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Our Little Lookout Companion

GOVERNMENT documents are famous for their verbosity. The United States Forest Service Official Manual for Fire Watchers is no exception. Since our purpose was to guard the forest, I knew it wouldn't come right out and say daytime naps are recommended for those on duty. On the other hand, it didn't actually say you couldn't, either. We'd been up most of the night marking lightning strikes on the map. I knew my partner was working around the base of the tower and would periodically scan the horizon for signs of smoke. Besides, the surrounding terrain was well watered down by the storm, lessening any fire danger for awhile. My conscience was clear.

Warm sunlight streaming in through one side of our glass cage in the sky was the drowse factor that finally enticed me over to the bed to catch a few zzz's. Consciousness was gently giving way to unconsciousness when I felt tiny feet racing across my back. I'd forgotten to close the door.

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There's not much doubt in my mind that Elmer was somewhere around that first day of our arrival watching the last pack mule in the string being unloaded before returning to the guard station. Most likely he was pondering what kind of summer it would be sharing the peak with these humans. Surely he had visions of winter lay-aways, and made a mental shopping list as our provisions became visible.

TO most people Elmer would probably look like a squirrel. In the days that followed I was more inclined to suspect that was only a disguise.

I'd never been comfortable with the idea of training animals to behave like humans. Before Elmer came into our life, I'd given still less thought to being trained by a wild animal! And that's exactly what happened after the initial getting-acquainted rituals were completed. Eventually we could come close to telling time by the rapid thrrrud thrrrud thrrrud on the wooden steps up to the door. His speed was awesome and his arrival predictable - 6 a.m. and 3 p.m. almost daily.

If the door wasn't open, Elmer would scratch. If that didn't work, he'd hop onto the narrow windowsill above our bed to paw at the glass. Patient he was not. (Too bad some of that early-morning energy couldn't have been channeled to hoist the flag!)

Once the door was opened the routine never deviated. An inspection tour took place of everything around the inside walls of our 14 by 14 abode.

FIRST a look into the soup ladle hanging on a peg. This required a full-height stretch. Then a quick pass by the stove where his pancake was cooking, followed by a peek under the curtains of the shelves below window level. My hairbrush was always worth a long pause, (another creature, perhaps?). If it got knocked to the floor, he made a quick exit outside and then a slow cautious return to finish the inspection. Usually by the time he'd nosed around our desk and checked out the radio equipment, the pancake was ready.

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Even this was routine. The chosen place to eat it, held in his paws, rotating and nibbling around the edges, was smack in the middle of our table near the warm coffee pot. A reserved table with a magnificent view of Mt. St. Helens (before the 1980 eruption). This squirrel had class.

Like patience, sharing was not one of his virtues. Chipmunks and other visitors came around but were never allowed beyond a certain point below the first step. This was Elmer's exclusive territory. He was tolerant but not hospitable.

His built-in clock must have also included a calendar - or maybe the hoofbeats of the mules on the trail were a tip-off. Before we unloaded the first box that second summer, Elmer was there. I knew because a package of paper napkins was moving across the ground with no means of locomotion in sight. It was squirrel-power. And it was that second summer we discovered Elmer was really Elmira!

How could we be so sure this was the same squirrel from the first summer? How do you recognize a friend? Personality, mannerisms, and that well-established, inspection routine. Oh yes, this was our buddy.

For some reason the afternoon visits didn't usually last quite as long as the morning ones. It was on one of these, and one time only, that she appeared with her babies. What a Disney group they were! She set the limits as to how close we could come to them but her pride was obvious. We felt privileged and honored to meet her children.

THAT summer was our last time on the lookout since we'd begun a family of our own. A few years later manned-lookouts were replaced by aerial surveillance. What a change that must have made in Elmira's lifestyle.

Did she ``miss'' us as much as we missed her? I'd like to think so. Maybe we gave her as many happy memories as she gave us. Do squirrels have a memory? Well, I'd be willing to count on one that does.

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