I had a very tenacious wart on my pinky finger. I had tried every wart treatment CVS had to offer, and they had done nothing. I had enlisted my then-boyfriend (now husband) George to administer Freeze Away, and he had been amenable, but when he pressed the frozen styrofoam pen to my wart and the surrounding flesh began to smoke, a sickened look came over his face. So the wart remained.
Once George and I bought tickets to go visit my friend Bryan Jack and his family, however, I told George he didn’t have to worry about my wart anymore because Bryan would cut it off for me. Bryan and I have a history when it comes to wart removal.
In the late '90s, I spent two years working as a wildland firefighter with Bryan on the Pike Hotshot Crew. On fires, we knew that if we died, we would likely die together, and that knowledge -- along with all the fun we had -- created a strong bond.
In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting Bryan, his wife, Jenn (a cop, and one of the toughest women I know), their three kids and extended family. The Jacks live on 30 acres of farmland on the vast plains stretching out from Colorado’s Front Range. The joke has always been that if my life ever totally falls apart, I am going to live with the Jacks. But it’s not really a joke -- I could show up on their doorstep jobless, penniless, carless and they would take me in. Everyone should have that kind of safety net, that kind of love.
Bryan and I have hiked a lot of miles together. He is one of the strongest and most competent wildland firefighters I have ever seen. I have watched him use a chainsaw to drop a flaming tree hung with widowmakers exactly where he wanted it to go. I have seen him calmly lead hotshots through situations that would cause most to panic. But he also has an appreciation for the absurd and ridiculous.
When we were on the hotshot crew together, I had a batch of warts on my feet and a recurring one on my shin, and when we had to hurry-up-and-wait at a forest fire -- which was pretty often -- Bryan would cut my warts off with a Leatherman to pass the time. It was kind of fun and pretty gross, which sums up a lot of life as a hotshot. Hotshots are always eating bugs on a dare, or playing drinking/eating games that result in vomiting, or talking about their latest poop in the woods. So wart-removal fit right in with the general culture. (And my refusal to let go of that culture was perhaps the reason I never went to a doctor to have the damn wart removed properly.)
Although I visit the Jacks three or four times a year and talk about them constantly, I had never introduced them to a boyfriend. I always made my visits to see them alone, their house a safe haven for me that I shared with no one. But in the summer of 2013, I decided to take George to meet the Jacks. I love George enough to share the Jack family with him. And I felt a strange pride in telling George that Bryan would cut off my wart. It was a way of saying that I had friends that loved me and took care of me in our oddball way -- the grimy, rugged, slightly disgusting way of hotshots.
The first day George met the Jacks was a little rough. In the clannish way of small town people, they did not give him an entirely warm welcome. But then the hotshots hadn’t exactly given me a warm welcome when I first came around either. The next day, George and I went for a hike in the mountains, and that night, the Jacks had a rager. The neighbors all came. Bryan's dad came, and so did his younger brother, Jared.
As the party started, I showed Bryan the wart on my finger. George was sitting in a chair nearby, watching.
“Will you cut it off?” I asked.
“That’s your hand, MP. I liked them better when they were on your feet,” Bryan said. Which was his way of saying no. I felt a quick flush of embarrassment. I didn’t want George to think I make idle brag talk. And more than that, I wanted the wart gone.
By the time the party was starting to wind down, Bryan had drunk a bottle of gin, and then I asked him again, “Will you cut off my wart?” Without answering, he raced into the other room. He returned with a scalpel, iodine, and lidocaine. Bryan was not just the battalion chief of his fire department, he was also an EMT. And an aspiring pig farmer.
“I just castrated 21 piglets with this scalpel,” Bryan said. “But I got you a new blade, MP.”
He looked red-eyed. He looked drunk. I put out my hand nervously, and he sprayed it with lidocaine. I looked at George. My look said, I’m scared. My look said, Should I let him cut off my wart when he is this damn drunk?
George’s look said, He doesn’t look too-too drunk to me. George is British, so we have cultural differences, namely in our definition of what constitutes really drunk.
I looked at Bryan, all red eyed and a little sloppy, and my anxiety lifted. I knew I would trust him to cut a wart off of my finger. I knew I would trust him with much more than that. When things had gotten dodgy on the fireline, I had often trusted him with my life, and would do so again in a heartbeat. He had never let me down.
I held my hand flat against the kitchen table as he painted my pinky finger with iodine. Everyone crowded around to watch the show. Bryan cut deeply around the wart and clamped it, then yanked it up and sliced under it with the scalpel. Everyone cheered, and Jenn went to get a freezer baggy so they could freeze my wart. (It seemed like a genius and important thing to do at the time, and a sign of love, but I wonder now to the purpose was.)
At that point, Bryan's friend Sean stepped forward and announced he had two skin tags on his butt he would like removed.
He yanked up his shorts from behind, and in a few moments, Bryan had clamped the skin tags and sliced them off while Sean yowled in mock (or perhaps real?) agony. All the while, Bryan kept announcing, “I am not a doctor. I am not a physician.”
Then, Bryan’s brother, Jared, said he had a growth on his balls he wanted off.
“He’s not cutting off your VD,” I said.
“That ain’t VD,” Jared said. “I’ve had that thing since junior high.”
Bryan refused, but Jared pushed him until he agreed. We all looked on as Bryan clamped the growth on Jared’s balls and sliced it off at the kitchen table.
The pink bit of skin on the clamp looked like the tip of a pinky finger or a hot dog. Sean turned to my boyfriend and said, “This how they do it in England, George? This how they do it in England?” before he started daring us to eat the growth. I fought the urge to puke.
“I am not a doctor,” Bryan reminded us. “I am not a physician. I am not licensed to perform surgery.”
We are adults, I thought. This is Bryan and I as adults. We have made it. We didn’t get boring. We didn’t get stuffy. Bryan still has the same wild gleam in his eye, and the thought made my heart leap with a certain wild and reckless joy.
Jared, alarmed that his nuts were bleeding profusely, had one hand down the front of his pants. He looked panicked that perhaps one of his testicles would drop through the fresh hole in his nutsack. To me, it seemed a valid concern. With his other hand, he tried in vain to pry the top off of a bottle of Maker’s Mark. For some reason, it was this sight that disturbed George.
“For god’s sake, Mary,” George said, “Go and help the man.” I jumped to my feet and opened the bottle for Jared, who took a giant swig, which I’m sure only served to thin his blood and increase the bleeding.
Pretty soon after that, we all made our way to bed. I lay in the dark next to George, and I knew that the ice had been broken and that the Jacks would like him from here on out. And I felt grateful for it, and grateful I had a man in my life I loved enough to introduce to my hotshot friends -- friends who know the part of me that is tough, that can dig fireline for 24 hours straight, and sleep on the cold ground all night with no sleeping bag, all without a complaint. And I knew that while I had told myself that I would move to the Jack family farm if my life fell apart, the truth was that I had fallen into a depression a few years back and I had been visiting the Jacks frequently to help myself through, to bring some happiness to the hard part of getting better.
It was such a relief to realize that I really was doing better now. I knew then that if you fight wildfire with people, and you stand by each other then, you have people who will love you and look after you your whole life, people who will make you laugh at their pure outrageousness, especially when you really, really need that kind of laughter.
And it’s good to know that Bryan and I still love to see the wild youthful glimmer in each other’s eyes, even though we are long past the age when life should have beaten such ludicrous and unlikely joys from us.