Blood & Fire in a Small Mississippi Town
By Larry Brown
Photo by Hubert Worley Jr.
I can’t sleep. That's what's starting this, that and Rick Bass's Oil Notes. I read it all the way through, today and tonight, hating for it to end. A good book spoils you, makes you want all the books you buy to be that good, which is not going to happen because most people who do this sort of thing don't do it as well as Rick Bass does.
But I can't sleep, so I'm writing this, since I wouldn't be doing anything if I was still back there except rolling around in the dark for three hours, since it's 4 a.m. now, and listening to these groovy guys I work with snore, and waiting impatiently for those three hours to pass. I want to make one thing perfectly clear right now on the front end so I won't be able to lie about it or deny it later: Rick's book and not being able to sleep up here anymore, possibly forever, are the only two reasons I'm going to write something called Fire Notes.
Here is a fire station in Oxford, Mississippi, on North Lamar, 658 to be exact, and nobody seems to be having any trouble sleeping except me.
I'll write through the nights at the station when it's quiet, nothing but the scratch of my pen on this 89-cent notebook, the water dripping in the sink, the light fixtures humming. I won't turn the TV on. There won't be any disturbance unless the fire phone rings. It might. It usually does at night. Scares your ass off. Or my ass off.
I'll write about fires, about duty, about off-duty, about writing about all this good stuff. I'll write about working with these groovy guys and while I'm writing it I'll hope I won't have to write about disaster, but if disaster comes I'll write about that, too.
I'll try to write honestly and well, like Rick did, and if I get sleepy I'll go back here and go to bed. But I only have two hours of duty left now, and a man can sometimes get a lot done in that length of time.
I'm a grown man but I only weigh about 135 lbs. soaking wet. I'm nearly the smallest guy in the department, which is a disadvantage sometimes when feats of strength are called for. Say if you're breaking down a door with an axe beside somebody like Lane Vines, who is about 6'5" and 250 or so. All you can do is keep swinging, keep trying to get the job done.
Our department has 39 men, 3 stations, 4 pumpers, 1 ladder truck that will also pump plenty, 1 crash truck, 1 van, 3 pickups and 2 cars, and 3 miles of hose. We also have ladders, axes, forcible entry tools, rappelling gear, ropes, safety belts, breathing apparatus, nozzles, generators, a Hurst Tool (Jaws of Life), flashlights, pike poles, entry saws, boltcutters, fire extinguishers, and many many many other tools.
All of this stuff is very expensive and most of it will hurt you, pinch your fingers off, cut you or bruise you or abrade you in some way that will be pretty painful later. I say later because of adrenaline. Your kid knocks the car out of gear, it begins to roll down a hill, you run and catch it and stop it by grabbing the bumper because of adrenaline. A man turns a tractor over on him and his son lifts it off. That, too, is adrenaline at work, the gland flowing, making you more than you normally would be. The adrenaline starts pumping when we run to the trucks. When the big starter kicks in and she rolls over and coughs like a dinosaur waking up, the adrenaline is flowing. It makes you not feel pain, not ignore it, actually, just not even feel it when it happens. It's happened to me and I've seen it happen at fires and wrecks, and it's there to protect you, make you strong so you don't get hurt. Adrenaline lets people do what they have to do.
Potential disaster: maybe that's why I can't sleep. I fear two things more than others: a leaking gasoline tanker, and a leaking liquid propane container, whether stationary or on wheels, turned over in a ditch or whatever. Ignition, from whatever source, a cigarette, the hot tailpipe on a car down the road, will be what kills you and all your men, your pretty fire trucks, anybody else who couldn't or didn't run. But I also fear ammonium nitrate, and Malathion, and planes crashing at my airport, and lots of other things. Wrecks on the way to anything. Backdrafts. Flashovers. Also not having anything decent on HBO to watch when I'm on duty. We prefer S & V (sex & violence), but we'll go with a nature show on The Discovery Channel if that's all that's showing. We can't stay adrenalined up all the time.
A firefighter cannot be a coward. He can be a lot of things, a prick, a thief, a liar, but he cannot be a coward. A man who won't tote his own weight, who won't hump his own hose, won't be tolerated. They'll blackball him and nobody will want him on his shift. I've seen men who were reluctant to enter a burning building. It does not endear them to you, not if you think about going down inside one and him being the only one immediately available to pull you out.
There's not anybody I'm working with now that I'm uneasy over. This is as it should be. Our biggest worry most days is what to eat and what to watch. This is as it should be, too. Our motto is, A well-rested firefighter is a good firefighter.
Potential disaster was averted a while ago, around 2:30, just as I finished reading Oil Notes. I was back there, just had turned in, and the fire phone rang. There was a gas main leaking on Jackson Avenue, and a large amount of gas had already escaped, so I rolled everything we have except for the ladder and the crash truck and the Hurst Tool. Our policy now dictates that the senior officer has to stay behind while the trucks from this station roll and call the other stations and get them on the way before clearing the station and advising the police department dispatcher that we are all leaving and asking her to mind the radio. I don’t like this policy because it makes me last on the scene instead of first, and makes it appear that I am sending them rapidly into a place where I am slow to tread.
But these sleepyheads had it all under control when I arrived in the van and went 10-23. They were catching a plug and had already advanced a 1 ½ inch hand line down the street, put the nozzle in a fog pattern, and were dispersing the gas. Standard procedure. Evidently some groovy Dilbert-headed gal or guy had come out of Forrester's with one too many good cold ones under his or her belt and backed over the gas main and then drove off without telling anybody about it. A police officer just happened to be driving by a block away and smelled it.
If you've never heard a 3/4 inch gas main shrieking all its gas out at once at close range, you'd probably be pretty surprised when you did hear it. Somebody has to go right up to it and try to get a plug down inside the pipe and stop the leak while they hold a fog stream on you. Killer was already doing that when I walked up and got down next to him and held a flashlight for him. The water ran down inside my turnout coat and started getting my shirt and cigarettes wet. We used to use things the boys called butt plugs, conical hard rubber plugs you drove down into the pipe with a hammer. Now we have rubberized expanding plugs with a long shank that you insert deep into the pipe and then turn with a wing nut until it seals. You don't want to get one down in there and not get it tight enough. It'll fly back out like a bullet and knock your eyeball out. All this is happening while you're bent over wondering if the gas has spread out enough to find an ignition source. It's nervous-making, but duty you have to do.
It worked. We sealed the leak, called the gas company, and nothing was ignited. It just smelled like a two thousand ton fart. We rolled the hose up and went back home. Then I went to bed and rolled around in the dark for a long time and decided to get back up and start writing something called Fire Notes.
It was a lovely summer afternoon, about three or four in the afternoon, and the line of stopped cars we had been passing for the last two miles made a steady rushing sound in the windows of the fire truck, and the wreck was below us, finally in sight, about a mile away, at the bottom of a very steep hill, and we were doing 65, and we had no brakes.
Uncle Wright and I had already braced ourselves to be killed. I felt fairly sure that we were going to die, and the only thing I was wondering was how many of the people who were driving the parked Highway Patrol cars and the fire trucks and the ambulances at the bottom of the hill where the wreck was were going to die, too, when we slammed into them, at 65. The truck I was driving weighed many tons and it was full of water and I knew that the brake shoes had "faded away" from the drums from the repeated use of them and I was bearing down on the brake pedal with everything I had and the truck wasn't slowing down any. Down below us, there was a sea of flashing blue and red lights and stopped traffic stretching away as far as the eye could see. A truck was overturned in the middle of the road, and I told Unkie that we weren't going to make it. Like I said earlier, it was a fine summer evening, but I never believed all that Indian shit about it being a good day to die. I did not want to slam into that parked group of emergency vehicles and I knew that Unkie didn't want me to either. I pumped the pedal and it didn't give anything back. I downshifted and the sound of the parked cars kept rushing in the windows. We had already driven nearly twenty miles to this wreck, passing cars, hogging the road, running people off the road, and I had come upon it a little too fast. I told Unkie that I thought the only chance we had was to pull the MicroBrake just before we got there, which would lock all the tires down if there was anything left. I kept downshifting, slowing down, pumping the brake. It still didn't feel like I had anything, and suddenly I was given a miracle, because the pedal suddenly had something under it, and we slowed down some and I downshifted some more and we swung in nonchalantly beside the wreck and parked without telling any of the assembled rescue people how close they had come to another disaster.
You never know what to expect. You just get out and deal with whatever they have called you to. You are the professional, that is your job. There is always a victim to be extricated, sometimes a crushed and dying person whose life hangs in your hands. What we were looking at that day was a large truck that had been carrying a load of loose lime. It had swerved to miss an oncoming car, and the truck had flipped. There were several tons of lime on the road. The trailer wheels were on the ground, but the frame had twisted and the cab was upside down with the roof resting on the highway centerline. The driver had come out with the windshield and was up and walking around. His wife, or his woman, or whatever relationship she was to him, was inside the cab, underneath it.
Most wreck victims are in shock when you get there. They're walking around in a daze, or lying on the side of the road with a blanket over them, if somebody is there who knows how to treat for shock. This man, a black man, was in shock, and up and walking around. I could see the woman through the large hole where the windshield had been. She had on a red shirt and a pair of blue jeans. There were a whole lot of people standing around watching. There always is. I dropped down on my belly in the broken glass and diesel fuel and crawled under the truck with her.
She was a young black woman, probably less than thirty. She was flat on her back and her main problem was that she was caught by the dash in the one place a lady surely ought not to be caught, and pinned effectively with her legs on either side of the sharp ridge of the dash. She had a broken nose, and aside from that, and aside from being terrified, she seemed to be all right.
I talked to her and told her that we were going to get her out. I held her hand. She gripped my hand with a strength born out of fear. I told her that I had to feel her, that I had to check for broken bones, for her to please not think anything about it, that I was a fireman, that I was trained in my job and I had to check for what injuries she might have. She squeezed my hand and told me that she understood. She said don’t leave me. I said I won't.
How would I have been if I had been in her place? A truck upside down on top of me? She was pretty cool. I checked her legs and arms. Nothing seemed to be broken. I asked her if she had any internal pain. She said nothing was hurting her but her nose. And this other, she said. I kept holding her hand. I told her that help was on the way, but that was a lie. I knew we hadn't
brought a damn thing with us that could lift that truck off her. So we just laid under there and talked. She told me what had happened, how the wreck had happened, how it had happened so fast. It was very hot, and we were both sweating. I could see the faces of ambulance attendants peering in the broken windows at us.
What we needed was a crane and we didn't have one on Engine 8. I told her that I had to leave for a few minutes, but that I'd be right back. I crawled out from under the truck and stood up. Traffic was completely blocked for miles each way. I called Unkie over to the side and told him that her ladyhood was caught tight and we were going to have to jack the truck up or something. I asked him what he wanted to do. He was the shift chief, I was just a lieutenant. He said he guessed we'd better get the Ram Tool out of the truck.
We did that and all it did was blow a gasket. She kept looking at me with those eyes while I lay next to her and jacked the handle of that thing until it blew the gasket. A doctor arrived. Some young boy working on one of the ambulances told the doctor he thought she had a flail chest. That was bullshit. He hadn't been under there and checked her. I crawled back under and lit her a cigarette when she asked me for one. She wanted to know was it any danger smoking under there. I told her that diesel fuel had a low flash point. We laid under there and smoked a cigarette together.
I said Listen. I'm going to try and move you. I told her I didn't think her hip was broken. She said she didn't think her hip was broken, either. I told her I was going to try and slide her out from under that dash. I told her that if it started hurting her, for her to tell me. She said she would.
I tried and tried. I hooked my hands in her belt loops and pulled and pulled, but there was no moving her. She was embarrassed, and she giggled a little, maybe from shock, maybe from this white boy lying under a smashed truck with her trying to get her vagina unhung. Mutually we decided that we weren't doing any good. When I crawled back out that time, it looked like traffic was backed up all the way to the Union County line.
Miracles happen sometimes. We'd already had one, but I never expected two. A convoy of National Guard trucks was backed up somewhere in the line, and they had a crane. The Highway Patrol moved them into position and they parked next to the wreck. I crawled back under there with her and told her what was about to happen, that they were going to wrap a steel cable around the cab of the truck and tighten it up and that I was going to hold on to her and slide her out the second the pressure lifted. I think she dreaded that. I think maybe she thought they might lift it a few inches and then drop it back down on her and crush her. I didn't tell her that I thought that might happen, too. The cable came in, and I passed it around the body of the truck, and sent the hook back out, and they tightened it. We didn't say anything. The cable creaked. The truck shifted. She squeezed my hand. There was the groaning of metal. The dash lifted a few inches and I grabbed her belt loops in my hands and slid her backwards, and suddenly many hands reached in and caught her with me and we pulled her out into the highway and she was free.
We stood around for a while. They attended to her and she was able to stand. She was crying, but from happiness, glad to be alive, and she came over to me, this black woman who had lived and not died, and she put her arms around me, and she hugged me. I think maybe now that there might have even been a gentle kiss on my cheek. I know that she stood off from me for a second, just before she climbed into the ambulance, with her arms on my shoulders, and looked at me.
Unkie came over and said, You did good, Brown.
I roll through the door of the truck bay and the lights are lit and revolving, the sidewalk lit and the big oaks across the street and the iron picket fence around Tim Tatum's house and the traffic stops for us and we turn left and head down North Lamar and Mac stands on the siren and we pick up speed and race toward the first stop light a quarter mile away as the cars pull off to one side or I take the middle of the street and go around them, watching everything, watching the road, watching for people with their windows rolled up and the air conditioner going, or the rock & roll turned up real loud on their tape players, people who may not be able to hear me coming up behind them, people who might slam on their brakes in front of me. I never run a red light. Nobody with any sense driving a fire truck would run the red light at North Lamar and Jefferson because you can't see anything coming either way down Jefferson until you are under the light. The siren hurts our ears but Mac stands on it and we stop and look both ways at Jefferson and then go on through, up to the square where the road splits and both sides of the street can get blocked on you if people slam on their brakes and then you have to make your own road, go around somebody. The sound of the siren bounces off the high buildings on the square and boxes in the sound and just for a moment or two we have everybody's attention, then we turn right and cod the hell out of it again down Jackson Avenue toward a boy who is strangling to death on his own blood in this hot summer night.
We catch the next light on green and we can see the blue lights of the police cars and the red lights of the ambulance and we slow down and pull in and stop the pumper in the middle of the street, put the pump in gear, apply the parking brake. I pick up the radio mic and report that we're 10-7, engaged in an assignment, and then I report what I'm looking at, which is a car on the right hand side of the street pointed the wrong way and halfway wrapped around a telephone pole at the edge of the sidewalk. Mac is out and pulling on his coat and gloves. Henry Hill arrives behind us in the rescue truck. I hand up the mic and get out, pull on my gloves, get my helmet from the compartment, and walk over and look into the car. The passenger door is open and a nurse is in the seat with a young man who is lying across the bucket seats, jammed tight against the shifter, covered with blood, his legs twisted behind him in the smashed remains of the driver's door. The nurse is jabbing a piece of surgical tubing down his throat, shouting:
"Breathe, baby, breathe!"
Henry is getting the entry saw out of the rescue truck and I walk back to the pump panel and pull the lever that opens the booster line, a coiled one-inch hand line that's on a reel above the pump panel, and then I throttle the engine up and watch the pressure gauge until the needle sits steady at 200 pounds and then I walk off and leave it. Mac pulls the line down with one hand and takes it over to the car and lays it down in the street. Henry is bringing the saw and I go back to where the nurse is working on the boy. The nurse looks up at me and tells me that we've got to do something quick and I say that we'll do all we can, Lady. The boy is trying to breathe and she has almost as much blood on her as he does. He probably has internal injuries, something ruptured in his chest, and she keeps saying that he's going to die before we can get him out. Here is this thing facing me again, this human and fragile thing called life wasting away before my eyes, and I am the one who has to decide what to do about it.
This is in the early eighties, before the city ever got convinced that we needed to spend $7500 for a Hurst Tool, the Jaws of Life, and all we have is the Ram Tool, which is not worth a shit in a situation like this, in a wreck of this magnitude. It's only a hand-pumped hydraulic tool with various attachments. It won't pull a car apart like taffy the way the Hurst Tool will. All we've got is the Ram Tool and the saw, so I walk around to the other side of the car where the door is bent into a U-shape against the telephone pole. For a moment I consider moving the car, calling a wrecker and yanking it off the pole, but then I tell Henry that we need to try and cut the door off. An incredible number of people are standing around watching us. I wish they'd all go away and let us do our work but they're not about to do that. Hell no. This is too good to miss. They're going to stand right here and watch every fuckup we make.
Henry gets the saw running and noses the carbide blade into the door and a shower of orange sparks starts flying around in a circle. We keep the hose ready in case gasoline ignites and I already know this isn't going to work. The whole weight of the car is against the door and we won't get it off without cutting down the pole. It doesn't look possible. It doesn't look possible that the boy could have gotten himself into this kind of shape. It looks like he's going to die right here with all of us trying to prevent it. I tell them to keep sawing and I go back around to the other side of the car where the nurse is screaming for the boy not to die, shouting things at me, I don't know what, I don't listen, I don't care what she's saying, I'm looking at this car and trying to figure some way to get the boy out of it as fast as I can. I lean over her with my flashlight and look at his legs. They're somewhere in that door behind him and the saw is running on the other side of the door, lighting up Henry's face and the goggles he has on. The boy breathes a little and then his breath catches in his chest and he makes that strangling noise again and she jabs the thing down his throat again. I can see that it's clogged with bubbles of air and blood and she keeps saying that we've got to do something, do something right now. She's about to get on my nerves and I wish to hell I did know what to do.
I get back out and look at the position of his body. And then I see it. He's got to come straight up. He's got to rise vertically out of that car like somebody levitating. The nurse tells me that they've got to call the rescue unit and I tell her this is it, Lady, this is the rescue unit and it's the only one you're going to get. I don't tell her that I've been to the State Fire Academy to learn this shit, I don't show her my First Responder patch, I don't tell her that if the city would open up its billfold I'd carve this car up like a Christmas turkey. I just go around to the other side and tell the guys who work with me to cut off the saw and let's get the windshield out.
We cover the nurse and the patient up with a blanket and then we rake two fire axes and start chopping through it, going around the edges, trying not to get glass splinters in our eyes, trying to remember to keep our face shields down. Sometimes adrenaline takes over and we forget, grab hot things or sharp things with our bare hands, suffer wounds we don't know about until later. We go all the way around the top of the windshield and down both sides and then push it out over the hood and throw it into the street like a dirty carpet. Then I'm up on the hood and reaching down through the hole for the shifter he's lodged against, that has his body hung. I push on it with all I have and it won't give. Somebody takes the blanket off the nurse and her patient and she's still working with him and he doesn't sound any better. I push against the shifter but it won't move. I say, Mac, come here, help me. He crawls up beside me and lies down. I tell Mac that he's hung against the shifter, that we've got to bend it out of the way, but I'm not strong enough. I tell him to put his hand on mine on top of the shifter and he does. We push. Mac is strong as an ox and it starts to give. We push and strain, as hard as we can, and Mac is nearly crushing my hand with his, but the shifter gives and bends over in the floor until it's away from him and not holding him. Somebody has pushed the wheeled stretcher up near the car and we all reach and lift while somebody puts traction on the patient, just in case he has a broken neck, and we slide the half-backboard behind him and strap him and out he comes, on to the stretcher, the nurse walking beside him still jabbing the thing in and out of his throat, the respirator inside the ambulance only a few seconds away now, and they strap him down and load him up and get in with him and the doors slam and the ambulance screams down the street, the lonely wail of it washing over us until it fades away down toward the hospital.
Thanks, Mac, I say. I'm glad that he is so strong. I'm glad the boy didn't die. I understand why the nurse had no patience with me.
We roll up our shit and we go back home. No thanks is needed from anybody. The city thanks us twice a month.
Now we are gathered in a little church in the woods, and the yard of the church is filled with muddy cars and muddy fire trucks and we have all driven up a muddy road and we are here to say our last goodbyes to Mac, who lies in his coffin in front of the pulpit. He was strong, but he had high blood pressure, like me, and he wasn't careful about taking his medicine, and two days ago, when he was rabbit hunting with his uncle and cousin, he had either a stroke or a heart attack in the woods, and died quickly, before they could get him some help. I have never been in a black church before, and of all the hundreds of people here in their best clothes, the faces of firemen in their uniforms and ties are the only white faces.
The church will not hold all the people who have come here. The church has no paint on the outside. I cannot believe that he is dead, but they open the coffin and there he lies, with his mustache, without the glasses he always wore, and a seventeen-year-old son bends over him with streaming eyes and kisses his cheek.
The preacher is standing at the pulpit, but the service is not going to begin until everybody is seated. All the pews are full and people are still coming in. The funeral procession looked miles long. Chairs are brought in and set down in the aisles and people sit in them, maybe forty or fifty more. We stand in silence, sweating in the heat, the women fanning themselves with little cardboard fans on a wooden stick, things I haven't seen or seen people use since I was a child in my own church and saw women do the same thing. The people stop coming in and somebody closes the door.
From a curtain behind the pulpit a line of old women come in wearing choir robes, maybe a dozen. They hold no hymnals in their hands and the organ sits dead and silent in the corner. The women sit down and put their hands in their laps and they begin singing. They begin singing like angels and they sing about Heaven and Jesus and the love of God and the hair wants to go up on my neck because it is unearthly and beautiful and my ears love it like no singing I've ever heard and the preacher stands tall in his black velvet robe with a face of stone and stares at the wall of the church. We sit enraptured and I look at the people in their fine clothes, some in work clothes, fresh from the job, their caps in their hands, all of us here for this wonderful music.
The singing ends. Then it begins again. I don't know how long it goes on. It stops again. It begins again. And finally it stops for good.
The preacher is a huge man. He looks like Alex Haley, only blacker. This man is as black as midnight. He begins his sermon in a gentle voice, talking of how we all must one day throw off this mortal coil, the way Mac already has, that his suffering is over, that God's got a better world waiting. He talks of how he remembers this boy in church as a child, how he saw him accept Jesus as his saviour. He raises his voice a little and his words begin to assume a rhythm, and he starts to move, and we start to move a little with him. His voice gets louder and somebody says Amen. Somebody says Yes, Lord. His voice rises to a higher pitch and I can see people swaying a little. It's going to be something. They start to shout and talk back to him and we keep quiet. There's two things going on here at one time. It's looking like it's going to get out of hand. Pretty soon the preacher's moaning and his voice has gotten high and tight and he's caught up in it and the whole place is caught up in it and I'm caught up in it too and it's all I can do to keep from shouting something out at him myself because he's got me feeling something. The man's a great orator and he's got all these people right in the palm of his hand and he's making them jump and move and shout Yeah! Amen! Tell it brother! Sweet Jesus! I close my eyes and feel it and know that these people are some kind of strong. It goes on and on and it's hot in the church and the little walls reverberate with sound until the preacher winds back down slowly like a clock unwinding and by then just about everybody's crying, me too.
No more Mac.
I always feel guilty about going out and riding around at night. Just took off a while ago and went out and rode around for a while, drank some whisky, and now I'm feeling guilty. I ought to be in the bed in there sleeping, getting ready to go to a party tomorrow night, but as it often happens after that Ifeel the need to put some words down. So here are some.
There's a hell of a lot going on at night. If you think about it, the owls are out then, and the snakes, and the women. I rode around for about an hour and a half and did not meet another person. That suits me fine, and most people are at home asleep in the bed at the hours I usually keep. That's no bad strike against them or anything, it's just that they all have jobs they have to go to and they have to sleep to rest up for them. They probably don't drink like I do. They probably don't try to write fiction or cut down trees all day long as a means of soothing their souls. There's nothing finer than to make your angle cut on the side you want the tree to fall on, take you a big wedge out of there, one diagonal cut and one horizontal cut, knock that big wedge out of there, then cut on the back side slightly above the cut and go all they way through and start to see that big mother topple and keep the saw in there and running and cut all the way through and then draw the saw back and get out of the way and see the tree jump completely off the stump, limbs crashing, and crash to the ground.
I cut one down today that had a three-foot Kingsnake coiled up inside it. The tree was rotten and nearly fell on me. I made a five-inch cut and it came down where I wasn't expecting it to, fell in the spot where I'd been standing a few seconds before. A girl with large breasts was walking down the road and she spoke to me and I became distracted when I spoke to her and suddenly the tree was falling. A man has to be careful of stuff like that, big trees and big titties at the same time.
I used to call myself a fireman but I probably wouldn't make a pimple on a real fireman's ass. Those guys in Chicago, in New York, in L.A., those guys are really firemen. I never rescued anybody from a burning building but I have entered burning buildings where people told me people were trapped inside and it turned out that nobody was trapped inside, just me and a few of my brothers confronted with bad walls of fire that we had to fight our way out of and nearly got trapped ourselves. That's a good way to get killed, people giving you bad information.
We're up on a bridge above Highway 7 overpass and the two men ahead of us in the decapitated car have been nearly decapitated and I'm reluctant to walk up there and see them in their death and blood. Some of the younger boys I work with don't feel like this, but I've seen it too many times already. I take the cops' word for it and go back and cancel the rescue unit. They'll send the meat wagon but we don't say "meat wagon" over the radio. The FCC likes for you to be careful about what you say over the radio. No cussing, no bullshitting, just report your business and then stay the hell off the air except for what's necessary.
Later I'll take this incident and put it into a novella called "92 Days" and act like I made it up, but here they both are, black, and drunk, and gasping for breath, one of them, anyway, and he'll die soon, even before the ambulance can get him to the hospital, and the driver is already dead. He hit a tractor-trailer that was crossing the road while he was doing about 90 and slid all the way under it and out the other side for 105 feet. The cops have the tape out and are measuring the skid marks. One brake shoe was working. We've got our pumpers parked in the middle of the road with all our lights working and we were probably eating something or watching something just before we were called out to witness this death and destruction. The cops need some chalk and they don't have any, so I get back in the van and ride back up to the station for the chalk. I keep thinking about the guy with his head cut off. The business I'm in, you can never tell where it will lead you. One day somebody wants you to get a cat out of a tree and the next day some kid may be burning up inside a house. The night we went into C.B. Webb, when three apartments were on fire and it was coming through the roof, the people standing out in the yard told us there were some kids trapped inside. We fought our way through hellish rooms of fire, knocking it down everywhere, fighting our way to the top floor, where there were only burned mattresses and charred walls and no bodies to be found. We found out later that one guy had jumped from the top floor, had hit a clothesline, had luckily only broken one leg. He had been standing in the window and the people on the ground told him to jump or die. As it turned out they gave him good advice. He wouldn't have survived what had gone on up there. I never laid my life on the line. That day when those two little babies and their grandmother burned up, I was out at the elementary school giving a fire extinguisher class with the chief, and I had relinquished my pumper to another man.
We got the call during the class and I rode with Uncle Chiefy out there and the house was going down. I was breaking in a new boy, Phil Cooper, and nobody had even told him to put his gloves on. He stood there in the yard and did all he could and blistered his hands badly while holding an inch-and-a-half hose. The house fell in and then we were told that there were people inside. It was late in the evening by then, winter. The ruins were smoking. The family was black. Cops tried to keep screaming family members back. The smoke shifted in the rubble and we all stood back, dreading what we had to do. The back door had been nailed shut for some reason. Only God knows why people do the things they do. We couldn't have saved that house unless we'd gotten there early, before it got so bad. Sometimes you can never stop them. We wetted it down and crying women were held back by the police. We entered the back of the house and no words were said. I felt the reverence of the event that was happening. The police had brought out the body bags. It seemed like a hundred people were in the street, screaming and crying. The smoke shifted among the rubble and we had to find the things we were looking for. It was hard to tell, everything being so burned, everything looking so much alike. Only a fireman or a victim of fire can tell you what a terrible thing fire is.
There was silence among us as our people bent and lifted the bodies out. The children were so small. I thought of my own. No words were said. Maybe it was February or March. The women were still screaming in the street. I wondered what my life would ever come to. I knew that these children had suffered a terrible death. I blamed it on poverty, and ignorance, and me not being in my fire station when I needed to be, instead of out with the chief giving a lecture on fire extinguishers, although what we had been doing could prevent things like this. But I felt that if I had been in my place, maybe I could have made some difference. Maybe I could have broken down the front door and opened my nozzle and saved those little kids and their grandmother from dying. The lights blinked out in the street and even the cops seemed touched by this. I know they have a hard time. People mess with them and they have to mess with the drunks. But I'd rather be a fireman than a cop. I’d like to help people if I could.
A few days later, I saw the man who was the father of the dead children come into the fire station to try and get his hands on a copy of the fire report so he could turn it in to his insurance company. A poker game was going on at our big table in the middle of the kitchen. This poor middle-aged black man had his cap in his hands. His clothes were ragged and some of the boys I worked with just kept on betting and never looked crossways at him. Maybe they didn't know who he was. Their voices got louder while the man stood there patiently, waiting for the chief to find the report in his files. The man looked humbled by what had happened to him. I knew that his children had probably been buried quickly. The poker game went on and on and the man kept standing there with his cap in his hands, until finally, mercifully, Uncle Chiefy found the report and took the man back to the office to make a copy of it. I wanted to tell them to stop the poker game at least until he left, but of course I never said anything. Sometimes there was a weird callousness about the work we did. We couldn't let it get too close to us because we didn't want to be touched by it. You never heard anybody talk about it later. When it happened, it happened, and we dealt with it. Then we went back and slept or ate or watched a movie or went on another call. We got through our shifts and then we went home and went fishing or hunting or made love to our wives or played with our children. We hoped that the bad things we saw would never claim us. We hoped that we wouldn't die in smoke and flames or torn steel like the people we couldn't save.
Rex and I and Howard and Ronnie and William Pettis, a black guy who was good friends with Mac, build myself a house in 1986. We start in March and have it blocked in in a few weeks. One cold afternoon when we've been putting tarpaper down on the roof, we knock off and Rex and I decide to ride around and drink some beer and schnapps. We ride around for a while and get a little drunk and then come around a curve in the road where the air is filled with white hair, simultaneous with meeting a car. We stop and the car has two girls in it. In the road in front of us is a doe deer, not dead, still kicking. We tell the girls, who are pretty horrified, that we'll take care of it. They drive off. Rex and I both have on insulated coveralls. A roadkill of this dimension is not to be ignored. Rex unfolds his pocketknife and starts stabbing the hell out of the deer in the throat and the deer dies. We've got fresh meat. We stand in the road in front of my headlights. A large brown stain starts growing on Rex's leg. It gets bigger and bigger. Cut yourself, Rex? I say. Nah, he says. It gets bigger and bigger. Believe you did, Rex, I say. Rex shucks down nearly naked in front of my headlights and sure enough, he's stabbed himself in the leg. It's a pretty deep puncture wound. We just laugh in each other's faces and throw the deer into the back end of my pickup and haul ass up to the fire station.
We hang the deer on a ladder between two fire trucks. The game wardens often come into the fire stations for coffee and the newspapers and fried catfish and it's risky business what we're doing. We skin the deer and quarter it and put it in the freezer, then go to Ireland's. I park my truck right in front of the building. I have a brand new 48-quart Igloo cooler with three six-packs of Budweiser in it. The cooler is worth about $40, the beer about $12.
While Rex and I are inside wearing our bloody coveralls, trying to dance with women, somebody, some asshole, steals it.
We get two or three good meals out of the deer meat. We cook steaks one night, a roast another night, tenderloin with biscuits and gravy one morning. Then the ice machine messes up and Ronnie Mills unplugs the wrong plug-in and the deer meat thaws out and sits in the freezer for about two weeks, and when a couple of groovy guys open the lid, they almost puke in the truckbay, and all our good deer meat is not something you'd even want to think about. Rex's leg heals nicely.
I don’t know if I can keep calling this book Fire Notes or not because I don't work at the fire department any more. I retired back in January 1990.
I suppose I could go back and rehash some old fires, exciting things that happened. That happened, and a lot of boring things happened. A firefighter has to face boredom as well as danger. There's all sorts of other things that happen, stuff you wouldn't think about, like club ladies in town who think the fire stations ought to have flowers and shrubs planted all over everywhere, who then call up Uncle Chiefy and the end result is that the firemen have to get out and plant flowers and shrubs when they could be inside catching some S & V on HBO or Cinemax. Another bad thing about the fire service is that you have to see dead people, burnt-up people and people who have died of smoke inhalation and people in car wrecks who are already dead or who are dying in cars you're trying to pull apart with the Hurst Tool while about fifty other people stand around and watch you and offer advice. I never dealt with it very well. It was always hard for me to close my eyes and go to sleep after something like that.
I quit being a fireman so I could write full-time. I agonized over it for a long time, and then I got this job adapting my novel to the stage for some people in New York. They paid me good money, so I quit and drew my retirement out and bought a CD with it. Everybody tried to talk me out of quitting. Well, not everybody. I was a captain and there were some lieutenants who wanted my job, naturally. I'd been a captain for about four years. Before that I'd been a lieutenant for about ten years. Before that I was a punk, or nozzleman. That's the way they talk around the fire station. A captain or a lieutenant or an assistant chief will walk into the living room where a bunch of groovy guys are sitting around drinking coffee or eating or playing cards or watching some good S & V on TV, getting through their shift taking it easy, and say: "All right. All you punks get up off your dead ass and get out here and clean out the truck bay."
Being an officer is often an unpopular job. Things have to be done and if nobody wants to do them, you're the one who's drawing the extra pay to see that they get done. After a fire, when all the trucks get back to the station, you can't go inside and get a cup of coffee and take off your turnouts and sit down and smoke a cigarette or get something to eat. All the hose you've used has to be washed, clean hose has to be put on the trucks, air bottles have to be filled, and the trucks have to be gassed up and washed, too, if they're dirty, and they usually are after a fire. All this has to be done right after a fire so that if you have another fire, you can be ready to roll.
There's just as much work involved in cleaning up after a fire as there is in putting the fire out. I'm not even going to talk about that yet.
This essay was originally published in our first issue, from 1992.