I try never to write two serious columns in a row – this is supposed to be, after all, a humor column. After last week’s diatribe about terrorism, I wanted to get back on the humor horse.
But I was hamstrung by the fact that this column lands just days before the 125th anniversary of my fire department’s organization. Marking that meant being funny about something specific, something not intrinsically funny, and something I already wrote about just weeks previously. I was leaning toward ignoring the anniversary in favor of writing about it at a time closer to our official celebration, on July 20th.
Then ten of my brother firefighters died in one horrible explosion, at a fire in a Texas fertilizer company.
It was hard not to think about firefighters after that. It was impossible to be funny.
Explosions are nothing new to firefighters. When Albion passed an ordinance establishing a fire department on May 4th, 1888, the Town Board included provisions for hazardous material safety. Back then Haz Mat included such things as gasoline and turpentine, which were limited to no more than 5 forty gallon barrels in one place, and gunpowder, which had to be kept to less than two 25 pound canisters. Putting too much bad stuff together was seen as a very bad thing.
We’ve seen that.
The little town in Texas where that explosion happened isn’t all that different from the small towns up here. West is only slightly larger than Albion, or Churubusco, or Huntertown. We’re not talking about some kind of outlandish, rare incident that “could never happen here”. We’re talking about the materials typically used in producing the food we eat.
Sure it could happen here, where we’re served by volunteer fire departments just as they are.
Volunteering to fight fires is insane. Doing it for pay isn’t much saner. Being “compensated”, as many volunteers do, only means you get enough money to pay for your fuel and wash the smoke out of your clothes, but not enough to make up for missing meals, sleep, or work. It’s nuts, and it’s way more dangerous than most of us will admit.
But there’s a case of denial going on, here. None of those nine firefighters kissed their kids goodbye and thought, “I may not be coming back”. No, they said, “I’ll be back as soon as I can”, something I’ve said many times.
I remember a few years ago, crouching down inside a burning house with the nozzle of a fire hose, when the water stream couldn’t absorb the heat as fast as it was being generated. I looked through my mask at the flames pouring through the door ahead and the partially burned wall to my left (I didn’t know at the time that the fire had taken hold in the attic above me) and thought, Geez, this isn’t knocking down. I might have to back out.
I didn’t think, Gee, I might die. I didn’t think it then, I didn’t think it those times when I found propane tanks in the flames, I didn’t think it when ceilings fell on my head.
Because you can’t. Somebody has to do the job, and in small towns that means volunteers. We teach the rookies to be careful, to think of the dangers, to risk little to save little, but we can’t actually think we might die.
Yet sometimes we do.
When I found the grave of Albion’s first Fire Chief, I stood there and spoke to him (in my mind). “Why did you do it? Take such a huge responsibility, with no real experience? Take charge of a group of small town rubes who knew no more about fighting fire than I know about fixing – well, anything? What were you thinking?”
Maybe, like me as an eighteen year old rookie, he wasn’t thinking at all. Maybe he just wanted to dive into the adventure, the excitement. (It was only later that I figured out the Important Stuff.) But I don’t think so.
I believe A.J. Denlar looked around at a town that was being consumed by fire over and over, and said, “Someone has to do it.”
So he did.
The people who followed him were shop owners, farmers, probably lawyers and a newspaperman or two. I don’t think much about volunteers has changed in the last 125 years. They were proud of their equipment, proud of their service, and ready to turn out and get the job done. Like soldiers, firefighters consider themselves a band of brothers.
But in the end, they did it because someone had to. It was their community – their homes, their businesses, their friends, their families. 125 years later everything has changed, yet nothing has.
We brag and we wear big Maltese crosses, and we serve until we drop from old age, and we see things no one should see. Sometimes we get too busy with real life and have to quit; other times we see too much real life and have to quit, then revisit our experiences in nightmares.
Sometimes we get burned, or hit by cars, or fall through floors, or get shot, or get blown up. Sometimes our own bodies betray us with cancer and lung disease. I’ve had smoker’s cough for five years, even though I’ve never smoked.
Yet every generation a new crop of rookies comes along. As an instructor, it’s been my experience that about half of them drop out in the first couple of years, when they realize it’s not what they expected, or that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew. In the end they’re just people, after all. Volunteers, especially, get squeezed out by the scourge of time (or the lack of it).
The rest, if they’re not overwhelmed by family and job responsibilities, are into it for the long term. They leave that excited rookie phase, become a band of brothers and sisters, and become protectors of their communities.
And sometimes they die.
The volunteers of West, Texas, will grieve, and ask questions, and a year from now they’ll still be there, bringing in a new crop of eager young volunteers. Then they’ll go on protecting their community.
That’s what firefighters do.