|He's the one with the moustache.|
I married a fireman. Thirty-six years after he first wore turnouts—sixteen since he became a chief officer—I still think of him as a firefighter. Our kids grew up climbing all over real fire trucks when we visited their dad on shift. They had the most expensive playground equipment in the world.
My husband was cut out for his job. He’s calm, cool, and collected under any circumstance. It takes a lot to get his feathers ruffled. He understands how to build a good fire and he knows how to put one out—there’s very little that gets the best of him. I, on the other hand, can barely spell calm, cool and collected.
We were spending a weekend in an old, family cabin one October. Okay, it was more like an ancient mobile home with an attached family room. The kitchen’s vintage gas stovetop had been reduced from four to two working burners, and a third had attitude problems. The pilot light was non-existent. Weekends in that trailer with its gas appliances was one of the few things that made my firefighter husband twitch.
One evening, I turned on a knob for the stovetop, lit a match and held it to light the gas below the burner. In horror, I watched as the flame lit and followed the gas line back to the knob itself. I needed to shut off the gas to the defective burner, but the knob was also engulfed in flames. There was only one thing to do—alert my local fire department.
“Rob!!! The kitchen is on fire!!!” I screamed to my husband who was busy trying to start a fire in the fireplace. Then I ran back and forth across the kitchen, holding the burned out match and trying to remember where my jewelry and kids were.
My fireman wandered into the kitchen where I grabbed him, pointed to the flaming control knob, and cried,
“What are we gonna do?!”
He summoned all the years of training and experience he’d stored up as the best firefighter in the world, took a great big breath, and—blew out the flame on the knob.
Big deal. I could’ve done that. If I’d thought of it.
A firefighter’s wife is her own kind of special hero, too, you know. She runs the household all by her little lonesome one third of the time, making her a single mom without recognition or tax breaks. But when there’s an emergency, she knows who to call, how to tell them to show up (code three—lights and sirens, please), and where to find her on-duty husband. It’s a miracle that they can run a whole department without her expertise.
We rented a tiny one bedroom house on the gulf coast of Florida for the first couple of years we were married. You wouldn’t think it ever gets cold enough to require a heater there, but it does. Orange groves freeze there all the time, and I remember one Christmas morning when the thermometer wouldn’t budge above nineteen degrees. See? You need a heater when that happens.
But our house had an old southern-style heater which ran off of fuel oil. Most of the South has gone modern now, and people warm their homes with gas or electricity. But this little rental had its own hundred gallon tank of fuel oil propped up on metal stilts outside the back door. The oil ran through a small pipe into the house and around the back of a four foot tall cylindrical heater that sat in the corner of our dining room. When we needed to warm up, we turned a little lever at the back of the cylinder—in the poorly lit paneled room—and waited a few minutes for a puddle of oil to appear in the bottom of the giant heater.
For step two of the heating adventure, we tore a piece of paper, threaded it into a slot on the end of a long metal rod, lit it on fire and lowered the burning flame deep inside the heater’s dark abyss. There it shone on the glistening oil, and set it all on fire if we did it right. Then a tiny little fan attached to the back of the tank by the landlord blew heat from the giant flaming missile throughout the house, and we called that whole endeavor ‘central heat and polluted air’.
One night when my husband was on duty and I was home alone, a cold front blew south from Tampa and right through our house, taking the flame in our heater with it. In a matter of minutes, the temperature dropped ten degrees in our uninsulated living room. But I am a fireman’s wife. I knew what to do.
I ran the routine, making sure the oil was turned on, lit a paper scrap, lowered it into the bottom of the tank, and watched to see it catch fire. It didn’t. I didn’t see any glistening oil inside, either. Anxiously, I turned the level controlling the oil so more would flow. Then I lit another paper and watched it burn out inside the tank without igniting anything. By now I was convinced that the oil tank outside had run dry and I would freeze to death overnight in my own bed. For five or ten minutes I tried to start up the heater and, on the last try with the lever opened full, my flaming torch revealed what I’d been hoping to see – sort of. There was indeed oil pooling at the bottom of the heater. About a gallon of it. And I saw it glistening a split second after there was any hope that I could retrieve the torch of death. The swimming pool of black gold caught the flame like an outfielder in Yankee Stadium, the oil went up in flames, and I backed against the wall waiting for the house to blow up.
The heater stood its ground, huffing and puffing like a menopausal woman with hot flashes. I began to panic. I was certain I’d heard of a tank like this turning a bright shade of hellish red just before melting down and oozing volcano-style down the hallway, through the living room and out the front door, taking every living thing and a lot of glass knick knacks with it.
I wasn’t taking any chances. I grabbed the telephone with the long, long cord attached to the kitchen wall, and stretched it out all the way to the laundry room while I phoned the fire department—just in case I had to make a fast exit out the side door of the house.
“Fire Department,” the professional voice on the other end of the line answered, “what’s your emergency?”
“I turned on the oil to my heater and caught it on fire and now I’m afraid it’s going to explode,” I answered breathlessly.
“Your house caught fire and exploded?” she questioned. “M’am, did you leave the house before making this call?”
“No, the house isn’t on fire yet. I just think it might be on fire soon.”
“So you don’t have an emergency?” she queried.
Why was this so hard to understand, I thought in frustration. Don’t oil heaters blow up at least once every winter?
“Look,” I told her carefully, “my husband is on duty with the fire department tonight.” And I told her his name. “I talked to him an hour ago—he’s outside playing volleyball with his crew. I don’t want him to panic when he hears our address over the loudspeakers and finds out you sent a fire truck to our house. Could you just have someone go tell him quietly that there’s too much oil burning in our tank and we’re probably fine but I’m just being cautious in case it catches on fire?”
“There’s an oil tanker on fire?” she asked tensely.
“No! I turned on the oil to the heater from the oil tank and then I lit it six times before the oil caught on fire and now my heater looks like it’s having an asthma attack and I’m afraid the house is going to blow . . ..”
“M’am, calm down,” she interrupted. “We’ll send a truck over to check it out.”
“Okay,” I said in relieved frustration, “but tell them they don’t need to use lights or sirens or anything like that. You know, send them code two. And tell my husband out on the volleyball court that I’m fine but I just want someone to come tell me if I need a bigger truck with a fire hose to cool off this tank because the house is getting really hot and . . .”
“The truck is on its way,” the exhausted operator told me. “I told them not to use their sirens. Have a nice day.” And she hung up.
She also lied.
In a better than average response time, the fire department shrilled a loud, “The cavalry’s comin’, the cavalry’s comin’!” across time and space, complete with air horns and wildly screaming sirens and flashing lights. Assuming they were coming to my house, I let out a big sigh and headed for the front door.
It looked like a Christmas parade outside. Engine No. 1 had the lead, followed by an EMS truck, the battalion chief and the chaplain. All we needed was Santa Claus throwing candy from atop the ladder truck. Flashing lights lit up the living rooms of every home on our street. A minute after that, my father-in-law showed up in his take-home fire chief car and behind him was the associate pastor from our church who recognized the address from his fire scanner. In three and a half minutes there were seventeen people in my front yard and another half dozen in the cramped dining room warming their hands by the glow of my overfed oil heater.
I cut through the crowd until I reached the scene of the crime, hung my head in embarrassment and asked timidly,
“Is it gonna blow?”
“No, m’am,” one of the firefighters grinned. “You just need to let the oil burn off for a couple of hours. Open some windows to let cool air in and you’ll be fine. By the way,” he added, “Rob said to tell you his team won three sets of volleyball.”
“Woo hoo,” I answered lamely.
It takes a lot more than a burning oil tanker to unnerve that firefighter of mine.