The building had three bays with an engine, a truck, and the chief's car. An engine is a pump and hose equipped with basic medical, whereas a truck is a big toolbox on wheels with a ladder. The trucks did more at fires and handled specialized rescues. I looked at the shiny vehicles with envy.
“Hey, don't be getting any ideas about old Betty,” A heavy-set fire fighter greeted me as I stood at the entrance gawking.
“I'm Phil, Betty's chauffeur.” He offered a big calloused hand.
“Neil Archer reporting for duty,” I said and we shook hands. He seemed amused at my probie manners.
“Come upstairs and meet the captain,” he said, leading the way. Phil's suspenders kept his pants in check against a girth that threatened to pop the buttons off his shirt. He had a buzz cut dusted with gray framed by bushy sideburns that matched plump eyebrows above hard blue eyes.
The rest of the crew were out back playing basketball in a makeshift courtyard. I could hear their banter thru the open window as I entered the captain's office. The captain leaned out and called the guys in to meet me. While we waited, he explained the operation of the station in a cordial but no-nonsense way. He was a lean man of about forty five, with thick black hair and a neat mustache.
“Transfer document please,” he said as he held out his hand. I pulled the official papers out of my small briefcase. The captain looked at them intently.
“Driver’s license.” Again, with his hand out in expectation. That was odd, I thought, frowning.
“We had an impostor try to pass himself off as a probie a few weeks ago” he explained. Okay, that was even odder. He narrowed his eyes as he regarded my I.D. Then asked me for my social security card followed by my union card. As the scrutiny became more bizarre, I wondered if my library card was next.
“I'm going to have to ask you to remove your pants,” The captain demanded.
“What?” I balked, with eyebrows raised.
“It's either that or I pat you down for hidden weapons,” he shot back.
I had been stationed in Hazelwood, one of the toughest neighborhoods and it was not unusual for a few guys to be armed. I started to unbuckle my belt and was about to drop my pants when I heard snorts of laughter and turned around to see the rest of the crew breaking up at the sight of me--pants in hand. I had been warned this company was known for their originality with pranks.
“Captain Fabiano. Welcome to Company Six,” he said, shaking my hand with vigor. The others completely lost it. I pulled myself together to shake hands with him and then the others who stepped forward to happily introduce themselves. The crew was a mixture of young and old, black and white, a progressive thing in 1984.
“Alright men we got a new girl here and I want you to go easy on her.” Fabiano smiled as he gave the standard introduction. The guys answered with snickers and bobbing heads.
“He will be with Rueben, Darryl, and Fisher.” The captain pointed out the three crew members of the pumper engine that was also the medic unit.
“Not another EMT,” someone muttered, earning him a sharp elbow in the side from Fisher.
Fisher was a mature man with a milk and coffee complexion and a widening gut but moved gracefully as he gave me an enthusiastic tour of the place. Fisher was the driver for the engine and had a second job as a taxi driver so he knew every street in the city.
“You train with Chief Gordon at the academy?” Fisher asked, sizing me up.
“Oh yeah the Spike, God that man was fierce,” I replied. He was the top instructor at the Bureau Training School. Fisher shook his head and laughed.
“Ain't that the truth,” he said.
He showed me to my locker where there was a piece of white tape on the door with “Asshole” written on it.
“That was for the previous guy,” he apologized, and quickly yanked it off.
Aside from the technical stuff, one of the most important lessons learned at the academy was that a company is part frat house, part military unit. Guys just hanging out one minute snap to a strict command structure the moment the alarm sounds. The instructors taught us to control ourselves under stress, get along with others and show the right spirit. I guess there were high expectations of me after the last guy.
“What was that crack about another EMT?” I asked, jerking a thumb toward the day room.
“Oh that's just Kaz," he said.” He really didn't get along with Mister Asshole, but don't worry--he's a nice guy once you get to know him," Fisher assured me. I nodded vaguely, stowed my stuff, and padlocked the door. Fisher watched me with interest.
“Gear used to get stolen all the time at the other firehouse,” I explained.
“Don't worry about that here,” he said. “This neighborhood is richer, safer--and whiter,” he added out of the corner of his mouth.
No kidding, that's why I jumped at this opening. I went from the chaotic front line of a battlefield, where it was not unusual to be shot at or have bottles and bricks thrown at you, to the bucolic officer's club in record time.
I spent the rest of the shift getting to know the guys. Mariusz "Kaz" Kazinsky was tall and ruggedly handsome with wild reddish blonde hair. He turned out to be as nice as Fisher predicted, although it took me some time to get used to his rough humor. My fellow paramedic Rueben Ehler showed me the engine. He was a little taller than me with curly brown hair and sharp brown eyes. One of the first paramedics hired by the bureau, Rueben heartily approved of the training I got from Roscoe during my probation at the other company.
Darryl Haines, the youngest, sat in the back of the rig with me. He reminded me of the singer Lionel Richie: thin as a rail with neat frizzy hair and glorified peach fuzz for a mustache. He was as quick on his feet as he was with a comeback, I liked him immediately.
I grew up in rural Illinois and the crew found my small-town manners highly amusing. I didn't do drugs or smoke, and drank only moderately. I barely even swore and addressed elders with “Sir” and “Ma'am” so they dubbed me 'Boy Scout'. We settled on a night out at Kelly's Bar, a favorite haunt of the gang for my intiation, where Phil regaled us with tales of his early days.
Phil was old school: he didn't need any sissy breathing apparatus. It was a badge of honor to emerge from toxic smoke and hawk up black phlegm for days. He spoke nostalgically of the days when guys didn't ride an inside cab but jumped on the tail board and held on as the trucks screamed around corners. The first company Phil worked with didn't even have an aerial ladder, they caught people with canvas. He also had no tolerance for “darkies or broads” in the bureau. Everyone ignored Phil’s rants because of his seniority, but he was a hard man to like.
When I had joined the bureau, Pittsburgh firefighters had a bad ass reputation and fought fires with a swagger that risked their personal safety. The bureau, with its new budget, could no longer afford the risky attitude and the new guys found it unattractive.
While the unions and command argued with the city over funding, the firefighters grumbled about having to pay for tools, gear, and groceries out of their own pockets.
Even though trucks and engines work together on a fire, there is a clear line between the two crews and they can be territorial about their jobs and equipment. I discovered there was no room for promotion as a paramedic but there was as a truckie, who saw more action at a fire. That's what I wanted, but it meant ‘crossing the floor’, so I bided my time, proving I was experienced enough before requesting the transfer.