I have heard some people say that Mexicans belong in Mexico. That if they’re in America, they should learn English. When you serve a man food, who comes in off a 12-to-16-hour firefighting shift protecting your community, it’s impossible to buy in to that.
At 4 a.m., my annoyingly happy alarm goes off. If you had asked me two weeks ago if I thought I would be getting up before dawn, willingly, the answer would be “hahaha, you’re funny.”
But 17 days ago, a teenager allegedly threw fireworks into a ravine in the Columbia River Gorge and in one act, the wilderness less than 20 miles from my home exploded into flames.
Now, I serve waffles, biscuits and eggs to the almost 1,000 men and women fighting the Eagle Creek wildfire. My role is not exactly glamorous, but I have a newfound respect and insight into these firefighters, many of whom are not English-speakers.
I arrive each morning at the Hood River County fairgrounds about 15 minutes before breakfast begins. A few men loiter near the catering truck, reading the whiteboard where we post the menu along with a riddle:
“Waffles, eggs, potatoes, oatmeal. I have towns but no houses, lakes but no water, what am I?”
My first shift, I spent the better part of an hour trying to decide what to say to these men and women. What do you say to a person who comes off a 12-hour shift protecting your home and your forest?
“How’s your day” doesn’t cut it. His or her day was long. Sweaty. Hard. I began to ask things like “what part of the fire are you stationed at?”
After I moved over to the food trailer, my interactions with firefighters was more limited. “You headed in or out?” “Have a good rest” “Thank you,” I tell them.
Working the food line last week, I had to ask firefighters if they wanted scrambled or fried eggs. After a few men looked at me with questioning eyes, the girl next to me jumped in with, “quiere huevos fritos o huevos revueltos.” The man in front of me smiled as he now understood my question, “huevos revueltos.” This happened over and over. Me asking a man if he wanted fried or scrambled eggs, him nodding yes, and then my co-worker repeating the question in Spanish.
Panicked, I tried to quickly learn the phrase in Spanish, but my pronunciation was terrible. I was sputtering gibberish.
After the sun rose, my bilingual co-worker went on break. A line of men in blackened yellow jackets and olive brown pants made their way to the window. I had seen them before. They eat at 7 or 8 p.m. and then roll out to work the night shift, rolling back in, looking very ready for bed, at 7:30 a.m.
I asked the first man if he wanted fried eggs or scrambled. Perplexed, he smiled at me. It dawned on me what to do: I held up a plate with fried eggs and a plate with scrambled. The man pointed to the fried eggs.
I have heard it said that Mexicans belong in Mexico. That if they’re in America, they should learn English. When you serve a man eggs, a man who has worked a 12-to-16-hour shift protecting your community, it’s impossible to buy in to that. While I slept in my bed that night, the man in front of me had stayed awake, doing work that covered his clothes in dirt, ash and soot. While the sun is high in the sky, he sleeps on the ground, in a tent at the fairgrounds.
I don’t know where he’s from. Heck, he could have been born and raised here. What I do know is that he signed up for some of the hardest work there is. He has spent the past two weeks protecting the land and homes near my house.
The answer to that morning riddle above? “I have towns but no houses, lakes but no water, what am I?” I’ll give you a hint: It’s a piece of paper that shows that we’re all part of one place.