An ounce of prevention; up in the Kaniksu, the most hazardous duty can be surviving the safety meetings.
When I graduated from high school, my father insisted I find a summer job to help finance what he was sure would be my illustrations stint as a college student. Sadly, it was more long than illustrious, though I did make the Dean's list on two occasions. Both were in the form of letters to my parents asking how I had ever been accepted into the university in the first place, and informing them that no credit was yet being offered for my major fishing, or my minor, pinochle.
Wanting to regain my father's admiration, I took a job on a blister-rust-control (BRC) crew with the Forest Service in Idaho's Kaniksu National Forest. This was back in the days when the Forest Service hired summer crews to spray infected white-pine trees with stove oil to combat the blister-rust disease. Hiking around with a spray tank of oil and actidione on my back seemed pretty simple. Even I could see that the only place the solution would do any good was on the infected trees.
Had it not been for mandatory Monday/Friday safety meetings, I doubt I would have had any problems at all. I didn't question the wisdom of the U.S. government in requiring these meetings, but I was appalled when I found out that each member of my crew was expected to take a turn giving a presentation every third week. I figured the $2.10 hourly wage did not justify the physical and mental deterioration I had to endure, and I was not alone in this assessment.
To begin with, none of us felt particularly comfortable in front of an audience. It would have been bad enough had our required presentation been given just to our peers, but the camp boss, Sonny Perrin, was always in attendance, and invariably some bigwig or another dropped in form headquarters to "see how the boys are doing."
The first time as I was to be subjected to this scrutiny, I sat nervously waiting for my name to be called, rolling and unrolling my sheet of notes with perspiring hands while a horde of butterflies fluttered violently between my lower esophagus and duodenum. When the time came, my feet somehow propelled me to the "stage" on the cookshack steps, but after that, the situation deteriorated rapidly, and Mr. Johnstone, the Bigwig, asked Sonny if I was dangerous when I frothed like that and my eyes rolled back.
Another consideration was lack of materials. Ours was a tent camp off the main highway, and for some reason, the bookmobile from the closet town, Priest River, had not found us. After a month without reference material, we had pretty much covered the standard safety precautions for working in the woods. We had all heard (twice) that a dull tool is more dangerous than a sharp one, any may tentmate, Marty, proved the axiom's validity at dinner by gashing his little finger with a butter knife. We had all heard (twice) how we acquire blisters, burns, and insect bites; how to prevent blisters, burns, and insect bites; and how we should treat blisters, burns, and insect bites. We had all learned (three times) that trying to walk with calked boots on rock is like rollerskating, that we should keep our pant cuffs "stagged" to prevent them from catching underbrush, and that" an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
Our rebellion started quietly. Jon Blessant was "up" for Friday morning, talking about hyperthemia.
"Didn't we already hear about hypothermia?" Mike Johnson interrupted from the back row. "Isn't that when you freeze you num-nums 'cause you're too dumb to get out of the rain?"
Jon smiled weakly and feigned discomfort, but the entire scenario had been played out in advance and rehearsed for the benefit of Sonny and Clem "Pork Belly" Fletcher, the head of personnel from Headquarters.
"I believe you're thinking of hyPO-thermia," Jon said, spitting into the audience with his exaggerated pronunciation. "HyPERthermia is just the opposite."
"HyPer -hyPO - who cares?" Mike shot back. "I'm not dumb enough to stand in the sun 'til my num-nums scorch, either!"
Jon smiled apologetically at Sonny and Clem and continued. "HyPERthermia can be dangerous, and to help you remember what to do if you should encounter a crew member who has been exposed to excessive heat, I made up a little poem," He pinched his face, up, pursued his lips, put his palms together, cleared his throat importantly, and said, "Face red, raise the head. Face pale, raise the tail."
There was a long silence.
"That's it?" Mike asked. "Face red, go to bed, and face white, sailors delight,"
"That's not exactly what I said," Jon began. "I said ..."
"You're both gunnysack!" Bruce Bunn piped up from somewhere in the middle of the group. "I heard it before, and it's |Face pale, lower the tail, and Face red, go to bed.'" He thought for a moment. "Maybe it's |Face the bed.,'" he said, chucking.
By this time, Pork Belly was swiveling his own head around trying to keep up with the exchange, and Sonny, well aware of exactly what was transpiring, was frowning ferociously. Ignoring the fire in his eyes, the rest of us joined the confusion, and the once-solemn meeting was laid to ruin as we bandied about other fragments of facetiousness.
"Face pale, go to jail."
"Don't you mean pale face, Kimosabe?"
"I|d rather be dead than red in the head."
Afterwards, when Pork Belly had driven off shaking his head, Sonny told us in no uncertain terms that henceforth there would be absolutely no interruptions during a safety-meeting presentation, and that the first person to violate this edict would be kicking his hardhat home. Through still flushed with success, we listened carefully to what he said. Besides the immediate income, most of us were counting on a good Forest Service recommendation to help secure jobs while in college. Still, both of the primary conditions were present: we did not like speaking before "outsiders," and we had run out of material. There had to be another way.
The following Monday, Bruce gave his presentation before a silent, attentive audience. His subject, surviving bear attacks, was marginal for a safety meeting, but Sonny didn't say anything, and Fire Marshall Walt Hagedon like it. That one was followed on Friday by Gene Bolstead's graphic description of the horrors of athlete's foot and how we could avoid it by refusing to shower. Once again, however, the audience was attentive, and there was not even a snicker when he removed his boots and socks to show us how to spray Dr. Scholl's foot medicine between the toes.
In the ensuing weeks, we listened to talks about escaping from quicksand, ptomaine poisoning, tennis elbow, and encounters with a sasquatch.
"All right, you guys, listen up!" Sonny was standing on the ladder leading up to the ton-and-a-half that carried us each morning to our spray area. "You've been having a good time with these safety meetings, and I've been letting it slide. Frankly, I was getting tired of hearing about dull tools and calked boots, too, and so far, you guys have had fewer accidents than any crew in the Kaniksu National Forest." He smiled gratefully and shook his lead in wonder, and gave ourselves a round of applause.
"But listen up!" he repeated, his smile turning upside down. "Headquarters is sending a reporter from the Priest River Tribune over here on Monday. I want you to be on your best behavior. She'll be with us all day, working on a |flavor' piece for the paper. That means she'll be sitting in on the safety meeting, and I do not - I repeat - DO NOT want another Mickey Mouse presentation about preventing crocodile attacks or surviving a flash flood."
It was Ross Stenered's turn, and we knew he would want to comply with Sonny's dictate. Actually, we all linked Sonny and didn't want to embarrass him more than we already had. Mike and I made a emergency run on Saturday to the Sandpoint library, 50 miles away, to provided Ross with some fresh material. The three of us then put together a dynamic 15-minutes, presentation detailing emergency transportation of injured personnel from the woods, including some valuable tips for constructing a stretcher from work shirts and pine poles. Considering all the effort we expended. I suppose we should also have bought Ross a new tablet for his notes, but we didn't, and when we had sketched an outline of what he would say, we left him in his tent to copy it.
On Monday morning, according to plan, we were all spit and polish. Our hardhats gleamed, our pants were nearly clean, and there was none of the usual good-natured cursing and complaining as we took our seats on the log benches in front of the cookshack. The reporter - a Mrs. Francshek, I believe - smiled at each of us as we came across the compound from our tents.
Sonny called roll, introduced Mrs. Francek and then Ross, and sat down confidently, beaming with price. Ross stammered a few seconds, as was his custom, kicked his right toe against the cookshack steps, and began. It was not until he was well past his topic statement that I noticed the paper he was holding.
The week before, one of the "artists" in camp, Doug Taylor, had made a cartoon-type depiction of what the considered to be "the perfect woman." It was an X-rated, exaggerated, rather chauvinistic creation, bu the rest of us had thought it humorous and requested copies, which he provided. To my horror, I saw that Ross had written his final draft on the back of one of these and was now holding it before him with the picture facing the audience.
Sonny evidently saw it the same time I did, for I heard a soft groan from his direction and looked up to see the top of his head sinking lower by degrees. One by one, the rest of the crew became aware of the dilemma, and as Ross rattled on about neck braces and the two-hand carry, there was a general uncomfortable stir and a few nervous snickers. All eyes turned toward Mrs. Francek, but she stared intently ahead, never changing expression.
Finally, Ross was finished. "Any questions?" he asked. As usual, no hands went up, and as Ross folded the paper over prior to sitting down, he saw the cartoon himself. "Ah, jezz," he said softly.
"Young man," Mrs Francek said, rising. "That was an excellent job, but I do have a question."
"Yes, ma'am?" Ross said. Perhaps she hadn't noticed.
"Why does the lady in the picture have a flat head?" she asked.
Without hesitation, Ross opened up the paper and studied the drawing carefully. We all figured that, being Ross, he would repeat what Doug had told him-that her head was flat so a guy would have a place to set his beer bottle when he gave her a hug. "That's a common affliction among Forest Service workers, ma'am," Ross said. "Comes from wearing a hardhat that's too tight while listening to too many safety meetings. We discussed that affliction last week," he added, looking toward Sonny.
"You noticed, I imagine, the deformed body parts?"
"Yes, I did."
"A reaction to the assimilation of repetitious safety material," Ross said. I could see Sonny, despite himself, sitting up and breaking out his best grin.
"Is it permanent?" Mrs Francek asked, trying to remain serious. A couple guys in the front row were chuckling.
"Usually terminal," Ross dead-panned. Laughter broke out. "The only cure is total Abstinence from safety meetings." Sonny joined in the laughter.
"Tell me more," Mrs. Franceck said.
Ross looked from her, to Sonny, to the edge of the surrounding forest. "I'd like to, ma'am," he said, "but I've got to be kicking my hardhat home." With that, he dropped his metal headgear on the ground and booted it toward the trees. He was still heading in the direction of the highway when Sonny stopped laughing enough to go after him.
Alan Liere attended many safety meetings during his Forest Service days and, luckily for AMERICAN FORESTS readers, lived to tell about them.
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|Title Annotation:||Kaniksu National Forest|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1989|
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