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The Firehouse

Essay
Don Quixote de Mancha

The Firehouse

I still remember my first night living in a firehouse, a practice typical of parts of the poor suburban Mid-Atlantic, where the fire crews still rely on volunteers. It was my eighteenth birthday, I was brand new, and I made dinner and a pie for the four others who were there that night. After we’d eaten, the lieutenant dragged me back out to the bay. He grinned at me.

“Do you want to play hockey?”

“Sure, I like hockey.”

He gestured to the goal.

“You’re in there.”

And he tossed me a turnout coat, heavy and too big for my skinny frame, and a goalie’s facepiece. I took shots in the goal, diving all over for the puck, until I was told to take off the gear and go behind the net. I crouched between the net and the wall, taking the hockey pucks to the legs and arm, until the lieutenant came close to hitting a window and called it quits. I ended up with bruises up and down my body, and I was tender for the next few days.

The crucial lesson about living in any particular culture, no matter where you are, is that you internally adopt many of the lessons and assumptions it seeks to implant in you, whether or not you consciously choose to. I found out that, although I may have been tough and angered by the boring, mediocre culture of my fourteen-odd years of schooling, I wasn’t really that different from my peers. My firehouse had a “rookie book”, or a series of skills one learned and had to demonstrate to be allowed to serve in various riding assignments. You had to earn a signoff for a particular skill, and could sit in a particular seat when you had all the signoffs. I learned what it was like to not be totally confident in a skill I’d been qualified to perform the first time I paused when asked to tie off and hoist a saw. I paused—I knew I didn’t want it confidently wrong, but I wasn’t really sure anyway. I wrapped the rope one way, and then another. The man who’d asked got progressively louder, until I was cowed into admitting ignorance. He explained it, and scratched the signature from my book.

“Get someone to do it again with you,” he said. “And practice before you do.”

I tried to defend myself. “I think I just forgot.”

At which point he looked up and let me have it. Both barrels. I apparently hadn’t figured out that a guy watching was nothing compared to a fire, or that he didn’t want to hear my excuses. I felt miserable when he left. But he had a point. This was my first lesson in the casual half-excuses it’s so easy to make: the “I don’t know”, the “I forgot”, or the “not my job”. This sort of statement is commonplace in school, a college won’t teach you not to say it, and it’s more or less excusable in a lot of common life. It was unconscious, frequent, and totally acceptable everywhere I’d ever been. I learned the same lesson over again, making guesses when I wasn’t sure of the answer to a question. I found that making sure I knew got rid of a lot of such fear.

When I sought qualification to ride the engine, which carries hoses to a fire, after memorizing the contents of every compartment and bag, the size and flow of every nozzle tip and, all the major streets and some of the minor ones in our area, I was tasked with actually moving these handlines. The smallest was a hundred and fifty feet long, the longest three hundred and fifty. A fifty-foot section weighed from 70 to 130 pounds depending on size. After being lectured at length on why I should be able to move it on my own, I tried. My first attempt at maneuvering an inch and three quarter diameter handline upstairs and back downstairs through a three-story home, hitting “fire” in every room, left me crawling on my hands and knees on the second floor. My lieutenant made me stop because he thought I’d fall down the stairs, enforced the discipline of slow, methodical removal of gear and sent me in to work again. I found myself wishing at times that there would be some kind of comfort, that someone might tell me I was doing a good job—after all, it generally seemed that I was.

“That sucked” he said. “And I hope you’ve figured out by now that you need to be bigger and you need to be stronger to do this. You need to be eating a bowl of creatine for breakfast every morning. If you’re mad, that’s okay. Be mad about it today—it’s a today thing—and when you wake up tomorrow, fix it.”

Throughout high school I’d made lots of half-attempts at woodworking, metalworking, and so on, and always found myself struggling a bit. I was naturally unathletic, clumsy with my hands, and my sports were track and cross-country. I got mocked for my skinny frame until I ended up in the gym, and I got mocked for not working hard enough in the gym until I did. At which point I got mocked for working hard in the gym, but that was inevitably part of being liked. Once, after being hogtied, dragged along the floor, and sprayed down with water, a friend commented, “We wouldn’t do this if we didn’t like you.”

There was a taboo on discussion of those who quit. Of five young men who started “the process” while I was there, I was the only one to finish—to be fully qualified. I would occasionally mention one or two of them. They had become my friends, and I would comment that “it would be funny if [name] was here”, or tell a story. I typically found myself faced with a blank face and a “who’s that?” If you failed, you didn’t exist. If you succeeded, you had brothers for the rest of your life. Luckily, I succeeded. I found myself a few weeks later in a soaking wet basement with the lieutenant who’d hit a hockey puck at me on my first day over my shoulder, yelling at me to move the line. I slid through the layer of water on the floor, which I was adding to at the rate of a hundred and fifty gallons a minute, now more or less immune to the blindness and sweat and state of being constantly wet. Commands followed one after another, and I must’ve moved back and forth across the basement eight or nine times, until we backed out and he and I looked at each other. I didn’t expect much positive encouragement, but he grinned.

“You didn’t quit.”

I felt like I’d gotten beaten up the next day. It was the culmination of weeks of moving a line back and forth across the front pad, dripping sweat. I repeated the process later, searching and removing victims until I threw up or collapsed. Both situations tested the resolve of my views. I was ostensibly right-wing, ostensibly disgusted by the low-effort world that surrounded me. But I found that hard work wasn’t just a phrase.

When you drag a person up stairs you take them under the arms, drag them to the staircase, squat up, and sit back onto the next stair. You repeat this process as many times as it takes, until you reach the top. The dummy is about two hundred fifty pounds. Trying to be qualified to do this, which took me multiple failures, I found out that there’s a spectrum to discomfort. Sitting back on the stairs, a cover on my facepiece putting me in complete darkness, and a regulator limiting my air to concentrated in-breaths, I discovered what makes people quit.

My self-evaluation had to come from the moment after finishing the drill. I found that if you quit and feel bad about it, you probably weren’t working very hard. If you quit and feel pretty good, you probably were. If you finish and feel nothing at all, you did it right. The feeling of pulling off the tight-sealed rubber facepiece and looking up at the sky again, lying back on the ground, was really, really good—for a moment at least. Deceptively so. Young men do hard things, in part, because only they have the pride and bravado to persist stubbornly at excellence. The hard-fought lesson for me was that of civilization. We start with nothing. Nothing at all is supposed to exist. It’s very, very easy to just lie down and stop moving. Everything that has ever been built has been the result of progressive, deliberate improvement upon what previously existed—entering uncharted territory. Young men begin by getting brought up to speed, and given what they need to work on further.

My first fire was a fluke. I got shot. A loaded gun lying on a table got hot and went off. I walked back out to the ambulance and when I was discharged from the hospital, a chief drove me back to the firehouse. The crew greeted me with dinner and a cake advising me to “Get well soon! Too bad there’s no cure for being a bitch.”

My second fire was a house largely engulfed in flames. I put out the fire on the back porch and followed my partner from the back of the engine up into the smoke. My left foot went through the porch, and I steadied myself. No amount of training really replicated the feeling of walking forward into a space where you can’t even begin to see. I found him on the second floor, where we alternated between putting out the fire in the hallway and spraying back out to spots on the porch lighting off behind us. I watched the sun come up from the smoldering second floor. Later that week, I watched the sun set from the smoking roof of an apartment complex occupied by Hispanics who sucked at cooking. I didn’t really understand—or begin to understand—the appeal of being a Crusader standing ankle-deep in blood until then. There is no feeling like that of bleeding, or for me, the taste of insulation and ash on your upper lip. Some men, maybe most men, thrive on this sort of chaos, disorder, and the dual necessity of their task. There is no drug that replicates the sweaty high of looking up at the sky after doing everything that was assigned to you and doing it right—to finishing your job, and to bearing witness to the violence and disorder of life at its extremes.

If asked about the difference between physical and moral courage I always would have said that moral courage is more difficult. I admired stories of moral courage, and I find that as a culture we tend towards venerating moral resistance. Standing up against the powers that be. The Man. Our heroes are the “rebels” of Star Wars and, perhaps, World War Two. Not the Audie Murphies or the Pattons, but those who, say, went outside their gender and racial roles. Moral courage is today’s ultimate courage, and where physicality is involved (say in war), history teaches that victory is attained by sheer force of numbers. What I learned, from encountering one for the first time and attempting to have both, is that physical courage is much rarer. Perhaps veneration of rebellion has made dissent much more acceptable, but everyone and their Karen mother likes to take a moral stand nowadays. Taking a moral stand involves a much clearer distinction between what is appealing (what you stand for) and what isn’t (what you’re against), at least for most people. The split-second judgment between “dive into this window which is pushing out smoke so hot it’s burning me” and “back out and claim I couldn’t do it” is much less clear to most people.

This is why physical courage teaches you that there are very few exceptions. The exception is very popular in modern story-telling, which influences a lot of how people make their decisions. We love the fat person who is actually an athlete, or the coward who suddenly discovers the hero within him. In reality, these archetypes generally are not true. In a fire, you can assume the muscular men will be around you and the fatties will be leaning on a six-foot hook, splayed out on the ground, or having a “mask malfunction” outside. My mother was worried by the hockey puck bruises on my arm, but they meant something: they were a first investigation of the pain tolerance I’d have later on. Classical masculinity—“hit you to show you we like you” masculinity—is nowadays very rarely defended, partly because it’s almost impossible to do so on modern terms. But it works, beyond a shadow of a doubt, and the criticism of those who’ve experienced it almost never comes from the “winners.”

I suspect that nowadays, many young men are initially pushed into a discovery of their masculinity by the “self-improvement” trend and the ethos of motivational YouTube, that anybody can simply work hard and succeed. I was always shocked to the extent that Andrew Tate, ostensibly a figure of fun to most, was legitimately popular among young men. And I don’t wish to denigrate this sort of individualized, self-motivated effort. The David Goggins-type figures are legitimately impressive, and self-motivation really is key to anything one does.

Narcissism, though, is the fatal flaw of the young man. It is also a great enabler, in the sort of way that some Adderall addict might call ADHD their “superpower.” Pride and a drive for honor enable us. But they need to be captured and directed. Modern men find their spirit beaten down in boyhood, only for this pride to reemerge and, often misdirected, cut them off in later years. Many institutions throughout history have existed which capture it, particularly by obeisance. The military is foremost in this. At fourteen, I put out of mind the advice of a Boy Scout troop leader who told me that a young man had only so many arrows in his quiver. It seemed as if one could fight with the world infinitely, and that righteousness could be all-encompassing. It is not so, and it is up to a young man to prove that he can behave and direct his energies.

Ultimately I lived in the firehouse for a while longer in college and gradually drifted away until the day came to leave. I never applied for the firefighting job I’d said for a year or so that I would,

It’s easier than ever today to take the easy route. I doubt, if not for my recognition of the fundamental truths of nature, I’d be particularly right-wing. I had two left feet and not much use for physicality for most of my youth. My interests tend towards the escapist, an easy path in a world which has little use for duty. I felt practically resolved to get a solitary job with lots of time off and spend my days at home. I could read Russian novelists, samurai manga, build wargame miniatures, and imagine that I might be a knight in another world. I could be like Petrarch, with his hundreds of love poems to a woman he never met. I urge you to strive against this sort of outlook. These diversions are well and good, but you will face a reckoning someday, when you find whether the gods of men have revealed themselves to you or not. I tell you now, you will find them in the heights of passion and effort so great that they would kill many of your contemporaries. I am sure that I have not experienced these, as sure as I am that they exist. Perhaps the age is not right. But I have had days in the sun, with a spear in my hand. Live with difficulty and bear the pain: the need to be better, to conquer, to outcompete, and in times of doubt, the certain knowledge of the misery of any other path.

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