From a fast drive to the final class: 17 years goes by in a blur
On the day my older daughter was born I broke at least one Oregon law and possibly a few federal statutes.
The former could have cost me a couple hundred bucks, a bail I would have gladly paid. The federal rap, though, might have had serious repercussions — my own FBI file, for instance.As it turned out, though, Rheann was a thoughtful and caring child even before anybody ever met her, so I needn’t have flouted a single legal canon to ensure that I was able to watch her greet the world.
What happened is that just after midnight on the 19th of August in 1991, a phone call woke me.
The caller worked for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. This excused the unfortunate timing, since I too worked for the Wallowa-Whitman and was, during fire season, basically on call around the clock. Unless I decided not to pick up the phone.
Lightning had started a forest fire over by Austin Junction. The caller wondered if I wanted to help put it out.
I asked Tracy, who was my first wife, if she thought I ought to go. She said yes, although she was supposed to give birth to our first child at any time.
I drove to the Wallowa-Whitman compound in Baker City and joined a couple of other firefighters. We tossed some shovels and pulaskis and a chain saw into the bed of a Forest Service green Chevrolet four-wheel drive pickup, and we went off to the fire.
The blaze was burning near one of the forks of Sister Creek. I don’t recollect which one. I should have recognized the significance of the creek being named for a female, but so far as I can recall I never thought about the connection.
Anyway we worked all night on the fire, which was pretty tranquil for late August, and by dawn we were mopping up. Fortunately the creek, whatever it’s called, was close by and so we had set up some Mark 3 pumps and laid a lot of hose. You can cool a fire with plain dirt but I was always pleased to put the water to it when such is available.
It was getting on toward mid-morning, and starting to turn hot, when I heard my last name crackle from the two-way radio clipped to the chest of a crew boss who was standing nearby.
I knew right off that the baby was either born or was getting ready to be born (there was, at any rate, no other conceivable reason for anyone to say my name on that radio frequency, or any other.)
I was right.
I was also sort of panicked by the idea that I was going to miss the arrival of my child, and saddened by the knowledge that probably this was one of a handful of epochal events in my life which, once lost, could not be regained.
Luckily I had driven the pickup and so I had the keys in my pocket.
It was about 60 miles to Baker City. I figured I could make it in an hour.
That Chevy was a good truck. It was I believe an ’86, the penultimate model year for the boxy style that GM replaced, in 1988, with a new, curvier design. It was no sports truck but it had the 350 V-8 and could get down the road if you pushed it.
Which I did, the whole length of Highway 7 from Austin Junction.
I never drove what seemed to me recklessly — I doubt I exceeded 70 mph — but I was definitely good for a ticket on any of the straight stretches.
My fear about federal charges festered because I hadn’t asked for permission to drive the truck by myself back to Baker. I don’t know that I needed formal approval, but then, as now, my knowledge of federal vehicle rules fell well short of encyclopedic.
The drive took a bit less than an hour, and I got to St. Elizabeth around 10 a.m. I rushed into the hospital, still smelling strongly of pine smoke, and anticipating the wail of a newborn.
But Rheann remained in the womb.
(Actually we were still referring then to “the baby,” as we had told the ultrasound operator that we didn’t want to know the gender.)
In fact, Rheann waited until 11 minutes after 5 o’clock that evening to draw air into her lungs for the first time. This allowed me ample time to scrub the ash and dirt from my hands and face, so that the first time I held her she would not be unduly frightened by her father’s appearance or offended by his odor.
That day, which was the sunny apotheosis of late summer in Baker County, has of course stayed conspicuous and vivid among my memories for almost 18 years. But just recently I have been thinking more often about all that happened that day — the fire, the fast drive, the relief that I had made it in time. This is because another landmark day is drawing closer.
On Sunday Rheann will graduate with the Baker High School Class of 2009.
As I suspect is typical of parents, I accept the reality of this event but my acceptance is tempered with, and a little confused by, a sense of incredulity.
When I try to summon the first 18 years of my own life the span seems to me as vast as a century. Graduation, as I recall, seemed a long time in coming.
Yet when I remember Rheann lying on a blanket in our Springfield apartment, still too small even to roll over, it feels like a time not so distant. Certainly not enough time has passed that that baby will, in two days, stride across the grass and grasp her diploma with the same fingers that were once so tiny they couldn’t quite wrap round my index finger.
The imminence of Rheann’s graduation has filled me with a peculiar blend of conflicting emotions.
I am on the one hand immensely proud of her, and joyful for all she has accomplished during her transition from the seemingly fragile treasure I first saw 18 years ago to the strong young woman she is today.
Yet on the other hand I feel that I must not acknowledge in full the significance of Sunday’s event; that to do so is to admit that the day marks the absolute end of one era of my life, to admit that I will during those two hours at Bulldog Memorial Stadium surrender some part of Rheann which I can never retrieve but which I can not bear to lose.
I suppose this is just silly sentimentality.
I am striving to remind myself that I am not losing Rheann, not really. I take comfort in knowing that she is my daughter, and that our bond, even after Sunday, will lose none of the magic that infused that late August afternoon when for the first time I looked into her eyes, and felt the beat of her heart against my chest.