Like most kids growing up, it seemed like every week I was saying, “I wanna be this when I grow up” or “I wanna be that when I grow up”, the target was constantly changing. Every time I saw a new and cool occupation it would suddenly become my current weeks “When I grow up” career choice. However, there was one thing that would instantly override that current week’s choice. It was anytime I saw a fire truck racing through traffic with its lights flashing and siren screaming “GET OUT OF MY WAY”.
Like most kids my age, I was convinced that driving a fire truck was the ultimate thrill ride. Sitting behind the steering wheel of a big red truck while racing through traffic and having everyone get out of your way, WOW, now that has to be so cool. You probably already guessed this, but any week with a fire truck sighting and my career choice would instantly change to “I wanna be a fireman when I grow up”.
Yeah, typical kid, I never thought about what happened when that big red truck arrived at the scene of a fire or rescue. It never occurred to me that I might actually have to put my life on the line to save a person or building. Nope, that just was not part of the “wanna be” fantasy. Hey, I was a kid with big dreams and a short attention span what did you expect from me. I was still learning how life worked and thought the term “look at the big picture” meant going to the movies. I was not alone in my way of thinking either, all of my friends were the same way, yup, all like-minded. Heck, we were hero worshipers, and our “hero window” only lasted until we saw something neater, more exciting, more cool.
So, right about now I’m guessing you have a few questions bouncing around in that brain of yours and I can pretty well guess what they are since I probably would want answers to those very same questions.
“Did you ever become a firefighter?”
“Did you ever drive one of those big red trucks?”
“Nope, but I sat in one once.”
“Did you ever fight any raging fires?”
It happened during my preteen years on one of those hot summer days that we all loved as kids because there was no school and we could spend hours swimming in the nearby creek, cooling off and horsing around.
I had spent most of that day down at the creek with the “gang” trying my best to stay out of trouble for a change. Around noon, my best friend and I went to his house for lunch. He lived across the street and two houses down from ours. After lunch, we moved out to the screened-in porch and spent the rest of the afternoon listening to Rock ‘n Roll and talking about the usual kid’s stuff.
It was getting close to suppertime and as was the norm, my mom had probably started cooking our meal…which meant in a little while someone would be yelling for me to head home.
Although mom had indeed started cooking supper, the part I did not know was that mom had suddenly realized she was missing some things she needed to prepare the meal. Normally, she would have sent me to the local “mom and pop” store on my bike to pick up the items. However, since I was not home, mom asked my dad to drive her to the “big store”. Now this was back in the 1950’s and most of the mom’s in our neighborhood didn’t drive cars, the dad’s did, so mumbling and groaning, my dad agreed to drive her to the store…yeah, like he really had a choice.
When my friend noticed my mom and dad driving away in our car, he asked me if I knew where they were going, and of course, I didn’t, so we just shrugged it off and went back to listening to music and making rude comments about some of the artists and songs.
Now I am not real sure I can explain this part, but a little while later something made me feel as though I needed to head home…and before you say it, no, it was not the urge to go to the bathroom. So, I said my goodbyes and headed home. The front door was locked and I did not have a key so I headed around to the backdoor. In those days, kids didn’t need keys since someone was usually home.
As I passed the dining room window, something caught my eye and when I looked in, I could see a fire burning in our kitchen. I panicked…I mean really panicked. I ran around the house and tried to open the back door…it was locked. My little kid brain was in overdrive. The fire was raging and I did not have time to run back to my friend’s house to have him call the fire department. Now, just in case you are about to ask me about my cell phone, remember, it was the 1950’s and they did not exist yet and the same for 911. Nope, all the weight was on my little shoulders and I needed to do something fast.
Since most homes in those days did not have air conditioning, mom was using mother nature’s cooling. She had the kitchen window wide open. I grabbed the garden hose, turned on the faucet, aimed the nozzle so the water stream would shoot through the window screen, and I unleashed a deluge of water into the kitchen. Amazingly, even with my hands shaking badly, I managed to get some water on the actual fire because it appeared to be going out. However, with the garden hose still flooding the kitchen and me in full panic mode, it took a few minutes for my brain to realize that the fire was indeed extinguished and had been that way for about eight minutes…oops.
I won’t bore you with the rest of the details, but it was at that point in my life I realized I wasn’t cutout to be a fireman…too much responsibility and way too much danger, and let’s not forget about it being a really hot job in the summer. I was definitely not fond of being placed in harm’s way or having the bejeebers scared out of me. Nope, it was beginning to look as though I was destined to have a safe but very boring career doing anything but fighting fires…or rescuing cats from trees.
Because of my little brush with the “Fire Beast”, I have the deepest respect for firefighters. I just cannot imagine putting one’s life on the line at any moment’s notice or for that matter, waiting around for that moment to happen. For me that would be hours of sheer boredom followed instantly by hours of extreme stress and danger. I would say it takes a very special and amazing individual to choose a career as a member of a fire or emergency response team.
While wearing my “photojournalism” hat, which really does not happen very often, I have been fortunate to see and photograph our City’s Firefighters in action, albeit from a safe distance, a very safe distance. They are awesome to watch and true professionals. What amazes me is that sometimes they can go from a car accident to a house fire to a wildfire all in the same days shift. I guess it would be idiotic to tell a firefighter that they are in a rut and needed to find a more challenging job.
Now, I have been known to stumble upon an accident, fire, or whatever from time to time and like any freelance photographer worth his/her salt, I have also been known to take a picture or two, or fifty or, well you get the idea. The one thing that always amazes me is how gentle and compassionate firefighters are with the victims of a tragedy. I’ve seen them take the time to calm down the driver of a car that was just involved in an accident and then explain everything they are doing so the person doesn’t panic say for instance the firefighter/EMT has to establish an IV drip. With all the chaos that is going on around them, they always seem to be in complete control…unlike a certain freelance photographer I know.
House fires are not high on my list of things I like to photograph. The loss to the homeowners, the danger to the firefighters, all of that tends to send my emotions into a tailspin. If it does that to a rather nervous, cowardly photographer snapping pictures from a safe distance, a very safe distance, can you just imagine how it affects the firefighters who are up close and personal with the “Fire Beast”.
Before I started photographing emergency events, I was one of the many that believed firefighters raced to the scene of an event, got their hoses out, turned the water on, squirted water on the fire, turned the water off, put their hoses away, and went back to the firehouse to continue their interrupted game of cards. Hey, that’s what they always told me when I was a kid…who was I to question my elders. Of course I now know that was pure hogwash, firefighters do not play cards…whoa don’t get nasty, I was kidding, just kidding.
Through the years, as I have observed and photographed many emergency responders at work, I’ve grown to realize they are indeed true heroes, real heroes. Nowadays, the news media, politicians, and even the general public have taken to labeling everyone that does anything even remotely out of the norm as a hero. It has become an overused term that has slowly lost its meaning. Someone who is never in danger and is basically just doing their job or just doing what any normal human being would do, they are not heroes. Yes, they should get a pat on the back and a thank you, but just not be labeled as a hero. Because of that, I now refer to individuals who go beyond the call of duty and put their lives on the line to save others, as true heroes or real heroes.
Once again, as I photographed this particular house fire, I witnessed firefighters going out of their way to help ease the victim’s trauma. Simple things like talking to the family, calming their fears, answering their questions, and even making a fire department car available so mom and the kids could get out of the sun and cool down…and yes, along the way they also managed to save the family’s pet. All acts of kindness that rarely appear in a newspaper column or in a television news segment. To those firefighters, it goes with the territory and is almost an everyday occurrence, but rarely do they ever receive any recognition for being compassionate, caring, individuals.
One of the few times I witnessed firefighters being totally frustrated was at a wildfire in the northwestern part of our City. When the firefighters arrived on scene, the Fire Beast was busy feasting on acres of protected Red Mangroves in the Matlacha Pass Aquatic Preserve. Normally, firefighters come up with a plan, coordinate their efforts, and attack the Beast from multiple fronts. That is the norm, but in this case, there was one major flaw in that plan, the firefighters could not reach the fire area since it was surrounded by water on three sides. On top of that, it was wetlands with absolutely no access roads.
Attempts to obtain special firefighting apparatus suited for this type of situation were not successful, the City’s fireboat was in use at another fire and the closest Florida Forestry Service helicopter would take several hours to arrive. However, they did manage to get a sheriff’s helicopter to fly over the area and assess the situation. Based on that flyover, it was determined that there were no people or buildings in danger so the fire would be allowed to burn itself out. The Fire Beast was traveling east to west, which meant it would eventually run into the waters of Matlacha Pass forcing the Beast to cool its heels.
Therefore, a minimum crew remained on scene to monitor the Beast and make sure it did not have any dangerous tricks up its sleeve. With no marshmallows to toast or no weenies to roast, all the firefighters could do is stand around and watch all the beautiful landscape go up in smoke…the Fire Beast had won this round.
Now, I do not mean to sound like an arsonist, but in the case of this fire, there was a certain beauty to the Beast. The area unto itself was truly breathtaking, but with the haze from the smoke and the bright orange of the fire, it added a completely new dimension, enhancing the beauty. I am not sure I can come up with the right words to describe it, but it was an amazing sight to see…well, from a safe distance, a very safe distance.
Now you know something that visible would definitely arouse the curiosity of our local news media, it did, and they were out in full force…along with a certain freelance photographer.
The news folks were, well, news folks in that they gathered up all the fire department spokespeople and held a news conference trying to get every little detail of what happened and what was going to happen. One station was even resourceful enough to find a “willing” boater who ferried their camera operator over to get some “up close and personal” pictures of the Fire Beast.
Me, I was content chatting with the firefighters, listening to their stories and learning from their knowledge. The amazing things that they consider just everyday occurrences blew my mind away. They were very patient with me, answering all my naive questions. Each one of them was involved in our various conversations, adding clarifications as needed to make sure I understood everything since I was clearly not familiar with firefighting techniques.
I had asked about the very dense black smoke, which I had not seen at other wildfires I photographed. Several of the firefighters pointed out one of the many piles of Melaleuca logs and told me to watch what happens when the fire reaches the pile.
Now, Melaleuca trees are not native to Florida, they were imported by misguided land developers who believed if planted in large quantities around the Everglades, the trees would eventually help to dry up the large swamp…yeah, I know what you’re thinking…DUMB. Since then, they have become an invasive species, spreading like wildfire (pun intended) crowding out many native species. There are several government-funded projects aimed at eradicating the Melaleuca population in Florida, hence the piles of “former” Melaleuca trees
When the fire reached the log pile, it literally exploded into a large ball of bright orange flame, emitting very dense, black smoke. The firefighters went on to explain that Melaleuca wood had a high oil content, which made it extremely flammable. I was impressed with all the new and interesting things I was learning, but in the end, the little kid in me was doing ooohs and aaahs, thinking this was better than watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.
As I had said, in the case of this wildfire, there was indeed a certain unique beauty to the Fire Beast. However, in the late afternoon as the sun began to set, the beauty became almost ethereal. I suddenly felt very calm, almost as though I was at one with the universe…gees, now I sound like a 1960’s flower child. It was however, a truly amazing experience and one that is almost impossible to put into words.
As I was preparing the images for this story, I came across one that I thought was quite unique, one that seemed to fit within the theme of my tale. Hey, contrary to popular belief, I do not just do things “willy-nilly”, I have a plan and stick to it…well, most of the time anyway.
The image is indeed that of the Fire Beast. Right about now, you are probably thinking I’ve been tasting the cooking sherry, but if you look closely at the image below, standing at the bottom of the smoke column is what appears to be the Fire Beast. The Beast seems to be mocking the firefighters by raising a fist in the air saying, “I beat you this time”…well, it was either that or making an obscene gesture while uttering “Screw you, catch me if you can”.
My wife Ann and I were shopping at one of the local stores today and as we were waiting in the checkout line Ann pointed out a City Firefighter who was looking for the shortest line.
Now, I should mention that in our city, fire trucks parked in front of grocery stores around mealtime are a common sight…hey firefighters have to eat which means someone has to buy the groceries and cook the meal. Before you start complaining about driving the trucks to the store, think about this, what happens if there is a call while they are at the store? They can leave directly from the store and get to the emergency quicker than if they had to go back to the station to get the fire truck.
Anyway, Ann looked at me, pointed to the firefighter and then toward the front of our cart. Not having one of my brighter days, it took me a few seconds to figure out what she was trying to tell me. Just as the firefighter turned away, the light bulb lit and I quickly asked if he would like to get in front of us. Now, before you start with that “What a nice thing to do” baloney, we are retired and do not have a time clock to punch so it is no big deal.
While we were all waiting to checkout, we had a very enjoyable conversation with Mr. Firefighter. Although I diligently tried to “wangle” an invite to their meal gathering, I failed miserably…I guess I’m losing my touch. The firefighter talked around my rather blatant attempt by saying, “You can stop by any fire station anytime and someone will give you a tour of the station”. I guess firefighters are a lot like portly photographers…“You toucha my food, I breaka yer hand”.
My ramblings do indeed have a point. That impromptu discussion with a firefighter in the grocery store was the inspiration for this short story. I guess it is my odd way of saying thanks to those brave men and women.
Another great adventure comes to an end. It doesn’t get any better than this…well, unless you’re talking about a perfect world where everything is fireproof, there is no danger, and everyone lives forever. That might just be a step up from this story.
I guess as we travel the road of life, we can never be really sure which way the road will turn…one thing’s for certain though, if you see an emergency vehicle with its lights flashing and siren screaming “GET OUT OF MY WAY”, pull over and give them plenty of room. Help save a life, some day they may be racing to help one of your a friends, or a family member.
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