S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Handy Andy,” Park revisits one of his favorite yarns about that time he was a volunteer fireman.
Old friends (who’ve heard them all by now) eventually ask me what my favorite story is.
That’s easy: the firehouse. I consider it my personal “origin story” and chronicled it in my first memoir (High & Dry), describing how I ended up a volunteer fireman in the Winter of ’66. I’d been working in a Portland department store and Don Taylor, the basketball coach for a Longview, Washington junior college, tracked me down there. He’d seen me play in high school and offered me a scholarship if I’d join his team.
I was flattered but felt his interest badly misplaced: he was a run-and-gun guy and I liked slow, set ’em up basketball. This was less a matter of game theory than a strong aversion to running: I’d abhorred it since childhood, when—until I grew into my body at sixteen—gravity was the enemy.
Plus I wasn’t the only tall, skinny character around; I could see how ungainly the others looked when they ran. (Not the graceful exuberance of coordinated kids, but spastic giraffe stuff.) It also demanded more energy than I was willing to expend on a game.
As I explained to my high school coach: “You’re out on the street? Somebody’s chasing you with a knife? Then you run. Otherwise jogging’s sufficient.”
We weren’t close, and—after I met him—didn’t foresee an amicable relationship with Coach Taylor, either. You could smell the Christian soldier on him, and not only had I not touched a basketball in months, but I was living in a whorehouse and smoking three packs of Galaxy cigarettes a day. (I’d had one hanging from my mouth when Taylor walked up: he looked like he’d caught me sucking cock.)
Yet he wanted me on his team, anyway, the same as my high school coach. This might have made sense if I were a stellar player (instead of a decent defender and rebounder, or even a red hot whose hustle inspired his teammates), but in lieu of those qualities I questioned their basketball acumen.
But so what? Did any of that matter when it came to Taylor’s offer? What’d I have going for me in Portland, a city I’d never liked to begin with? My five-dollars-a-month room in a whorehouse? Or Portland State, a glorified high school in the middle of downtown? Certainly not that job selling sporting goods next to a skating rink. If I could give up any of those without a second thought, why not hit the road?
Plus the firehouse bit intrigued me. Taylor said the city had built it for the volunteer firemen that Fall and, not only would I be the first full-time resident, but it wouldn’t cost me anything, either. Add that to the whole whorehouse-to-firehouse aspect, or going from five-dollars-a-month in rent to zero, and I liked how my life was unfolding.
Not only had I not touched a basketball in months, but I was living in a whorehouse and smoking three packs of Galaxy cigarettes a day.
So I accepted Taylor’s offer and found myself in Longview two weeks later. It was a gray, odorous mill town an hour north of Portland, and I’d no sooner stepped off the Greyhound than Coach stuffed me in his car, drove us ten miles outside town to the firehouse. After patting me down and searching my suitcase for cigarettes (I’d anticipated this and hid them in my typer case), he introduced me to a group of firemen.
They were washing the big red truck with great enthusiasm. Shoved a sponge in my hand and invited me to join them.
I handed it back. “Come on,” I said, “you can see your reflections in it now. How shiny does a truck have to be?”
I was still young and callow, hadn’t learned to grease the gears with coworkers yet. Hadn’t, in fact, even seen them as such, because Taylor told me I’d only be monitoring pre-dawn radio calls.
The volunteers had different ideas. That station was their baby and the fireman gig their only respite from millwork and family, so if Mr. Basketball Star wanted a free flop he’d have to earn it.
This was the first of a number of setbacks, as I was hardly the fireman type. What’s more those volunteers were millworkers who could gab about cars and engines for hours on end (as if they’d built them themselves) and seemed endlessly fascinated with taking things apart.
I, on the other hand, had been raised by a man who shielded his sons from tool use. (It was well-intentioned on his part, but the upshot was that—at eighteen—the only thing I’d have recognized in a toolbox was a hammer.) This, along with no interest in such matters generally, proved problematic in the years ahead, as I had dozens of jobs that required mechanical aptitude.
So when my apathy about drills and procedures became evident the volunteers responded in kind, dressing me in a jacket and pants that would have fit a guy half my size, making me cling awkwardly to the side of the truck on practice runs and, the three times I actually attended fires, ordering me to stand back, throw rocks through windows if asked. (I never was.) Our relationship deteriorated so rapidly, in fact, that a group of them started coming to games to heckle me:
“Get your ass in gear, High!”
“You’re a disgrace to the game, Hormel!”
They called me that because I’d lined the firehouse shelves with dozens of cans of Hormel Chili. I’d scraped by on cafeteria food in Portland but I’d be cooking for myself now and that was a problem, i.e. I loathed all forms of food preparation then and still do. Had, in fact, dreamed that the pellets they talked about in the Sixties, that would inflate in an astronaut’s stomach while supplying all necessary nutrients, would reach the market soon.
Until then I was left to figure out what (among the few foods I did like) was the easiest and quickest to prepare, hence the Hormel Chili. I ate it every evening when I returned from campus; opened a can, heated it up, buttered a piece of bread while waiting and voila! the eating was over and the farting had just begun. (I tried to be considerate and sit near open windows in class but it was actually something of a boon on the hardcourt, clearing out space beneath the basket.)
I played reasonably well for the first month or so, averaging ten points and twelve rebounds per game, but the problem lay with the rest of the team, i.e. their refusal to wait for me.
As I’d gasp to them at least once a practice, “What’s the fuckin’ hurry, guys!?”
Taylor was quicker to acknowledge his mistake than my high school coach had been, so as the season wore on I played less and less. In the meanwhile I enjoyed my classes, worked part-time in the clerical office and kept a low profile socially; was more comfortable with professors than my fellow students. Part of it was me experiencing small-town culture for the first time (or even the noxious farts), but mostly, I think, it was my interminable restlessness, this idea I was missing something obvious, that the key to my future was just beyond my grasp.
Was it a soulmate? A passion? A goal? A career? A philosophy? Even (God forbid) the military draft?
No, just drugs and alcohol: nothing would happen until I got those out of the way. (I’d drank on a half dozen occasions by then and blacked out every time, with no idea what that portended.)
But boozing itself? I wasn’t interested yet. This puzzles me now (I’ve always thought of alcohol and me as love at first gulp), but I’m grateful for the hiatus those months in Longview provided, how they proved I didn’t need booze or drugs to be a fuckup.
Because I returned to the firehouse one day that Spring just as the alarm bell rang. It was a harsh, horrible wail that’d wake the dead, and after jotting down the address and type of fire (chimney) over the radio, donned my tight jacket and “Where’s the flood?” overalls, walked outside with Carl Elmer, the kid who’d driven me home.
This was all very exciting for him, and he peppered me with questions while we waited for the volunteers to come screeching up the road. This was an emergency, this was the real deal, this is what they lived for, and the first eight arrivals would man the shiny truck.
But minutes passed and no one showed. As my agitation grew I finally realized it was three P.M., which meant a shift change at the mills, with the day workers leaving and swing coming on.
If the weird shit that followed me around was my own doing—I’d better start embracing it.
Which left me the sole available firefighter. This was not good news and would, I presumed, end badly for all concerned (particularly the homeowner).
But what are you gonna do? I’d never used a stick shift before, so asked Carl to drive the truck. He was a fussy character and it took a while to dress him (everything had to be just so), but we finally pulled out of the garage and onto the road with lights flashing and siren wailing. As I watched him lean over, tip his helmet this way and that in the mirror, searching for a rakish angle, I was glad one of us was having a good time. Had my first strong inkling that—if the weird shit that followed me around was my own doing—I’d better start embracing it.
Finally, after racing through the city outskirts and into the suburbs, we pulled up to the chimney fire. You could see it atop the last house in a cul-de-sac, and besides the string of cars that’d followed us there were a dozen people gathered on the lawn.
The first thing I had to do was convince them I was a volunteer fireman, not a kid who’d stolen the ill-fitting uniform and vehicle. Then I jogged to the far side of the truck, lifted the lid of the control box, pretended to push and pull knobs in there without the slightest idea what any of them meant. Dragged the long hose to the house while Carl leaned the ladder against it. I was afraid of heights and it was a tall, three-story home, so I tried to get Elmer to climb up there but the putz wasn’t having it, was, in fact, starting to realize this wasn’t such a grand adventure after all.
So I scaled the ladder myself, then crawled across the roof to its peak. There were flames smoldering around the chimney and I pointed the limp hose at them, thought, Lord, let there be water, Lord!
But of course there wasn’t. Soon there were angry catcalls from below, capped off by a guy in back:
“Hey, no wonder!” he laughed. “The kid never attached the hose to a hydrant!”
He paused, threw in my epitaph:
“He thought the truck was full of water!”