Jerry D. Mathes II is the author of Ahead of the Flaming Front: A Life on Fire, Shipwrecks and Other Stories, Fever and Guts: A Symphony, and a poetry collection in The Journal West. His works have won numerous awards, including his most recent win in Narrative Magazine’s Fall 2017 Story Contest with his short story Totality. Jerry is a Jack Kent Cooke scholar alumnus, has fought fires on a helicopter-rappel crew and taught the Southernmost Writers Workshop in the World at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, where he spent two austral summer seasons working in logistics. And on top of all of that – he’s a single dad! Jerry is here to share about his experiences!
Welcome and thanks for joining me today, Jerry! It’s an honor to have you. Could you begin by sharing about your memoir and what led you to become a firefighter?
I lucked into it. I’d moved to north central Idaho from Boise to be with my girlfriend who was moving up there to be close to her father. A couple of the guys in her step family there worked in forestry and wildfire. The day I unloaded the truck at our new place, I was called by one of them wanting to know if I was available the next day to work as an emergency firefighter.
They had a prescribed burn that had escaped containment and was burning what they called “bonus acres.” The previous three years, I’d been commercial fishing up in Alaska and was looking at going back up in May, but in April, it would be good to get some work in. I was told to show up wearing 8″ work boots, a cotton t-shirt, and jeans. Everything else would be issued to me.
In the morning, I drove the 40 some odd miles to the remote fire camp in the mountains where they were staging. I knew one person: the step brother-in-law to my girlfriend. The fire warden introduced me around, issued me equipment, assigned me to a small crew, and sent us out. On that first day, I worked until sundown suppressing the fire in the rugged mountains and began learning the basics of the business.
It wasn’t just the action of it, but also the element of danger that lured me in. Just on that first day, a guy had gotten hurt and another had left his post, exposing others to risk. This was the calling I’d been searching for. The call of doing something for the benefit of many.
I wasn’t just protecting timber or resources, we were then managing the land with fire for the public benefit as well. Not all the land on the district was public, but a great deal of it was and I was helping ensure the public could use and enjoy those wild places for years into the future. It is one of the reasons I get so mad at the anti-public land movement. They want to take land from us, the citizens of the United States, and give control of it to one person or a small group of people to close off and destroy.
Like millions of Americans, I have a childhood full of memories exploring and learning the skills of woodcraft, fishing, hunting, identifying plants, rocks, and animals, reading the weather, distinguishing what was dangerous and how to survive as I reveled in the savage beauty of public lands. I’ve passed that down to my daughters, creating our own history in the land of memory. It’d be a shame if we were to lose that heritage for the sake of short term profits for a few.
At the end of that first shift many hours later, I was beat, smelled of smoke, and faced the long drive back home and then back again before first light the next day. The night crew had arrived, and I watched the incident commander brief them on what we’d accomplished that day and potential trouble spots along the line to monitor. That night I could barely contain myself talking about the joy I’d found in this hard work. Before sunrise the next morning, I arrived at the fire camp and asked the boss if I could sign on full time. I’d never work a fishing boat again.
Most of us are probably never going to set foot in Antarctica but you’ve done so twice! What did your job there involve and what were the conditions like? Any interesting stories to share?
And I would do it for a third time if I could. I have so many interesting stories, I’m still working on the book!
I worked in logistics. My job at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station was to unload and load cargo from the LC-130s and Twin Otters with supplies for the station and the remote camps and to palletize everything to be shipped off the Ice. It is policy that nothing remains behind, even garbage, so anything not of use anymore is shipped off.
The average summer temperature is –45 degrees Celsius and the wind chill can cut the temperature to –85. The sun never goes down and reflects ferociously off the ice. We must always wear eye protection, either goggles or glacier glasses when it warms up to –30 or higher, and use sunblock on any exposed skin, usually the cheeks or nose when it’s warmer. Most of the time our faces are covered with balaclavas or neck gaiters. Not everyone works outside, but even a short walk on the Polar Plateau can see a person burned up like Dracula at sunrise.
We also had to deal with altitude sickness. The elevation of the South Pole is 9300 feet above sea level. It is 9000 feet of ice on top of 300 feet of meager earth. Because of our unique location the barometric pressure changes the pressure altitude so that we may be experiencing elevations as high as 12,900 feet. That’ll make you light headed before coffee.
Some people have to be flown back to McMurdo in an inflatable pressure chamber. One guy collapsed right on the airstrip walking toward the station. Then on top of that it’s a desert. The dry air sucked moisture from us, and dehydration was as much a threat as frostbite. Dracula skin at sunrise as I mentioned.
Some people lived in the third and newest Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in Antarctica, which was dedicated in 2008, although in 2009-2010 crews were still installing the blue siding and finishing up much of the detail work. It housed the galley, gym, administration offices, the store, greenhouse, and several lounges. When I saw the new station from the air it looked like a kid had built a giant tribute to the letter E with an extra middle leg and mounted it on stilts like condos in a hurricane zone, with pylons six feet in diameter, supporting the two-story building some thirty feet above the ice.
Architects designed the station so it could be jacked up and sections of pylons added as snow blowing from across the plateau buried it like had happened to the previous two stations. Most of the snow blew under it, but enough of it stuck to the pylons and stairways, to keep the general assistants (GAs) shoveling and the dozers dozing so we could get into the station. A regular Greek tale of the Polar Plateau. Some folks called the new station the Dantesque, Satan’s Palace, while some of us just called it The Castle. Contractors who had worked more seasons on the Ice and scientists lived in the space station-like facility, while the rest of us lived in the Jamesways of Summer Camp – remnants of the Seabees presence, the Navy having long departed to make way for contractors.
A Jamesway is a tarp covered Quonset hut, erected and used by the Seabees (the United States Naval Construction Battalions) when they first arrived in 1956. Mine was newer, date stamped 1958. The cold seeped into everything, and I kept refrigerated items on the plywood floor of my quarters and worried they might freeze, even with the wool army blanket carpeting. When the wind blew, which it usually did, it cut through the torn seams, forcing me to pile all my extra clothes, towels, and sheets on my bed against the thin wall to try and hold back the cold. I still wore my extreme cold weather gear (ECW) to sleep. In Christchurch, New Zealand I’d been issued all the gear I needed to survive on the continent, but I didn’t think I’d need it in bed. The necessity of reality tosses out all expectations. No one wanted to wake up with frostbite and miss work. A hangover is much more forgivable. The welding curtain walls allowed the collection of coughs, wheezes, words, heavy breathing, and muffled orgasms to become the background noise of bedtime.
Summer camp sat downwind of the station and smoking generators. Two rows of Jamesways had been erected with military precision. In the space between the rows of Jamesways were latrines, a nonsmoking community Jamesway, a small gym with a plywood climbing wall. At the end of one row sat the smoking Jamesway known as The Slump. The Slump was the only building controlled by the federal government where people were allowed to smoke in, in the world. Not because of the weather, but because it was a non-permanent structure.
On most nights some Polies gathered around the bar and watched movies, drank and smoked in the incandescent light—all Jamesways were blacked out from the intense sun until the door was opened, blinding everyone. The plywood and canvas were covered in decades of graffiti. I scrawled the logo of my helicopter rappel crew—KSL with a lightning bolt. On Saturday nights people from The Castle came slumming where it was okay to hoot and holler, play loud music, and dance away from the staid station where drinking was a quieter affair, except on special occasions like New Year’s Eve. Folks would bounce between The Slump and the non-smoking Jamesway where a stripper pole had been the sight of a few injuries. As I ended my last season there, the powers were dismantling some Jamesways and replacing them with slick blue fiberglass models with an eye on getting rid of Summer Camp for good. In short, they planned to gentrify South Pole Station.
What’s really cool is some of the eclectic people you meet there. Not just the Norwegian Prime Minister, or Sir David Attenborough, or a Nobel Laureate, but everyday people with crazy talents. One of the qualifications that helped me get hired was being a poet. More importantly, a poet willing to teach writing in what I’d later call the Southernmost Writers Workshop in the World. Lots of people can drive a loader, but how many can drive a loader and compose a sonnet? What can you teach and enrich the community? Swing dance, watercolors, pilates, jujitsu, chess, knitting, or making costumes because costumes are almost the second uniform of South Pole? Talent?
For New Years the small community can put up half a dozen bands from a 12-member Blue Grass band to a power trio and classical pianist. Then there were the events and not just holidays. Open mic nights see folk music, poetry, spoken word, standup comics. Go to Stitch and Bitch, the scrabble tournament, the cribbage tournament, trivia night, science night, movie night, bingo, Ladies Night at South Pole Telescope and Wine Night with the Meteorologists. Love a parade with a race? On Christmas Day people Race Around the World. We assemble and run, walk, ski, bike, tow elaborate floats made of plywood and leftover construction materials that might date to the 50s with heavy equipment and snow machines for about two and half miles.
My first season I towed a hot air balloon basket (the guy got it there but couldn’t get it back) mounted on snow machine trailer filled with people. All in costume of course. A guy only has so many places he can wear bright a pink wig with gold stretch pants and be considered normal. Did I mention glitter? In January they put on the SPIFF. The South Pole International Film Festival showcases films made on station, in transit to station, and some guest entries from other stations across Antarctica. I wrote and shot a James Bond Spoof called Mad Maxine: Beyond the Clean Air Sector, and a tribute The Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration with the help of a few other Polies. Why not make a film or two? No one said I couldn’t. A beautiful thing.
I miss it. At the South Pole the many shades of blue and white and all of the space and light cracked something open inside me. Sometimes I felt caught in time, alone, and suspended on a blank slate of ice. At South Pole no mountains or hills, only the curve of the earth interrupted the landscape. No insects to shoo out of my face, no birds sketched the sky, and no mammals left tracks on drifted snow. I’d never seen so far in any direction anywhere else in the world. Not even at sea. Ever. I’d catch myself staring at the horizon, watching for a plane to come in, standing on the deck of a lab, or walking between the station and the cargo shack. Just something about it drew my eye. Just like something about the Pole drew me there and back again.
I feel the lure of the Ice as Nobu Shirase did. He was the leader of the only Japanese expedition during the Heroic Age (1897-1917) and perhaps received the first news from the Norwegians of Amundsen obtaining the Pole ahead of the English under Captain Scott in 1911. Before Shirase died of malnutrition over a fish shop in 1946, he wrote a poem. A traditional tanka that was out of favor among postwar poets in which he said, “Study the treasures of Antarctica even after I am dead.”
On your website, you also mention that you’ve held a number of jobs from martial arts instructor to working on fishing vessels and have even “haunted the oil fields as a minion of Mordor.” Out of all the roles or jobs you’ve had, which one did you learn the most from?
I’d say across the spectrum, it is the role of teacher in any of my jobs that I learned the most from. It has been said, you really start to learn your subject when you start to teach it. To teach well and explain to novices and later to experienced people building on their knowledge, you need to know your stuff. Students will know when you’re phoning it in and bullshitting them. I loved my time in the training cadre for teaching wildland firefighters whether it was basic safety, weather forecasting, or rappelling from helicopters. I loved teaching martial arts. I loved teaching at the university. It is a part of who I am, and by virtue of that learned many subjects better than I would have otherwise, learned the joy of seeing a student “get it,” and learned the rise and fall of cultures, societies, and the lives of individuals is dependent on the teachers/storytellers/instructors who pass on what they know.
Which was your least favorite job and why?
Peeling potatoes during KP instead of going out with my armor unit on a training exercise. It had that suck menial quality coupled with the fact it was keeping me from going out in the field on my tank where I belonged and wanted to be. But the least favorite job as a whole was anything I did in sales. I’d never get any coffee, because, you know, coffee is for closers. I sold cars for a little bit and when the customer would say, surely there is a little more you can do, I’d say, I bet there is. Or if someone wasn’t sure I’d tell them to go home and think about it. I wrongly believed they’d come back to me because I wasn’t a high pressure slam them in a car and get it off the lot guy. Nah. I still couldn’t do it even knowing no one ever returns because I was a nice guy. I didn’t last long.
When did you first realize that writing was something more than a hobby for you?
That’s so long ago, I can’t remember. I have always wanted to be a storyteller and wanted to write them out in books like the ones I read. I can remember being in the third grade reading a book about a boy going out and having some sort of adventure and what sticks with me is that I wanted someone to read about an adventure I’d written. Crazy, right? What third grader says to himself, “Gee I want to be a writer?”
What advice would you give to budding authors just starting out?
Persistence will win out over talent and connections. With persistence, you’ll develop talent and by persistence through sending out and getting rejections and sending out again, you’ll make connections.
I’ve seen wicked talented writers quit and I’ve seen writers with little talent with connections not put in the hours because they know so-and-so and never make it. Never underestimate luck. Observe the world every day. Learn to give smart criticism of other’s work and learn to take criticism of your work. Read, read, read deeply and widely. Learn to read like a writer, but never forget the enjoyment of reading. Write what you want to know, not just what you know. By writing about it you’ll come to know it. The late Denis Johnson said, “Write naked. Write in exile. Write in blood.” My former teacher Kim Barnes said, “Be honest in your writing, the reader will know when you’re being dishonest.”
Learn to write 300 pages and throw it out and start over. My mentor Claire Davis said, “If it reads like it’s obvious, it is, so cut it.” You will feel like a talentless fraud, and you should at times, but keep writing because you’re as legit as anyone else and what you have to say matters. Debra Magpie Earling told me, “Never say you want to be a writer. Say you are a writer or you’ll always be stuck wanting.”
Shrug off rejection letters/emails. In fact as soon as you send something out for publication, find the next five places you want to send your manuscript for consideration, so when the rejections come, you are already in the starting gate ready to run. Trust the editor, but don’t be afraid to question the editor in support of the work. If you can’t articulate why a particular element or scene moves the story forward, creates drama, characterizes a character, or is otherwise essential to the piece the editor is right.
My first poetry teacher, Jason Fales, said, “You have to have the fire in the belly.” There is no writer’s block. You need to keep your ass in chair or standing at your elevated table like the queen’s guard, grinding out words, even if they all suck. Because like in mining, the more useless ore you process, the more precious metal you’ll have at the end of the week, even if it’s only a trace. Eventually you’ll hit the vein. Revise, Revise, REVISE what you dig up because gold and silver are nothing until smelted and worked in an artist’s hands. Keep in mind what Bob Dylan said: “An artist is always in a state of becoming.” Did I mention be persistent?
What role has the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation scholarship played in your development as an author, filmmaker, and artist?
The obvious is of course the generous scholarship that allowed me to go to graduate school and obtain an MFA in fiction writing. The not so obvious at first, and maybe not to people on the outside looking in, is the community of inspirational people you become a part of or should I say, the family that takes you in.
I always highlight this when I’m giving presentations at schools. Everyone here, I say, wants to study something, to pursue a passion. You will find someone who will be your cousin who is either already working in the field, in grad school, or already an undergraduate ahead of you. You can reach out to them for advice about programs, academics, and professional advice. Then I pivot and talk about all the scholars in other fields that can enrich and contribute in ways you can’t imagine on a personal level. If you have a lot of stress or emotional problems cropping up, all you need do is reach out and there are dozens of people who will reach back. I end with talking about the amazing and talented staff/support network at the Foundation itself. I don’t know about you, but without them this whole thing would have been much harder for me.
Inspiration, the knowledge that I was awarded a JKC scholarship, gives me the feeling that no matter the setbacks, that I got this. I was selected by people I don’t know, and even though I too suffer from the feelings of being a poseur amongst all the bright and talented people who make up this extended family, I know I can keep carrying on. Then the other inspiration. I see the work of fellow scholars and it pushes me to be a better artist. Holy crap, these are some bright, talented, and creative folks.
The Foundation has also put on events that allowed me to meet other writers and filmmakers. Once they held a panel that I was a part of along with other writers and an agent to discuss publishing. I met and reconnected with some great people. Another event was a dinner and Q&A in West Hollywood with agents and filmmakers. It turned out my youngest was going on a field trip to Los Angeles that day. We live about two hours north of L.A. If I went to the dinner, there would be no one to get my girl home and the oldest was still too young to be left alone so late at night. I wrote the Foundation and requested permission to bring the girl posse. I promised the girls would be no trouble and I’d pay for their dinner. Wes and Beth stepped up and cleared the way. Which was awesome as I met some people there who gave me great advice and led to other connections.
It was funny because I knew we’d have to dress nice, so the girls had all their stuff ready and changed out of school clothes and did their hair and make-up in the parking garage at the California Science Center. They ran a curling iron off the inverter in my truck and helped each other make sure they looked presentable. They looked smashing and had what they called a sisters’ dinner. The Foundation also generously paid for their dinner. Then the Scholar’s Weekend and the Alumni Summit. These events have never failed to inspire me and connect me to scholars who I can reach out to with questions and vice versa. There is even a joint project in the works as a result of the last Summit I attended.
How have you been able to balance your multiple passions with being a single Dad?
I don’t think I do very well sometimes. But I prioritize, and something’s got to get left undone. I told my guitar teacher that I’m in it for the long slow haul because I can’t practice a lot, but I’m okay with small gains. I have to look at it as marching ahead inches at a time over the course of a lifetime.
Photography is a little easier, but not much considering how much I need to work my day job, take care of the girls, and write. But I figured a little bit at a time was better than waiting for when I “had time.” When would that ever happen? Maybe never. I’d always wanted to play an instrument and take up photography, so decided about three and four years ago respectively, if I didn’t at least start, I’d probably never do it and die wanting.
I had to be happy in what I could do in the given time I had. An odd thing that did happen was that I developed new passions. I’ve always liked to cook, and cooked for friends and family, and made the world’s best guacamole, and had a couple of signature dishes, but as the sole cook for the girl posse I’ve become kind of obsessed with it. I experiment and tweak and combine ingredients into new dishes. The girls’ friends enjoy coming over for dinner — talk about a tough crowd to please. My friend, the writer and editor Mary Carroll-Hackett, once told me, “Cooking is your other poetry, writer man.”
Finally, what is one piece of advice you’d give to other single parents that may be pursuing education or multiple pursuits while raising kids?
Your kids come first. All else can wait and will still be there when their needs are met and when they’re finally gone. As they get older they’ll need less maintenance and if they know you’ll always be there for them, then you’ll earn more latitude.
I remember right after my daughters’ mother left, if I spent too long at the grocery store they’d be calling and texting wondering where I was. That was four and a half years ago. I was alone in a new town, no family within a few hundred miles, and couldn’t afford any kind of help to care for them. Now I can take off for an evening to a reading or writers get together and come back late without a blip. They also understand what writing means to me and how to give me some space, but it still means staying up late to get work done or getting up early. I already have to get up at 0415 to get to work, so earlier wouldn’t work for a night owl such as myself.
Another thing is to involve your kids in your activities. I love photography and the girl posse and I go on “Photo Safaris.” They each have their own cameras now and love to go out. We do a lot of trips to museums, science centers, concerts, and going exploring in the outdoors whether it’s the beaches, mountains or desert, and as a writer/artist many of these trips also serve my inner needs and research while also contributing to the education and growth of my girls. I guess that’s three things. If I could distill it down to one thing, I told myself: I sacrifice whatever it takes to help my daughters and I’ll make the other stuff work out.
You can read more about Jerry and his works on his website Jerry D. Mathes: Author at Large.