This is a true story and not funny at all. I beg you to remember that when it comes to the humiliation I went through, which was so long ago that you might think the sting of the event has lessened over the years. It has diminished only slightly and no longer causes me to awaken to any sudden noise at night and reach first for my pants—well, almost never.
When I was eighteen, in 1972, I got a high draft number—256, I think it was—with Uncle Sam taking only those poor boys whose numbers fell under 250. So, spared the idea of going into the armed forces—and, therefore, Vietnam—I joined the Louisvillle Fire Department, went through sixteen weeks of drill school, the basic training in this quasi-military uniformed service, and became a genuine fireman, like my father before me.
My Dad was a near legend in the LFD, but I didn’t think I would be, until the winter of 1973, when I was stationed at a one hundred year old firehouse at Preston and Marrett streets, amidst many square miles of Victorian era fire traps. That’s when I achieved my own legendary status through a blunder that, I swear, was not my fault.
I was assigned to Hook and Ladder Company #3, “Truck 3,” which mortified my Dad. See, he was an Engine company man,during his tenure on fire companies, the guys who bring the water and put out the fire. “Truck” work, with axes, ladders, and shovels, was all ventilation and rescue, and as Dad said, “Dirty work, son, real dirty work.” By February of 1973, I had found that to be true. Our district didn’t have as many runs as other districts, but the nature of the houses that covered our first alarm district turned more of our runs into “working fires,” rather than malicious false alarms or simple “food on the stove” fires. And a “working fire,” one that gets into the structure of a building, is way worse. Because, the Truck company guys have to hang around and pull down ceiling and wall plaster, shovel out burned debris, and wash out the structure so that we could be sure that not a spark survived.
In a way, Truck work suited me, because I’ve always been better at destruction that construction. But I was a woeful fireman, compared to my father. I never knew what to do, broke tools, and rarely got my Scot-Pac air mask on properly, though I kept my long hippie hair cut according to regulations. My auto repair and maintenance skills were equally poor and remains so to this day, but that, at least, relegated me to kitchen duty, where I learned to cook, sort of, while the other firemen did maintenance on the massive Seagrave Hook and Ladder.
Even though I sucked in my firefighting skills and held a bad record on breaking tools, I gave it my all. No one ever faulted me for my lack of effort, though I was scared shitless at every fire scene I ever attended. It sort of made sense to me to stay out of burning buildings, though I usually managed to work hard at every fire, especially working fires, where I proved to be a good hand with a shovel—not a skill of which I am proud, by the way.
That middle February day, Truck 3 had been at the scene of two working fires since my twenty-four hour shift began at eight that morning. My hands were raw from being wet and cold all day, my arms drew up with knotted muscles, and I barely managed to help get something hot on our plates for dinner. I headed to my cot on the second floor of the Truck house by about eight that night.
That old firehouse bedroom was cold, so I slept in my skivvies and a sweat shirt. Beside my bed, my “nighthawks,” sat. They are insulated pants pushed down over knee high boots, into which I was supposed to step, if the alarm, the “knock out,” woke me.
Only, I missed them.
At two in the morning, the “knock out” klaxon blared and the ceiling lights came on, and the bustle of firemen around me commenced. I got up, too, as tired as I was, but I did not awaken. There it is, the crux of the problem, the very evidence that I was the worst fireman ever. I used to sleep like the dead, like I did that night. I don’t anymore, and here’s why: I stumbled over to the brass pole which would deliver me to the apparatus floor below, dressed only in sweatshirt, skivvies, and socks. I recall being the first one at the pole, but I was still asleep, with eyes open, and I couldn’t seem to grab the trap door release to the pole. Someone did, though, and down I went, plummeting toward the floor, pants-less.
You would think that the jolt of my feet on the pad below would have awakened me, but it did not. Instead, still asleep, I ran to the Hook and Ladder, pulled on my three quarter boots, coat, and helmet and stood there, in a dazed condition. Men were running all around me, and Engine 15 fired up to move out of the way of the Chemical Unit, parked in back of the pumper. For once, the Truck company wasn’t leaving. The Chemical Unit had a run down to Rohm and Haas Chemical in the west end, and I was free to go on sleeping.
It should have dawned on me that the ruck was staying, because my Sergeant, a huge man named Mike Riley, had come down the pole behind me, bearing my nighthawks in his left hand. He had been following me around, trying to get me to put them on.
“Mark, son, you need these. Hey, buddy, time to wake up now,” I recall him saying around his deep bass laughter.
For my part, I was still asleep or thinking that I ought to be, so I said something sharp like,
“Lemme alone. Goin’ back t’bed,” pushing his hands away. Dressed as I was, I looked something like a popsicle, I guess, what with the wide fire coat and helmet separated from the over large boots by two slender white legs, not my best look. And, worse yet, I stumbled back up the stairs to the bedroom in this regalia, without so much as a pause to wonder why the other Truck and Engine Company guys had begun to laugh hard and shout my name. I could hear them, still, as the stairway door closed on me, and I stumbled back into the bedroom, and took off my gear and dropped it on the empty bed next to mine.
Now, Mike Riley was a good friend to me. He continued to follow me with my nighthawks in hand and stopped only at the bedroom door, raised his huge voice to me and demanded that I step out again. At that point, my huge friend, a full six feet, six inches and strong as a bull, grabbed me by the front of my fire coat and lifted me off the ground, giving me a vigorous shake and yelling “You. Don’t. Have. On. Any. Pants!”
Well, that woke me, and I recalled every step of my journey into the legendary status I earned that night: the most clueless fireman ever, or at least the hardest to wake. I saw it all again and said something bright like,
I could hear the laughter dying down on the floor below me, and I turned a beseeching gaze up into Mike’s eyes. He started laughing again, as I mumbled something about having to get pants and shoes on and take my helmet and things back to the Truck. Mike nodded and said,
“Yep. You gotta go back down.”
Naturally, all of them were waiting for me to come back, and when I cracked the door to see of anyone was staring, their laughter renewed itself. I think many of them fell down and maybe peed their pants laughing so hard as I trudged through their midst to return my gear to the Truck. I doubt that any of them ever forgot it, and I have, mostly, slept very light since then.
Sure. Like you never forgot your pants!
It just isn’t that funny, but, well, yeah, I guess it is.