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Great Wooded South: Adventure at Big Knob

The first installment in what we at CM hope will be a series of tales from Billy Joe's days with the Fire Patrol, makes for a great Sunday read.--PW.

By Billy Joe Fudge
Retired District Forester

Chapter I
"KGW 750 Big Knob to Campbellsville, 10-8," blasted loud and clear from the old low band radio on a clear, warm, breezy and dry morning in Pulaski County Kentucky. It is late March, in the middle of Spring fire season. 10-8 is radio mumbo jumbo for "in service" and Ms Routon was the first fire tower to sign in that morning.

Our dispatcher, Sharon, at the District office replied, "Campbellsville to Big Knob, 10-4 and... standby."

You could hear the nervous anticipation in Ms Routon's voice as she replied, "10-4, standing by!" Ms Routon had been manning the tower at Big Knob for a dozen years and she knew something was up. Big Knob was the tallest of some three dozen fire towers in the South Central District and she was proud as peaches of that claim to fame.

The radio traffic was intense as one tower after another signed in with Campbellsville. "KGW 750 Crocus Far Tire, 10-8" followed by "KGW 750 Gum Tree to Campbellsville, 10-8".

Campbellsville replied, "10-4 Hugh, 10-4 Gomer"! At this point things were way too busy to follow correct radio protocol and you could almost hear the number 2 pencil in Sharon's right hand racing across the radio log as her left hand keyed the microphone.

If you look up "mentally and physically ambidextrous" in the encyclopedia, you will most likely see a Wildfire Radio Dispatcher's picture used as an example!

Ms. Routon smiled as she scanned the horizon in every direction, looking for any sign of smoke. The call for her to standby would most likely mean that something had happened during the night that she should be checking on or someone had reported something that she should be aware of. She smiled because she knew Hugh's and Gomer's voices and even though she had never met them, she knew them well. Hugh was a 60 year old bachelor who lived with and took care of his 80 year old Mother. Their house was about 300 yards down the hill from the fire tower in which he worked. Gomer was a highly intelligent person with very little formal education and a very quick wit. His claim to fame was that Gum Tree Fire Tower was standing in his yard.

Sharon said, "Campbellsville to Big Knob."

Ms. Routon, roused from her thoughts, answered, "Big Knob, uh, whataya need?"

"Ms. Routon, Ranger Sam contained a fire about 3:00 this morning and he wanted you to keep an eye out that way as the day heats up. It is 47 degrees from your location about 10 miles out. If you see anything let us know."

"10-4 Sharon, I'll pay close attention."

"Gum Tree to Big Knob, Ms Routon that is the direction the sun comes up in the morning, in case you were wondering..."

"Shut your mouth, Gomer!" You could hear the grin on her face as she said, "your far tire could be on far and you wouldn't know it!"

Hugh at Crocus said, "Hehehe, I guess she told you!"

Chapter II
Prior to the use of airplanes to find wildfires or just to find smokes from illegal burning which had to be checked and dealt with, observation towers built on the highest knobs in strategic locations were the "early warning systems" of their day. Observers in fire towers were very important to the wildfire suppression effort. They only worked two and a half months in the Spring and two and a half months in the Fall. They made very little money and most lived within walking distance or a short drive. But for retirees, housewives, grandmothers and rural folks of all makes and models living a long distance from town, it was a welcome opportunity to make some extra money.

They were a close bunch who talked to each other on the radio as if no one else was listening and of course, talked way too much. But when things would get out of hand, so to speak, Campbellsville would put out an all points bulletin that would go something like this. "Campbellsville to all units, standby until you have something important to say!" That would usually limit the visiting for a few minutes.

So would go the day. Smokes reported from towers, Rangers checking on the smokes and suppressing the fires if need be. Back and forth it would go till Sharon and the other folks in the office would have ten or more sheets of conversations and maybe even life saving information in the log book every three or four hours. Maps on the wall of the 16 counties in the South Central District would have pins marking uncontrolled fires, reports of fires to be checked, locations of fires that are contained, fires that are controlled but no fire reports turned in yet, and on and on and on it would go.

But then, the end of the day would come for those manning the towers. As things would slow down in late afternoon and visibility would begin to wane, the tide would reverse. Each tower person not otherwise engaged in some needed duty would sign off when Campbellsville alerted them to the fact that the activity level had fallen enough for them to go home.

Given the fact that she was no longer needed, Ms Routon keyed the microphone on her radio and said, "KGW 750 Big Knob to Campbellsville, 10-7". 10-7 is radio mumbo jumbo for "out of service".

"Campbellsville to Big Knob, 10-4."

After hearing confirmation, Ms Routon took a long look out to the horizon around the entire perimeter of her small space; all the while listening to a few more towers sign off. Talking to herself, she went through her checklist of things to do prior to heading down the tower steps and landings. "Let me see now: close and latch all windows, turn off radio, put garbage in lunch bag, get purse and water thermos!" She then crammed her lunch bag into her big purse and set it and the water thermos on the tower floor, right next to the trap door.

Yes, fire towers have trap doors! Fire towers were constructed with a series of steps and landings that led to the floor of the tower cabin. That last landing allowed the tower person to stand on the landing while reaching overhead to remove the padlock and push the trap door upward to open it. Then all one had to do was walk right up the steps through the hole to the inside.

For Ms Routon negotiating the trap door was the tricky part. You see Ms Routon was a big woman. She was not just big; she was b-i-g! How she could maintain that weight after climbing that 80 foot tower for sometimes 30 days in a row was beyond me. At any rate, she would work her way down through the hole in the floor. Grab her purse, water jug and padlock and set them on that top landing, pull the trap door closed and lock it. This same thing would repeat itself, day in and day out for her and all the other tower persons.

However, not so for Ms Routon this day!

Chapter III
Some 45 minutes later....a radio microphone keyed. Occasionally these old radio microphones would stick and you would hear nothing but breathing for a long spell with an occasional murmur or a throat being cleared. Then, sooner or later the operator would realize that they were not hearing anything on their radio and check their microphone. But the microphone was not stuck on this was being held down!

Almost immediately, it was apparent that some heretofore unknown life form was in possession of a Division of Forestry radio. There was a deep, extended, guttural exhale that sounded much like a Jake brake on a log truck which was followed by an inhale that was akin to the sound of a jet engine running up the RPM's prior to take off. And it seemed to go on for an eternity; in and out, in and out, in and out! Until finally, during a short pause following the jet engine we heard, Ms Routon, squeeze out the three letter word, "Sam"! Then after the next Jake brake and jet engine there were two words, "get up"...more breathing..."here right"...more breathing..."now"!

Now Ranger Sam had known Ms Routon his whole life and had encouraged her to take the job at Big Knob when it came available. So, when Ms Routon finally released her death grip on the microphone, Sam hurriedly said, "I'm on my way Ms Routon! Do you need an ambulance?! Are you okay?! Are you having a heart attack?! What's going on?!" and 2 or 3 more questions that for the life of me, I cannot remember. By the time Ranger Sam finished playing "Twenty Questions", Ms Routon had finally raised her oxygen level enough to string together a phrase or two that somewhat resembled a sentence.

"I got down to the bottom landing...more breathing... bring your gun, Sam!...more breathing... there is the biggest...more breathing... Rattlesnake I've ever seen climbing...more breathing... the tower! Lord only knows where my purse ended up to!...more breathing...I ran up every step till I got light headed...more breathing...hurry up Sam!, I don't know how fast they can climb!...more breathing...Oh yea, Oh, I forgot, KGW 750 Campbellsville! I'm okay!...more breathing...oh Lord! I ain't closed the door yet!...a squeal...Is that snake in here with me?!?!

I think everyone listening across the entire district were tickled pink that Ms Routon was okay and we, along with her, were finally able to catch our collective breath.

Sam finally arrived on the scene, blew that Rattlesnake's head off, helped Ms Routon find her purse while helping her recover from her fit of over-exertion and, all was well. I have to admit that I literally laughed myself to sleep that night.

Chapter IV
The next morning, bright and early, an hour before any tower had signed on, Ms Routon said with a bright, cherry, excited and energetic voice, "KGW 750 Big Knob, 10-8"!

"Campbellsville to Big Knob, 10-4." After a short pause Sharon asked, "Ms, Routon...are you okay?"

"....Yes I am Sharon, thank you for asking. The top of my head is sore..." then laughingly, "I must've pushed this trap door open with my head!"

Sharon said, "Ms Routon, I would have died right there on that lower deck! All of us over here are happy you're okay."

"Thank everyone for me."

"10-4", will do Ms Routon."

A few minutes later, Mr Strange signed Renox Tower on. As soon as Campbellsville gave him a 10-4, Ms Routon asked Mr Strange if he heard what happened to her yesterday afternoon. When he answered "no", she proceeded to tell him the high points of the adventure.

She told him about, encountering a Rattlesnake on the lowest back up the steps to call for help...about Sam coming out and killing it...that she didn't sleep a wink last night...and that she didn't know if she'd make it to work today!

Mr. Strange said, "I'm glad everything turned out okay." "And oh uh, how big was it?"

She replied, "Yea, I'm fine and we didn't measure it but it was over four feet long and had three rattles!"

As radio traffic would permit, Ms Routon would ask the same question of each person after they signed on their fire tower to begin their day's work. The conversation would go pretty much the same but, a strange thing happened, to the size of that snake as the morning progressed.

Ms Routon told Julie in Mell Tower, "......didn't measure it but it was over four and a half feet long with four rattles!"

She told Hugh at Crocus Tower, "......didn't measure it but it was over five feet long and had five rattles!"

The snake got even bigger when she told Roger at Lone Star Tower, "......didn't measure it but it was over six feet long and had six rattles!"

Now as I told you Gum Tree Fire Tower stood right in Gomer's yard. When there was no rain in the forecast, Gomer would leave the windows open and the radio on so he could hear what was going on during the night and in the morning before going to work. He had heard every bit of Ms Routon's adventure and had heard the snake grow to enormous proportions in about 45 minutes.

"KGW 750, Gum Tree to Campbellsville, 10-8."\0x2028\0x2028"Campbellsville to Gum Tree, 10-4 Gomer."

"Big Knob to Gum Tree; Gomer did you hear what happened to me yesterday!?"

"No Ms Routon, I didn't! What happened?!"

Well, she told him about the biggest Rattlesnake she'd ever seen climbing the tower steps...about racing back up the steps...about Sam coming out and shooting it with his pistol...that she didn't sleep a wink last night and that she didn't think she would make it to work!

Gomer said, "I sure hope you are all right' and then asked "How big was it?!"

She exclaimed, "Gomer it was a big one that I'm sure was nearly seven feet long and had eight rattles! It was a big'un!"

"Ms Routon, I know what you mean because I killed one in my back yard last week and it was bigger than that!"

"Oh, Gomer! How big was it?!"

"It was nine feet long and had seventeen rattles."

Ms Routon in sort of a high pitched squeal replied, "Good Lord Almighty, what a snake!"

This story was posted on 2023-03-05 10:41:34
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Renox Fire Tower from below

2023-03-05 - Adair Co., KY - Photo by Billy Joe Fudge.
Billy Joe writes, "This is Renox Fire Tower on the knob that joins Adair, Cumberland and Metcalfe directly beneath the tower. It is 60 feet tall, while Big Knob Fire Tower in Pulaski County is 80 feet tall (and would have been a much more challenging climb for a severely overweight Ms Routon running for her life!)"

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Renox Fire Tower

2023-03-05 - Adair Co., KY - Photo by Billy Joe Fudge.
Billy Joe writes, "This is Renox Fire Tower on the knob that joins Adair, Cumberland and Metcalfe directly beneath the tower. It is 60 feet tall, while Big Knob Fire Tower in Pulaski County is 80 feet tall (and would have been a much more challenging climb for a severely overweight Ms Routon running for her life!)"

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