A sartorial triviality's not-so-trivial implications
Within minutes of reporting for my first wildfire dispatch ever, I found myself trying to decide whether or not I was going to blouse my boots. I had better things to be worrying about. But instead I just stood there, laces untied, glancing around at everyone else’s ankles.
It both was and wasn’t an important decision. It wasn’t important for obvious reasons: what I did with the cuff of my nomex trousers (commonly referred to as “greens,” which they usually are) would have zero impact on my ability to fight fire. It was important for reasons that weren’t ever explained to me as a rookie firefighter—reasons having to do with image and identity. Later on, I would watch other rookies make the wrong decision and be at least a little bit judged for it.
At any rate, the right decision—at least in the outfit I’d joined up with—is to never, ever, under any circumstances, blouse your boots. If the leg is too wide at the bottom, you can use the D-ring and strap that many greens come with to cinch them down a little. But stuffing them into your boots is a surefire way to be taken less seriously or, at the very least, earn some knowing eye-rolls and smirks.
The idea, as far as I can tell, is that only military wannabes blouse their boots and that doing so as a firefighter is a sign of posing—of being in it primarily for the status and the image. Blousing your boots, in other words, is like announcing, “I’ve seen soldiers do this and thought it looked cool and needed a low-stakes venue to try it out for myself and fire seemed like it.”
It’s not that experienced firefighters or wildland fire culture at large aren’t sensible to the fact that you might just end up looking cool on the fireline (an old joke is that the safety-conscious acronym, LCES, which stands for “Lookout, Communication, Escape Routes, Safety Zone,” actually stands for “Look Cool Every Second”). It’s that probably a good deal of recruits aren’t after much else besides the cash, rush, and chance to flex for their social media and dating profiles. Make signing up to fight wildfires conditional on never talking about it and documenting nothing of it, and the crowd of college boys and 20-somethings who show up to take the fitness test at the start of every season would thin out significantly.
Nobody has ever confirmed or denied any of this explicitly, but I think there’s already an unspoken understanding. I think a part of me already understood it too, even as I stood there in the parking lot, wondering. Which is why once I stopped wondering, I ended up ruling out tucking or blousing on the spot. In other words, I prevented myself from doing something that would have served no other purpose besides identity-signaling and fantasy-fulfillment. I still can’t say whether I did this consciously or subconsciously.
I did try cuffing the pant leg though. In my daily life, I often roll up my trouser bottoms because I do like the way it looks to show a little extra boot. Maybe I could get away with it out on the fireline too? I couldn’t stop feeling self-conscious about it though, so within a day, I did what one of my squad bosses later advised us to do if we ever found ourselves unsure of how to behave: look around and copy everyone else. The same squad boss actually made an example of me at dinner one evening: “Riley rolled up his pant leg on the first day and rolled them back down the next because nobody else was doing it.” By then I’d already managed to earn his respect with hard work and a good attitude. But I still feel like I got a second chance.