What child hasn’t stood on the sidewalk, perched atop his bicycle, his leg a human kick-stand, and marveled at the big red fire truck as it screams down the street racing to some unknown location. O’ and the sound of a federal Q siren peaked out to a piercing scream demanding attention from miles away it would seem.
The wide eyes watch the engine as it makes its way through traffic; the red and white lights flicker and dance, the chrome and brass sparkle as it reflects the shimmering sunlight. The air horns blaring in only a way that fire truck air horns do….just something about them air horns on a fire truck.
As the engine approaches closer, the kids strain their eyes trying to make contact with the firemen, waving like it was their best friend who would surely recognize them standing there in awe on the street. Inevitably, at least one of the firemen in the jump seat, if not the driver or officer, would return the wave, making some kids day a little brighter. Then as if almost by instinct the kid will mount his bicycle and peddle for all he is worth trying to catch up to the fire truck. Most likely he’s thinking in his mind that he is now part of the procession, a standalone cadre of moral support for the brave firemen.
I know this kid. I was this kid, and so were the many of us who grew up on the streets of Hopewell, Va. As was often the case, I would actually know the person driving of whoever was on the truck.
I had an insider’s view from the earliest days of my childhood. My grandfather was the fire chief at the Hopewell Bureau of Fire and my dad was a fireman too. Most of dad’s friends and most friends of the family were fireman. And from what I can remember they all shared a bond that would take so many years for me to understand and appreciate.
I remember when mom would take my brother and I to the fire station. Nothing special; just a little visit with dad or to take food that would be cooked for lunch or dinner. A time or two we would end up there just as everybody sat down for dinner and we would join them for dinner. That image of 6-10 guys sitting around the dinner table sharing a meal that one guy had the task of preparing sticks out for some reason.
I remember how the fire trucks were lined up in the bay; Engine 22…23…24 and Ladder 17 on the far end. Engines 25 and 26 were across town at Station 2. They were shiny and bright red except for 24 which was the first “lime green” to begin the transformation to the high visibility color. They seemed so big; all lined up in the bay, driver’s side door open with a coat hanging on the door handle, and boots with the top rolled down and then folded back up to the knee. It was just normal to go and climb up in the truck and sit in the driver’s seat pretending to rush to the scene of a fire. My mouth would be crooked off to one side as I forced air out the side to make the sound of a siren, which was my Federal Q. Or we would run over to the brass pole that stretched up to the second floor, wrap our hands around it and jump up and down on the thick rubber mat around the bottom as we slung ourselves in circles. This was our playground.
I also remember climbing the steep red painted steps that led to the second floor were the kitchen, bunk rooms and living area was located. Walking into the cavernous area always made me feel so small because there was always an echo in there. The floors were painted a shade of burnt red, almost burgundy, and they were always polished and buffed to a shine. They had this buffing machine, and I seem to remember that every so often there would be someone buffing that floor in the mornings. It was clean; just immaculate. I can appreciate it now, but back then, that’s just the way it was.
Once a year there was an open house at the fire station that everybody in the whole city it seemed would come to. They would empty the hose bed of Engine 23 and pile kids in the empty area. Along the sides there were the things that stuck out like benches. Kids would be packed along the sides and out in the middle of the hose bed. Two firemen in full turn-out gear would man the tailboard as the truck would make a long trip around an area known as City Point. The driver would turn the siren on from time to time and blow that loud air horn while the lights on top of the cab flashed out their warning. This was the highlight of our lives at the time.
My grandfather died in 1980 after a line of duty injury that contributed to his death, it was only a short four years later that my dad too would leave the fire service. Over the years the sights, sounds and smells would fade away to distant memories that only a picture would bring to remembrance…until yesterday.
I have realized that I am quickly approaching the pinnacle of my training in EMS. After I obtain my Paramedic degree, there will be only one thing left that I can do and that is to get a critical care endorsement. I also see the trend that EMS has taken with merging or being consumed by the fire service. With all this in mind over the last year, I’ve been making preparations to start cross training, so last week I man’d up and joined the volunteer fire department. So here we go again, starting at the bottom, learning new rules, people and methods of operation; I’m up for it and ready to get started.
But here’s the reason for this whole posting. I had the pleasure of doing some field clinical hours required for the Paramedic program at the fire department yesterday. They are a combined service that does fire and EMS, and I was assigned to Co.2. At that particular station they have one Medic truck and one engine with a compliment of four men. While we were not on the bus doing the EMS thing we were just doing what firemen do…checking equipment, cleaning and of course eating and watching TV while falling asleep.
The whole experience hit a high spot when the fire tones dropped for a fire alarm at the middle school. I asked the Medic that I was with, who was also the engine officer, “I’m with you?”
“Yep, let’s go”
So there I was. I was sitting in the rearward facing seat behind the driver absolutely beside myself with excitement. I cannot even begin to describe the emotions that welled up inside of me as that big ‘ol Detroit 60 wound up and the truck began to move out of the bay. It all came back like a rushing river in my mind. The sights and the sounds of my childhood flashing in my mind like a movie stuck on fast forward. I looked for a kid on the sidewalk as we raced down the street that would be waving so I could wave back. He wasn’t there. I wondered if it would ever be possible for me to one day be sitting in this seat with my turn out gear on, air pack at the ready and listening to the radio traffic of the first due engine arriving on scene and confirming a working structure fire.
It was then that I knew what I would have to do. I would have to carry on a legacy that my grandfather started back in the mid 1960’s as a career firefighter. This is also a legacy that my dad carried out for ten years with his service to the Hopewell Bureau of Fire. Now it’s my turn. I may be a late bloomer, but I will bloom none the less. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll ride Engine 23 again out of Hopewell Station 1. It won’t be the ’69 ALF that I remember, but it will still be Engine 23 that lives in my memories.
My heart will always be with the medical needs of the people in my community and I will serve them to the best of my ability. However, the kid in me will now forever want to climb up in that engine and race to the fire and fight the fire breathing beast… and soon I will.
God, help me always remember to wave back.