  Did I listen?  Of course not.  My jack was a mess and wouldn’t do what jacks are supposed to do.  Namely, jack so a vehicle will go up.

Ray was an older more experienced employee who accommodated

us kids when he didn’t need to and probably didn’t want to, but we learned tremendously  from him and respected him even more.  He wasn’t ancient. He was probably in his late 50’s or early 60’s.   At that time to me being about 20 that meant he was an old critter.  I was told he was originally a redhead, but you couldn’t prove that by looking at him when I knew him.  His hair was snow white and close-cropped.  His limp I’m sure bothered him, but he never let it get in his way.  He seemed to know something about everything.  He once told me he had first come to the Piney area in a wagon with his parents on the Lander Cutoff of the Oregon Trail. He said that as young man he had homesteaded on Fountenelle Creek but eventually gave it up. Not old enough to be a pioneer in the Oregon Trail sense of the word, folks, when he was a boy, still traveled by horse and wagon.  He probably silently laughed at us young guys as he dealt with our antics.  His smile was infectious but when he added his chuckle to that smile and shook his head back and forth, we knew we’d done something brainless.   I was visualizing Ray as I remembered that one important lesson he had once stressed with me.  Keep your handy man jack clean and oiled.  Of course, who really did that?  He did.  I didn’t and would quickly regret it.  I was brainless.

The jack wouldn’t go up.  It was clogged with grease, road dirt, and all kinds of crude.  Here I was out in the “wilderness” with no help and a jack that didn’t work, but  hey, no problem.  I’d use my Forest Service radio to call for help even if that would be humiliating.  Maybe Brian, the Recreation Guard, was nearby and would come to help.   I clicked the send button of the radio and was rewarded with the crackling noise of loud, blank, static. That was not a good sound.  I was still in the Edwards Creek Valley surrounded by tall lodgepole pine trees and mountains;  consequently,  the radio couldn’t get out from my position.  No help would be coming by way of me crying out for help using that piece of technology. Sad but true, I was stuck.  Did I panic yet?  Believe it or not, no.  No panic attack this time but I knew I had a wacky problem to solve.

I was torn between hoping someone, Brian, the ranger, a tourist, or someone, would come by and help me out or if I should start walking, or, ….. figure it out myself.  Of course,  if help came they’d see my embarrassing predicament, a jack that didn’t work from my own ineptness. What smug, twenty  year old, Forest Service employee wanted that?  No sir, not me. Walking wasn’t going to be fun as it was a long way home.  I was in dire straights.  I’d have to get out of this myself, somehow.

What to do? What would Ray do besides snicker at me, smile, and shake his head?  Sometimes the most simplistic of ideas is the right one.  I needed to clean the jack!  How to do that?  Wracking my feeble brain, I remembered I happened to have part of a five gallon can of gasoline I used for the chain saw.  Grabbing it and a rag, I threw the jack into the middle of that red, dirt road and poured a small quantity of gasoline onto it.  The harsh smell of fuel wafted up to my nostrils as I scrubbed the gasoline into the jack gears with the rag.  I cleaned out all that muck and gunk that had collected during the summer then dribbled a little motor oil onto the spring.  Setting it up right,  I tested it by levering the handle up and down and letting the oil lubricate the spring and pin.  It worked. The moveable parts of  the jack ran smoothly. It’s amazing what a little TLC could do.  I managed to save myself!  Who cared if the radio wouldn’t work or no one would come along?  Walking out was no longer necessary as an option.  Maybe I was fortunate the radio didn’t work?  I could save myself and not look moronic in front of my boss.  I could do that another time with a lot less effort.

Congratulating myself, I found suitable size rocks to block the wheels in order to prevent the vehicle from rolling, placed the jack under the rear bumper and cranked the glossy oak handle up and down.   Miracle of miracles,  the truck moved up and up as it should have.  I could see the pin move in out of the sprocket holes of the jack. Finally,  the broken wheel hub was high enough to remove that ugly looking circle of fatigued metal.  I quickly used my lug bolt wrench which I hadn’t even lost yet, loosened the lugs, pulled off the torn metal of the decrepit wheel, threw it in the truck with the old tire,  put the spare tire on, and tightened the lugs.  With excitement bursting its way out,  I felt like singing but didn’t want to scare the wildlife.

Reversing a handy man jack is as simple as flipping a lever.  Since I had cleaned the jack, it worked flawlessly. Cranking the smooth, wooden handle again, the truck was gently lowered to the ground one notch at a time as the jack spring pulled the pin to the next lower sprocket.  Next, after removing the jack, I lovingly swaddled the jack in the rag I had used to clean it, and set it gently and lovingly back to its proper place in the pickup bed.  Unblocking the wheels, I was soon on the road again, hot air and dust swirling through the cab, filling my nose with the perfume of road dirt.   I felt smug and had a large smile on my face.  Well, maybe I was also relieved that I wouldn’t be embarrassed if found mired crosswise on that road. Maybe I wasn’t so dimwitted after all?

A person would think that the truck wheel falling out from under me would happen once in a lift time.  Nope, it happened again.  I wasn’t alone the next time. I was with the assistant ranger and he was driving, but that’s another story for another time.  I’ll leave it there and repeat what I asked the assistant ranger, as I watched a truck wheel roll past us and sensed the rear of the truck drop and we crashed to the ground,  “Is your  handyman jack clean and working properly?”

Sam Sherman in Forest Service uniform Sept. 1968 at McDougal Gap, Big Piney, Ranger District, Bridger National Forest, Wyoming Range. Photo by Sandy Sherman.

See Sam’s photographs at  http://samsherman.imagekind.com/.

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2 Responses to Forest Service Reminiscing

  1. Lolena Shambaugh says:

    Great story! And good advise to keep your equipment ship-shape.

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