Not many people know this about me, but I spent almost two years of my life training to be a firefighter. That it happened between the ages of four and six is beside the point. Firefighting training is like lifeguard training. I never stop scanning the horizon for emergency just as the teenage lifeguard never relaxes at the beach.
My dad was a volunteer firefighter at Greenwich Village Fire Department. We lived with this thing we called The Monitor and it would go off anytime and alert my dad and his buddies about some local fire. Back in the early seventies, if you called 911, you depended on these guys to roll out of bed, perhaps half drunk or exhausted from a double shift at the steel mill, to come save your house. I got to hang out with them.
When my dad worked midnight, he came home around 7am and went to bed. My mom went to work at the bank, my sister went to school, and when I didn't have to go to day-school, I watched PBS all morning. My dad got up around noon and we had lunch and we watched The Young and The Restless. (I was already in love with Ashley, the first Ashley who people later said was actually a man; this should have been an early warning.) When the sands finally fell through the hour glass, we got ready to walk over to the firehall.
For some reason, if we got in my dad's truck, all the back country roads, stop signs and red lights, twisting behind the mall and interstate, going to the firehall took twenty minutes, but if we cut across back yards, dashed through the farmer's fields (who didn't like trespassers; I lived my whole life in fear of The Farmer, who I never, ever saw) and ran across the interstate exit curve (twice), up a brush-covered embankment, we could get there in ten minutes. My dad entertained me along the way, playing step-on-your-shadow and teaching me S-T-O-P, my very first reading word.
We always approached from the back, reaching a newly-laid gravel parking lot. Crunch, crunch, crunch, we opened the back door into a hall used for wedding receptions, bingo, and saturday night dances with a local cover band my parents loved called Freedom Child. I liked to hold my daddy's hand at this point because I was (am) afraid of the dark, but after my eyes adjusted, I ran down a long side hallway to the old-fashioned coke machine, first checking for any coins in the change slot, then banging on all the wide buttons, hoping to make a coke fall on accident, finally turning around to my dad with pleading eyes. Sometimes I'd get a coke (the little green bottle kind (do they still make those?) and I struggled awkwardly with the bottle opener that was right there on the machine), but mostly not; my parents were quite frugal and considered coke from a machine a waste of money.
We made our way to the kitchen where a handful of guys hung out drinking coffee. I slinked over to the corner and waited until giant hands (not necessarily my dad's) scooped up my armpits and placed me on the countertop. Once on my perch, I disappeared; the men forgot about me. There was Don Baker and Bill Ilenfeld and a guy named Vern, who my sister always had a crush on. The men joked and cursed and eventually a woman, one of the wives who helped organize bingo night or family potluck, would stick her head in and remind them, gentlemen, yins are talkin' in front of a child, and their eyes fell on me while they sheepishly grinned at each other.
But then their talk turned into code, I got bored and flipped over onto my stomach, my legs dangling over the edge until I took a chance and dropped. I creeped over to my dad, pulled his pant leg and whisper-asked, could I go tinkle, and he whisper-asked, do you need any help. My answer was always no because I really didn't need to go. See, the hallway to the restrooms was also the hallway that led to the trucks.
After I finished, I tiptoed back to the door of the kitchen, making sure they returned to their no-child zone bantering and I knew my dad forgot about me. As silent as a four year old who wants to crawl on fire trucks, I opened the door to the garage, slipped in, and held onto the doorknob until it slowly closed behind me. Then I was free. To do whatever I wanted.
Have you ever been alone with three gorgeous firetrucks, able to do whatever you wanted? I imagined The Monitor going off and I jumped on the back to grab hold of the long chrome handle, leaning my body side to side as we raced to the scene, whirring my imitation siren. Then I ran to the front and hopped onto the passenger side runner, hanging on again, swinging my body wide as the truck made another turn. Next moving to the driver's seat, grabbing the over-sized steering wheel to take the truck on more wide turns. (There were always a lot of wide turns when we were racing to the scene.) Once we got there, I used my tree climbing ability to spider down the side of the truck to the spouts where the hoses attached. I fastened my hoses and turned to my burning house, wrestling my body with the violent sprayer to save the day, schprshhhhhhhh sound effects coming out of my mouth. When my pretend fire was out, I was spent and I loved to climb up the giant yellow truck (the newest, shiniest addition) and lay in the middle of the neatly folded hoses until my dad came looking for me. I wasn't supposed to be in the garage by myself (my mother's rule) but my dad never scolded when he found me.
My dad took me to a few real fires. I remember a grass fire emergency. And I remember he took me to an intentional burning, a great big house on the corner of Duffy Road and Newcastle ( it became a bank, now a gas station). Later, in third grade at Northwest Elementary, I remember once the volunteers dressed up in their firefighting clothes and brought the big yellow truck to show the kids. Everyone was all excited but I hung back, nonplussed. I already knew every inch of that truck. I always used to shake my head at the other kids who said, when I grow up I'm going to be a firefighter, and thought they were idiots. In my mind, you either are one or you're not.
As an adult, I fought my own house fire. The toaster oven went up in flames, scorching a taco shell. (Black and Decker later informed me, never put a taco shell in a toaster oven. um, Thanks). Grabbing baby Stella and running out the front door to call for help never once crossed my mind. I instructed Eva to do that and after I ensured their safety, I flew back to the kitchen (my body gracefully careening to take the pivot through the door, the wide turn I'd prepared for all those years ago) and grabbed the extinguisher out from under the sink and doused the miniture oven and the ominous flames creeping up the curtains. The fire did some smoke damage, but if we had waited for the professionals to show up, we may have lost the whole kitchen.
I know I missed my calling. Something happens in panic-inducing situations, a calmness comes over me and a clear action plan presents itself in my mind. Everything moves in slow motion.
A child pretending is a child practicing.