Friday, September 9, 2011

Fighting Fires

Where were you on 9/11/01? It is a day that many of us won’t soon forget.   I particularly remember the overwhelming fear, sadness, and dread I felt as I watched the firefighters. They were the people running into the World Trade Center buildings where death and mayhem reigned. Over three hundred of them would die that day, others in the years to come, and many others would suffer permanent physical, mental and emotional damage. I worried that Ronald, a Syracuse firefighter, would be called to go down to New York City for the search and recovery work. My selfishness was only exceeded by my fear.
I read an interesting article today on ( titled Firefighter PTSD, Depression and Suicide – Helping the Helpers. It talks about the high rates of PTSD, depression and suicide among firefighters, mostly not recognized or acknowledged before 9/11. I know about this intimately. Ronald, now a retired fire lieutenant, was exposed to constant death and danger on the job for twenty-five years, unimaginable for most of us. As one of the first black firefighters in Syracuse after a federal consent decree ordered the department to align hiring practices with city demographics, he was also exposed to the closed and racist culture of firefighting, where outsiders were not welcome.
I respect the work firefighters perform for us. It’s a call of duty and service for many, Ronald included. But I know this, firefighters are human and they suffer the attendant failings, fears and weaknesses of all of us. That they still put their lives in danger so that we may be safe is not only astounding, but we forever owe them our gratitude, respect and understanding.
What you read next may make you wonder how I can feel that way, but believe me when I tell you that we humans are a complicated, perplexing bunch, not easily described in black and white but in many shades.
(Excerpt from Chapter 7, The Ubiquitous They, Shades of Tolerance)
The Syracuse City Fire Department had a history of being staffed with white firefighters. Prior to 1981 blacks constituted less than one percent of the force. The department was mostly made up of Irish-American and Italian-American men whose fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins and grandfathers had been firefighters. The U.S. Justice Department and the city of Syracuse filed separate actions in 1978 for non-representation of the community demographics on its force. In 1980 a consent decree was issued to align hiring practices of blacks to reflect the community racial makeup. The department demographic was to consist of at least 10 percent ethnic minorities. By 2004, two years before Ronald’s retirement from the force, the percentage of black firefighters was at 16.5 percent while the community was 25 percent black.
 Two white men filed reverse racial discrimination claims in 2005 that stated the department hired from two lists, a white list and a black list. They purported the department had passed them over for recruits selected from the black list who had the same scores as the two white men. White firefighters posted the test scores of the new black recruits on the official fire department bulletin boards in every station. They supported the reverse discrimination suit. The court dismissed the claims in 2010.
The facts above are about faceless men and percentages, but Ronald would become one of the first black firefighters after the consent decree was issued.
He decided to take the firefighters civil service exam in 1980. He had talked about becoming a state trooper, and I told him I thought he might get killed in a job like that. Then he talked to a state trooper to find out when the exam was scheduled, and the trooper told him they did not want recruits like him. Ronald knew he meant blacks were not welcome on the force, so he signed up for the firefighters exam. The irony of his wanting to become a firefighter after I expressed my fear about the danger of being a state trooper was not to be lost on me, particularly after the fatal fire near the university just two years before.  His longing for this kind of dangerous job surprised me at first. I saw him as the artist and musician, not the alpha male type, but Ronald’s complex nature fascinated me.
Ronald scored well on the statewide exam and was selected for the July 1981 class of firefighter trainees. The class, the first selected after the consent decree, had thirty new firefighters: fifteen white men and fifteen black men.
During training one of the chiefs told Ronald that he believed Ronald might very well become the first black fire lieutenant in the history of the department. He told him he was impressed with his skills and how quickly he learned. Ronald was skeptical.
The chief was wrong. Ronald would become the third black lieutenant, resisting the pull to be first. I always told him it was because he knew, deep down in his gut, the other firefighters would have made it impossible for him to become the first.
What Ronald came to experience was that the chief’s enthusiasm for his future on the department would make the white firefighters, who had brothers or sons or nephews waiting to join, resent him.
He was assigned to one of the busiest stations in the city, Station 8 on the south side. The chief had indicated that the experience he would gain working at such a busy station was critical to reaching his potential as a future officer. Ronald stopped over a few days before his first shift, and the firefighters on duty were aloof. He quickly toured the station and left.
On his first day, he pressed his uniform with its newly sewn on patches. He buffed his black steel-toed shoes and pinned on his badge. He was firefighter number 429 – it would take us twenty-six years to realize that Cara and Mackenzie were born on the same day, April 29th, as his badge number. We noticed one day as we walked toward the car, two years after he retired, and saw the vanity plate with the Maltese Cross, the universal symbol of firefighters, and his badge number. He would think of the coincidence as simple serendipity.  I would believe it was a sign of predestination, even if we had taken so long to notice it.
When he arrived at the fire station, Ronald reported to his officer. Lieutenant Andy Schaffer was the kind of firefighter who figured if he did not have time to put his air mask on, so what? It was just smoke. He had a large horse-like face, cratered and pocked skin, and thick gray hair that raged all over his head. He was referred to as touched, but then again, a lot of the old “smoke eaters” were touched. Ronald had heard stories about them during training.
“You know you niggers can’t help how you are,” Lieutenant Schaffer said to Ronald at the breakfast table after the morning equipment check.
“Really?” Ronald asked.
One of the other firefighters put his beefy arms on the table, stared at Ronald, and tipped his crew cut toward him.
“We don’t want you niggers here,” he said. “I’ll do everything I can to make sure you don’t make it. I’m a union steward, but I won’t represent you ever.”
Ronald left his first day angry and discouraged, but he also knew he would not let anyone stop him. He bought firefighting manuals and studied them on his time off. He memorized the pocketbook of city street names and maps. At the station, though, he read Drum Magazine, a magazine dedicated to professional musicians. He did not want the other firefighters to know he was studying.
Within a month of Ronald being at Station 8, Lieutenant Schaffer started calling him his “little Brillo head.” He would pass behind Ronald, place his arm around his neck and rub his knuckles across the top of his head.
Firefighting is a fraternal brotherhood. Oftentimes when off duty, each station shift hung out together, playing sports, drinking, socializing. If a firefighter chose not to engage in activities outside of work, he was looked upon unfavorably, as if he might not rise to the occasion if one of his brothers was in imminent danger. But things got worse when Ronald joined the Fire Department Bowling League. I went with him one night to watch him play, the only woman at the alley.
As I sat at the table behind the lanes, I shifted under the stares, my cheeks feeling warm.
“I don’t think they like me,” I said to Ronald.
“It’s me they don’t like and us,” he said.
The atmosphere degraded as the evening progressed.  The firefighters became unruly, drinking one beer after another, leaning in to one another, making comments while staring back at me, then laughing. A heavy set middle-aged firefighter staggered up to the lane when it was his turn to bowl. He picked up his ball off the rack and swayed with the weight of it. He turned toward the pins, his elbows bent, the ball centered at his chest. He bent slightly and his pants fell to his ankles, boxers and all. The men all laughed and turned to see my reaction. I had turned away.
“They’re all pigs,” I said to Ronald.
(Excerpt from Chapter 8, Watch Our Show, Shades of Tolerance)
Ronald heard more insidious remarks about our daughters and me at the fire station: jokes about how I’d “figure it out one day,” and run off with a “suit,” one of the white male mangers they imagined I worked with; they joked we would never need a babysitter because all we would have to do is wet the girls’ lips and stick them to the wall; they called them zebras; and then there was the officer who told Ronald he should have stuck our two-year-olds in a cab and gotten his ass to work the day Ronald’s car broke down on the way to the babysitter and then the fire station; another white firefighter got angry that Ronald called him to let him know he would relieve him by official changeover at six p.m. but would not make the unofficial relief time of four p.m. because he was driving his daughters to a summer dance program in another city. “Tell your lazy kids to get up off their asses and stop inconveniencing me,” the firefighter had said.
“He might as well have said ‘black asses.’ I know exactly what he meant,” Ronald said in the car as we drove back to Syracuse. He arrived at the station well before six, pulled the firefighter aside, stuck his face close to his, put his finger on his chest, and said, “Don’t ever talk about my daughters like that again. You don’t know anything about them and you don’t have a right to an opinion.”
Sometimes he retaliated. “You better watch your daughter,” he told one white firefighter. “White girls love black guys, and she might come home with one.”
The seeds of Ronald’s depression were planted in childhood, and they would thrive at the fire department.  Facing a litany of jeers, racist remarks, disrespect and pranks meant to make him look bad, I wondered how he didn’t blow up at the lot of them. He did, about six years into the job, soon after he was transferred to Squad, an elite and coveted placement that served as a steppingstone to becoming an officer.
One of the officers there wore a swastika on his uniform collar; the other firefighters asked him daily if he was ready to put in his voluntary transfer papers since they did not want him there. One night Ronald lost his temper and picked up a firefighter by the throat, held him against the wall even though he was a head taller than Ronald, and warned him what would happen if they took it out to the parking lot.
“I might not beat you,” he said, “But you’re gonna feel me and regret it tomorrow.”
Ronald picked up a trashcan and heaved it at his lieutenant during another heated exchange. Many years later the lieutenant would be promoted to chief and he would lie about a fire scene as a way to stop Ronald from successfully completing probation as an officer. He told some of his cohorts that he would make sure Ronald didn’t pass probation. One of the other black firefighters overheard him and told Ronald to watch his back. The chief reported that Ronald had not handled the supervision of the fire scene properly. His deception was discovered, though, after a few other officers at the scene gave their assessment and rated Ronald as fully competent. The administration was forced to investigate. Soon after, Ronald’s probation supervisor told him the chief would no longer be a problem. Then the chief announced his retirement, and Ronald passed officer probation.
While he served on the Squad, Ronald and I decided that if he put in his transfer papers, he would never earn the respect due him, and that he would stick it out until the administration put him on the mandatory transfer list. I said, “We’ll stay together through this, no matter what happens. If you put in for a transfer, they win.”
The five years he remained at Squad would be some of the most difficult years of our marriage, both of us thinking that his time there would be the thing that finally drove us apart.  I remember telling myself that relationships moved along a continuum between love and hate, and it was okay if we were leaning toward hate, because we’d swing back the other way. It comforted me enough to get through the bad days, months and years.
I was traveling for my job as a manager on a special records project at Bird Library in 1988, a few years into Ronald’s tenure at Squad. Across the country in San Jose, I was out of touch for most of the day. On the nights Ronald worked while I was gone, Cara and Mackenzie stayed at their Nanny and Papa’s. On his second night in, Fire Control issued a code 99, working fire. Squad and Rescue went to every working fire, along with the station in the fire district, so they responded to the call. As the engine pulled up to the curb just minutes after the alarm, the night sky glowed deep orange. The fire was fully involved, meaning it was blowing out the windows and spreading very quickly. The firefighters watched as an elderly couple, trapped inside the house, framed by the picture window, perished before they could reach them. No one would ever know why the couple waited so long to call 911, but the delay killed them.
The officer in charge, devastated by the loss of lives, ordered the roof crew up the ladder, perhaps hoping the building could still be saved. Ronald was on the roof crew. They are the men who carry large chainsaws and axes up a ladder, hook themselves to the roof, and cut ventilation holes, the fire raging beneath them. Ronald ascended the ladder and assessed the roof visually and by touch. He climbed back down.
“Can’t do it. The roof is spongy. It’s about to go,” Ronald reported.
“That’s a direct order! Get the fuck up there,” the officer yelled.
“No,” Ronald said.
“I’m citing you for insubordination!” the officer said, but Ronald would not hear the words, only see his lips move, because the crash, as the roof crumbled and descended into the conflagration, drowned out all other sounds.
Ronald told me about the incident the next day on the phone as I sat in my room at the Ramada Inn. I could hear the hurt in his voice that the couple had not survived, but I also heard relief that he heeded his gut.
 “Look,” I said, trying to steady my voice, imagining a different kind of phone call, “it’s great you take care of me and the girls the way you do, but if you ever get into a situation again where you think following an order will kill you, walk off the job, right then, right there. Promise me. We’ll figure it out later. And, remember, your gut never fails you.”
 “Hey, does Dianne know you hate white people?” one of the white firefighters asked him at the breakfast table a few weeks later.  He smirked and looked for approval from the other firefighters. Ronald had heard the question hundreds of times over the years.
“You’re right,” Ronald said, staring back at the firefighter, his eyes narrowed and dark with disgust. “I don’t like white people, but Dianne isn’t white. She’s Dianne.”
I knew what Ronald meant when he said I was not white and that he didn’t like white people. I didn’t feel white, not in the sense they did, as if white was better, but the firefighters probably did not understand him. They thought he was a “crazy nigger.” Ronald was not black in my eyes either; he was Ronald. His skin color was there, but it was not all of him. When I focused on his skin color I only saw how it looked against mine, warm and complementary, the way an artist uses color for shading and contrast.
Soon after he hefted that trashcan at his officer, the administration transferred him to another station. One of the chiefs pulled him aside and said, “I have to transfer you. You got that, right? But just between you and me, sometimes you have to kick a little ass.”
Ronald knew how to kick ass.

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