The town had a name, but I’ve since forgotten it. In a ramshackle bar, at the end of a ramshackle street somewhere in the badlands of eastern Utah, I found myself on the wrong side of sober with a pretty woman with big ears. She liked Cutty Sark scotch, hated Mormons and their boring suits, and thought my profession was sexy. With poorly blended scotch still thick in our throats, she asked why I became a firefighter. I didn’t skip a beat. “‘Cause girls love firefighters.”
She smiled, her jaw tensed, and said, “Yes. Yes we do.”
I ordered another round of terrible scotch, and the night went on. It ended — as most nights did then, whenever a pretty girl poured scotch down my throat — with sex, and an empty promise to call her if I ever swung through these parts again. She got her wish: a firefighter. And all I got was a ruthless teasing by the guys I worked with because she had big ears.
For three years after college, I barnstormed through idyllic mountain towns, fighting fire, drinking and occasionally fornicating. Looking back on my time in fire, I wish I could say that a sense of duty compelled me to sign up. I’d like to tell my son, years from now, that I permanently postponed law school because I wanted to have an adventure while serving the national interest. Or maybe that I just wanted my grandfather to think his liberal-arts-a-studyin’-grandson wasn’t a pussy. Unfortunately, my motivation was more selfish and prurient. I wanted to be something I’d never been before: a sex symbol.
I had always been unremarkably average-looking, and acutely aware of it. In college, the only celebrities I’d ever been compared to were “Dildo” Dunphy from Outside Providence and Kevin Bacon in Footloose. When women unconsciously associate your visage with Mormons dancing to Kenny Loggins in a warehouse, you’re fighting a pitched battle.
But even I found the motif of the fireman romantic. The stock newspaper still of a hardy, soot-stained man, silhouetted against a backdrop of towering flames, fascinated me. Wielding an axe or a hose, he stood defiantly, as if taunting the encroaching firestorm. With the fate of a town burdening his broad shoulders, he was the antithesis of the metrosexual hysteria that was gripping my college campus. Men who drove trucks and wore Wranglers watched with confusion as vertically striped shirts and an army of Steve Madden shoes laid siege to the University of Colorado-Boulder.
But I was willing to bet that guy in the photo didn’t wear Steve Madden shoes, and he sure as shit didn’t put “product” in his hair. He probably shaved with a dull pocketknife and knew how to kill things with guns. I wanted to be that guy. More importantly, I wanted to be able to sit at a bar and tell some cute girl that I was that guy.
So I joined the U.S. Forest Service and went to California for three fire seasons. For six months each year, I was a vagabond with a chainsaw and a hardhat. As a member of a twenty-person hotshot crew, I’d work sixteen-hour days, often fourteen days straight, battling lightning-start blazes in the rugged backcountry of Idaho and subdivision-threatening infernos in Southern California. Once the season got going, we didn’t stop traveling until the snow fell.
I learned early on that the thing about being a forest firefighter is that no one seems to have a solid grasp as to what exactly you do. East of the Mississippi, where forest fires are about as common as pistol duels, people’s knowledge of the subject usually stops with Smokey the Bear. Tell people you’re a forest firefighter, and they inevitably ask if you get paid to do that. You don’t wear suspenders, and your fire engine isn’t red.
Fortunately, the majority of the women I met while I wore the uniform saw no need to muddle their fantasies with arbitrary distinctions. Municipal fire department or Forest Service — it didn’t seem to matter. I was a firefighter, period; my life was fraught with peril and adventure, and that was enough to give me a significant advantage over the soft-handed men they usually slept with. The debut of Rescue Me didn’t hurt our luck either. The show is in absentia foreplay for any girl who wants to bang a firefighter. It perpetuates the notion that all firemen are tormented souls, forever haunted by the specters of horribly burned victims and fallen brothers. There’s something intrinsically endearing about that vulnerability, and while I was neither tortured nor haunted, I learned quickly to keep that to myself.
Everybody in the crew had a story to share, or advice to offer. An old Captain of mine told us to never give away our crew shirt to a girl we hooked up with, no matter how much she begged for it, just on the off-chance that she wasn’t as pretty in the daylight as she was in the bar. Another firefighter I worked with got so much sex he devised a game to stave off boredom. He began refusing blowjobs and penetration and spent an entire fire season trying to get handjobs wherever he could — the more exotic the location, the better. In a port-a-pottie, an alleyway, a county fair — he got more handjobs in six months than a class of high-school freshmen get in a year.
And that’s how it was. It wasn’t enough to simply hook up with a girl; you had to come back from her place with a sordid story to tell. It wasn’t long before I developed a swagger, a cocksure alter-ego. It was inevitable. My personal hit list wasn’t remarkable in quantity, but it was diverse. There was a heavy girl who thought I looked like a Kennedy heir; a hippie chick whose last boyfriend was named Chocolate Jesus; a travel agent who stole my Red Sox hat; a Native American who’d never been beyond the outskirts of her Rancheria. They shared an nearly universal desire for kinkier-than-average sex. It had to be a little rough, and props were encouraged. On occasion, I sprinted to the parking lot in skivvies to fetch my hardhat from the engine.
Once, after defending a posh vacation home community for a week, we put the fire to bed and were released from the incident on a Friday afternoon. The only thing we had to do the next day was sleep off a hangover on the drive back home, so we shaved off a week’s worth of stubble and dirt, and settled up at a bar that inexplicably had a sand volleyball court.
Many shots of bourbon later, we coerced the DJ into announcing that “There’s six firefighters here looking to challenge some ladies outside at volleyball!” We stood on the court and watched with limp jaws while a frenzied mob of women stormed out through the doors toward us. That beautiful moment justified a week’s worth of miserable work spent cutting fire line through brush fields, choking on smoke, sleeping face down in ash, breaking my balls to save homes I would never be able to afford.
After a spirited game, an older woman who wore a button-down shirt tied above her midriff introduced herself by her initials. T.K. told me she had just inked her divorce papers a few weeks ago, and wanted to hurry up and “get on out of this shithole town.” After a few more pleasantries, she put on my hat. “You know what happens when a girl wears your cowboy hat?” she asked.
I grew up in Massachusetts. I didn’t have a clue.
She leaned in, groped my ass, and rasped in my ear: “Wanna find out?”
Two hours later, on the bathroom countertop of a Motel 6, I spanked T.K.’s ass with sandals still gritty with court sand. She wore my cowboy hat and unbuttoned Forest Service dress shirt while I sat in a chair and she rode me reverse cowgirl. I tied her wrists behind her back with a towel.
And those were all her ideas. In her mind, the bed was only a place to lounge between bouts of exhausting sex. When she left the hotel room, close to daybreak, she kissed me and disappeared.
T.K.’s unabashed motives were shared by many of the women I met skulking around dodgy backwater bars in rural America. I learned that firefighters have no need for the elaborately orchestrated scams or contrived wisdom of Neil Strauss and his ilk. Girls chased you. Why? Because you just saved their fucking town. Mr. Strauss would be hard-pressed to develop a better line than that. Girls are raised on fairy tales structured around elaborate rescue scenarios, of damsels in distress saved by daring heroism. Firefighters have the unique advantage of being able to exploit that deeply rooted desire. The mere possibility that you could save them is like slipping an intellectual roofie into their drink. I just had to keep my mouth shut and not say anything stupid.
But eventually, I found it difficult to stay in character. I met Ashley at a cowboy bar in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Last call had just sounded. Ashley was the bartender, and I asked what her plans were for the rest of the night. We’d been flirting all night, and I was drunk.
“I’ve always wanted to fuck a firefighter,” she said. So we went back to her place. She was an amateur photographer, and her walls were peppered with black-and-white montages, mostly featuring feet posed awkwardly with other feet. They were terrible photographs. I turned my attention back to her, grabbed her by her belt, and kissed her hard. Our clothes were off before we made it to her bed.
Rolling over, she trailed her hand against the grain of my scruff, and asked, “What’s it like to be that close to a forest fire?” In a baritone whisper, I told her there was a violent beauty to it. In fact, I had my notebook that I always carried with me on fires, and I offered to read her a passage I had written after returning from the most recent fire. I fished the tattered pad from my jeans, crawled back into bed, and began:
The ruby evening glow gave way to the dark electric calm of a Rocky Mountain night. To the west, the fire’s edge traced the violent ridges and crests of the continental divide. Swaths of ponderosa pines torched in violent, undulating waves, their destruction rumbled in muted echoes through the expanse that separated us. Slot canyons literally overflowed with fire. I imagined if Jackson Pollock ever turned his brush to landscapes, his work might have resembled something like this. It was one of those stunning moments, those rare embers of awe that sear themselves deep within your memory.
She started laughing.
I stammered. My attempt at poetic seduction had gone horribly awry.
In forced silence, we stared at the ceiling. Then she got up.
“You wanna do it while I wear these boots?” she said, holding up a pair of knee-highs. “I just bought them.”
She hopped back into bed. I tossed the notebook to the floor and kissed her hard. She put her boots on my shoulders, and we settled back into the roles we were comfortable with.
The next morning, in a highway diner along I-70, I told my crew the story over black coffee and eggs. I skipped over the bit about the notebook.
I don’t fight fires anymore. But every now and then, I’ll find myself sitting at dodgy bar with a table littered with empty pint glasses, there will be a girl, and I’ll give her my new line, one that’s less effective but more comfortable. “Hey,” I’ll say, “Know what I used to do for a living?”
This article originally appeared in Nerve’s True Stories.