In many ways, Roxanna “Rocky” Morton is much like other 60-something Jewish women. The Thousand Oaks resident is a doting grandmother to six grandchildren. She is philanthropic, giving to organizations including The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. She plays mahjong.
“I look like a typical country club woman,” she said.
But then there’s the part where she rappels out of helicopters and gets calls in the middle of the night to help a driver who lost control in the Malibu canyons.
Morton, 66, is a member of the Malibu Search & Rescue team, a group of about 30 volunteers, who are paid $1 a year for their services. A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, she learned about the team in the late 1980s after a consultant her husband hired suggested he remove her as bookkeeper at his financial management company — something about it not being professional to employ his wife. She had worked in the position for eight years.
“So I was fired and it pissed me off,” Morton said. “I found myself with nothing to do.”
Morton, who always had been active, started hiking with the Sierra Club, and one member mentioned the Search & Rescue team. “Nothing about it sounded appealing,” Morton said.
“It just sounded so foreign, out of the realm of my comfort zone,” she added later. “It sounded like a lot of work. I didn’t know anyone who did that kind of thing. It’s like someone said, ‘Do you want to fly to the moon?’ It was just so foreign.”
A few months later, she and her late husband, Lon, drove by a billboard for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Reserve Deputy program, which the search and rescue team is part of.
“He looks at me derisively and says, ‘I bet that’s something you would like to do,’ ” Morton said. “He knew I liked to do odd things that were just a little off the beaten track.”
For example, Morton sometimes would rise at 4 a.m. and leave to go on an all-day hike. She liked river rafting and camping. “My husband didn’t really enjoy this kind of thing, but he was very supportive,” she said.
Morton reached out to her Sierra Club acquaintance and said she had changed her mind and now was interested in the team. And so began what she described as “a long, arduous process.”
“We are having a record year. We have almost hit as many calls this year as all of last year.”
— Roxanna “Rocky” Morton
First, she had to become a reserve deputy sheriff. “I was told at that time that for every 100 people who start the process, two will graduate from the academy,” Morton said. Before she could begin, she had to fill out a 20-page application, have a physical, and undergo a background check and psychological testing.
During the four months she was in the academy, when she committed two weeknights and Sundays every week, there were moments when she waivered. But the physical challenges and camaraderie kept her going. “It was very exciting to learn how to shoot a gun,” Morton said. “We had to learn combat fighting, and I enjoyed that.” She added, “I hate to quit anything.”
Morton joined Malibu Search & Rescue in 1991. At the time, she was the only woman on the team. Now, there are several others. She remains the oldest member.
The team meets for monthly training sessions that can include shooting practice; “car over” drills using a truck and winch; tracking and searching by map, compass, footprints, even broken twigs; cliff rescues using a rope system; and rappelling out of a helicopter. That skill, she said, can be the best way to rescue someone lost deep in the wilderness.
Morton admits that descending from a helicopter can be nerve-wracking. “I’ll be honest,” she said. “Every time my heart goes a little thump, thump.” But once she is on the rope and is being lowered, her fear vanishes. “We call it an E ticket ride,” she said, referring to the most thrilling rides at Disney theme parks.
Serving with the team has meant some lifestyle changes. She tries to take her own vehicle everywhere because she needs to have her uniform and gear with her at all times and be ready to respond to calls. Sometimes she has to get up in the middle of the night or miss social functions. Once she was called away from Christmas dinner at the home of a friend to help a group of Jews who had gone hiking in Malibu State Park.
“Because there’s nothing else to do [on Christmas],” she joked.
When the group of mostly women and children was located, Morton recalls approaching them. “I say, ‘Anyone here need toilet paper?’ I can’t tell you how happy those people were,” she said. “It’s the funniest little things you really miss [when you’re lost].”
Morton hasn’t been as active with the team as she would like in recent years as she has been busy with her grandchildren. She also was tending to her sick husband, who died earlier this year. And along the way, she also got her nursing degree at UCLA and worked as a pediatric nurse practitioner for about 10 years. But she has no plans to quit the team. In fact, going forward, she hopes to respond to more calls with an affirmative 10-8 (coming), rather than 10-7 (not coming).
“We are having a record year,” she said. “We have almost hit as many calls this year as all of last year. It’s not a good thing for the population. But for those of us who enjoy doing these things, it’s kind of fun. We do like to put our training to use.”
Morton has another reason for continuing to serve: Being a member of the team means her grandkids think they have the coolest grandmother in the world. “When they see me in uniform with a gun strapped to my hip, she said, “they are impressed.”