In my sunset years, I opted to become a volunteer firefighter, the oldest rookie in the known history of the Southampton, NY, Fire Department, protecting greater Southampton, on Long Island’s East End, since 1881. At 68 years young, I whipped through the classroom stuff and survived the...
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Half a block away, I don’t learn that sad history until the next day.
With one notable exception, it’s my job to remain on the periphery of the fire scene, blocking streets, redirecting traffic, keeping it moving, protecting the fireground from intruders, well-meaning or not. (One midnight, we were nearly knocked down when a woman whipped her car around the corner and up Moses Lane to the fire. “That’s my house,” the woman cried as she stepped on the gas.)
The only time I get anywhere near a fire is when I help the interior guys change their air tanks. The firefighter stands passively, catching a short break, while we snap open a catch and twist, and twist, and twist, a little black knob to disconnect the air hose. Then we pop a spring release. Off with the empty tank; on with the new; reverse the process. Twisting that little knob takes forever. Done regularly, it makes for a strong wrist.
Ask a veteran, “What did you do in the war?” and he can tell you that, but little more. Thousands may have perished, but all he knows is the couple of hundred yards directly in front of his foxhole. More than a few times, I chafe at being distant from the real action at a fire. Later, I tell myself that’s how it is with any great cause. For every top dog in the spotlight, thousands of other citizens must serve humbly, their gift to their larger community.
What I mainly remember at one remove on that tragic evening when an old man died was the cold, the bitter cold, and the biting wind. At 10 o’clock, it was about 11 degrees. A northwest wind, 20 miles an hour, give or take, was gusting from Great Peconic Bay a couple of miles away, importing the chill all the way from arctic Canada.
Don Fanning, Dave Squirrell and I held that intersection for a bit less than an hour and a half. We halted traffic as the pumpers and trucks raced up North Sea and wheeled west up Hillcrest. We closed off Hillcrest with barricades and cones. Now, as we stand shivering, our burden has waned to waving gawkers on past and occasionally opening the barricades for some official vehicle to pass in or out.
I am encased in my lime-green reflective duty jacket with its thick black liner. I never stand stationary, bouncing about like a prizefighter in the ring. As much as I can, I face south along North Sea Road, so the back of my hood takes the brunt of the wind. For all that, I am chilled to the bone. I brought the wrong gloves; my fingers are numb. I can barely hold my flashlight, a yellow heavy-duty model with the lit orange tip, the most visible for directing traffic, day or night. My legs are OK, but my feet are frozen clumps. Up till now, we’ve had a mild winter, so I am still in running shoes on this frigid night in late January. After maybe an hour, some good Samaritan does a coffee-and-cocoa run to the 7-Eleven a long block away. The cocoa is wonderful. My fingers are so cold, I drop the precious cup after only a sip. The cup blows away, tumbling along North Sea Road toward the village.
My lieutenant, Jason Korte, yells, “Fred, take a break – go sit in the truck and get warm.” The first two times, I shake my head and grin gamely. What I lack in youth, I will make up in grit. The third time around, I can no longer stand it. The gutter is now slush from all that water runoff; trying to skip over, I soak only one shoe, only a bit. My eyes are tearing. When I reach the truck, my fingers won’t work the door handle. Once inside, I am bliss. The warmth caresses my cheeks; gloves off, my fingers begin to thaw and flex. I breathe easy again. But I am antsy, too antsy to shelter for more than five minutes, then it’s back on the street.