When You Meet Your Demon, Please Be Gentle

Barbie Anti-Christ

The summer of 1969 found me in McGrath, Alaska, which is only a little further from the moon than it is from Woodstock, New York. I was working for the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) as an EFF (Emergency Fire Fighter), being dropped by helicopters into the middle of active forest fires throughout the state. Specifically, I was on a back-burning crew, traipsing through dry forests with a flamethrower, fighting oncoming forest fires by depriving them of their fuel. I am glad to report this is the closest I’ve ever come to war.

McGrath, at the time, was little more than a Government airstrip, some BLM barracks, and a handful of small buildings connected by wooden sidewalks. The pride of McGrath was a log cabin that served passably as a bar in an area where, with no women to be found, blue-collar men could drink to their satisfaction. A massive moose head, antlers adorned with tinsel, dominated the bar area and the opposing wall featured a full-sized stuffed grizzly bear forbiddingly poised next to the jukebox.

One evening, in-between assignments, I was passing time with Jake, a fellow EFF. We had money, time, and absolutely no responsibilities – consequently, the phrase about idle hands being the devil’s workshop came alive until at last we were drunk; not inebriated, tipsy, three sheets to the wind – not even tight as a boiled owl – just good old fashioned, funky monkey drunk.

Jake excused himself to use The Little Firefighters Room and I was left with the moose who, looking even more glassy-eyed than I did, stared at me with the gloomy insistence so frequently observed among the beheaded. Long minutes later I heard riotous laughter to my right and saw Jake emerging from the bathroom. He lunged and lurched back and threw himself down on his stool, clutching his right hand which was bleeding profusely

“What happened?” I asked.
“I was washing my hands and I stared at the face looking back at me and it was just so fucking ugly I had to punch it.” He laughed enthusiastically until tears began to form.

The bartender looked on wordlessly. I walked Jake back to the barracks and dressed his wounds.

What Is A Friend?

axe

At sixteen I went on a 1,200-mile canoe trip down the Albany River to Hudson Bay, two months of whitewater with nine other guys my age, Pete, our group leader, and an Ojibwa Indian guide. Absolute wilderness, our only company the occasional bear or moose. My best friend’s name was Terry.

Every evening we set up a new site, cut tent poles and firewood, and cooked dinner. One evening, after a long, exhausting day of paddling in the rain, we found a site and I went to chop firewood. My axe glanced off a wet tree, through my sock, and deep into my left ankle. (We kept our axes sharp!)

Warm blood soaked my sock; the milky-white anklebone was clearly visible. Pete made me lie down on the ground face up so he could sew the wound back together using a curved needle, nylon thread, and fishing knots he knew. I was close to passing out. He gave me a piece of wood to bite on so I wouldn’t swallow my tongue and said, “When it starts to hurt, bite down.”

I looked up and saw a neat circle of faces looking down at me, a combination of sympathy and morbid fascination on their faces. Everyone was there, except Terry. I felt betrayed, let down by my best friend when I was already so hurt. No one spoke as Pete began sewing and I tried my best not to scream, the only sound was a faint, steady chipping in the background.

When they carried me back to my tent, Terry presented me with a beautiful cane he had just carved. Everything I knew, or have come to know, about friendship reverberated in that moment.