Fire season a continent away

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

“You’re where? Why on earth would you be in San Francisco? It’s 10 o’clock here. That makes it the crack of dawn there.”

Why am I surprised? Jean has been my most contrary daughter. You never know what’s next with her. The last time I heard from her, just a few days earlier, she was going in to the U.S. Forest Service offices in downtown Washington, D.C. working full days, writing and posting information concerning the wildfires out West. And now she’s in California.

If she and Brian signed a pre-nup before their wedding – nine and a half years ago! – neither would admit it, so there’s no point in my asking. The vows they took before God and their families and friends were more binding than any piece of paper. When I start asking questions, I get that slight frown and “Mom…” that adult daughters do so well.

But the Withnells are smart people and realized that getting married only months after they met was a move fraught with pitfalls. Jean had been alone since college and was used to coming and going when the notion took her. Yet, hounded by that infamous biological clock, she wanted very much to get married.

How could she expect to have it all: companionship, parenthood, a responsible career, independence? She was marrying a man who was raising his three children single-handedly since their mother’s death a year earlier. No matter how in-depth she and Brian talked about it, there is no way a young woman can anticipate how all-consuming motherhood is, not unless she’s been there.

Her age – 37 when she married – was offset somewhat by her gift of organizational skills. My child, whose bedroom deserved a HazMat warning sign, now keeps a house that welcomes all comers and proudly proclaims Little Boys Live Here. It’s neater than her childhood room by a matter of degrees, but the point is, it really doesn’t matter. If she’s comfortable with little-boy flotsam and jetsam, why should anyone else care? Too bad I didn’t have that attitude when she was a kid.

Before she married, Jean worked for the U.S. Forest Service, and was living in Juneau, Alaska. When she moved back East to marry Brian, she figured that was it – a good job she no longer needed. Brian, however, was caught in the collapse of the dot-com industry and out of work for a couple of years, so Jean called the home office of the Forest Service, in Washington, D. C., and asked if there was anything she could do for them.

She took on several projects, like the beautiful report she wrote and designed to be part of the USFS annual. But when the boys were born, we all wondered how she was going to be so high-falutin’ independent.

No problem. Brian’s now a high school math and computer teacher in Loudoun County, Va. and once school’s out, he’s home all day. About once a month, Jean takes off for some Mommy-time: a hot springs getaway or just lunch at a nice restaurant. She has even taken Brian along when the big kids are available to baby-sit.

She also keeps up her annual certification with the Forest Service by maintaining her physical abilities. (Yes, nearly everyone in the USFS must be able to handle fire equipment if needed.) Then she lists with the office, to let them know she’s available.

Jean’s communication skills make her an asset in the endless record keeping for paychecks, deployment of personnel, and other such minutiae that computers make possible. She was called in to the office several times in the last couple of weeks, getting field reports ready for the daily update to Congress. For this she was up and on her way to the city by 5:30 a.m. Her red fire bag, for the moment, lives in the trunk of her car.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear that she was in San Francisco, about to board the shuttle to northern California.

There are some things better done on the fire ground, so that’s where she is. As a public information officer, she’s more likely to be operating a computer than a backhoe. If there were motels out there, she might have copped an air conditioned room, but she’s sleeping in the City of Tents erected with military precision near the front line.

She does press releases and stays in contact with personnel relaying reports to homeowners who have been evacuated. That can be heartbreaking, especially when there are children who have left pets behind.

Meanwhile, back in Leesburg, Va. Her older son Samuel misses her; younger Uriah has bonded more closely to his Daddy. And Brian is running through the frozen meals Jean put up before leaving home.

Brian forwarded a cryptic note she sent him: “Good assignment. Great folks. Busy. Not always good to be inside, but am providing intel and serving as a point for communicating both internally and externally.”

Like any service to country, there are a lot of people making sacrifices. And it doesn’t look like the fire season will slack off any time soon.

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