Johnny, We Hardly Knew Ye

My first cognizant thought about firemen was in Mrs. Jefferson’s kindergarten class, circa 1979. The memories are blurry, but there nonetheless: a huge red truck arrived at Vieja Valley elementary school, two guys riding on the back, mustaches thick, voices deep and gravelly. They laid out their breathing apparatus on the floor of our classroom, sternly lectured us about playing with matches, kindly demonstrated Stop Drop and Roll, and then took us out to their rig – a gleaming, screaming red pumper, complete with 3/4 hip boots rolled down on the tailboard, axes and nozzles and ladders and all. I vaguely remember the captain standing off to the side, having a smoke in the parking lot while his crew gave us the tour.

These guys were mythical figures, even then. My own father wore a coat and tie, headed off to an office and did who knows what all day long. What I was sure of was that there was an abundance of women with an abundance of makeup who worked with him, and collectively, they spent their time smoking cigarettes and answering phones. I had no idea whatsoever what went down in that office. But these men were different. They were big strapping guys who, in my eyes, probably carried their axes at all times, to the grocery store, to their homes, to the movies, ever ready for an emergency to strike whereby an axe might come in handy. They laughed with us, they were loud and boisterous, and Mrs. Jefferson seemed to tolerate their gruff mannerisms with a gleam in her eyes, just delighted to have something hold our wild attention spans if only for a moment. They told us of their lives in the fire station, sleeping near the trucks, eating together, ready night and day for the next big call. They rode on the backs of trucks, they wore cool helmets and they saved lives on a seemingly daily basis. I don’t know if they could see it in our faces, but every last one of us would have traded our souls to be taken by these guys on their truck, under their collective care, immune to the mundane lives we’d led up until that day. To this day, that was the best career recruitment seminar I’d ever attended, and I was five. Those guys knew EXACTLY what they were doing, smooth as silk and laughing the whole time.

God almighty, I wanted to be a fireman.

More than anything in the world, I wanted to be a fireman.

And, as is typical of the things that we want at that age, the burning fury with which I wanted to join their ranks lasted a short while. A couple of years passed, and it was decided in my mind that I should really be an F-14 Tomcat pilot in the Navy, a desire that was inflamed to obsessive proportions by the movie Top Gun. I only loved that movie for the flying scenes as I found it somewhat disconcerting that Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis would spend a good portion of their time licking one another. That was just weird to a twelve year old me. I never realized the dream of flying in the Navy, nor did I have to endure a tongue cleaning by Kelly McGillis, so it all works out in the end, I guess.

My next run-in with the fire department came in high school. My friend Kwame Jackson’s dad was a fireman for Santa Barbara City FD, and he was one bad mother. He was huge and strong, looked as though he took crap off of no one, yet was gruff and funny all at once. He could visit Kwame in the middle of the week (mind you, this was boarding school, so we were essentially in a teen isolation unit), in the middle of the day (who had THOSE kind of hours?) and looked like a genuine man of action. He was usually wearing a standard blue fire department tee shirt, and he wore it well and with what seemed like pride. He gave off the air of a man who worked for a living, one who belonged to an exclusive club that didn’t honor suits and ties and high-minded parlance. The man was a walking bad-ass, and commanded my respect the moment he showed up in our dormitory. My enduring memory? Don’t piss a fireman off, they look like they don’t suffer fools lightly.

And so passed several years. College, mindless employment, all that.  A short stint doing some time as a sub to a sub contractor that worked on wildfires campaigns. One day a co-worker asked, since I loved running heavy equipment on fires, would I be interested in the local volunteer department. They had around 18 members, always happy for more. Their last structure fire had been, like, three years previous, and they were still pretty stoked about it. Mostly, they gathered around the station and smoked cigarettes and joshed one another and belonged to a club, one defined by handlebar mustaches, pagers and blue ball caps.

Immediately, I wanted in.

I went through a local academy, and lost myself in the lingo and lore that is the fire service. I was wearing gear that was painfully ancient, but I didn’t know it at the time. I was so goddamn proud when they gave me my first set of hand-me-down gear that I took it home and wore it around the house like an idiot, just to see how it really felt to really be a fireman. They accepted me on their team, and I was thrilled beyond belief. I think I made about six calls in about six months with them.

I moved to Alaska and immediately sought out a department to join. The Central Matanuska-Susitna Fire Dept., based in Wasilla allowed me to join their ranks, and off I rambled through another volunteer academy. It was a great group, those people, and they were run professionally, even if everyone was only paid-per-call. No one slept in the firehouses, there were no full-time firefighters, so it was always a race to the station when a call came in, hoping against hope that you’d make it onto the rig and arrive there like a REAL fireman, not in my own regular-guy pickup. It wasn’t enough. I needed more. Like the me of 1979, I began to focus like a maniacal 5 year old sociopath on being a career fireman.

The mania paid off.

I joined the Springfield Fire Department in June of 2000, after sweating it out for a year and an initial rejection. Someone didn’t pass muster in the background check, and I was given the call. THE CALL.

Ten years and ten bajillion runs later, there is nothing that compares to working fires if a man has to work for a living. I get tired of all the political bull, but then, who doesn’t? I like to bitch and moan, and like to think I can do that with the best of them. I wonder if I’ve made the right choices in my life, like we all do, and I worry about my kids, like we all do.

But every once in a while, we get the call to go to a school. We slip into our uniforms, and although we can no longer ride the tailboards of the rigs and the captains don’t choke down smokes while we give our presentation, the wonder and exhilaration still lives large in eyes of a kindergartner.  We show them our axes and saws and hoses and ladders, we knowingly slip in inside jokes to get a chuckle out of our colleagues, we flirt with the teachers, who seem to share the universal delight of teachers the world over when someone holds the attention of their charges. We let them grab the gear and watch the lights and hear the tell-tale wail of our siren, we sternly warn them of the dangers of matches. The banter, the trucks, the ability to connect with kids (since we’re obscenely immature as a group), it all adds up to training hours for the bean counters downtown, but more importantly it adds up to connection for us and little kids.

Because somewhere, in that group of wild-eyed youth, there’s gonna be a seed planted. One kid or two will start thinking about the life of a firefighter. Twenty years later, they may stumble back across that notion, and the life-cycle will begin again. They’ll remember the thrill of seeing the guys in their gear, the meaningless swagger and the sense of calm that overtakes people young and old when that truck shows up. These are the people who make it all better. These are the people who’ve turned their backs on the corporate world, the world of suits and ties and financial markets and business development gurus and simply love a job that is chaotic and simple all at once.

I should know. I was one of those kids.

I still am.