I’ve always been terrible at chemistry. From Chem 101 taught by Doug “I am not a moose” Clark in high school to attempts at a firefighters grasp of Organic Chemistry, there’s never been an moment where the concepts have clicked beyond rote memorization. I am honestly baffled by the gall of local cooks who utilize street chemistry to batch up meth in mobile labs; as if the whole she-bang weren’t nutty enough, these Mensa rejects give it a go while rolling down the road in a beat up Dodge Predator-Model van. In a word….chemistry is terrible, mostly because I don’t get it. And even that’s not entirely true – but I’m getting ahead of myself. Indulge me for a minute, here.
First off the facts: our station, Firehouse Number 2, is home to one engine (pumper) company, one truck (ladder) company. We have three shifts, each comprised of two captains, two engineers and four firefighters on an ideal day. This brings us to a total of 24 guys living out of three refrigerators, two urinals, three showers (two for the captains, one for the other eighteen enlisted-types), and seven recliners. Citizens regularly ask “why is there always a firetruck at the grocery store? My tax dollars are paying for what kind of meal tonight?” I stand by my earlier statement of fact – 8 guys gotta eat every day. And, no, contrary to crotchety old men in grocery store parking lots all over the city, we pay for each and every meal out of our own pockets. And if you want to avoid merciless ridicule that can last for years, you better be able to feed all eight guys two meals, plus enough for coffee and some sort dessert for no more than $8/man. The pressure can kill a man, assuming the boys on the crew don’t get to him first.
Consequently, interpersonal relationships within the firehouse are built upon factors that cause psychologists to have sleepless nights and mental breakdowns. We don’t worry about issues like “validation” and “empowerment”; we focus on such timely concepts as “when’s dinner gonna be ready, you filthy rat-bastard?” and “what’s that? Homophobic, you say? Well, you’re in luck, we all sleep naked. In one bunk.” Most fire department spouses interested in keeping a healthy marriage learn to ignore their lesser half every third day while they’re at the station occupying downtime by destroying any self-esteem they encounter in a co-worker. It’s a weird system, and, most importantly, it works. We don’t trust sunshine that is blown up the backdoor. It keeps you grounded. Not coincidentally, that’s why we can never have any respect for Sean Penn (it’s sorta hard to take the guy who played Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times At Ridgemont High seriously, especially when he’s out trying to command “respect” because he’s an “actor” and is thereby qualified to know lots of things that you and I don’t.)
And every once in a while you’ll get a moment in time, when all the gears are clicking, the crew is busting each others chops in perfect succession and you can just feel it. Kind of like when you figure out, during some point in your senior year at high school, that you’re living in a moment, and that moment will be gone all too soon, but right now, it’s perfect. You want to hold on to that moment, because you’ve never laughed harder, felt more alive, more in sync than in that micro-second of time.
Last night, I was lucky enough to experience such a moment. As chance would have it, I was covering another engineer’s shift at the station, and we were enjoying some fresh-brewed coffee at 9:30pm, sitting in aforementioned recliners and waxing brilliant about such intellectual fare as UFC fights and martial arts in general. And at some point, while the Truck Captain was vividly recreating some fight scene, his limbs flailing in every direction, all of us laughing uproariously to the point of choking, it hit me. Five or six guys, one furniture fire barely worth mentioning recently quenched, splashing coffee around a firehouse day-room, more amused in this moment than they’ve been all day, and all feels right in that very moment.
That right there?
It just took me a while to figure it out.