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By Sam Perry
The memory of my conception is, understandably, hazy, and I don’t know exactly when it happened, but I am pretty sure I know where it took place. That may explain why I suffer from what super-educated people call Acrophobia, otherwise known as fear of heights. I am not aware of anyone who suffers from a fear of back seats of 1957 Chevy’s, however, so the two may be unrelated. At any rate, it is my firm belief that my eternal soul was incarnated on a narrow bed in the cabin of a fire lookout tower overlooking the mighty Cumberland River. My parents, apparently, thought it was as good a place as any to get the job done.
In 1937, my father was serving as Company Clerk at the Civilian Conservation Corps camp at Pleasant Run, in Whitley County, when the Cumberland National Forest was created. When the managing agency of the Forest, the U.S. Forest Service, sent out a plea for young men to stand watch over the newly-acquired federal lands during the spring and fall fire seasons, my father was more than happy to trade his typewriter in for a pair of field glasses and signed up. He was assigned to duty at a hastily built lookout tower beside the Dryland Bridge in Cumberland Falls State Park while a newer one of steel was being built high on top of Pinnacle Knob.
By the time construction of the newer tower was complete, he had fallen in love with Dora Slaven, a dark-haired beauty who lived on Sand Hill Road. The two married and when the fall fire season began in 1938, they moved into the tiny cabin that had been built above the canopy of trees on Pinnacle Knob. Installing living quarters on top of a tower was a stroke of genius that permitted a fire watcher to remain on the job twenty-four-seven for the duration of the fire season. With a wood-burning stove, kitchen supplies, an Aladdin lamp for lighting, and a comfortable bed to sleep on, my parents had all any newly-wed couple needed to set up housekeeping. There they remained through seven fire seasons, not leaving their treetop home except when fire danger was minimal or non-existent. In 1942, they left it for good. When they departed, they became part of a cadre of men and women who have almost been forgotten and whose contributions to the American experience has, for the most part, gone unappreciated.
Fire lookouts are obsolete now, having been replaced by aerial surveillance aircraft, but not so long ago, they were critical components of forest management. Lookouts were hardy young men, and, later, women, who perched in cramped, and, sometimes, swaying fire towers, keeping a sharp eye out for smoke on the horizon during the spring and fall fire seasons.
Early lookouts and their stations in McCreary County included Everett Mason, Stearns tower; George Freeman, Buck Knob tower; George Ashton, Wolf Knob tower; Kent Cannady, Cotton patch Knob tower; Charles C. King, Stephens Knob tower; Marion Cooper, Skull bones tower; Francis Ball, New Liberty tower, John Mason, Peter’s Mountain tower, and, of course, my father, Ledford Perry, who watched from the Pinnacle Knob tower. A temporary tower, built of pine logs, was set on a ridge near Wiborg and was manned by a lookout named Sellers.
The fire towers were built atop the highest elevations available and were strategically placed so the lookouts could triangulate a smoke. This required the use of a unique instrument that resembled a compass and that dominated the interior of the cabin. It was called the Osborne Fire Finder and was used for determining direction.
Each tower was connected to the Laurel Ranger Station by a primitive telephone system. Upon spotting a wisp of smoke on the horizon, a lookout would call the fire dispatcher at the ranger station, which was located between Stearns and Whitley City, giving the dispatcher the compass reading on his Fire Finder. Other lookouts, who had seen the same smoke, would do likewise. Three calls were required for triangulation. Using a large district map on the wall before him, the dispatcher would then stretch strings from three tower positions on the map, using the compass readings called into him. Where the three strings intersected would be found the source of the smoke. If the smoke proved to be on private land, nothing would be done unless federal property was threatened. However, if the fire was observed to be on government land, the closest fire warden was ordered into action.
This system of rapid response to the presence of smoke served the Forest Service well for many years and the number of wildfires decreased dramatically. When it became cheaper for the Forest Service to hire a single pilot with an airplane to fly over the district, looking for smoke, the lookouts were removed from their duties and the towers, for the most part, were torn down. Fortunately, the Pinnacle Knob tower was not one of them. It remains today, newly restored to almost its original condition, including the telephone which my parents used to call in compass readings. The bed they slept on is gone, though, replaced by something even they, in their non-discriminatory mindset, would have rejected. It could be easily replaced with a proper one.
Lookouts left a legacy that needs to be remembered. They endured long, boring hours during the spring and fall fire seasons confined to tight quarters, in the broiling sun, awake from sunrise to sunset, leaving their cabins only to answer the calls of nature, ever on guard for the presence of smoke on the distant horizon. Their pay was low and for companionship, they had only the soaring turkey vultures and the paper wasps which found the towers irresistible for nest building. Visitors were few and far between and their only link with humanity was through the fragile wire which ran from the tower cabin to the dispatcher.
On the other hand, however, the physical isolation which they endured seemed to deepen their spirituality as though being perched high above the rest of the world afforded them an insight that others did not possess. They alone understood just how big the world was, for it stretched before them for mile upon endless mile. They knew how small man truly is in the grander scheme of the natural order. Every day, they saw the hand of the Creator at work, in the sudden appearance of storm clouds on the western horizon and in the crash of lightning against the steel framework of their wind-buffeted cubicles. They saw it, too, in the quiet approach of the monarch butterfly, en route to its winter home in Yucatan, and seeking to rest for a moment on the railing outside the tower cabin. They saw it when they made eye contact with the sharp shinned hawk as it glided past the open window and heard it when the wood thrush announced in early May that the fire season was over and it was time to plant corn.
Then, and only then, they would pack their meager belongings, put away the pots and pans, re-fill the Aladdin lamp with kerosene, smooth the bed spread, and descend the narrow stairway that led to the real world. There, they would rejoin their fellow human beings and await the arrival of the next fire season. When it came, they would retrace their steps, dust off the fire finder, and turn their eyes again to the thin line that separates heaven and earth..