Be warned this one isn’t an easy read, so think about it before reading.
People ask firefighters strange questions. Bet you didn’t know that. Even friends and family that have known us for years will ask. I would be at a Christmas party or a summer BBQ or a school function for the kids and it would happen.
“Hey TimO. Can I ask you a question?” I knew what was coming most of the time. The people, mostly men, wanted to ask questions that they thought they knew the answer to. A question that would somehow empower them as men.
When you are the “Fireman” at a party of mere mortal men, for some reason, that is male solely, you are perceived by many of the other males as the alpha, and at most non-fire department related gatherings you are the default alpha.
The rest of the pack doesn’t get to run free like a firefighter does. They live and work in much gentler worlds where the social order isn’t determined by Marquess of Queensberry rules.
Thus when influenced by an abundance of malted beverages and the hazy smells of fertile women that mostly dormant male gene awakens. Maybe his wife removed his man parts from the jar and allowed him to bring them to the party with him for a change, I don’t know.
What I do know is this kind of man invigorated by fresh air and a sudden rush of drunken testosterone feels the need to test his mettle against that of his perceived oppressor.
For most settings his wish wasn’t to be aggressive in a physical way, no, he wanted to show that given different variables he too could have been a firefighter, no big deal being a firefighter, and if I was a flame warrior then hell anyone could do it.
They knew me, I was nothing special and that pissed them off. They hated that the women adore their boys in blue and would constantly flirt with me and give me drive-bys just because of my job. Well damn they had hard jobs too; maybe they didn’t run into burning buildings like me, but in their fantasy worlds, in that tiny part of their brain where some maleness still lived, they knew they could do my job.
They knew given the right circumstances they would be a hero too. They knew if they were walking down a sidewalk and suddenly saw a house on fire that they would run in there and stumble out moments later dirty and blackened with a grateful child tucked under each arm.
All they needed was that chance to prove themselves men of the highest order, real men. They needed to believe that if things were different they wouldn’t be the societal eunuchs they knew themselves to be. This powerlessness and the three shots of Jack they had drank gave them the courage to ask me a question.
“You must see some crazy stuff huh?”
“Yeah I’ve seen some crazy stuff.”
And here it would come, give me your best shot, give me the gruesome details of life on the streets TimO, I can take it I’m a man too.
“Like what?” Most of the time I didn’t want to engage them like this. I knew the drill, I’d done it before.
“You don’t want to know that stuff Bob.”
“Yeah TimO I do.” First off I didn’t like being called TimO by those that hadn’t earned the right to call me TimO and it had to be earned.
In my youth I had made the mistake of calling a very senior fire captain by his nickname “Billy MaC” one day. He stopped dead in his tracks and swung around to face me.
“What did you call kid?” his face was red at the asking.
“Sorry Cap” I managed as I stumbled backwards at his approach. He dug a finger deep in my chest.
“You haven’t earned the privilege of calling me by that name. I’ll let you know if you ever do earn it.” He removed his finger and held me eyes for a few painful heartbeats. Then he walked away. I am proud to say I did get to call him Billy MaC years later.
“You know Bob, we firefighters deal with that crap all the time at work and I really don’t like talking shop on my days off.”
“Oh come on TimO, just give me an example.” It was always the little guys too. I thought of the movie Cool Hand Luke and the prison warden’s speech to Paul Newman.
“What we have here is a failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach, so you get what we had here last week. Which is the way he wants it. Well he gets it.” love that movie.
“Okay Bob, you have kids right?”
“Remember when they were toddlers and get away from you?”
“Of course happens all the time.”
“Okay, now imagine you aren’t sure where your toddler is one day. At the same you are wondering where the kid is you remember you need to move your car a few feet so you can get your lawnmower out of the garage. You jump in the car and back up two feet, on the third foot you hear a strange noise so you stop and get out of the car and there under your back wheels is that kid’s head. And she is still alive, you call 911 and when I get there you hand me your kid to save her. How about that Bob? Is that what you wanted to hear?”
His face curled in horror and I watched him as he vomited his hot dogs and beer. He never asked me what it was like to do my job again.
I don’t tell you this to horrify you, I tell you so you might know what we do isn’t always glorious. It has a cost and the men and women that wear these badges pay it. So if a rescue worker doesn’t want to talk shop at the Fourth of July party, don’t push them. Okay?