Any ambition I had of fixing the world when I became a firefighter evaporated from the sheer overload of daily catastrophes. In the first two months of my probation, I saw every kind of human calamity. Fires that consumed homes in minutes, drug overdoses, and multiple gunshot wounds from gang fights.
The fading steel industry was still a cause for gruesome maiming by heavy pieces of metal in the machine shops or death from molten slag slopping out of crucibles.
I adjusted to long shifts, sleeping in a dormitory with the other guys, and learned how to come fully awake in 30 seconds in the middle of the night at the alarm. I thought I handled the stress pretty well until the first time I saw a burnt body. I had nightmares for weeks. Some things you can never unsee.
The shift was 24 hours on followed by two days off, that sounds cushy but you may get little or no sleep during the shift. Even in our quaint residential location there was no shortage of calls to keep us busy. After fininshing paperwork and checking equipment, I used my spare time drawing in a sketchbook while others played basketball or hunkered down in big comfy chairs watching TV.
Darryl was washing the engine one day with the radio on in the background when Phil entered the bay.
“Change the fucking the station,” Phil complained. He hated rock and roll.
“Hey it's KISS,” Darryl said cheerfully, demonstrating a few smooth moves to the Michael Jackson song. There were constant arguments over musical preference and Darryl enjoyed baiting Phil.
“Yeah, well kiss this jagoff,” he shot back presenting his large posterior to the upstart. We were laughing at the banter when the alarm sounded. Darryl snapped off the radio and we listened to dispatch. Everyone rushed to the vehicles and pulled on their gear; we were out of the firehouse in seconds.
“Watch out, coming through, look out!” the engine and truck sirens scream, unlike the mournful wail of an ambulance. We hoped it was a 'good one' and not a false alarm, which wasted time and made us unavailable for a real emergency.
Another company was already on the scene of a fire that had engulfed a two-story paint mixing plant, which meant lots of hot zones where potentially dangerous chemicals had spilled. Brown canvas hoses cluttered the pavement, puddled from all the water sprayed on the smoldering structure. Smoke billowed from broken windows.
“All hands working,” the battalion chief called over the radio, meaning everyone pitches in. The air was chilly and I felt grateful as I pulled on an extra pair of heavy leather gloves I got from Dad.
I dodged a chunk of burning debris blown off the roof by the wind as I trotted to the rear of the building where I discovered a barred and locked gate over a door. I hate those damn things. Nice for security but guaranteed to trap someone inside because of the double-keyed dead bolt. If you don't have the key handy, you're screwed. I braced myself, took hold of the metal door with both hands and with one hard yank pulled the door free of the hinges and the lock. When more crew showed up, I commented on how lucky it was this door was busted.
It turned out to be unnecessary as there were no people inside, thank God, the toxic fumes would have killed them. The foul air smelled like a mixture of turpentine and burning tires.
I went out front and stepped over the hose Fabiano and Fisher aimed at the angry fire visible between banks of viscous smoke as thick as drapery. One of the Captain's jobs is to stand behind the nozzle man and direct him.
“Easy does it. Move in closer. Keep the stream on the ceiling,” he shouted over the loud hissing of the water.
Deep down firefighters enjoy the thrill of putting out a good fire and the opportunity to control the nozzle like a child with a cool toy. Fisher enjoyed it even as he struggled with the strenuous work.
I stepped up to support the line. The pressure from the powerful hoses puts considerable strain on the arms and can knock you off your feet and takes two or more to hold them. I hauled the hose along easily. We knelt down to stay out of the lowering smoke as we inched toward the doorway. I backed off when I was ordered to help ventilate the roof.
As I headed out, I saw a guy from the other company stagger out of thick smoke, fall to his hands and knees and retch on the sidewalk. It's not unusual for firefighters to emerge from a fire with black smoke stained faces, snot running out noses and teary eyes. It's also not unusual to see these same guys light a cigarette later on. Go figure.
I climbed the ladder to the roof of the building next door to join Kaz and Mike.
“Looks like a good one, Boy Scout,” Mike commented.
'Iron Mike', the tillerman for the truck, was as intense as his blue eyes and knew the temperament of a fire better than anyone. We knew we were safe whenever we were with him and I tried to affect the same fearless attitude he had. Kaz and I climbed over the five-foot ledge of the taller building, poking holes in the surface with long metal poles to release the hot gases.
“Watch your step, this bitch is a mean one. If the roof collapse’s, it’ll drop you in the fire,” Mike shouted a warning. Sure enough, a moment later a section gave way. Instinctively, I grabbed Kaz and leapt back to the other roof, a good ten feet away, where Mike reached out to help. We scrambled to escape the smoke and intense flames that shot up where we had just been standing.
The fire shifted from manageable to defensive in an instant. After pouring on thousands of gallons of water from multiple hoses the classic building ended up a total loss, which was a shame.An hour later, the fire was finally knocked down. The first company stayed behind to pull down ceilings and walls in search of hot spots. Firefighters want to make sure a fire is dead when they leave so it doesn't light up again.
We returned to the firehouse in time for a quick shower before dinner. The hot water felt good after the chill of the day and washed away leftover adrenaline. When I walked into the dining hall Iron Mike was regaling the crew about our brush with the fire.
“Man, Boy Scout couldn't get away from that hole fast enough. He practically flew to the other rooftop,” he said with excitement. I froze at the statement until I realized he was being dramatic.
“That's not the only hole he's run away from,” Kaz added to bawdy laughter. Firefighters are known for exaggeration and black humor to ease the stress of harrowing work. The guys began discussing dinner.
“Whose turn is it anyway?” Darryl asked. Not Kaz we hoped. The handsome charmer was good at many things but cooking wasn't one of them. Phil had been banned from the kitchen long before I arrived for reasons no one would discuss. Everyone looked forward to Captain Fabiano's turn because he would bring homemade Italian dishes from his mother. If we were feeling rich, we would order dinner from Pato's, the Greek restaurant recently opened next door. Everyone in unison turned to me.
If there was one sure way to endear myself to the guys this was it. As part of my ‘bachelor training’ Mom had taught me how to balance a checkbook, do the laundry, and to cook.
“Well, I do have a killer meat loaf recipe.”