Home > Michiana Chronicles > Watching the Firefighters

Watching the Firefighters

October 26, 2001

I took my daughters to the neighborhood grade school last Thursday for the annual book fair and chili supper. Later, in the gymnasium, a team of South Bend firefighters told us about fire safety and about their work. This turned out to be the highlight of the evening. There were six firefighters, three in the bleachers with the crowd and three standing on the basketball court with their yellow safety gear set up on the floor around them. At the end they took questions from the students about how heavy the suits are, how hot the air is inside a burning house, why they chop a hole in the roof, and how they protect themselves from heat and flames. Their leader set off the eerie, warbling alarm that the safety gear automatically makes when a firefighter falls down, and he told of people hearing dozens of these haunting warbling notes calling out from the rubble of the World Trade Center after it fell.

A few minutes before the end of the presentation, their radio squawked and the dispatcher, a very serious woman, came on the air to announce a fire in progress. She directed several engines to a furniture store, including some of the firefighters who were there with us that evening. Two of the men on the gymnasium floor stepped into their boots, pulled up the heavy pants, slipped hoods over their heads, pulled on their coats, and strapped air tanks to their backs. In only a moment, with fire hats in hand, they were on their way. But before the men reached the gymnasium door, the crowd in the bleachers broke into applause. They had just helped us imagine their work, so we were keenly aware of the risks they faced on our behalf, and we knew how much they deserved our gratitude and respect. Because they dressed for the fire in public, we could acknowledge with our applause what they were about to do.

The spontaneous applause reminded me of something I overheard not long ago in a restaurant. The six people at the next table might have been anybody’s gray-haired grandparents enjoying a weekend away from home. I ate my meal and talked with my friend, but their table was so close by that I heard a few of their comments about the coal mining district in West Virginia where they lived. One woman, perhaps the youngest, said her father had worked in the mines for more than forty years. Instantly an older woman chimed in, quietly and firmly saying “God bless him.” One of the men hadn’t heard it quite right, so the first woman repeated, “My father worked in the mines more than forty years.” Again, instantly, without any other comment or gesture, the older woman gave her refrain, “God bless him.” As I drove home that day, I couldn’t forget her.

Most of what I know about coal mining comes from a few old movies that each center around a classic scene. The emergency siren screams out and people hear it from all over the town, and they hurry to the mine. Their faces are full of dread as they ask, frantically, what has gone wrong down below. I thought the woman’s three repeated words meant that she had gathered from direct experience a vivid understanding of the sacrifices miners make for their families and for all who benefit from their labor. And now she had become their witness. Even so, I guessed that there was a name she was not saying, some miner who taught her what risk and sacrifice mean. Whoever he was, he embarrassed me as I thought of my own safety and ease.

I met a brave firefighter once who risked his life to rescue a small child who fell down a narrow well. This man, who grew up in Michiana, was invited onto the Oprah Winfrey show after the rescue. But many public servants perform their work almost in private, and we acknowledge them only occasionally and often from a safe distance. I don’t know any of the miners who risk their lives to provide coal for our foundries and power plants. For that matter, I don’t know the name of anyone who digs foxholes or picks coffee beans or packs bunches of bananas into crates or sews leather uppers to the soles of shoes or picks up trash at the curb. Sometimes I wonder if this is the central, the most ambivalent middle class luxury – not having to know.

A Michiana Chronicles essay by Ken Smith, aired October 26, 2001 on 88.1 WVPE. Archived original and other radio essays by K. S.