A Fireman's Kid
My dad was a New York fireman, which anyone who has a lick of sense
knows is the most important job in the city. I knew it because he never
bought a subway token. He'd hold his badge overhead, and vault the
turnstile: Engine 279, in Redhook, badge number 352.
He was also the
best friend I'll ever have. My teacher, mentor, and hero. He taught me
all the important lessons that I needed to get by in the world: Always
be respectful to women. Be kind to kids and animals, and never let
anybody see you cry. You're allowed to laugh until the tears come down
your cheeks, but if you're sad, make believe you have to go to the
bathroom to pee. Don't come out until you wash your face and get your
composure back. I've had to pee a lot since September 11--or walk
the dog or check the horses--anything to be by myself and think
Dad would come home from a shift smelling like smoke, give mom a
kiss, and go wash up and take a nap. He hardly ever talked about the
grim side of his job. He'd tell about the jokes that the other men
played on each other in the firehouse and trivialize any attempt to
find out what actually went on at a fire. If a fire was really bad,
like a dock fire or a tenement or a warehouse, he'd understate it as a
"roast," graveyard humor to depersonalize the actual
events. That meant casualties had occurred.
Mom hated his job as much as he loved it, but was as proud of him as
we kids were. On several occasions she got a call from the hospital.
I think it took a little bit out of her each time, until he'd get back
home and give her a kiss and tell her it was nothing.
I'd go to the firehouse occasionally with him. He'd get me all dressed
up in his gear and put the helmet on my head and let me step into the
boots that I could never fill. I slid down the pole and rang the bell
on the engine.
I knew that being a fireman was a manly thing to
do. Once the captain said that someday I'd be a fireman, too. My
father answered, "Not if I c'n help it. He'll go t' college an'
not come home smellin' like burned rubbuh."
He meant it, too.
When he retired on disability in 1964, we moved to Florida. I liked it
initially, sort of like a vacation, but "the Beach" was home. Stupid
palm trees and stupid people, not at all what I thought it would be.
People didn't even know how to "tawk," here.
and I had something to speak about in private, one or the other of us
would say, "Let's go wet a line" (go fishing). It was our
own private code. When I told him how much I missed the 'Beach' and my
friends, all he said was, "I had to get you out of there." I
didn't understand, but there was no discussion, no argument. That was
it: end of discussion, end of argument.
Firefighting is congenital. Most kids in my generation at least gave
some thought to being a firefighter or a cowboy. I managed to
think about the latter but there is not one scintilla of a doubt in my
had we remained in New York, I would have been the former. End of
discussion, end of argument.
Dad would've been proud and mom's heart
would've been broken.
Every damn time I think about the kids who've lost their dads on
September 11th I have to go to the bathroom again.