THE rain falling outside the station office windows was a perfect background soundtrack to the task at hand on an Easter morning: editing employee evaluations over a pot of coffee. It’s Sunday, so the rest of the crew is enjoying the holiday in the various corners of our cavernous firehouse, watching movies, murmuring to their loved ones on their phones or elbows deep in prepping the evening meal, catching a rare respite from the daily grind of our normal schedule. Matching the weather, my disposition is without color and disconnected. Perfect.
Holidays in this chapter of life are not something to be cherished; outside of the boys, the balance of my family is thousands of miles away, and as such, invitations to join friends to celebrate often evolve into the feeling of being an interloper, crashing in on family gatherings as one might on friends’ couches during the college heyday. So, I’m glad to be at work. I’m glad to have a sense of purpose while my boys enjoy their time with their mom and family, scrambling for sugar treats in plastic eggs and gorging their appetites for hours of loud, extended-family interaction and the latest gossip on video game shortcuts and how to most effectively hit your brother with a stick. Staring at a screen filled with governmental inputs needed, my own creative mind longs for interaction, too, but that doesn’t seem to be on the menu. The role of a Company Officer often means the majority of your waking hours are spent as a data entry clerk, even on Sundays.
So when the tones struck out for our Engine Company, I was glad for break in the monotony, until I saw the comments: Alarm In A Building. Blergh. Among the most mundane of calls, the “Alarm In A Building” has the *scientifically* proven history of having the lowest excitement factor known to firefighters. They’re almost always false, they usually occur in the dead of night when a stray moth somehow triggers an entire system to go beserk and they are dangerous in that they can lull responders into complacency. They are the vanilla-flavored bane of “emergency” runs, but dutifully, they’re answered, every time. The siren wailing on the empty streets announced our arrival at a local youth mental health/behavioral facility, which means that there’s a high likelihood that it’ll be another false one, kids being kids the world over and lovers of the mischief of pulling that handle. A staff member answered the locked-down doors, with kids lined up in the hallway, concern on her face as she tells me there’s a “situation” on the fourth floor and there’s some “minor flooding” but no fire. Weird. But not too unusual in the big scheme of things.
As we walk by, some of the kids shout out to us, asking if we’ll help them. This catches my ear and eye, for they are among the most in need of reassurance. Nod, move on, say you’ll figure it out and climb the flights of stairs to get to the bottom of this. As more locked doors are opened up, we enter a level reserved for some of the toughest cases; the teenage girls dorm. We’re greeted with four inches of standing water, a broken sprinkler head flooding an “isolation room” and the screams of irate patients trying to start some sort of riot. Weird. Unusual in the big scheme of things.
“What fresh hell is THIS?”
THAT is what crosses my mind as we try to take it all in. There’s so much crying and yelling and overwhelmed staff trying to separate young women who are biting and throwing curse-laden punches at anyone who tries to come between them. I feel almost paralyzed as the sensory overload hits. I can deal with fires, we’ve seen plenty of flooding and random, violent aftereffects on medical calls, but this….this is boggling. There’s shrieking by the two primary teens who are fighting off staff for us to somehow help them, but that’s not why we’re there, and no, we’re not stepping into that game. There’s more yelling for chemical restraint and it’s just so overwhelming. These are the things the mind cannot unsee. We focus on shutting down the sprinkler system as we hear chairs and desks being heaved into walls in individual rooms and there is
The staff is scrambling around, trying to maintain SOME sort of calm while the world unravels around them. We traverse floors in search of water shut offs, eager to try and slow down the chaos. Maintenance is on the way, and when we finally shut down the broken sprinkler head, we learn that one of those teens had ripped it off in a rage, triggering the whole pandelerium. We wait with staff near an alarm panel, trying to decipher codes and silence the cacophony ringing fantastic throughout the complex, and I ask about the young kids we saw on the first floor. The supervisor tells me that they get children as young as four and five years old in here, children who are the born with fetal alcohol syndrome, little ones who’ve been sexually abused, those that are simply abandoned by those in the throes of drug addiction. It’s a heartbreaking tale, and one without a warm ending. Someday it may be these same children causing unholy havoc on Floor 4, using language reserved for oil rigs and bar brawls, throwing punches well beyond their teenage years.
An hour after the initial tone, systems restored and flooding mitigated and order somewhat brought back, we wordlessly rolled back to quarters save for a typical sarcastic joke being cracked once or twice. And it’s back to the office to try and document this bizarre call, and my mind goes wandering again, about those kids, about my own kids, about choices that lead us down the paths we’re on, all of us. The rest of the day is unremarkable really, and it isn’t until about 3:30am, awake and dancing once again with ghosts who won’t let me sleep that I decide to make the first pot of coffee and reflect on this whole chapter. The station is quiet, drips from a leaking ceiling hitting a mop bucket in perfect time, the rigs in the bay, patiently awaiting the next call, my brothers all sleeping upstairs relatively soundly and me, padding around trying to put to words my own chaotic thoughts. My soul is disconnected still, but really, is that such a big deal when I look into the eyes of children, TINY LITTLE KIDS, who are already imprisoned by circumstance? I want to call my own sons, right then, tell them I love them, but that just lends credence to their father’s reputation as a lunatic in THEIR eyes. So I don’t .
I drink and think.
I strive for gratitude that my life has the gifts within that it does, even in the face of a restless soul seeking its counterpart, knowing the song will be sung when the time is right. I’ve grown to know the dance with my own ghosts so very well, they become a source of inspiration and comfort….my version of a muse, even.
I sip and I wait for the sun to rise again. Like the Faithful who see this day as the day their Savior has risen, I choose to see this day as a chance to try yet again, one more time. We can’t quit trying, really. Even in the face of such sad institutional chaos or in a lonely government office, we just can’t give up.