I remember my first time…

I just got home from drill night at the fire station a few minutes ago. It was a good drill. Our Captain started out with basic run card assignments for first and second out apparatus, depending on if we were going to a mutual aid or if it was our own “original” work.

He did a good job of covering assignments and there was good interaction amongst the group that included everyone from Explorers to Firefighters with 35+ years of experience, and everything in between. It lead into a presentation and discussion of minimum staffing for our volunteer department, including a video depicting the importance of a well coordinated attack on a heavily involved fire.

I hung around after drill and talked with two good friends, Dave and Jack. Jack has been a volunteer firefighter on and off over the last 20 years, some of those years with a neighboring department. He’s a good fireman who always strives for a higher standard of performance for himself and those around him.

All three of us are within a few years of each other in age but Dave is a probie, probationary firefighter that is, and Jack and I remind him of that constantly. In fact, we have a pet name for him that I won’t put in writing.

He just joined the department in the last year as a result of the peer pressure we amply applied. The Probie’s gear rack is positioned smack-dab between Jack’s and mine, so we can keep a close eye on him and hopefully keep his rookie blunders to a minimum.

All kidding aside, Dave is well on his way to being a great firefighter. He’s already completed his basic firefighter training and is now enrolled in an EMT course. He’s got the right attitude and is thirsty for experience. Don’t tell him this but, I’m proud of him for all of that.

Dave started asking questions about the scenes depicted in some of the photos that hang on the wall outside of our training room. A series of four photos showed a four-door sedan under a tractor-trailer that was pinned against a telephone pole. “Seven people were in that car,” I told him. “And they all survived, including a baby.”

I remember crawling under the tractor portion to get into the car via the front windshield. The car had apparently run a red light and was promptly T-boned by the tractor trailer, which then jack-knifed and drove into the pole with the car underneath it. We eventually had to use a tow truck to lift the tractor-trailer off the pole and thus, off the car. It was a tedious extrication under some pretty bad winter working conditions. But, like I said, everyone survived.

Such was not the case in another photo that showed the carnage after the trailer portion of a tractor-trailer straddled and sheared a Winnebago down to the deck. The motor home was positioned on the shoulder of the road just outside the safety of an elevated parking area in our response area on the New York State Thruway. Three people died in that crash, including the driver of the tractor-trailer that toppled end-over-end after the impact.

More photos showed a 19-car train derailment that I responded to shortly after turning 18 and becoming a “senior” firefighter. No one died in that wreck but it forced a half-mile radius evacuation of our community as the tanker cars full of “propane-butane-kaboom” were stacked like cordwood along the tracks, presenting an explosion hazard that would have obliterated us at the proximity we arrived at. That call is depicted in a coming chapter of my log book.

In what I’m sure some people would find to be a very morbid way, it was fun to share those stories. Both Jack and the Probie listened intently, intrigued by the outcomes, both good and bad.

As soon as I got home tonight I settled into my chair in front of the computer with a bowl of delicious corn chowder my wife Laurie had made much earlier in the evening. As often happens, I left for drill before I had a chance to eat dinner.

I opened up Internet Explorer where my home page is literally my home page: www.tigerschmittendorf.com; and I clicked on the FireEMS Blogs icon in the upper left hand corner to see what my fellow bloggers were up to tonight.

I was drawn to a blog from the “Raising Ladders” site that caught my eye, titled: “Finally, a first due job… and a pretty good one, at that.” I didn’t think much of the title when I first read it until I got into the rest of the story. It was the author’s first real working fire in his career.

His story, along with my story-telling experiences earlier in the evening, got me to thinking: “I remember my first time…”

I honestly don’t know if this story is truly about my first working fire, but it’s the first memory I have of really fighting a fire.

That’s because I often claim that my memory is receding with my hairline, so if you’ve ever seen a photo of me not wearing a hat, you know how much trouble I’m in. In fact I have a friend who once said: “Of course that’s his real hair. Who would buy a wig that looks like that?” Fortunately, to combat that memory loss, I still have my trusty log book.

If recollection serves me correctly, it was a warm summer night and we were dispatched to a mutual aid fire on Old Lake Shore Road near the beach bars that dot our shoreline on Lake Erie. As I only lived around the corner from the firehouse, I responded on the first engine out of the barn. 

Engine 2 was a 1967 GMC commercial chassis with a body manufactured by Young Fire Equipment Corporation, a local outfit that would be known for building fiberglass fire truck bodies in later years.

As it was only a two-man cab (three if you dared to sit in the center of the bench seat and brave the tall stick shift double-clutching between your legs), I rode the tailboard with three other, more experienced firefighters. The truck carried a total of two Scott-2A Air Packs, safely stored in hard cases in a side compartment. They were the modern version that actually had a manual bypass valve on the regulator that connected the elephant hose to your mask.

I grabbed one pack and Fran Caffery grabbed the other. Fran had been around for many more years than me and was a solid fireman and a really good guy. Just as we were about to enter the one-story converted cottage, we were told to look for a man in a wheelchair inside … as if my heart wasn’t already high enough in my throat. Are you kidding me?

The fire was cooking pretty good and there was visible flame and a lot of smoke. Not far inside the door, I crawled over the unmistakable feel of a wheelchair wheel. “Oh, that’s just great!” I probably thought.

In what I remember to be an eternity, we maneuvered the line through the house, fighting fire and lots of debris.

I remember crawling into check what I thought was a closet. Instead, a 3 ft. wide by 6 ft. high metal cabinet fell over the top of me, totally enveloping me. I think I was 18 at the time, mind you, so I probably weighed a whole 115 lbs. — not much more than the weight of the cabinet.

Thank God it landed on the hose line too, as that gave me a leverage point from which to crawl out from underneath it.

I also remember a beam falling on us as we clawed our way through the house, eventually exiting from the rear door. Stripping our masks off, we were informed that the wheelchair “operator” was not at home at the time of the fire, but tucked safely away on a corner bar stool at a local drinking establishment down the road.

Although I’d never wish ill on anyone, especially to be caught in a fire, I don’t think relieved was the emotion we felt at the time, considering the near-hell we had been through.

Raising Ladders does an excellent job of depicting the details of his first experience, including the excitement and emotions that only come with each of our own “first due.” He writes in such a way that embodies what I describe as the exhilaration that “Run to the Curb” type kids enjoy.  His style of sharing is exactly what I talk about being so important in “Fortune Tellers.”

All jacked-up from fighting my first real fire, the other memorable moment of the call occurred as I was returning my air pack to its secure black case on the side of the apparatus.

An attractive girl walked up and asked me for my phone number.

I honestly don’t recall how that part turned out but, who knows? Maybe it could have been another story titled, “I remember my first time…

Like I said, my memory is receding with my hairline.

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2 responses to “I remember my first time…

  1. strtcopr January 27, 2010 at 3:11 pm

    Mind if I call you…..Dick?

  2. Pingback: Three Decades. « Run to the Curb

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