Clyde Smyth (left), former Santa Clarita mayor and high school superintendent, chats about old times with Mike Shuman at the 1997 Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival.
Photo ©Leon Worden
The genesis for this article occurred at the May 20  meeting of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society — a monthly meeting of the society held at the Saugus Train Station in Hart Park. The speaker's topic at this meeting was "The Ridge Route." It was a most informative and historically interesting meeting showing the Ridge Route as it was when first built, its historically significance, and as its exists today. But for me, it was all that — and more! For it played a very important part of my life when I first came to the valley to teach school at [William S.] Hart Junior [and] Senior High School in the year of our Lord, 1953.
But to get the full flavor of this rugged period of fascination (did Hemingway start this way?) let me take you back a few years and [give you] some background information that will explain how I got to this valley and found my way as a "Boy Ranger," patrolling the Ridge Route as a raging fire engulfed the "Ridge" and threatened all those on it at the time. So, with apologies to my great and good friend John Boston, let me take you back a few years.
The year is 1942 — the war is on and I have just graduated from the University of Vermont. My brother, a doctor and graduate of the University of Vermont Medical School, wanted me to go to medical school. My uncle, a very prominent dentist in Boston, counseled me otherwise — he encouraged me to go to dental school. His argument was, (1) the money is just as good, and (2) the hours are a hell of a lot better — no night calls, weekends — just 9 to 5.
I wanted neither, really — I wanted to go to the newly established Hotel and Culinary Art School at Cornell. But when you came from an orthodox Jewish family as I did, it's either a doctor, lawyer or a highly qualified cutter in the garment industry — at least it was at that time.
I opted for dentistry and took a Greyhound bus out of Boston to San Francisco and the V.C. College of Dentistry in San Francisco. I spent a year there — probably the most miserable period of my life. The first year of dental school consists of scientific classes of anatomy, physiology, etc. But much time and effort is devoted to carving teeth, overhauling upper and lower jaws — in other words, [requiring] some excellence in eye-hand coordination. I had none! I probably brought a whole new meaning to eye-hand coordination. The school and I found out — simultaneously — that I was "ambidexterous" — i.e., "no good with either hand."
I wanted out, and the Army, with great wisdom — seldom seen before or since — finally did grant my request. I wound up in Japan.
The Army now had hundreds of thousands of soldiers with nothing to do, since the war was over (dropping of the A-Bomb). So they opened up schools and asked people like me (with B.S. degrees) to teach. And that's where I got my shot in teaching — and knew that's what I wanted to do.
My first job was as an elementary school teacher in [the] Bishop area. I met [my wife] Mary there on a ski junket. We [were] there three years and knew if I stayed one more year, I'd be there forever. So we left and a professor at Cal State L.A. (where I was taking a class) got me the job in Newhall with [the] Hart district as a junior high teacher. The year is 1953.
In the early fifties, teacher salaries were in the lower range of professional compensation — and what was even worse is the fact that you were only paid for 10 months of the year. It was, therefore, imperative that someone like myself with a wife and growing family to secure employment for the 2-3 summer months.
I was most fortunate to make the acquaintance of a terrific math teacher (and a good lady, to boot!) named Margaret Tyler. We became good friends, as well as professional colleagues. It was through Margaret that I was hired on for three summers on fire suppression. Her husband, Fred Tyler, was in charge of all fire suppression on the Saugus District of the Angeles National Forest.
The first summer (probably 1954) I was on one of the green Forest Service fire trucks as a crew member. We worked closely with a fire-suppression crew known as the "Texas Canyon Hot-Shots." They were a crew of Zuni Indians from Gallup, New Mexico. They had the reputation of being one of the very best crew of firefighters in the nation — if not the world! We responded with them to all brush fires on the Angeles and neighboring forests. They were the best and no one could match them with regard to firefighter expertise and durability.
The second summer I worked with one of the finest Forest Service Rangers on the Saugus District — Ranger Al Nissen. He had an area of Bouquet, Elizabeth Lake, Leona Valley all to patrol. I assisted him in fire suppression and forest projects. It was Al who dubbed me "Mike Shuman, Boy Ranger."
The third summer Fred gave me my own area to patrol. It was Leona Valley, Elizabeth Lake, Lake Hughes and the Ridge Route. The primary function of the patrolman was: (1) respond to the fire as reported; (2) radio the dispatcher in Arcadia (Forest Service headquarters) of the progress of the fire, the fuel it's consuming, wind conditions, terrain, etc. — They, then, will decide what and how much fire-fighting equipment and personnel to send.
My first fire on my patrol that third summer was known as the "Gun Fire." It took off from the Cienega Campground (now covered by Castaic Lake!) and was started by some guys doing some target-practice shooting. I was radioed to respond, and when I got there a county Fire Department patrolman was already there. He had reported it to the county and told me to report it to headquarters in Arcadia. It was really taking off. I ran to my patrol vehicle, got on the speaker radio and — forgetting everything I was supposed to inform them of — I blurted out, "It's a Big One — Send Everything!" I never did live that one down. I think they used it in training sessions as to how not to report a fire.
The incident that really brought these days back for me on May 20th was one that occurred on the Ridge Route (you remember the Ridge Route?) It started with a radio message ringing a fire had started on Highway 99 (no freeway yet!) and was running east up the hills toward the Ridge Route. I was asked to get down to the Ridge Route and see to it that anyone and everyone was to be notified of the fire and to leave the area!
At that time aircraft was limited and it was difficult to ascertain just where the fire was. As I got on the Ridge Route, that's what happened. And so I was told to take one of the Edison or fire roads coming off the Ridge Route and fine the fire! This I did and as I approached a knoll, I drove to the top — and there it was: a sheet of flame like I had never seen! I knew I had to turn around (and not much room to do it!) and got back up to the ridge — and if I panicked or got stuck, I was a goner! I barely beat that wall of flame to the Ridge. That and my recent heart attack are the two times I thought I would meet my Maker!
By the way, on that Cienega "Gun Fire" — it was a Big One, and though they didn't send everything — they came close!
Mike Shuman was born July 7, 1919, in Fitchburg, Mass. He became principal at Placerita Junior High School and retired as principal at Golden Oak Adult School in 1986. His big heart gave out Aug. 13, 2000, at his home in Saugus.