Photograph by Connor Pell
by Mike Errico
The only house that ever caught fire in our neighborhood burned straight to the ground. Only two brick chimneys remained, like goalposts on either end of a wet, black hole that Chris and I scrounged in for pool balls and singed pornography. We stepped carefully around exposed nails and wondered if a found bottle of whiskey was still drinkable. Would it still, you know, work?
“Is the weight of this entire house now made up of smoke?” I asked Chris while poking a sofa with a charred stick.
Issue #48 soundtrack: Matt LeMay "A Portrait of the Man"
“I mean, it’s gone. But it’s somewhere. Is it, like, floating away?”
“Dunno. Ooh! Is that a … nah, never mind.”
“If no fire trucks had showed up, this place would look the same.”
“They did their best. Captain Walsh told me.”
Captain Walsh, a retiree with wisps of white hair that clung to his temples, was the head of the Volunteer Fire Department. He lived down the street and had stepped in to help out when Chris’s dad left. For a long time, I thought he was Chris’s grandfather. He’d been a back-up singer for an orchestra that dressed like Canadian Mounties, and when he heard that I’d gotten an electric guitar for Christmas, enumerated his Three Rules of the Music Industry on his arthritic fingers.
“Listen to me, son. Are you listening?”
“OK. One. Save your money. Two. Never believe your publicity. Three. Leave the party early.”
“Just remember it. It’ll make sense later.”
When we were kids, Captain Walsh took us for ice cream in his black 1959 Thunderbird. We had sworn years before that no girls were allowed on our trips, though no girls had ever asked to come along, except my sister, who we had to make an exception for.
The house burned down the summer I turned 16. Captain Walsh mentioned the fire department, and said that they were looking for some new recruits. He hinted at free ham sandwiches and maybe, if a secret could be kept among men, a sip of beer.
The potential danger of running into burning buildings was small price for a world of ham and beer. So we joined.
About 20 men from the town gathered weekly at the firehouse. By day they were stockbrokers, podiatrists, judges and insurance salesmen. Some were incredibly overweight, with pink necks that flowed like molten skin over shapeless dress shirts. Others were lanky and frail with sallow, drawn-in faces. No one was fireman-sized.
The ham was donated by the local German deli as a sort of self-defeating form of fire insurance. The men shouted for the mustard and smiled as they watched us work the keg, not asking how we had learned. After a few hours, they let us steer the back of the hook and ladder. The steering wheel was as large as a ship’s, and hard to maneuver when drunk with a learner’s permit. But from that perch, I could see into second-story windows, where girls might be taking off their bras.
The men hung off the side of the truck, wind glancing off rigid haircuts, and surveyed the town they were protecting. They waved at neighbor’s wives, each walking eerily similar golden retrievers, each just a little safer for their act of public service. They wore heavy fire-pants and matching jackets with their names on the back. We had jackets, but no names. After touring the neighborhood, we unfolded and then folded the hoses while learning penis jokes. Then everyone returned to regular life.
In order for the fire department to keep official accreditation, we were required to visit the Fire Safety training facility three towns over. Chris and I weren’t allowed take our folks’ cars that far, so we drove with Kenny.
Kenny was a wild-eyed, red-haired Irishman. His jaw seemed permanently clenched, and during the July 4th community softball game he would dive head-first into second base. Unlike the other men, he may have worked at another fire station. Or maybe he was a cop. He drove a silver VW Bug, and I sat in the back, since the whole “Let’s Join the Fire Department” thing was Chris’s fake-granddad’s idea, giving Chris a kind of seniority over me.
“Think it’s small, right? This car? The stereo? Yeah. Check this out.” Kenny cranked the volume on the stereo until the speakers thudded and the cigarette butts bounced in the ashtrays. On the Long Island Expressway, he hit speeds that barely kept the Bug fixed to the road. The engine whined. He reached into the glove compartment, one hand on the wheel, and pulled out a glass pipe.
“Where there’s smoke,” he yelled over the radio and the engine, “there’s f-i-i-ire!”
He rolled down his window and red hair flew around his face. We took turns on the pipe. Long Island smeared past us, with its glowing malls and its over-manicured trees that looked gradually more out of place every year.
At the training facility, controlled oil fires raged in drums across a wide cement field. A high steel-and-cinder-block building stood in the middle with deep black soot stains on the tops of window holes. High fencing ran along the perimeter, and within, other volunteer Fire Departments ran from oil fire to building and back. The facility looked like it had been attacked, and it was easy to imagine post-apocalyptic details — children’s heads on pikes, or misspelled warnings painted in human blood.
“That’s the spot,” Kenny yelled. “Come to papa!”
He let out a scream that threw my head into the back window.
“Gentlemen, I applaud your sense of duty.” A broad-shouldered, stone-faced man decorated with medals paced the classroom as we squeezed into middle school desks. “Call me Clancy. Or, Officer Clancy. Fred, when we’re off grounds. Which we are not.”
The men nodded in approval.
“Lotta men, men like you, might have just kicked back with a cold one tonight.”
“You know my wife?” someone muttered from the back of the class. The men cackled together. Clancy grinned, waiting patiently.
“I applaud your camaraderie, as well. Because it takes a team. We all know, it takes a team. And that’s what you are.” He paused.
“Look around. You may be thanking one, or several, of the men you see around you— for saving your life. Look around. Likewise, you may be thanked for saving a life.” We nodded without looking around.
“Lesson One about fire. She doesn’t care who you are. Would take any one of you. Us. You’re a big shot at your job? Got nice kids? Doesn’t matter. It can happen to you.” The room became still. “Believe you me, I have a lot of men to thank for standing here. Them, and a little bit of luck, too. Won’t deny that.”
My assigned facemask smelled of smoke and coffee breath. I strapped it on and pulled my dirty yellow fire pants tight, tucking the slack back into the apron at my chest. I wiped the smudged mask with a gloved hand and smeared it worse.
“First thing you may notice. Decreased visibility.” Clancy stood at the entry of the steel-and-cinder-block tower. A fire hose lay on the ground, taut, pointing at the door.
“Not even smoke to deal with, yet. You’ll have to use other cues. Hearing. Feel. And most important, team. Listen to, and for, your team leader. He’s first line. He’s your eyes. He’s your decision maker.”
Clancy picked five men out of our group. I was fifth.
“Youngblood. Back of the hose.”
We picked up the hose.
“OK. What do we already know? Five stories, three rooms per story. There’s a fire in one of them. We assess each room as our potential hot spot. We follow procedure. We do not just open a door in a burning building, or the word ‘barbeque’ will have a whole new meaning.”
We nodded in our masks.
“Each of you has a role, regardless of your place on the hose. You’re each others' eyes and ears. And I want to hear that communication. Stay on the same page.”
“Youngblood here, you’re last, which means you’re first lugging that hose up the stairs. You create mobility for the team. Plus, some of you fellas look like you’re one flight of stairs from a cardiac arrest. Seriously, guys. Chest pains, fainting, you call it out. We’ll turn the fire off.”
The men in front of me stretched their legs and jogged in place. Clancy produced a yellow digital timer.
“OK. She’s up there somewhere, boys. Go get her!”
The timer gave a small bleep. The team leader yelled and together we ran into the burning building.
Chris and I had built a bike ramp with bricks and an old plank of wood. We rode in a loop, lazily, taking turns jumping our bikes off the ramp, stopping only when it fell apart or we got hungry. A hazy sun began to set. We slapped at mosquitoes and jumped our bikes. We had no other plans for the summer.
“What if we took a car over this thing? Would it go up on two wheels?”
“Nah. Ramp’d probably just fall apart. Maybe pop a front tire, though.”
“Because of the bricks…”
“Yeah, also depends how fast they’re…”
Overhead, the fire siren wound up and wailed. We looked at each other.
“It’s not Tuesday.”
We kicked the ramp out of the road and raced our bikes to the firehouse.
The two trucks were already half way out of the driveway, lights flashing and men running crazily, half-dressed in fire-pants, swapping hats and yelling over one another. Captain Walsh sat perched behind the wheel of the pump truck, talking on a large black satellite phone, eyes fixed forward. He saw us riding up on our bikes, pointed at us, then pointed to the back of the truck. We dropped our bikes on the firehouse lawn and jumped on the running rail. Someone threw us two jackets and fire pants. Captain Walsh blasted the air horn and dropped the truck in drive. We jolted forward and a helmet clattered to the pavement behind us.
Men were yelling.
“Who do we got?”
“Where’s my helmet?”
“What’s our location?”
We careened through town, speeding through stop signs and red lights with deafening blasts of the air horn. Chris and I scrambled forward into the cabin with the other men, still buckling up hats and pants and jackets. Kenny craned his neck out the window, his red hair flying, his smile huge.
“What’s the story?”
“Utility fire. Called in from 911.”
“Not yet. But not sure. Residential area.” The truck swerved hard to the left. Captain Walsh yelled back to the cabin.
“OK. We remember what we learned. Team. DePhillips, first hose, O’Neal, second. Is that clear?”
“No heroes. You got me? Kenny, you got me?”
“Sir.” His head swiveled from left to right wildly.
The truck veered sharply alongside a strip of woods separating the train tracks from residential backyards. A thin column of smoke rose up from a cluster of trees and trailed into the evening sky. Captain Walsh slammed on the brakes. The truck skidded to a halt.
“Go, go, go!”
Captain Walsh hopped gingerly off the truck and ran towards the smoke. Four of us grabbed blankets and First Aid and followed him through a clearing in the trees. Walsh suddenly stopped running, and stood, catching his breath.
A large pile of burning leaves had blown up against a backyard fence. Next to it lay a blackened squirrel, contorted and smoking.
“What the hell?” Chris asked.
Captain Walsh looked up at the power lines running overhead, and sighed. “Looks like that squirrel tried to get from the power line to the fence, created a circuit and electrocuted itself. Fell into the leaves.”
“Jesus Christ,” Kenny moaned, disappointed.
“You mean thank God. That’s what you mean. That nobody’s trapped in an attic clutching her Stacy Talks-a-Lot and choking on burning fiberglass is what you mean.”
Kenny muttered under his breath. “Yeah, I guess…”
Captain Walsh called for the onboard fire extinguisher, pulled the pin and blanketed the area with thick white powder until the canister sputtered and choked, depleted, leaving the squirrel carcass looking almost sugar-coated. On the other side of the fence, a family had gathered on their back porch, staring.
“Good job, men. No, it’s a good job.”
“…just a squirrel…” someone yelled back to the truck.
“No. It’s not just a squirrel. It’s a 911 response. Department was deployed, responded and engaged successfully. No casualties.” He paused, staring at the squirrel. “Well, none to report.”
We stood in a half circle, considering his words.
“We had no idea what was on the other side of the call, and there’s no way to know what this could have escalated into, had we not gotten here so fast. No way to know. Squirrel today, inferno tomorrow. There’s just no way to know.”
Men wandered back through the trees and to the flashing truck. Captain Walsh wiped the sweat off his forehead.
“So yes. We win.” He stared deep into the leaf pile, as if calculating impossible odds.
“Today, we win.”
Mike Errico is a musician, writer, producer and film/TV composer with seven full-length albums. For more information, visit him online at errico.com.
Connor Pell is 19 years old, and has been practicing photography for about 4 years. To view more of his work, click to jpgmag.com/people/cpell.
Matt LeMay is a Brooklyn-based writer, musician and recording engineer. He fronted the band Get Him Eat Him, and now plays drums for Kleenex Girl Wonder and releases music under his own name at mattlemaysongs.com. You can find more of his work at aquestionoffrequency.com.