On the east side of the town where I grew up is the Altamont Pass, a range of foothills that separate Livermore from California’s great fruit and bread baskets to the world, the San Joaquin Valley.
I believe the statute of limitations has since expired, though I will use no last names in identifying accomplices in the close call one fourth of July of igniting a blaze that came close to wiping out California’s agriculture industry. It started about midday, the three of us bored and speculating about pyrotechnics and how we might devise some.
It was Jim, Jim, and me. We were at Jim’s house (and Jims, if you two wish to collaborate on this, I’d certainly welcome the input, my memory tends to aggrandize over time), and before too long, in his garage where Jim had collected a number of unused model rocket engines. Now all we needed was an objective. I’m not sure who came up with it, and it didn’t take long to do, but the idea was bred to build a rocket with multiple stages, take it somewhere desolate and launch it, see how much altitude it could reach. Once we reached our test site, though, our objective changed.
In the late Summer evening before the sun went down we drove up Patterson Pass Road, a backroad that meandered up the foothills of the Altamont Pass and afforded views of I-580 below, an eight-lane freeway that delivered commuters from Tracy through the often fogged-packed pass to the Bay Area beyond. We found a turnout, complete with a load of gravel upon which we nestled the launch pad and where we thought of our new objective; lets see if our rocket could make it over 580, a few miles to the north of us.
So we altered the launch pad and rod from vertical to diagonal upon the gravel mound and mounted the multistage incendiary device. Two leads came out of the bottom of the rocket to which were clamped jumper cables. The other end of the cables we clamped to the positive and negative poles of the battery in Jim’s Vega. Hood up, everything connected and Jim revved the engine, upping the amps to create enough current to ignite the primary booster.
It ignited and launched and it was spectacular. We celebrated as we watched, no question it would clear the freeway below. The first stage burnt up and dropped off our little missile.
You know that feeling, the desperate realization that you’d do anything to turn back the clock a few moments now that you were just a few moments wiser. That’s exactly how we felt when we watched the first stage drop into the three to four foot tall dry grass that surrounded us for as far as we could see, and ignited it into raging flames fed by the constant breeze that came from the heated air in the valley below us.
The three of us, eyes wide, mouths agape, were frozen by all the possible consequences of our incredible stupidity. I think it was Jim who broke rank first, running to the Vega and grabbing carpet samples out of the back. He worked for a flooring store. He handed us each one and shouted, “Let’s go!”
We climbed the storm fence separating Patterson Pass Road from the California State property now burning and ran into the flames and started pounding them out, snuffing them as if we could turn the tide of this catastrophe. Who knew how many other stages and how many other fires that rocket was igniting along the way.
I was dressed in painter pants, a t-shirt and old Addidas tennis shoes with no socks, Jim was in jeans and a t-shirt, and Jim was wearing a nylon football jersey and jeans, I think, though I mostly remember him wearing painter pants as well. And we fought the blaze, flames over our heads overwhelming us with smoke and ash. Jim’s jersey melted to his body and he left us to get help from a farm house not far away.
Jim and I pounded away with our carpet samples, the sun had set and the strong winds characteristic to the pass were kicking up, whipping the flames closer to the Altamont summit and into the San Jouquin Valley. I gave up and shouted to Jim, “It’s no use! We can’t do this!” Let’s just pray for help!”
Jim was black as night, undaunted, pounding away with his smoldering carpet sample.
”No,” he said, “Pray while you hit!”
“What?” More incredulous I think, than hard of hearing. “Pray while you hit!”
It seemed like hours before they showed, but eventually fire fighters had made their way to the blaze. Jim and I chased part of the blaze into a gully where it ran out of fuel to burn, and that’s where we noticed the trucks spread out along the hillside, spotlighting hotspots and dowsing them out. A nearby truck spotlighted us.
And there we stood, smoking with smoking carpet pieces in our hands. The truck approached and a volunteer fire fighter look at us amazed and confused. “Did you guys put out this fire?”
I dont think we realized we had. We looked at each other and then back at the volunteer in the green truck. I think Jim said something like, “I guess.”
“Do you know how this fire started?”
And both of us were in sudden denial. Another moment, much like the one where you wish you could turn the clock back a bit, upon which your response to the question would directly impact your legal record.
“No, sir.” I think we said in chorus.
He looked at us and hosed us down a bit. “You want a ride back to the road?”
“No, I think we’ll be okay,” or something like that. And Jim and I turned and started walking away. In a few steps we started to reason and in a couple more we stopped and turned and shouted back to the volunteer, stopping him from pulling away.
“I’ll have to call this in.” Of course.
He had us hop into his truck and he took us to the fire commander. We stood before him, pathetic, black, singed, ash up our noses, what hair we had left curled in heat-induced afros.
“Understand you’re the boys who put out this fire.”
“I also understand you’re the boys who started it.”
He pitied us. He told us if we could get out of there before the State inspector arrived he’d pretend we didn’t have that conversation.
The volunteer loaded us in his truck and made haste to the opening in the fence they had cut to get their vehicles to the fire and as we pulled through, that avocado green California State Chrysler made its way through going the opposite direction. We were deposited and the volunteer went back to dowsing hot spots.
A few yards away was the Vega, hood still up, jumper cables still connected to the launch pad, dead. We cleared the cables, put the hood down and coasted down Patterson Pass, popped the clutch and made our getaway.
Obviously, I’ve never forgotten Jim’s attitude, pray while you hit. And while I’m not a praying man these days, I still recognize and call upon the fortitude Jim showed that night on the Altamont Pass any time I’m facing my own infernos.