Somewhere along the Gulf Coast. Twenty-four years ago.
In the academy, the department spent six months filling our heads with all sorts of information. Fire behavior. Hazmat. Ropes and knots. Radio procedures. Fireground Operations. Rescue operations. An EMT course. You can only pack so much inside the human brain, but all of it seemed to ooze out through my ears as I stood in front of my new home, Fire Station One, for the first time. I had been assigned to A Platoon. This was not my first day of work, that would be forty-eight hours later, but in the academy, they told us to stop by the shift prior to our first to introduce ourselves to our captain and go over the rules and training objectives for our probationary year.
When this station was built, it was a remarkable sight to behold, but that was back when Theodore Roosevelt was president. Now, it resembled an aging movie start who conceals the lines and wrinkles on her face with heavy makeup and just can’t quite come to admit that her time has vanished with the advent of talking pictures. Station One was definitely not ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille. The main building was three stories of red brick turned brown from age and weather. There were two bay doors, both open, and I could see the front bumpers of the engine and ladder. The windows on the second and third floors all held window unit air conditioners as the city was too cheap to add central air in the older stations. To the left of the building was a one-story addition with two more doors for the battalion chief’s car and the rescue truck. To the right, a chain link fence with razor wire on top surrounded the parking lot which was filled with older model pickup trucks.
It was December, and though I was dressed in my Class A uniform; dark blue double-breasted coat with matching pants, long sleeve light blue shirt with a dark blue tie, and an eight pointed uniform hat, a thin trickle of sweat ran down the back of my neck and I fought to suppress an involuntary shiver that ran down my spine. The weight of the manilla file folder tucked under my left armpit and bulging with my training records rubbed into my side. I had not really set out to be a fireman. It just sort of happened. I was in the process of flunking out of the community college and saw an add in the paper that said the department was giving a Civil Service exam. On a whim, I took it. I scored well enough to move on in the process. I completed the exam and the agility test on back to back days. After passing the agility test, they gave me a twenty-five page background packet to fill out where I had to list all my deepest darkest secrets. We had a week to turn it in with supporting documents. A month long background investigation followed. I got a call out of the blue telling me I was scheduled for a polygraph exam the next day and, if I passed, a panel interview the day after that. I was certain I had bombed the panel interview, but I guess others did worse than me. Three days later, I sat in the chief’s office and he gave me a conditional job offer based on me passing a medical exam and a psych evaluation. Two days ago, I stood with ten other graduates on a stage in the high school auditorium. We all raised our right hands and swore to protect and defend the Constitutions of the United States and our state, and to faithfully discharge the duties of the office of firefighter for the City Fire Department. Then, one by one, the chief called our names. We walked over to him, came to attention and saluted before he pinned a shiny silver badge to our chests.
“How in the hell did you graduate from the academy when you are too dumb to come in outta the cold?”
I looked up and saw an African-American man of indeterminate age standing in front of the bumper of the engine. He wore a non-regulation department sweatshirt, his arms folded across his chest.
“Oh…uh…I’m sorry, sir,” I stammered. “I was…uh…I was just…”
He shook his head and turned away, disappearing back into the station as he muttered to himself, no doubt questioning my intelligence. I hesitated for a moment, and then trotted after him like a lost puppy. The inside of the station smelled faintly of smoke, motor oil, and mildew. Three brass poles descended from the second floor, one to the right of the engine, one in between the two trucks, and one to the left of the ladder. Three more provided more downward access towards the rear of the trucks. On both sides of the apparatus bay, the stalls which once held horses now contained a variety of gear; old turnouts, SCBA tanks, tools, and boots. All except the one the near the front of the engine.
A sign over the stall said, “Watch Desk.” I poked my head inside and saw an older firefighter with close cropped gray hair leaning back in a swivel chair, his feet propped up on the desk as he watched a small black and white television which sat atop a black file cabinet. His fingers were laced behind his head. There was a handheld radio on the desk, along with a base unit transmitter. A printer sat on a second file cabinet near the first one. The desk was in front of a switchboard with various knobs and switches. I wondered what they were all for, but I figured they would let me know eventually. I waited for a minute to give him a chance to notice me. He didn’t, so I cleared my throat.
With an exaggerated sigh, the firefighter turned to me and said, “What the fuck do you want?”
I stood up straight and said, “I’m the new probationary firefighter assigned to Engine One. I’m…I’m…in the academy…they told us to stop by and introduce ourselves before our first shift.”
He scratched his chin and asked, “The new what?”
“Probationary firefighter, sir.”
I thought maybe working around sirens had damaged his hearing, so I said it louder, “Probationary firefighter, sir.”
“No,” he said. “You are the new asshole. That’s what your name will be until you show us you belong. Now, what’s your name?”
“It’s John, sir. John O’Doe.”
He laughed and said, “You are one dumb mothafucka. I just told you that your name is now asshole. I’ll ask you again. What’s your name?”
“Oh,” I said. “Right. It’s…uh…my name…is…uh…asshole.”
“Good,” he said with a nod. “You ain’t as dumb as you look. Captain’s office is on the third floor.”
I thanked him, but he had already turned back to the television. As I walked away, he called out, “Hey asshole! Don’t forget to bring enough ice cream for the whole shift on your first day.” This was something that they warned us about in the academy. Every station had its own house rules. Some said that probationary firefighters had to bring donuts every morning for the entirety of their probationary year. Others wanted ice cream every shift. I knew that there were 14-16 firefighters on A shift at this station, depending on vacations and sick time. That was going to be a lot of ice cream. As I made for the wrought iron spiral staircase that led upstairs, I mentally calculated how much this would cost. Given that my salary as a probationary firefighter was a whopping 19K a year, ice cream would take up a chunk of that. Make it through probation, and I would be the recipient of a 2K a year raise! People don’t go into firefighting for the money. That’s for sure.
The staircase deposited me in between a kitchen to my left where two firefighters busied themselves with a pile of dishes and a day room to my right, with a large table in between. On the day room side, a group of firefighters sat on two sofas and a couple of recliners of a distinct 1970s vintage and watched a TV on top of an entertainment center full of VHS tapes. A brick arch on the far side of the kitchen led to a bunk room where I could just make out metal bunks along both walls stretching back to the front of the station. None of the men took any notice of me as I searched for another staircase to bring me up to the third floor.
It looked like there was a hallway on the other side of the day room, so I circled behind the guys and crept down it. There were a few doors on each side. I hit a dead end at the back wall where, on my right, a second set of stairs led back down to the ground floor. There was a door on my left and I carefully opened it and breathed a sigh of when a set of stairs leading up greeted me. The steep, wooden stairs creaked as I walked up. The steps were well worn, from decades of work boots making the same trip I was.
I opened the door at the top of the staircase and found myself in another hallway. There were four doors, even spaced with two on each side. The doors were made of beautifully carved wood and had a frosted glass pane in the center. The door on my right had a sign that said, “Chief.” The left, “Rescue.” I made my way to the second set of doors. The left said, “Ladder,” and the right said, “Engine.” Taking a deep breath, I knocked on the door with my right hand.
“Enter!” barked a gruff voice from inside.
I turned the brass doorknob and walked into the office. I immediately came to attention and saluted the man behind the desk and said, “Probationary Firefighter John O’Doe reporting to Captain Arceneaux of Engine One.”
The captain was an older man with salt and pepper hair with a pair of wire rimmed spectacles on his nose. He sat behind a desk piled high with papers. When he saw me, he stubbed out his cigarette into an ashtray perched perilously atop the largest stack. There were two other desks, similarly filled with forms in the office, and a single metal bunk with a sleeping bag draped over it as a sheet.
“You my new man?” Captain Arceneaux asked.
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“Welcome to hell, kid. Shut the door and give me your file. Then have a seat,” he said as he gestured towards a chair in front of the desk.
After I closed the door behind me, the captain did not stand up, but he did hold out his hand. At first, I thought he meant to shake mine but then realized that he wanted my file. Passing the documents over, I dropped into the chair and said, “I just want to say how happy I am to be assigned to your company. I know that…”
He waved a hand to stop me, then pulled off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
“How do you expect me to read through this with you bumping your gums?”
“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” I said.
After thumbing through my file for a grand total of thirty seconds, Captain Arceneaux pulled open a desk drawer, dropped the file inside, and slammed it shut. Then he fixed his eyes on me and said, “How old are you, kid?”
“Nineteen, sir,” I said. “Nineteen and a half, exactly.”
“Tell me something,” the Captain said as he began to rub his temples, “why do you want to be a fireman?”
“I want to help people, Captain,” I said with a measure of pride in my voice.
I flinched when, in response, Captain Arceneaux burst out laughing. It was a deep, throaty laugh that soon turned into a hacking cough. He spat a wad of brownish-green phlegm on the floor and said, “Help people? You ever heard the story of that Dutch boy and the dike?”
“Uh…I don’t think so, sir,” I said.
“Well,” the Captain said as he leaned back in his chair. “There was this Dutch boy over in…over in…wherever Dutch people live at. Anyway, they got these dikes to keep it from flooding. So the water starts coming up and then, one of them dikes starts to spurt water. This Dutch boy knows he only got one way to stop the flood. He’s gotta stick his finger in that dike and try to hold back the water. Understand what I’m saying?”
I did not, but I did not want to appear unintelligent and so I said, “I…I…think so, sir.”
“That’s what you’ll be doing here, son. Trying to hold back the flood. Twelve calls is a slow shift for us. I don’t know what they expect me to do with a probie whose balls ain’t even dropped yet. Yo’ mamma know you up here playing dress up?”
“I’m just here to do my part, Captain,” I said. I quickly added, “And to learn.”
“The number one thing to learn is to forget that bullshit they taught you in the academy,” Captain Arceneaux said as he fished a pack of Lucky Strikes from his pocket. He shook one out and lit it. After he blew a smoke ring over my head, he said, “I’ve been on the job twenty-eight years. Back when I got hired, we had one month of training. Now they baby y’all for six months. And we didn’t have to learn all that medical bullshit back then either.”
My mind wandered back to six months of being screamed at daily by instructors, forced to do countless pushups and numerous punishment drills. We had training evolutions where they would push us until we were on the brink of heat exhaustion and then give us a ten minute break before they screamed at us to stop playing grab ass and get back to work. At any time, even when you were taking a piss, an instructor might appear and bark, “Recruit, what are three ways that heat is transferred;” or, “Recruit, what is General Order No. 12-378;” or, “Recruit, what is the proper compression to breath ratio on a 6 month old baby with no pulse and no respirations?” Woe unto you if you did not immediately respond with the correct answer. Being called recruit was actually an honor. The instructors normally called us “numb nuts,” “asshole,” or gave us an unflattering nickname based on some unfortunate physical characteristic, or our ethnicity.
As if he could read my mind, the captain said, “So…your last name is O’Doe. You Irish, then?”
“Fucking micks,” he growled. “What is with you people always wanting to be cops or firemen. Don’t you know there’s other jobs out there? Or do ya’ll just got some kinda uniform fetish or something?”
“Uh…,” I stammered, unsure of how to respond.
“That wasn’t a question,” he said. He sighed and said, “Well, I guess I should tell you a little bit about our district.”
Station One was in the First Battalion. Our first due district, that means the area in which our engine would be first on scene of a structure fire, consisted of one square mile. In the center, the old downtown area, now long vacant, looked the surface of the moon with the addition of boarded up shop windows, empty brick warehouses built in the 20s, and an eight story art deco style hotel that had been locked up tight since 1980. The station sat in the middle of all of this. To our east and west, the rest of the district held two neighborhoods, both full of rundown houses built from the 20s through the 40s. It was a high poverty, high crime area, and both neighborhoods were controlled by gangs. The problem was that the neighborhood gang to the east was at war with the gang to the west. The commercial area in between them was a no-man’s land, where both sides often ran into one another and decided to settle their differences, usually with guns, but sometimes with knives.
As the captain talked, he flicked ashes into the ashtray. I had known this about Station One and Engine One. This was the assignment I wanted when I graduated from the academy, however, my being here was a matter of luck. Only the top graduate got to pick their assignment, and I was more towards the middle of the pack, so I was randomly assigned here by a pencil pusher over at departmental headquarters. The station was nicknamed “The Fire Factory” owing to the very high number of fires that came in each year. Engine One was nicknamed “The Ghetto Blasters.” As the captain droned on, I envisioned myself dashing into burning homes and carrying attractive young ladies out on my shoulders. It took a moment to realize he had stopped speaking.
“I said,” the captain repeated, “do you have any questions?”
I had several, as he had not even touched the training regimen for probationary firefighters at this station, but instead, I asked, “Are there any special house rules I should know?”
“Yeah,” the captain grunted, “probationary firefighters are not allowed to use the poles until after their first fire, and only if they don’t fuck up. And if you do screw up, I’ll boot your ass out of here so fast you won’t know what hit you. And I’ll make sure you are done in the fire service. You won’t even be able to volunteer at BumFuck VFD.”
Damn, I swore to myself. I was looking forward to sliding down the pole. I now was even more relieved that there was a staircase besides the spiral one. I could not imagine trying to run down a spiral staircase in the middle of the night to avoid being left behind when a run came in.
The captain lifted the phone on his desk as he mashed a button with a nicotine stained finger. Overhead, an intercom crackled to life and he said, “Jorgensen, get your square head up here.” Almost immediately after he said that, I heard a large bell ringing from somewhere deep inside the station. It sounded like the bells on an old alarm clock, that is, if the clock had ingested steroids. A few seconds later, the intercom crackled to life again and I heard the voice of the firefighter at the watch desk.
“Still alarm. 1459 Second Avenue. Ladder goes.”
The office door opened and a tall, athletic man with shaggy blonde hair longer than the regulations allowed walked in. He looked at me and I rose to greet him. The guy was as tall as a mountain. I had to look up slightly, and I’m 6’2. I offered my hand and he shook it.
“This is the new kid,” Captain Arceneaux said. “Starts on our next shift. Show him around. You know the drill.”
“Will do, Cap,” he said.
I turned and offered my hand to the captain who recoiled as if I intended to slap him. He turned his attention to the stack of forms and Jorgensen motioned for me to follow him out of the office. When I reached the office door, I heard the voice of the captain say, “And you better bring donuts, kid.”
As we walked down to the second floor, I ventured an opinion.
“The captain seems like a tough character.”
Jorgensen snorted and said, “Cap? Naw, he’s all bark and no bite. It’s the Battalion Chief you gotta watch out for. You best just try to stay out of his way. He eats probies for breakfast. A regular ball buster. Even Arceneaux is kinda scared of him.”
Great, I thought. My captain seemed to regard me as a nuisance and a battalion chief with a reputation. On the second floor, Jorgensen pointed out which locker would be mine. He showed me the bathroom and the showers. When he led me into the bunkroom, I learned my cot was the one furthest removed from the window units, but that was not a big surprise. Jorgensen spoke so quickly that I had a difficult time understanding what all he was saying, much less committing it to memory.
Downstairs was even worse. We finally stopped at the cab of the engine. This was not the shiny red fire engines you see on TV. Engine One was old…as old I was, in fact. And she was white, not red. The cab was not fully enclosed and the rear facing jump seats, one behind the driver and one behind the captain, had a roof overhead, but not doors.
“Gets a bit cold sometimes,” Jorgensen said. He pointed to the seat behind the driver. “This’ll be your spot. The seat position matters if we are the second due engine to a fire. That means you’ll have to catch the hydrant. Hope you can do it fast.”
“I can,” I said, “I mean, I did it fast enough in the academy.”
“Academy fast ain’t street fast,” Jorgensen said. “Cap is gonna drill you on it during your first shift. Just a little tip. Also, on your first day, any time you aren’t busy doing something else, make sure you are studying every compartment on the engine. On your second shift, Cap is going to test you on what tools go in what compartment. Trust me. You don’t wanna fail.”
I nodded, expecting this to be the case.
“They issued you all your gear, right?”
“Yes,” I said. At home, I had a newly issued pair of boots, turnout pants and coat, thick red suspenders, a nomex hood, and a leather Cairns New Yorker helmet with red shield that said “probationary firefighter.” More than anything, I wanted my helmet to look like the ones the instructors had, charred black and covered in the soot of a hundred fires or more.
“First thing you do when you get here is get your gear set up by your riding spot. Cap don’t care how you do it, just so long as you can get into quick. Second, sign the company logbook in the watch room. That officially puts you on duty.”
“Got it,” I said.
My eye was drawn to a small circular hole in the side of the truck, right near the spot I where I had been assigned to ride.
“Yep,” Jorgensen said. “Bullet hole.”
Before he could elaborate, I heard the bells ringing again. I heard the firefighter in the watch room give a triumphant shout, then his voice came over the intercom.
“Box Alarm! Box 726. Canal Street at Jefferson Avenue. House goes.”
Bodies came hurtling down the poles from the second floor as Jorgensen kicked off his station shoes.
“Gotta run, kid,” he said. “Try not to be late for your shift.”
I stood on the apron and watched as the station emptied. The battalion chief left first, followed by the engine, and then the rescue. They made a noisy parade as they disappeared around the corner leaving to me contemplate the bullet hole and wondering just what in the hell I had gotten myself into.