I have many new readers so I thought I'd bump this old post. It is the only reflection of my firefighting days on this blog. I have a few that I've composed but I'm reluctant to post. Most are very dark memories that I write more as therapy than wnything else. I've been tempted to post them but I think this blog is no longer the proper venue.
Monday, November 19, 2007
This may seem random but it tells something about me.
I had a strange dream last night. I was in a poetry class and the professor calls on me and asks me a very long winded question. It was so long and verbose that he lost my attention until the very end. All I heard was "describe the carbon moment in your life". Huh? Not knowing what the hell he was talking about I took a stab at it. I figured he was asking about a "defining moment" in my life. I asked if he wanted the short or long version of my answer and he replied, "the short if it's good enough". "If not I'll ask you to expound on the subject".
Ok. "death". He asked me to clarify.
That's when I woke up. It got me to thinking. Did I have a defining moment in my life? Something that has shaped me? Some specific event or time that had a profound affect on me and my life? Something that really "defines" or describes me and how I approach life in general? Yes. There is, or was, or still is. However you look at it. It's something I've been aware of for a long time but I never traced it to a specific moment until I thought about it while I lay there in bed trying to get back to sleep. It was the first time I made the conscious choice to lay my life on the line. It was 18 years ago. On the southeast side of Milwaukee. I had one year on the job as a Milwaukee firefighter. We responded to a house fire in the middle of the day. It was a relatively large two story structure located on a corner. At one time it was either a small grocery store or a tavern with a small hall attached. You see these types of structures all over in the old areas of town. Back in the day the neighborhoods were dotted with corner bars and grocery stores with living quarters above. Now-a-days they are converted to duplexes. One apartment up and one down. It was the lower unit that was on fire. We were the third engine in. Disappointing because the third engine was a "bridesmaid". You usually didn't get to put the wet stuff on the red stuff. You might help lay some lines help ventilate or protect an exposure. We got there shortly after the first two engines. The lower unit was heavily involved in fire. Thick black smoke belched out of most of the windows. The ones that didn't cough smoke were spewing flames. It was a "good" fire. We assisted the first and second engine companies lay lines. (hoses) Things move fast when you get on a fire scene. It's controlled chaos but the boys on the MFD are very good at what they do, they make it look almost like poetry.
I was working on a different shift that day. I was also working with an "acting" boss. Not a promoted person but a firefighter acting as boss. The senior member of the crew would fill in if the real boss (officer) needed to get away for training or personal time. The acting boss was Paul. The "cub" or rookie of the crew would be glued to the boss's hip. The cub was me. I had about a year on the job. I had been to fires before and had proved myself to be capable. Still very inexperienced as far as firefighters go. There is a saying on the job that until you got five years on, you're a liability. I really didn't know shit.
As we proceeded to lay the other engines lines a report came in about children trapped in the apartment on the second floor of the burning building. I have a hard time describing how a firefighter feels when he hears that. You can only imagine. This is why we fight fires. This is why we do all the mundane and dirty jobs while working our 24 hour shift. This is it. This is what it is all about my friends, this is life.
Being the third engine "in" we weren't engrossed in a specific task Paul immediately turned to me and said "let's go kid" (I was 30 years old) We got half-way up the back stairs and donned our "masks" (breathing apparatus) and proceeded to enter the upstairs apartment. There are schools of thought on many fire departments that you never do a search above the fire without a line. (hose charged with water) It not only can put out fire if need be it is also your life line to safety. More than one firefighter has lost his life getting lost in a two bedroom apartment. This one was a large three bedroom above a raging fire. It also had an odd floor plan. It wasn't your typical German duplex, Milwaukee bungalow or Polish flat. We knew how those were laid out. Generally speaking if you've seen one you've seen them all. Without hesitation Paul crawled into the apartment. You are also trained "two in, two out". I was glued to his hip and had to go. It was absolutely pitch black. I mean black! You could not see your hand two inches in front of your face. I might as well had my eyes closed. It was also extremely hot. We began our search in a clockwise pattern around the apartment. Keeping literally in touch with one another with our axes stretched out in our hands trying to cover as much space as possible. Under beds, on beds, in closets. (kids tend to hide in fires) I wasn't sure if I wanted to find them or not. I was also scared shitless. The further we got from those stairs the more nervous I became. Our breathing apparatus contained 30 minutes of air in optimal conditions. In a fire where you are exerting yourself and also scared shitless you're lucky to get 15. We had 15 minutes to find these kids and find our way out. I kept running into things, kitchen table, couch etc. You don't stand up in a fire, you crawl. You'll never find a real fireman standing or walking in a decent fire. Meanwhile we could hear the chatter on the radio. Listening for reports of the kids. Maybe they got out? Maybe they were really at school? We could also hear the other companies making progress on the fire. All the windows on our floor were being smashed around us. The ladder companies were doing a good job of ventilating and the heat and smoke were lessening. My warning bell starting going off. Your SCBA (breathing apparatus) would sound a warning bell when you had five minutes of air left. (more like two in real life)I was really shitting bricks at this point. Paul yelled to me not to worry and keep searching. (gulp!)By the time my air finally ran out completely you could actually see where you were and kind of breath the air. The boys downstairs had put the fire out. Paul knew the crews at that fire and had the confidence that they would have it under control enough for us to continue with or without air. We were joined by other crews and really tore up that apartment looking for those kids. None found. False report.
When we got outside Paul told me I had done a good job and went about the business of picking up hose and cleaning up. He acted as if we just went for a walk in the park. I just spent 20 minutes of the most exhilarating, horrific, unreal experience of my life and he shrugs it off like another day at the office! That's when it hit me. It was just another day at the office.
The point I'm trying to make is until you've put your toe over that line you don't know what's going to happen. Will you cut it or not? Betting your life on your co-workers skills, your training, your confidence that someone isn't going to fuck up and get you killed. Until you've gone there you're not a member of the club. I imagine soldiers and cops feel the same way. Which reminds me. Before Paul was a fireman he was a cop. He also had the rare label of killing a man in a gun battle while on the job. Before that he was a Marine who served in Vietnam. I guess for him that search and rescue was just another day at the office. As someone once said, "in life there are players and there are spectators." I knew from that day on I wanted to be dealt in.
It wasn't too many years later that I had a cub on my hip. We also would take walks in the park.