Tuesday, November 19, 2013
For many years since my retirement from the Fire Department in 1996, I've been fortunate to be part of a large group of retired firefighters that gather each quarter for breakfast in Des Plaines, IL. It's a family style serving, in a separate meeting room in a local restaurant, with seating arranged in a large square accommodating approximately 30 or so retired firefighters. One of the former Fire Chief's took it upon himself to launch the now regularly scheduled meeting, and continues to make arrangements with the restaurant and collect a ten spot from each of us each meeting.
The ages predictably range from the newly retired in their early 50's in some cases, to older retirees now in their 80's, and even though individual exteriors may have fattened and grayed in most cases, the old pecking orders remain firmly in place. The old timers still display a penchant for zeroing in on an individuals' most vulnerable shortcomings as a source for ridicule and taunting but now -- years removed from the familiar gatherings around the firehouse kitchen table -- each jab and poke is accepted. But now they are not just tolerated but relished and valued as a warm reminder of earlier days and as a gift from the past.
Dozens of old men, now seasoned even more in either retirement or second careers, with cellphones full of photos of grandchildren and even great grandchildren, at times fall into a normal exchange of conversations sharing sources of senior discounts and comparing surgical scars as would any similarly aged retired group. For this group, however, there's a magical element of time travel that underlies the gathering.
Even after decades of lives spent apart from the firehouse, with personalities that have evolved and seasoned with age and life’s experiences, the banter and positioning often clicks retroactively back to another time. Back to where any weakness or personal behavior pattern is fair game for fun and where stories and situations known only to those who shared them at times become the focal point of laughter and the occasional joking dog-pile on one or more individual targets. Nicknames buried years ago, sometimes to the chagrin of the target, resurface instinctively as if only a day or two had passed, instead of 15 or 20 years.
The stories, jokes and zingers are sometimes punctuated by news of another retiree who had passed on, or details on upcoming funeral and wake arrangements. Someone would read an email they received from a wife or relative of a former fellow firefighter now suffering from a debilitating disease or who would enjoy a call or card from those with which he formerly served. Once in awhile, a somber moment of silence would punctuate the loud banter as former comrades shared stories with those nearby or shouted across the room. Reality was allowed a small part of the agenda, but not for long.
The restaurant staff had learned that patience with this group was necessary, and were prepared for the onslaught of "Hey, we need another plate of pancakes over here!" and "We could use some more coffee!" as many of those who normally were now quiet and polite gentlemen everywhere else, quickly degenerated into the firehouse-like verbal chaos. As one aging retiree would curtly demand a refill on his coffee from a passing busboy, another would wink at the server and balance the exchange by explaining, well within earshot, "Don't take him seriously,” and adding with a wink. “He's just an asshole." A well timed retort, but curiously taken in the context of an almost affectionate firehouse jab.
Each quarter I look forward to these breakfasts. For at least a couple of hours, I can catch up with some old comrades, share jabs with former antagonists, and sometimes just sit back and soak in the momentary transport back through time to younger days, when we would sit around the firehouse table or huddle after a fire response. Each time I'd drink in the warm glow of being part of a special group unlike any other in the world among those who, whether friendly or adversarial, I respected over all others.
Thursday, November 14, 2013
Just before entering a burning building, we’d usually crouch down by the chosen entry point in our full firefighting gear. With thick black smoke belching out of the opening we would pull the air mask over our heads, don the helmet, strap it under our chin, and move in on hands and knees to seek out either the seat of the fire or search for occupants. Once we were past the early years where air packs were considered "just for wimps" it was simple. No Superman suit, no entry.
A fully equipped firefighter, dressed for entry into a fire, is a striking image. Coupled with the Darth Vader breathing sounds, the image can be downright startling. So much so that a few of us actually appeared on Chicago's Bozo the Clown Show in a segment showing kids the gear and how a firefighter looked and sounded at a fire. The hope was that the kids would see us as helpful friends and not scary monsters and not hide from us as we searched their home.
There was one time, however, when one woman acted as if all the gear was totally invisible.
Working out of our south side Station #2, we responded with an engine to a trouble alarm at a restaurant about 7 blocks down the street. SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) was that responders wear full firefighting gear until investigating the cause of the alarm. We drove the 7 blocks, lights and siren, donning our coats, air tanks and helmets along the way.
After pulling up in front of the restaurant, and seeing no sign of smoke or problems, the engine officer and I went in the front door to investigate -- each of us in full gear, with air tanks on our backs and helmets on our heads. Inside the door and about 20 feet down the entry way, we approached the hostess podium, manned by a middle aged woman who, seeing us approach, grabbed two menus and asked,
“Will that be two for lunch?”
(Excerpted from "10-24: A Firefighter Looks Back")