“A Forgotten Lane of Memory.”

M.J. Downing.

That guy in the picture? That’s supposed to be me. I guess it was. It doesn’t seem like the face I see in the mirror anymore. Oh, the resemblance is there, but consciousness had yet to dawn on that face, and I was about to embark on my journey into the adult world with absolutely no idea about what was going on. Sound familiar?

That picture was taken at the old Fire Department Drill School, down on Louisville’s Southwestern Parkway. I was down that way today, getting my Covid-19 test at the Shawnee Park drive through location. The drill school I went to is long gone, now. I couldn’t even see where the tower and out buildings once sat. And looking at the picture of me, fresh from what amounted to Fire Department Boot Camp, I have to wonder how real all that was. Maybe I just need to pretend that it never happened.

Maybe a week or so after that picture was taken, I was on company at Truck #3 at Preston and Marret in Old Louisville. Yes, that’s the house where I slid the pole one night without my trousers. See the previous blog entry for that tale. It was a grand old firehouse—still is. But at that point in time, it was about to meet one of the worst firefighters in the history of Louisville’s finest.

My first day on company, we made a run to a small block of apartments at Shelby and St. Catherine streets. The fire was in the ground floor unit nearest Shelby. Once we rolled out of the house, somebody yelled, “Strap in, boy, and get that mask on,” pointing to the Scot pack harness affixed to the inside of the Hook and Ladder’s jump seat. I was “riding the room ladder,” which meant that I had charge of taking the seven foot aluminum “room ladder,” with the pike attached to its side, and charging in the front door where the engine company laid the “booster” line.

My mask fogged up and I stumbled with the ladder heading into the yard. Down I went to my knees, tangled up in my own feet. I could see zip, zero, and guys were whizzing past me in and out of the apartment. Once I got inside, I had the horrible feeling that I was invading someone’s living space. Clothes covered the furniture, toys on the floor, a woman holding a baby, looking at me like she didn’t know what I was. Hell, I didn’t know what I was. She cried, the baby cried, I would have cried, if I’d had any sense about me.

Duty bound, I managed to work my ladder into the kitchen where a small fire had been. By the time I got the ladder unsnagged from the arm of the couch, the fire was out, and Captain Aldridge, who should be canonized for his saintly forbearance of my ineptitude, called to me to put aside the ladder and help carry something out to the front yard. Maybe it was a table. I don’t know. I couldn’t see it.

Even through the fogged lense, though, I could see that I was the only one wearing the Scotpack mask. None of the other had people in the room had one on and were breathing just fine. Even the mom and her baby. So, I shut mine off, like the drill school instructors had taught me, and fetched and carried stuff as I was told. In truth, I was as far away from that corner of Shelby and St. Catherine as was possible. The only fire department tool I used that day was the broom, sweeping up the ash and spilled food from the kitchen. A total blur, we were there and gone in less that half an hour, and I was never so glad to see a door shut as I was when that woman and child shut the door on us as we drove away.

Back at the firehouse, I was greeted by jokes and laughter, having made my first run. “Kid got his cherry popped,” and similar jokes were the order of the day. All the guys on Engine 15 and Truck 3 had seen me blunder my way through that fire scene, like a drunken man stepping in post holes. In their hard way, they were kind, though I imagine that they could look back on their first run and see that they did a better job. I was awful, and I knew it. Telling myself that I’d get better didn’t help me much.

Not long after, I came around the corner into the dining area one night and heard one fireman saying, “He’s useless. Hell, he bogs down with the room ladder, every time. Or, he brings it in, puts sit aside and goes off and does something else.” That’s a cold, sobering thing to hear, and I’ll always remember it, for I was a woeful firefighter, even if I did get better at knowing what to do, knowing how to “use my head instead of my ass,” as Sgt. Hauter kept telling me.

But I learned some valuable lessons, the first of which is that it’s a good idea to find out if you really want to do something before you start doing it. I had the physical skills, well enough, as drill school showed me, but my head was never in the job, which could have killed me several times. I can share a story or two about that, too. But the most important thing I learned that first day was simple: show up. No matter how bad I have been at any job I had, I learned to show up. I showed up for my Covid test. I showed up to write today, and what I wrote seemed harder than trying to deal with that first fire run. But, I did it, and that is a good skill.

That look on my face in the picture? To me, it looks like pure unconsciousness. A cross between a smile and a frown. Some might think it looks like the face of determination. To me, it’s a face that is ready to say, “Huh? You want me to do what?”. Such was the face that walked into that firehouse every morning I had the duty. I did that for three years, kept showing up at a job for which I was completely unsuited. I hope I’m a better writer than firefighter. In any case, I’ll keep showing up.

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