A powder-blue Army post in a soft cloud of mist, high on a mountain peak in the dawn, is a strange sight, like a vision from a high-fever dream.
“Home of the Wild Ones,” declared the wooden sign at the gate.
The sun was just breaking through the clouds that linger high up on Oat Mountain in the spring. The first of the morning traffic was congealing on the freeways almost 2,400 feet below.
The Wild Ones were drawn up in a loose, not-quite-military formation outside their barracks, a dozen guys and one girl, working their tails off for the upcoming big exam.
This is ironic, because many of these people probably did not do well on previous exams. People who graduated from high school in the traditional way, marching down an aisle in mortarboard and gown, are the exception in the California Conservation Corps.
About 90 of the Wild Ones, their self-chosen nickname, are based at a former anti-aircraft base on Oat Mountain, the Santa Susana peak dominating the north wall of the Valley.
Someone in the CCC once had the place--mess hall, barracks, motor pool and all--painted baby blue.
Nobody on the site now can recall why. The effect is incongruous, even though the post’s military character has long been submerged. The steel doors that once opened to reveal needle-pointed Nike missile noses are rusty now, the asphalt of the pads around them cracked and webbed with weeds.
The corps members have been up at dawn every morning to prepare for a test by the state Department of Forestry. Only CCC groups that pass can be called on to fight brush and forest fires.
All about them on the mountainside lay the enemy, in the guise of green shrubbery, deceptively pretty and fragrant. Wild mustard stalks rippled in golden waves. Wild sage filled the air with the aroma of 10,000 roasting Thanksgiving turkeys.
But summer is coming. The mild green hills will turn an ominous tan. Inevitably, the head-high brush in some mountain gully will pour out flames, unlike the missiles that waited into obsolescence for the Soviet bombers that never came. And it is into the flames that the Wild Ones wanted to go.
The corps members tend to be about 20 years old, and by their own accounts they were years spent running from things like classes, homes and jobs.
They are among the approximately 3,700 youths a year who opt to try a turnaround in the CCC, a yearlong enlistment in a life of somewhat casual but very definite discipline, running toward something--the brush fires that most sensible Californians run away from as fast as they can.
“I was a street kid, but I’m finally doing something with my life,” said Jon Naegele, 20, who spent two years hanging around Hermosa Beach and working as a male stripper.
“I worked at a Sizzler and went to Antelope Valley College, but I want to be a forest ranger or a park ranger,” said Denise Smith, 18.
“This is tough work,” the 5-foot-2 Smith said, and added proudly, “Out of 20 girls at the CCC Academy, only three qualified for fire training.”
To pass inspection by veteran firefighters, they’d have to show they could pile out of a truck and form up with tools in hand in less than 1 minute 37 seconds and cut a fire line down to bare earth through tenacious brush. And they needed to prove they could survive being “burned over” by flames.
“First hook, move out” commanded supervisor Harvey Overlander, the CCC equivalent of a drill instructor. On firefighting duty or practice, the corps members are referred to by the name of the tools they carry, as if they were the tools.
Overlander, 52, has the leathery face and sun-bleached blue eyes of a lifelong outdoorsman, a leather-stocking born on the Great Divide and raised by grizzly bears. Actually, he spent most of his life as the liquor sales manager for a hotel chain. At age 46, he said, “I decided I needed a life style change and just never went back. Couldn’t be happier.”
Jose Phillips watched the drill with a stopwatch and misgivings.
“You have got to get going a little faster, people. It’s got to be neater than that. The state exam is do or die, folks.”
Phillips, a 6-foot-4 former football player for Cal State Chico, is the project coordinator, a permanent CCC employee and base honcho.
The crew gathered around Overlander for a demonstration of the personal fire shelter that each carries in a belt pouch. It looks like an aluminum foil sleeping bag and is the refuge of last resort for firefighters unable to escape an onrush of flames.
Overlander showed how they could wrap themselves in a foil cocoon on the ground and allow the flames to burn past.
“Kind of like a big baked potato in the camp fire,” one of the trainees cracked.
“You may feel heat, and your forearms especially may start to burn,” Overlander warned. “Don’t try to run for it. No matter how much it hurts, hold on to the shelter. Do not let go until your crew leader says it’s safe to come out.”
“You all saw those guys in the training film,” Phillips said. “How many times did they get burned over in that one fire, and they came out OK?”
“Four” chorused the group, contemplating the foil mound concealing Overlander.
“No matter how much we train them, how much physical conditioning we do, nothing is going to prepare them for the heat of a real fire,” Overlander commented later. “The heat up close is indescribable.”
The state forestry testers came and went. One night last week, the crew gathered in the dining hall. Rocker-shaped patches were passed out that fit under the CCC emblem on a sleeve of their khaki shirts. “Firefighter” the patches say.
They celebrated with cake and coffee.
Outside, the brush was a little less green.