Wednesday 31 January 2007

1946: A Brush with Death

In the summer of 1946 the three friends set off to what was perhaps one of their greatest adventures, their destination was the beautiful and picturesque Mount Lassen County in Sierra Nevada. It was here where they took on employment as fire fighters working the whole Mount Lassen area. Their conditions upon arrival where not particularly accommodating. Due to a seriously overcrowded bunkhouse, the boys were forced to sleep in the garage, sandwiched between trucks and varying forms of fire fighting equipment. They soon settled in and before long they began to enjoy the rugged lifestyle. The cool evenings were spent around a large open log fire with general boys banter and exchanging stories with their colleges. Weekends were again the time to kick up their heels, the excitement of hitting the town and of course chasing the local girls. This life was pretty idyllic as far as Clint was concerned, the clean mountain air that greeted him each dawn, his love for the forest wildlife including the deer and grizzly bear all added to a near perfect setting. Among Clint’s duties were the clearing and cutting away of brush and small trees, cutting firebreaks as it was known. A logical idea in theory, in the unfortunate event of a fire breaking out, these clearings were designed to act as some minor means of protection in stopping the fire from spreading beyond any one particular point. It was by no means full proof but essential work nevertheless. It was on a perfectly normal morning that Clint and his team were working clearing an area of loose brush. It was very hot and particularly dry, ideal conditions in fact for a fire. It was a mystery just how it actually started that day, maybe a discarded cigarette butt, no one knew for sure. The dry undergrowth began to burn, hot and fast, and before long Clint and his workers could see the flames rapidly approaching their immediate area of work. Together with the thick smoke and the increasing rising temperatures the situation was becoming distinctly uncomfortable, but still the team remained close to their firebreak eager to see if their clearing would work. Unfortunately, the winds were now also increasing which was bad news as floating flames of bush and deadwood were landing on the other side of the clearing. Before long the place became ablaze and Clint and his fire fighting team tackled the flames throughout the night and into the next day. It felt as if they were losing the battle against the inferno that was now moving at an alarming speed.

It was one of the team that raised the alarm when their hose had become snagged with the trees as the fire continued to get closer. It was becoming a worrying and increasingly dangerous situation, there was no choice Clint and his team had to retreat to the truck and get out of there. As the driver slammed his foot on the accelerator the truck almost immediately cam e to a shuddering halt. It was the hose, which was still tangled up within the trees of the forest, the wheels continued to spin, but they were going nowhere. Without contemplation Clint quickly weighed up the situation, grabbing an axe and leaping from the truck, he laid into the hose. With the driver’s foot still pressed firmly on the pedal, the hose broke free leaving the truck to spin off through the forest and Clint still running on foot in pursuit of the truck. As the smoke grew thicker Clint noticed a clearing and beyond that a small farm house that he turned and headed directly for. Staggering through a pumpkin patch he reached and pounded at the front door of the house. The occupants, a farmer and his wife took Clint to the kitchen where he slumped exhausted into a chair. The farmer was both smart and wise, he new of the dangers of such fires and had situated his home out of harms way, and he assured Clint that he was in no immediate danger and to relax. The coffee and pumpkin pie served to him in the kitchen couldn’t of tasted sweeter. He eventually caught up with the rest of his team, no one was surprised that Clint had coped with the situation, they were sure he could take care of himself. The fire continued for a further two days, but the young Clint emerged as a pretty impressive individual. As a 17 year old he was conducting himself as a man well above his years. It was probably the last of the great adventures that Clint took with his two friends Bob Sturges and Jack Macknight, but from here he would set out on his own and taste a whole new set of experiences.
Clint still returned to school where his results remained steady and adequate but nothing spectacular certainly nothing that warranted serious university tuition. In between semesters he continued to explore California and beyond. His family was happy with this and respected his wishes. Why wouldn’t they, he’d already demonstrated both an independence and a mature intelligence. By 1947, if Clint could have chosen a career in show business it may very well had been as a musician, he had become pretty good on trumpet, and particularly good on piano. In fact, he found himself playing piano at the Omar Club on Broadway in Oakland, there was never any money to show for his efforts but the young man was given free meals and all the beer he could swallow in return for tinkering at the ivories. Fritz Manes recalls, ‘everyone started gathering around and listening and having a great time. Then whenever we came back, they tried to get Clint to play and people would come in and ask for him. And he’d walk in and say, ‘Well, we’ll get to it later,’ but he always did because he wanted to, and he would play for hours, literally for hours.’

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