The Heroes Who Live Next Door

New York Times
The Heroes Who Live Next Door
By Margaret Head

It’s a scenario that is acted out many times in the course of a year. The calm that settles on night is shattered by a call for help . In house after house, the pager blares out and immediately rouses a sleeping man, who propels himself like a guided missile into his car while struggling all the way into turn-out gear.

All senses are alert and keen; the adrenaline is pumping and the transformation never ceases to amaze those who witness it. Just as a mother is tuned in to the slightest whimper from a small child, a fireman reserves a wavelength in his brain that is always open and ready to receive.

Why do they do it – especially in towns where all fire departments are manned by volunteers?

This is no career decision. The same man who spends the early morning hours sweating and toiling to save a home and the people in it often takes a quick shower before catching the 7:56 to New York. He could be the man opening up his bakery, liquor or hardware store as you speed by on your way to work. If you stop for gas, he could be the man who fills the tank. He could also be the man behind the counter at the lumberyard who helps you with your home repair problems. He reads your water meter. He installs your phone. He is everywhere in our lives but he has an added dimension--- he’s a fireman.

For some it’s a tradition --- an element so firmly grounded in their character that I would never occur to them to analyze their motivations. There are many sons following in their father’s footsteps.

One man has put in 54 years as a fireman in Darien; his father, who came over from England in 1888, was one of the founders of the first fire department here.

So tradition is one element. The special lure of testing ones mettle in the face of danger is another. Then there’s camaraderie not unlike the kind you find in any organization where people come together because of common interests. In a society that has become more and more fragmented and transient, the fire department can be a family into which a stranger from another part of the country can transfer and feel an identity and a sense of belonging.

But it’s a relationship that goes deeper than that. Maybe, just maybe, one day your life will be in the hands of the guy with whom you’re now trading war stories and jokes. When you’ve spent an agonizing half hour going through the underbrush in the dark looking for the body of a teenager after two cars have become far flung pieces of scrap metal on the Post Road when you have pried apart with a hurst tool(poetically called the “jaws of life”) the mangled remains of a car to release a woman trapped inside; when you have spent weary hours fighting a fire in which a family will lose everything it has worked for if your efforts do not succeed; when you have felt the special exhilaration of saving a life that might have been lost if you and your friends had not been there then you know what the bottom line is.