Tag Archives: Beginnings

Jan and the Helicopter

The following is an excerpt from a work in progress, more or less a people’s history of SoHum.

Jan Iris, in the 80s.

On a day more cloudy than not, I found myself running down a dirt road after a large hairy man who was more or less my boss, more or less a colleague and certainly a dear friend. It had started out a routine day at Briceland Community High School, the alternative school at which we both taught and, as we ran, I noticed that my running was calm and methodical. So was his. There was something almost uncanny about it, something dreamlike. He was not aware of me or anything except the helicopter flying over the dirt road down which we we ran. We could not now see the helicopter but the heart-thumping sound of it was all around us, bouncing off the canyons, coming from every direction at once. We had not entered the Twilight Zone—it was only the first day of CAMP.

California Against Marijuana Planting was a drug eradication program initiated in 1983 by former California Attorney General Van de Kamp, and named as a cute little play on his name. It spent a lot of California taxpayer money, about three million dollars a year, in the nearly 30 years of its existence, transporting members of various  agencies by helicopter to rural areas in California to harvest the marijuana crop early and sometimes to arrest those living in the nearest house, whether they were the cultivators are not. In the first years, it looked very much like a military invasion, flying so low over houses and homesteads that fruit trees and chicken coops were blown apart by the downwash. Livestock were spooked and owners sometimes injured trying to calm them down and prevent them from running into fences or over cliffs. Children were buzzed as they walked from the school bus. The resemblance to Vietnam at the height of the war was more than coincidental. Many of the pilots had, or so it was widely rumored, been helicopter pilots in Vietnam.

Now I ran behind this big man, two strides to his one, trying to keep him in my sight, compelled by some urgency I could not at the time have explained. Trees met over our heads, but I knew that the apparently thick brush at the side of the road only went a few feet horizontally, then dropped off sharply down the side of the Elk Ridge. I was supposed to have stayed with the truckload of high school students we had brought on this impromptu field trip to see our law enforcement officials in action. But somehow, when Jan pulled the truck to the side of the road at the top of the ridge, jumped out and started running down a branch road, I knew he should not go alone. I told the kids to stay in the two vehicles no matter what, short of an emergency, and took off after him.

We ran quietly, introspectively, through the green tunnel of tan oak and madrone trees. Suddenly, the road widened a bit, there was a break in the green tunnel overhead, a wide patch of blue sky. There was a change in the heart-stopping sound around us and the helicopter popped up from behind trees on the downslope side. I found myself watching one of the gentlest giants I have ever met, a man who named himself “Iris,” after the most delicate of wildflowers, a man I had seen display the most incredible calm in the most frustrating of situations—I saw this man begin to scream crazily at the helicopter as it first hovered, then buzzed him repeatedly.

It was trees, not marijuana plants, but it looked a lot like this.

I caught up to him as he ran at some trees behind which the chopper had just dropped. There was no name for the kind of rage electrifying the air around him. I knew it was a rage that went far deeper than marijuana issues or Humboldt County issues or bureaucracies or attacks on the Constitution. I knew that Jan’s rage had taken us back to Vietnam. There was no reaching him, no cooling him out, no talking him down. My assignment was to witness and to validate his rage.

I don’t know how long it lasted. A minute? Five minutes? The helicopter, most likely piloted by another Vietnam vet, hovered, buzzed, dropped, hid, teased, whipping the trees dangerously over our heads. The man on the ground shook his fists at it, yelling, “You bastards, you sons-of -bitches,” over and over. The woman on the ground witnessed, standing silent and awestruck. Finally the helicopter went away. Jan stood there in the middle of the road, staring at the sky, fists still clenched. I watched as, muscle by muscle, he relaxed. Then, he turned slowly and saw me for the first time. There was no need for either of us to say anything. I never told a soul. He never mentioned it. I only tell it now because Jan is dead, it no longer can affect him, and I know that he would understand why the story is important.

Me, at the time I was a teacher at Bri Hi.

As we walked in silence back to the children, the rain finally started. We hurried back into the truck and my car, drove back to the three-room schoolhouse and built a big fire to dry the kids out. What he said to them that day about the constitutional right to privacy or the sole right of Congress to declare war, I’ll never know as I had other classes to teach, but I know the image of Jan screaming at the helicopter will never leave me. It lives in the same mental file as my own memories of the helicopters of war—the ones that flew over Vietnam, which I only saw in footage, the ones that flew over Berkeley, the one that sprayed nausea gas on me and the entire campus of the University of California in 1968—on old people, sick people, children and other innocents. The rage I felt then brought me to SoHum. The rage Jan had just shown me brought him there, too. I know because he told me.

The first time I saw Jan was in court. It was my second Fall in the Land of Shum, long before the advent of either the bigtime marijuana industry or CAMP. The county sheriffs were busting small growers with their Marijuana Eradication Team. We heard that there had been a raid on one of the roads near Briceland. The sheriffs were going from house to house without warrants or probable cause, looking for marijuana, arresting men, women and children living on any land where it was found growing. Following instincts honed during my years in Berkeley, I wanted to drive down the road they were busting and see who needed help.

My new boyfriend agreed, so we piled our respective children into the old VW bus and took off. We passed several sheriff’s cars, waved at them cheerily and continued down the road. No one stopped us. About two miles in, we saw some children hiding in the brush. They interpreted our hippie van correctly as the arrival of help and ran out to us. The little ones were crying. The big one told us his mother had been arrested. She had put him in charge of his younger siblings at first sight of the sheriffs and told them to hide in the woods. He told us that their neighbors, the entire Hoka Hey Commune, recently arrived in the area, had been arrested—mothers, babies and all.

We brought the children out to the county road where they spotted friends in the anxious group of people gathered there. Thinking again of Berkeley, I remembered how glad I was when I was released from the Santa Rita Jail after being busted in the Free Speech Movement, to see, at 3 a.m. at the gates, a long line of cars driven by faculty members, waiting to take us home. I thought, do the new people have anyone to pick them up when they are released? No one knew. My friend, Sandy, and I called the court and learned that the Hoka Hey people would be arraigned the next day. The children would stay overnight in foster homes.

Next day, we drove to Eureka to get them. At the arraignment, they filed in, men bearded and long-haired, women in long skirts. They filled up the jury box where they had been told to stand to enter a plea. One stood out because of his height and bearing. Your eye I went immediately to Jan. He spoke to the judge without waiting to be spoken to, asking politely to address the court. The judge, perhaps expecting a group of acid casualties with burnt-out synapses in the language in areas of their brains, appeared surprised by the assurance of such an obvious misfit. Startled, he gave permission.

“The most important question to be settled here,” said Jan, “is the separation of mothers and children.” He went on. There were children who had been separated from their mothers with no explanation whatsoever and held in strange homes for 24 hours. The children had never been away from their mothers and were surely traumatized and frightened by the experience. Even an unweaned toddler had been separated from her mother, who was now in agony with overfilled breasts. Could those mothers be excused immediately to pick up their children? The judge was pissed, but not at the audacity of the hippie spokesperson. He was pissed at the cops for arresting the mothers and children with so little evidence and callously putting them through such an experience unnecessarily. He asked the mothers to step forward. As it turned out, there was only one, the mother of Jan’s child. She entered her “not guilty” plea on the spot and was released to collect her two-year-old daughter. I was entranced. Such self-possession on the part of someone who looked so completely out of it was an impressive sight to me.

They entered their pleas and were released. Sandy and I drove them back to SoHum, her pick-up truck filled to capacity. I rode in the back and debriefed one of the bearded men, getting the story of the commune, their arrival in SoHum and the bust. It was my first experience of marijuana busts in my community but there would be many more to come, equally unjustified and at least as traumatic, inspiring in years to come the concerted effort of the community to legally restrain the authorities from such unwarranted behavior in the future. The Hoka Hey commune went on to become the center of the drama world in SoHum, through the drama group, Pure Shmint, and Jan became a pillar of the community, the mover and shaker who founded Wild Iris Forestry, the Institute for Sustainable Forestry and his other brain child, Briceland Community High School. 

The all school cast of Briceland Community High School’s production of West Side Story. Although the high school only lasted 3 years, it was a monument to Jan’s tenacity, a loving experiment in education and, I believe, a memorable experience for most of its graduates.

My best memory of him, aside from the time he nearly broke my foot overturning a heavy burl table on it at an emotional parent-teacher meeting, was when we all went to Orr Hot Springs on a retreat to organize and plan the high school curriculum. After a session in the hot tub, my colleagues had all plunged into the ice-cold swimming pool, but I squatted meekly on the edge, unable to take the plunge. Jan walked by and casually tipped me in with a finger to the shoulder. As I came up sputtering, he smiled sweetly and said, “You looked like you needed some help.” It was love him or attack him. That was Jan.

Death rituals

Below the link to my paper “Death and Ecology in Mateel,” published in the Northwest Journal of Anthropology.


coffin detail ed

On the right, detail of the coffin built by neighbors for a woman who died in a car crash early in the 1970s., mentioned in the article above. The coffin was made of prize wood from redwood burls, except for this star, probably of teak.





Below, photos of a recent ceremony for the Beginnings Volunteer Fire Chief, Tim Olsen. This was the death of what anthropologists call a “big man” so his death was commemorated with very much more ceremony than is usual, including services in the mainstream community involving local VFDs, that are not pictured.

Olsen funeral 1


Olsen funeral 2




Olsen funeral 4

Click anywhere on the link below for another photo

Teach Your Children Well

Briceland Community High School, known familiarly as Bri Hi, was an offshoot of Beginnings, Inc., which had successfully sponsored a pre-school and an elementary school for years, consisting of grades K through 7. Many parents of children who had only attended Beginnings or other non-public schools were reluctant to send their children to the public junior high and high school when they aged out of these. This was because of cultural differences between the mainstream community and the back-to-the-land community, including  very different educational philosophies.

It was also based on a fear, a reasonable one based on actual incidents, that their children would or could experience bullying, discrimination, confusion, psychological trauma or any number of negative things if removed summarily from the educational environment with which they were familiar and in which most of them were successful into one their parents had every reason to believe might be hell on wheels for them. I can personally attest, since I not only parented children who went to South Fork High School, but also was, briefly, a substitute teacher there, that many Shummian children were in fact bullied, harassed, rebuffed, ridiculed, left out and misunderstood there.

The solution for some parents was home schooling and the acquisition of a GED diploma, which would be accepted with no problem by College of the Redwoods, should the students wish to attend college. For others, it was to create an alternative high school starting where Skyfish School (Beginnings’ elementary school) left off. Bri Hi was located adjacent to Beginnings’ land in “downtown” Briceland, one of the factors I believe increased problems tenfold. It lasted three years, funded by donations, tuition and, for a time, public school district funding for “alternate schools.” It crashed on financial rocks when the county pulled its funding because the school district made the funds contingent on its right to choose  students from the public school to attend Bri Hi as an alternate school and Bri Hi staff and parents voted not to accept that contingency.

I, a member of the teaching staff and a parent of a Bri Hi student, led the opposition to accepting the school district’s deal, believing it would be the death knell for what I believed was our shared educational vision. For better or worse, I believed home schooling or my children having to face the music at South Fork High would be better for them than the changes we would have to make in our educational philosophy to accomodate students and parents we had had no say in accepting.We were very consciously not a public school, I felt, and were very consciously countering what we saw as negative in public education. Our aim was to make our high school a natural outgrowth of our elementary schools. Some, but not all, students not accustomed to, for instance, individualized study plans, would only become disciplinary problems for us and parents unaccustomed to our methods would be unlikely to be supportive of us. My feeling was that we should retain the right to decide if any given student or family could accept what we were doing differently.

As it turned out, in the case of my children, one attended Bri Hi and transferred to South Fork for her last year when Bri Hi died. She had enormous problems there socially not the least because she is mixed-race, but graduated an honor student, received many awards and some small scholarships and was chosen to speak at commencement. The principal attempted to pre-approve her speech but failed, since he was not pre-approving anyone else’s speech and had no good argument for doing so, other than her race and her identity as Shummian. She gave the speech he was worried about, to an audience containing many Shummian parents and some Shummian teachers who had managed to get hired by the public school system. The reaction of this audience to her courageous and truthful speech about discrimination and its effect on education was enthusiastically positive. There was clapping, stomping and yelling of approval. She is now a professor at UC Davis.

My son, three years younger, attended South Fork his entire four high school years, was an honor student, on the football team, was voted by drama students Best Actor two years running, something that had never been done before and also won awards. He hit one disciplinary bump during the period known by some as “senioritis”, by clowning in art class. I viewed it as absolutely nothing to be upset by, but he was only mildly reprimanded. By the time he attended South Fork, however, there was a much higher proportion of Shummian students to mainstream students at the school and a much higher proportion of Shummian teachers to mainstream teachers, so that paths of my son and his friends were, in general, made straighter than that of their Shummian predacessors.  He then attended UC Santa Cruz, majoring in drama, but dropped out a semester short of graduation and moved directly to Hollywood to actually work in the entertainment industry.

Both of my biological children attended mostly Beginnings schools, but also public school when I could be assured they would be in classes of particular teachers favored by Shummians. They also both attended public school during the periods of time they were with me in Pullman WA, while I attended graduate school. Unlike many Shummian parents, I wished to insure that my children did not grow up so isolated culturally from the mainstream society that they would never be able to succeed in it. And, I wanted to be sure that they would be prepared to go to college if that is what they chose to do, yet have the benefit of an early education that stressed learning to learn, creativity, community and social responsibility.

As an indication of the effectiveness of their alternative education, I present the following story. I was quite worried that they would be behind academically in the public schools in a university town. I was justified in this. They entered their respective classes there, as their teachers told me, very behind. However, each of their teachers, independently, at different parent-teacher conferences  some months into the school year, asked me with awe, “What kind of school did this child go to? I have never seen a child enter so far behind, yet be so confident, work so hard on their own and catch up so soon.” At which point I told each teacher about our alternative community and our alternative schools and our alternative educational philosophy and they were each amazed. Both of them had completely caught up with their class by the end of the school year.

The school district funding controversy illuminated a key difference in the goals of Bri Hi and the goals of the school district. The former saw itself as a continuation of a more or less Montessori-based educational philosophy and the school district viewed Bri Hi as a place to dump disciplinary problems. In the end, however, the problem was that it simply takes more money and savvy to run a good high school than it does to run good pre and elementary schools. A book could easily be written about all the problems faced by Bri Hi, and how they were dealt with and not dealt with and what caused its demise. My goal here is to simply post historical documents that may or may not be useful to persons interested in our experiment.

A note on my byline: I was at that time transitioning from my given name to my chosen name and had decided to try going by only one name. Also, the sporadic and random vertical spacing  is a function of WordPress, not any writing failure of mine, it was spaced just fine when I cut and pasted it.


From the Briceland Ecologian, a newspaper published by Briceland Community High School staff and students. This is, I believe, from the first issue. 

Education and Ecology: The Story of Briceland Community High School

                                                                                                                   By Jentri

In the Kalahari desert, there are no schools; yet, by the time a child is ten or so, she knows well where to find the melons and mugongo that form the staple of the !Kung Bushman diet. She does not waste water and knows how far she may have to walk from the waterhole to the unharvested nuts at any given time of the year, and how far it is to the next waterhole. Most importantly, she knows how to get along with the various groupings of  !Kung to be found at the different waterholes. She knows the importance of sharing and teamwork and relies on the interdependence of members of her band. She knows that without them she will not survive.
Is there education in the Kalahari desert? Is there a relationship between education and schools? How much do schools in America not only fail to educate, but prevent the education of children to the mandates of their environment? In the face of the global ecological crisis, these questions cannot be ignored by responsible human beings.
The American approach to public education is based upon ecologically unsound principles and assumptions, according to both ecologists and educators. (See Lewis Perlman, The Global Mind). We lock our young adults up inside jail-like structures, away from the direct experience of their environment, and, as much as possible, from each other. We force feed them information best suited to prepare them for their lives as workers, soldiers and consumers, not as organisms in a global ecosystem. We prevent them from exploring and understanding their bodies. We pit them against each other, selecting and favoring those students whose talents are most suited to our industrial technology. We short-circuit creative thinking and ignore social learning, encouraging them to work against each other, so that when they take their places in the vast multi-national corporations, they will not question policies that increase profits and dehumanize workers.

We teach them that time is divided into 50-minute periods and that wisdom is divided into unrelated categories—history, health, auto mechanics, geometry—all having nothing to do with each other. We prevent them from learning that everything they do is related to everything else they do, that what they think and feel has a direct effect upon their environment and is affected by that environment.

Any anthropologist can tell you that culture is what you teach your children, and that the cultures which have lasted longest were those most in balance with their resources. The human animal is unprecedented in the degree to which learned information determines behavior. Unlike amoebas, we respond to a perception of the environment which has been filtered through lens after lens of meaning. Industrial civilizations have become so advanced in placing these meaning barriers between the physical body and the environment, that they are now able to ignore all input from the environment—for a while.
Can there be any question that our own culture must be changed into a more adaptive form? Can there be any question that the health of the biosphere depends upon our ability to furnish an ecologically sound education to the children of our industrial nation?
For two years now, Briceland Community High School has been attempting to develop an educational program that does not perpetuate the alienation of adolescents from their environment and each other. Developing an ecological consciousness while transmitting our cultural heritage of reading, writing, math and history, etc. is a top priority in every aspect of the school, from the choice of curriculum, the manner in which courses are taught by the individual teachers, the kinds of extracurricular activities and field trips that are organized and all the subconscious lessons that are learned from simply being in a school environment for most of one’s waking hours.
Starting on the well-known shoestring, a procedure not unknown in Southern Humboldt County, students, parents and staff, as well as a number of interested persons who do not fall into these categories, bought some land and a building. The building had housed at various times, a bookstore, a cafe, and an alternative energy store. Now it had to be modified to house a school, a process not yet complete. Library shelves were installed, books donated and teachers made offices for themselves from closets four feet high. Truckloads of broken glass and other junk were removed from the grounds, by prospective students, staff and volunteers. An old trailer was found and installed, its tiny rooms renovated for math, home economics and computer classes.

Next, the house next door was purchased and much energy was expended in clearing out the rotten boards, repairing floors, replacing windows, fixing the roof, turning the kitchen into a science lab, creating a sound studio, an audio-visual center (equipment purchased cheap from another alternative high school), a student lounge. Then came a yurt, spacious, light-filled, but cold and unfurnished.
Where did the energy come from? What was the motivation for all of this hard work? No staff member will tell you that greed or ambition was the motivation. No parent will tell you that it is easier to educate your children this way. Some of the students might tell you that it was fun or that it was worth that kind of work to have a school in which they could expect to participate so fully. So far the energy has been largely hope. Tuition per student has so far been $75 per month, with a compassionate outlook on late payers. Only 20% of the school budget comes from state funds for independent study. Because, ostensibly, of the question of whether Briceland High qualifies as an independent study program, the school will probably lose this money next year.

Most of those who teach at Briceland High are not paid. Some teach in exchange for tuition for a son or daughter. Many teach for purely altruistic reasons, including a desire to see the subject taught well. Only a handful are salaried and then at a fraction of what a public school teacher might expect. What is the motivation for earning a living in such a manner? Again, love, hope and the opportunity to create a meaningful educational institution.
Next question. How far and how long can you go on love and hope and just a little money? Who will pay for the ecologically-sound education of the children? What is it worth to the community? What is it worth to attempt to create adults who have a true, deep and real understanding of the relationship of organisms on this planet?
The high school desperately needs volunteers and money. According to Yan Iris, director of the school, “We need persons capable of classroom teaching—especially in the natural sciences and the vocational arts, like gardening, carpentry, sewing and the like; but we also need help in the library, in the office, in the maintenance and improvement of buildings and grounds. Students at all age levels in the high school will be permitted to trade hours worked for the school for tuition for such classes as they may attend. Flexible and regular scheduling can be arranged.”

yan ed          Yan Iris, Principal and main person responsible for founding Briceland Community High School

Some of what is needed may be arranged through combining curriculum with needs, such as library science classes, carpentry classses to build new buildings and repair old ones. Many of the facilities of the school can eventually be used, with proper organization, by members of the community. The sound studio, the library, physical education facilities (which at present consist of a burned-out barn with a basketball net attached), and the science lab all are potentially useful to the community at large. In addition, regular classes, such as the chemistry lab, could, with proper equipment and organization, be put to such community-oriented projects as the monitoring of Redwood Creek for pollution. Biology and anthropology classes can be focused on assessment of environmental impact of various activities in the community. Briceland High School is wide open to suggestions for increasing this kind of contribution to the community.
Individuals with teaching or work energy or money to contribute to the high school should contact Jan Iris during the summer at [phone numbers given.] In addition, any staff member can help coordinate contributions and volunteers. Staff members include: Jentri, Soloman Mogerman, Duncan Cleaves, Tom McBride, Penny Cocking and Gillian Brown [phone numbers given].

Tell us what you think about us, give us your input and your support and we can give education a whole new meaning in our community.

west side story cast edAt the end of one year, the entire school cancelled all classes for a few weeks and put on a production of West Side Story, an activity educational in many ways, from fundraising to making sets, music and dance, and, mainly, working together as a team. All of the students involved, and students were free to opt out and continue working on their individualized studies, worked twice as hard on the production as they would have on their normal schoolwork. At the end, the curtain call shown here, they had the experience of being proud of their achievement. The ones applauding, I think, are applauding the pianist, not shown. Many high schools present plays, but none I know of were the product of the entire school focused on one team project.

west side story girls edGirls perform a number from West Side Story at the Briceland Community High School production.


west side story w piriGirls perform a dramatic number from West Side Story at the Bri Hi production.

Sol edjoani ed

Briceland High School music teacher, Soloman Mogerman, also an artist, is shown inside his owner-built home. It was his responsibility to teach the difficult score of West Side Story to high school students with no musical training other than his classes.

Briceland High School drama teacher Joani Rose watches the student production of West Side Story with bated breath.

Beginnings Volunteer Fire Department

One of the first urgent problems to face Shummians was fire. In the beginning, wildland fires, which was what a house fire in the woods soon became, were fought by non-local fire companies. They had the big guns, the good trucks and the airplane, but it took them a while to get there. Consequently, Shummians organized volunteer fire departments to get there faster, knowing better the exact location and which roads to take. The one I belonged to was the Beginnings Volunteer Fire Department, a work group of Beginnings, Inc., the umbrella organization that built schools and the community center. How I came to be an actual, trained firefighting member, I can barely explain, since I am so small and weak I rather imagine I was more of a liability than an asset on any given fire. I think what happened was that I just happened to be at an early fire when it started and, ready or not, ended up fighting it in my party dress. Soon thereafter, Gerald Myers, who later became the first Beginnings Fire Chief, handed out some semi-silly commendations to those who were known to have fought that fire. When Beginnings actually got a fire department going, Gerald leaned on me heavily to join it. I never figured out whether that was because he had me associated with fires because of that first fire or whether he knew I was writing about the community and wanted to be real sure Beginnings VFD made it into the book.

I was one of only two or three women members and the only one at the fires I actually ended up attending. If Gerald leaned on me because of that first fire, it was really a bad idea, because I only fought it for a few minutes, in stark terror, before I decided on my own and against the landowners wishes to take the truck into which we had placed all the children, drive down the mountain on the dirt road to the county road and look for a telephone to call 911. Lucky for us, the first house I came to had a phone.

As it turned out, the CA Department of Forestry already knew about the fire because they were doing either a training or a control burn on a nearby hillside. What they did not know was whose land it was on and how to get there by road. I was able to provide them with that information and the fire was put out by plane and trucks before it had burned more than a field, a shed and a car. Thanks to all the firefighters there, the fire was diverted around the landowners temporary dwelling.

The landowner had tried to stop me from calling 911 because he knew he had started the fire through a piece of utter stupidity and would surely be in some kind of big trouble if real firefighters were called in. A small party had been planned at his land that day, an extremely windy, dry day in summer, but he was going to get some work in first. When we arrived, he was hardening sharpened posts to use in building his house, taking them out of the fire and stacking them IN THE GRASS!!! I had been thinking about fire all the way out to his land, not only because it was a perfect day for a bad fire, but because I had dreamed about fighting a fire in my party dress, the preceding night. Go figure, and, yes, I am a teensy bit psychic. On the way out I was thinking, gee, I hope we aren’t planning on having a campfire. . . When we arrived and I saw what he was doing, I thought how can he be sure there is no spark in those posts fresh from the fire that will be revived by the wind and catch in the grass. As it turned out, he couldn’t.

When we saw it go into the grass, we rounded up all the kids and put them in the back of a truck, turned the truck so that it was pointing down the road, left the keys in it, posted an adult to watch the kids and ran to fight the fire. By then, it was well into the grass. I had on a long rayon skirt, but grabbed my hiking boots to fight the fire. However, I had no socks and was so terrified that I failed to lace and tie the boots. I just ripped the laces out of the hooks on the hiking boots, exactly as I had dreamed I would, grabbed a blanket and ran to attempt to beat at the flames.

I soon saw how ridiculous that was. No way were we going to stop the spread of this fire on our own. The flames were four to six feet high where I was, uphill from them (fires tend to move uphill) and the wind was whipping my highly flammable skirt all around me. That was when I made the executive decision to call for help and ignored the landowner when he tried to block the truck. I yelled at him, “Are you crazy? I’m going to call for help” and I left in someone else’s truck with the children. I expected to catch some flak for that, but I didn’t. It eventually became obvious, even to the landowner, that only the tanker plane spreading red stuff was going to stop that fire. And that’s how it turned out.

Such scenes were the inspiration for several mostly Shummian fire departments, including Beginnings, which we were all careful to call Beginnings VFD, not Briceland VFD (Beginnings is in Briceland), to make sure everyone knew that here are a bunch of hippies organizing a fire department where there was none, so you might want to revise any stereotypes you have of hippies as spaced out and irresponsible.


Gerald Myers, the first Beginnings VFD Fire Chief, proudly washes one of the VFD fire trucks. Gerald, a former Air Force officer, had no problem being in charge at a fire and no one I know had any problem following orders at a fire, though we were pretty democratic when not at a fire. Anyone who has ever fought one will appreciate how important it is to have a cool head in charge.

The first fire I fought as a VFD member was at the bottom of my own road, only a parcel or two away. When the call came over the CB, my in-laws were there visiting and a small panic ensued. If the fire moved faster than we did, it was possible it could block our only exit out. We managed to get a grip, got the in-laws and their car, us and our vehicles and our dog, but not the cats and ducks, down the road– us to the fire, the in-laws and the dog out to the county road.

I got out of our truck and ran toward the flames, which were in the trees, making fire the totality of my view, and then became a gibbering idiot. Someone handed me an uncharged hose and I stared at it stupidly. Then Gerald, in the jeep a few feet away began yelling at me, but I could not hear him over the noise of the fire and firefighters and was not experienced enough to guess what he might be yelling. I stared at him and tried to read his lips. Finally, it dawned on me that he was yelling, “Give me the hose.” That, I did and after that I remember nothing about the fire until it was all over and we returned to our house, our unburned house, covered in ash. I think I must have spent my time at the fire helping hold a hose, one of the few things I would have been able to do through my terror-induced brain fog.

The one fire I do think I was not a liability at was the one that took place further down our road from our driveway, out several miles into the boonies. When that call came over the CB, I was at home alone. Gerald instructed me to go down to the intersection of my driveway with the dirt road and meet the forestry guys as they came in and direct them to the fire. I was able to do that without getting us lost, but when we got there, the forestry guys directed me to go over to a bunch of locals already fighting the fire haphazardly, organize them into a line along the creekbed and set them to clearing brush in a line in front of the fire.

I protested, “But they won’t do what I say, I’m a woman and I’m only their road neighbor.” One of the forestry firefighters took me by the shoulders, physically turned me toward the group and gave me a shove, saying, “Bullshit. You’re in fire gear and you just got out of a fire truck. Go do it.” Much to my amazement, the local people, all men, did in fact do what I said, though in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I borrowed authority from the forestry guys and said, “The forestry guys want you to, etc.”

I spent the rest of that fire helping to direct traffic, since it was very smoky and my tolerance for inhaling smoke is very low, not a plus for any firefighter. As incompetent as I feel myself to have been, my teenage daughter followed us into the VFD and became a member herself. Later, in part because of this experience, she was able to work herself through college as a U.S. Forest Service “hot shot”, being flown into fires all over the West in helicopters, left off near the fire (by a landed helicopter, she was not a jumper) then hiking to the fire, one of three women on her crew, and fighting it. The three summers she did that I was a basket case the whole time, but she was never injured, as far as I know.

VFD sign ed

Few people had phones and not everyone had a CB, so word of training sessions and meetings had to be posted at the bottom of relevant roads.

vfd in gear ed

Beginnings volunteer firefighters at a training session. I learned what to do with a Pulaski, but I could only do it for about five minutes without feeling faint. Just standing in the sun in my gear was an exercise in stamina for me.

Below, firefighters confer at a training session. This is one of several Beginnings fire vehicles we had at that time.

VFD truck 1 ed

VFD  truck 2 ed

Rear view of truck above.

VFD training 2 ed

A training session to learn to drive the new old truck we had just acquired from the Fortuna Fire Department. The person gesturing vehemently in the center is me.

VFD training ed

The lesson begins. I’m 403 in the back seat, in a borrowed helmet. Can’t explain where my own helmet is. The person on the other end of the back seat from me leans out to be sure we don’t back the truck into the ditch. This truck had 18 or so gears. The hope was that everyone would be able to drive it at least well enough to get it out of harm’s way if needed. I did manage to drive it from The Octagon down the driveway to the county road, involving only a few gears, on a slight slope. I then prayed that I would never be called upon to drive it in any situation, let alone on the kind of steep slope we often fought fires on. I can’t believe I ever knew anything about all those dials, but I think maybe I did know how to turn the valve to charge the hoses.

fireline gig 150 ed

One of the fundraisers for the VFD is the annual barbecue and picnic at Beginnings. My then husband and I had a little folk-type music group that met once a week at our house, when our house got constructed enough to have visitors inside. We performed, infrequently, at various local benefits, one of which was, several times, the VFD barbecue. Since we were always, even with different guitar players at different times, all members of the VFD, we called ourselves Fireline, for lack of a better name. Here, we may be playing one of our two fire songs, “Baltimore Fire” or “Fire in the Barn.” Its me on vocals, Lenny Anderson on mandolin, Lloyd Hauskins on guitar and Bill Andrews  on string bass.