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A Fireman's Kid

by Bill Patterson

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 about things. 

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. 

Whenever dad 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 mind that 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. 

Last changed: July 15, 2002