Summer in a Doll House by Faith Callahan
Reproduced with permission from the July 16, 1956 issue of The Christian Science Monitor (www.CSMonitor.com). © 1956 The Christian Science Monitor.“
I spent last summer as a fire lookout on a mountain top. My husband was really the Forest Service Lookout, holding the job five days a week. I was the relief Lookout the other two days.
Our Summit home was reached by a five-mile scenic drive from a well-traveled highway. This unusual accessibility of a Lookout station was an invitation to tourists. And each visitor asked questions. The one asked me most often came from the less venturesome ladies, not from the vacationing carreer women. When they emerged from their cars they gasped at the breathtaking bigness of the scene below, darted quick glances at our simple cabin and asked: “Don’t you get lonely?”
There are occasional times of quiet, even at our unremote location. One day when it was raining we had no visitors until evening. We even suspected that a tree had fallen across the road blocking all passage. But in our first month more than 1,500 people drove up. On a holiday weekend the tourist total reached 491. Yet people ask: “Don’t you get lonely?”
The regulation Lookout cabin is a builing about fourteen by fourteen feet. This entire house, smaller than my livig room at home, has all its sides of glass. The wood siding extends up from the floor just thirty inches, the height of the little woodburning stove and the kitchen low cupboard. All from there to the ceiling is made up of glass windowpanes. We can hang no pictures, maps, or clothes from the window frames for we need perfect visibility on all four sides.
This gives up a chance to spot a wisp of smoke starting in some wooded area. So the windows must be regularly polished. We counted the corners of those panes of glass on our first round of window washing-there were 1,440!
Of course, we love the majestic view as we as the opportunity to see what is going on all around. But visitbility works two ways. Those on the outside can see in. One Lookout wife told us she could not get used to observers watching her brush her teeth, wash her face, or struggle with her plate of spagetti.
Children are facinated by this dollhouse existence . They press their faces against the windows, staring unabashed as we carry on our work. If the door is open, toddlers and puppies find their way in. I shoo the inquisitive puppy noses from my low open cupboard. One thirsty spaniel drank part of my pail of precious hauled-in water.
During the summer months the windows are shaded by the heavy wooden shutters which become outer walls for winter. These give the cabin a commercial appearance to inexperienced visitors. Some think we sell souvenir postcards. One well-dressed lady rushed to the open window where my husband was cooking our Sunday dinner, and tried to buy hamburgers.
Between tourist visits there is housework to keep me occupied. Meals take longer to prepare when a stove must be stoked with wood, water carried in, make-shift household utensils employed. Clothes are washed by the tub and washboard method. Ironing is by means of sadirons heated on the stove. The linoleum covered floor requires many scrubbing to clean up the tracked-in forest debris of the touring public.
Our Osborne Firefinder brings questions from the more observing visitors. This fixture of all present-day Lookout stations is a large metal disk fastened to a rigid stand. It holds the place of honor in the center of the room. The stand, a little over waist-high, has shelves for our country-style telephone, our FM radio for communication with the Forest Service, tools for adjusting the firefinder, fisrt aid kit, and wicks for the old Aladdin lamp.
The map framed by the firefinder shows township, range, and section of all the land we observe. That information must be included when we report a “smoke.” By carefully adjusting the sight, we are able, with training and practice, to sight a tiny wisp of smoke through the cross hairs on our firefinder. Within three minutes we must notify the district ranger of the vertical angle, azimuth reading, distance from our station, and the location in township, range section, and small area of the section of this begining fire.
Because of the importance of the firefinder, we revere it. we never lay a book, flashlight, or purse on its clear surface. We spend the in-between moments practice-sighting on “legitimate smokes.” These may be from trains or mills.
Our work centers around the firefinder and the table. Because there is only room for one table it must serve every purpose. Ours has a working half and an eating half. The eating half is our dining table on cool days-at other times we carry our trays outside. The working section holds the typewriter, writing materials, and weather files. The casual tourist who drives up here may think we are having a relaxed vacation. But he changes his mind if he comes at weather-time.
Three times a week we rush toward a deadline for weather recording, graphing, estimating, predicting, and coding. Besides the charts for permanent record we have the responsibility of sending daily weather reports to the airways observer for the United States Weather Bureau.
Weather recording at a Forest Service Lookout station is vital to the fireweather forcasters and to the
forest supervisors who say whether the loggers can work the day shift, the hoot-owl (early morning) shift, or must close down operations until rainy weather. Three times a day we carefully weigh the fuel moisture sticks to learn the dryness of the woods. We take temperatures on a wet and on a dry bulb thermometer: then we use a chart showing the relative humidity from these two recordings.
We determine the wind direction and speed, using this measurement with the fuel moisture reading to determine the day’s BI (Burning Index). As we finish recording this finding, coding it, receiving similar codings from the other forest stations, and phoning it to the airport weatherman, we turn breathlessly to greet the approaching tourist who asks: “Don’t you get lonely?”
While the weather recording is a time-taker, it always reminds second in importance to watching for fires. The alarm clock rings at six every morning, sending us outside for our first check-look. This is an intensive part-by-part examination of the “entire seen area,” according to our guide book. By mentally dividing the area into pie-shaped segments and slowly abserving each section, scanning horizontally for any unusual coloring, any drift of a smoke plume, we ascertain that everything is clear.
These check-looks come hourly in our section of the forest land. A thorough check-look takes ten minutes. Between check-looks there is consant observation. Many smokes are sighted while the Lookout is at the telephone or washing windows.
Then the tourists! In the minds of the Forest Service tourist are number three in importance. we love to hear them exclaim at the unearthly beauty of the snow peak of Mount Baker, eighty miles northeast, or the grandeur of Mount Rainier to the south and east. Picknicking families drive miles to come where they can see the whole north Puget Sound country from this vantage point. Oregon jays, sometimes called “camp robbers” perch on the outstreched fingers of the visitors who bring food. There is little solitude in all this activity of human and animal life.