Having never been a drinker or a smoker, I should have been a monk – leading the ascetic life. My addictions have always been speed and heights. Unfortunately, either one can get you killed.
When I was about a junior in high school, for example, I can remember riding down Highway 49, between Wiggins and Gulfport, perched on the fender of a 1951 V-8 Ford, with my feet braced against the bumper and holding on to the hood ornament, doing about 90 miles an hour. With each bump in the pavement, I would bounce up and down. They say the Good Lord looks after children and fools, so I guess I had double coverage. I should have been in school that day.
Along about my senior year, my buddy and I were speeding down Highway 11 just south of Purvis, and the Highway Patrol got after us. I turned off at Talawah, went the back roads, and came back on 11 at Seneca, just above Lumberton, thinking I had evaded the Law. The highway patrolman was sitting there, however, waiting for us, with a smirk and a “you’re so dumb” look on his face.” I really should have been in school that morning. We were what passed for “bad” in those days; today, what we did wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.
So much for speed. When I finally graduated high school, I had to wait a few months to get a seat in Navy bootcamp at San Diego, so I got a job with the Mississippi Forestry Service, putting out woods’ fires all over Lamar and Marion counties. What attracted me to that job was that I was able to drive the Caterpillar that we hauled around to plow fire lanes, but, more importantly, it routinely involved climbing the fire towers at Hub and on the Purvis-Oloh Road. I had already been climbing them for the view when no one was looking. This just made it official.
Our Cat and the truck that carried it were mismatched, with the tracks of the tractor hanging off either side of the truck, making it a challenge to load and unload. Thinking back, this was probably a metaphor for our whole operation. For example, our two-way radios were basically line of sight, and we often had to stop and borrow a telephone to check in with the tower. When we got to a fire, we sometimes had to deal with a farmer who had set the fire himself and was in no hurry for us to put it out. This could be a problem, especially if the fire crossed over into someone else’s property or if there was a burning ban in effect in the first place. I’ve read that President Trump said that the current forest fires out west were caused by a “lack of raking” (forest mismanagement). I’m still processing that.
After I went overseas, I learned that my partner on the truck, my boss, had burned to death in, of all things, a stove fire. On a cold morning in Lumberton, he and some others were huddled around an oil burning stove in a garage; someone put gasoline in the stove, and it exploded. Or, at least, that was the way I heard it. He was a gentle soul.
Mississippi once had 261 fire towers. They were used extensively from the 1930s until the 1980s when airplane surveillance became a key part of the lookout. Usually, they were around 110 feet high, and the house on top was about 10 feet square, made of part metal and part wood. Entry was through a trap door in the floor. Most were built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a key component of President Roosevelt’s New Deal to get money circulating during the Great Depression. At the height of fire season and during high winds, they were manned around the clock.
During World War II, the aircraft warning service was established, and volunteers were placed in selected fire towers along the Mississippi Gulf Coast to detect enemy aircraft. In the pre-GPS period, the towers had a 360-degree compass table with two sighting arms at each end. The observers, often women, would line up the two pointing arms with the smoke and communicate the degree angles to the next fire tower by radio. That tower would reciprocate and at the point where the two lines on the map crossed would be the location of the fire.
Most of the fire towers have been taken down and cut up for scrap iron. You occasionally see one perched forlornly on a hill somewhere; however, five Mississippi towers are listed on the National Historic Lookout Register, and two of these are in the nearby DeSoto National Forest. Over in Perry County, there’s the Paret tower, built in 1934 by a CCC unit from New Jersey, and it overlooks a 16,000-acre section of national forest that is also used as a firing range by Camp Shelby.
Down in Stone County, there’s the University tower, so named because it once belonged to Ole Miss. Long ago, the U.S. Navy owned 23,000 acres of land in south Mississippi to provide masts for ships. Once wooden ships were phased out, the land was transferred to the state and later became part of the national forest. There’s a similar plot of land set aside for wooden ship’s masts along Highway 90 just east of Pensacola.
During the summer of 1956, “Beat” author Jack Kerouac, most famous for his novel, “On the Road,” spent 63 days as an isolated U.S. Forest Service fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Mount Baker National Forest of Washington state. He used the solitude to write journal notes for two subsequent novels, “Dharma Bums” (1958) and “Desolation Angels” (1960). Later on, a forest ranger said Kerouac had been relieved early because he turned off his two-way radio in order to have the peace and quiet he needed to write. Kerouac’s first novel, written while he was in the Merchant Marines in 1942, was “The Sea is My Brother,” and was not published until 2011, many years after his death.
Some of us express our need for height in ways other than climbing fire towers. In 1940, there was a man who gained national publicity for dancing up Highway 11 from Lumberton to Hattiesburg. I’m unclear about what dance steps he used, but I do know that he dabbled in a second fad of the day – flagpole sitting, the practice of sitting on top of a pole for extended lengths of time, usually as a test of endurance.
Pole sitting can be traced back to the 4th century A.D., when the hermit, St. Simeon Stylites, the Elder of Antioch, now in Turkey, supposedly sat on a small platform mounted on a rock column for 36 years. He did this for religious reasons, but the modern pole sitters were seeking publicity and notoriety. For some reason, those old woodcuts of Vlad, the Impaler, come to mind.
Probably the most famous pole sitter in America was “Shipwreck Kelly,” who sat on a pole on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, New Jersey, in 1929 for 49 days which was the record at the time. Born in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, Kelly ran away and went to sea when he was 13.Although his given name was “Alvin,” he acquired his nickname by surviving five shipwrecks, including, he said, that of the Titanic. This was obviously not true, however. There were three survivors of the Titanic named Kelly, but they were all women. Nevertheless, he was a larger than life character who captured the imagination of the country with his daredevil antics, including learning to nap while sitting upright and never being secured by more than a simple leg strap.
According to Kelly, he gained his flagpole sitting abilities because his parents had been caught in a Mississippi River flood in 1895 and had been forced to live several weeks in a treetop. Another story he told of his early career involved the Eiffel Tower in Paris. He said that he and another pole sitter were giving a toe-dancing exhibition on the top floor of the tower. The other fellow slipped and fell to his death, and Kelly was not allowed to continue until the period of mourning was over. However, his ship sailed before that time arrived, and he never finished the gig.
Personally, I used to run up the Eiffel Tower. Now I take the elevator. Of course, the change in my ascent took place over about 50 years of gradual physical decline. Other than the blow to my pride, the worst thing about taking one of the tower elevators is standing in the long line of smokers puffing away on one of those harsh French cigarettes. Statistically, only 5 percent more French light up than Americans, but these smokers seem to be attracted to the Eiffel Tower.
Maybe they like heights, but it’s really understandable as the tower is a symbol of Paris and of France. Located in the 7th “arrondissement” or district of Paris, it stands 1,063 feet above the Seine River at one end of the “Champ de Mars” (Field of Mars), a large public space across from the “Ecole Militaire,” a military college founded for poor cadets in 1750 by Louis XV. Its most famous graduate was Napoleon Bonaparte. The world’s first hydrogen-filled balloon was launched from the Champs de Mars in 1783. During the French Revolution, the field was a major execution site, and countless royalists were guillotined there, including the king and Marie Antionette.
It’s 1,772 steps to the top platform of the Eiffel Tower, which sways about four inches in a brisk wind, but the view of the City of Lights, day or night, is stunning. On a clear day, you can see about 37 miles. At night, it is often lighted in dazzling colors, most often the French Tricolor. Supposedly, when Adolf Hitler arrived in Occupied Paris during World War II, the French Resistance deactivated the elevators, forcing him to walk to the top. The Eiffel Tower was the tallest building in the world until 1929 when the Chrysler Building was completed in New York City. The tallest building is now the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which comes in at 2,717 feet. See what you paid for with those high prices at the gasoline pump?
I’ve always had this “thing” for towers, having been in, up, around, and down a lot of them. If I had been an Iroquois, I could definitely have worked the high steel. I’m the guy who rocks the Ferris wheel gondola; who jumps up and down on the suspension bridge; who gets too close to the edge for one last look. Take the 250-foot Airborne training towers at Fort Benning, Georgia, for example. Now days, you can just about throw a stick and hit someone wearing parachute wings, but back in the day, they were hard to get. I had just come out of Vietnam and was about half-crazy when they sent me to Benning for jump school. I was really looking forward to Tower Week which was the second week of training. They strapped a parachute on you; hoisted you up the tower transported south from the 1939 Chicago World’s Fair; let you hang at the top for a few seconds to admire the view; and then cut you loose to free fall to the ground. If things went right, and the wind didn’t blow you into the legs of the tower (and you grabbed on, as a friend of mine did), you landed in this nice plowed field, and it was a good introduction to your first actual jump from a plane which came the next week.
There was an instructor on the ground, with a megaphone, one of the notorious “Black Hats,” who had no pity, and it was his job to yell out encouragement and instructions as you drifted down, like “looking good,” or “bend your knees,” or “tuck in your chin,” My instructor must have been real impressed because he just took one look at me and covered his eyes. But, like they say, any jump that you walk away from is a good one.
Light a candle for me.
Benny Hornsby, a resident of Oak Grove, is a retired U.S. Navy captain. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit bennyhornsby.com.