The only time I get anywhere near a fire is when I help the interior guys change air tanks. The tanks, worn on a back rack and good for no more than 20 minutes, are too cumbersome to remove and replace without help. The fireman 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 — all he knows is what he sees in front of his foxhole. More than once I chafe at being distant from the real action at a fire. But that’s how it is with any great cause. For every top dog in the spotlight, thousands of other citizens 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. Atten o’clock, it was about eleven degrees. A north 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 about an hour and a half. We halted traffic as the pumpers and trucks raced upNorth Seaand 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 day-glow lime-green 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 alongNorth 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, the heavy-duty model with the lit orange tip, the most visible for directing traffic, day or night. My legs are okay, but my feet are frozen clumps. We’ve had a mild winter, so I am in running shoes on this frigid night in late January. After maybe an hour some 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 alongNorth Sea Roadtoward 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 run-off; trying to skip over, I dunk one shoe, and it’s soaked. 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.
All the next day I am groggy. Only then do I realize what a blow the cold had delivered. That exposure wracked me like a full-body concussion. As it happens, I am up early to take the6:30Jitney toManhattan. On the way to the bus station, something impels me to go see the wound I experienced only from a distance. I veer my Jeep a couple of blocks out of my way and turn up Hillcrest, peering for the remains of all that action. In the pre-dawn darkness, it’s surprisingly hard to locate the right house. I drive past without recognizing a thing. Turning around, I finally pick out the place. The shell of the building still stands, like an empty carton. I see a security SUV in the driveway, nesting back in the shadows. I shiver at the sight of the charred, empty home where fire and smoke stole an old man’s life.