Adrenaline is the most descriptive word I can think of to explain this job. At 7:15 a.m., I hug my wife and kids and jump on my bike for a leisurely ride to the station. No matter what the previous shift had been like, there were at least 24 hours of rest to unwind. The next morning, though, I would be happy to return to work and see the guys. You could quickly tell, by the tenor of the greeting and the facial expressions of the off-going crew, what their night had been like. I always looked for the old timers. They didn’t move stations much, the advantage of seniority.
There was always an unexpected face, a newer guy who had been reassigned from his regular station for sick or vacation coverage. The city of Alameda was only two by five miles in size with four stations. You could sometimes go a year and miss seeing friends you had worked with in the past. I stayed pretty much with my regular crew, while others made numerous trades for personal reasons. With different people, the dynamics of the crew were always different. That’s why training was so important. Repetition works.
In 1968, we had to live within 40 miles of the city limits. Laura and I chose Alameda, but most guys moved over the hill to Livermore or Pleasanton as you got more house for the money, but also more commute time. I loved living in the city; I often knew the house and the people we were helping. My family would bike to the station after school or on Sunday afternoon for a visit. The crews were always happy to see them; it made my day easier knowing the girls were within a couple of miles of the station. In case of an emergency, I could get home.
On inspection near our house, we often detoured by to greet the kids and neighbors. It was a repeat of Dad’s legacy; in the 1940’s, Dad had done the same thing. I could hear the rig coming; that sound was so powerful. Looking up at the engine from the sidewalk, all four feet of me were in awe. The guys smiling down from this great red and gold machine seemed like superheroes. Opened cab, chain drive, loaded with hose and ladders, the picture is seared into my mind.
I did get to walk in my dad’s footsteps, my destiny. It made more sense to me to be living and helping the community I was a part of. At home on my days off, the sound of sirens always piqued my interest. The amount and direction of those sirens converging told something about the nature of the call. If the rigs continued to roll through, it was probably a fire. If all but one siren stopped en route, it was probably a false alarm or an emergency medical call. Again, if all the rigs continued to the location, I would get in my car and go to the scene. Sometimes Erin and Bree would ride along to watch the excitement from our car. They still like to kid me about how scared they were, but they always wanted to ride along. What fun!
The Fire Bike, Orange County Choppers – Dedication for 9/11
I was watching a rerun of Orange County Choppers (OCC) on television yesterday. Their business is building custom motorcycles. OCC had been commissioned to create a 9/11 Memorial Bike to be dedicated in the memory of 343 fallen firefighters who died in New York City on September 11, 2001. I remembered back to 9/11, watching on television as people fled to escape the falling buildings. Then, news cameras seemed to focus on firefighters moving in the opposite direction… toward the towers. They came from all over to fight this fatal battle.
I am a fourth-generation firefighter with a career of 25 years under my belt. I could tell by their faces that they were nervous about going into the biggest holocaust in U.S. history. That was their job. So this band of brothers, who had trained together, lived and ate together, had one purpose, to defeat the enemy and protect the innocent. So, bravely, they entered hell undaunted. The men fought valiantly against this raging foe, this evil emissary of death and destruction perpetrated in the name of a god that is counterfeit but has beguiled 1,500,000,000 people. These men are true heroes, every one of them.
OCC had chosen to say thank you in iron and gold leaf, a memorial that will remind us of 9/11. During the two hours of creation, fabrication, welding, grinding, yelling, frustration, and plan changes, we saw a marvel become reality. Now the time had arrived to fire it up. Every man at OCC was gathered around, as was I, to see and hear this wonderful creation come to life. Now the team was of one accord and one purpose, to complete the task. I could see this was a special bike. The men’s faces were taut, eyes focused, ears ready, with a few tears of emotion from otherwise stoic expressions. Vince had the honor of pressing the starter button as the once silent bike roared to life. The sound was strong, testosterone-filled power at ignition, an explosion of emotion, a release of controlled violence… music to my ears.
This music takes me back in time, three years into my fire career and the starter button of a Seagrave 100-foot aerial ladder truck, powered by a V8, 1971 Detroit diesel, with a 6-speed Alison trans- mission. I was in the driver’s seat of the biggest and best aerial ladder truck in our department. This machine, the Harley Davidson of the Alameda Fire Department (AFD), was mine to ride. When I heard the OCC Fire Bike start, it took me back to 1971, Station One at 3:00 a.m., in bed and hearing the alarm bells clang and the radio announcing,
“Attention all stations! We have the report of a three-story Victorian on fire at 1616 Grand Street. This will be a full response for Engine Three, Engine Five, Engine One, and Truck One.”
“That’s us! Let’s go.” All the guys were out of bed and into our boots, pants up and buckled in one motion. Ten seconds later, taking turns through the dorm room door and down the stairs two at a time, through the apparatus room door, into the garage which was still in darkness. Not a problem. I could find Truck One with my eyes closed. We moved through the shadows toward that wonderful red and gold leafed iron creation whose only purpose is to save lives. As I stepped up behind the wheel of Truck One, to my left Engine One started, expelling a great cloud of black diesel smoke (we have nicknamed Engine One “The Super Skunk” for that reason). With my right hand, I reached down to find the batteries disconnect, two turns in either direction, and the sound of the fuel pump began to cycle. With my left hand, I pressed the two starter buttons and the Detroit diesel growled, then roared to life. With one sweep of my right index finger across the rocker switches, the light bar was activated and the reflection in the side of Engine One caused a rush of adrenaline. I loved this testosterone-filled job!
Engine One pulled out ahead of us. I thought, Come on, cap! Let’s go! No sweat… we’ve got the horsepower. I’ll catch up. The captain stepped in and I released the air brakes. We rolled out across the driveway. I made a right turn and, as I straightened out, my throttle foot was to the floor. The diesel screamed to life. It’s the only other sound I know of that comes close is the sound of that OCC Fire Bike. Thank you, Paul, Paul, Jr., Rick, Vince, and Jason. Did I say I loved this job? Eight blocks down Encinal, we caught up with Engine One. We saw black smoke exploding from its 864 cubic inch Mac-O-Dine turbo V8 every time he shifted. Four blocks ahead we saw the night sky lit up, clouds reflecting the fire as it broke through the roof.
Engine Three arrived and was on the radio. “Engine Three to Central. We have a fully involved three-story Victorian. We’re going through the front door. Engine Five, lay a supply line.”
“Truck One, we’ll need the aerial ladder to the roof for ventilation and rescue.”
“Roger. Will co,” replied Truck One.
“Engine One, we’ll need fire lines to the rear of the house.” “Roger!”
“Three Chief to Central, send a second alarm.”
“Roger, Three Chief!”
Two hours later, testosterone depleted, adrenaline released, soaking wet, black from soot and smoke, the fire is out. We saved two but lost one, not good enough. No loss of life is acceptable. All this memory was triggered by the sound of that wonderful OCC machine. Speaking for the men I have associated with over the years: sounds, scents, and experiences are important to us. They bring us back in time to situations, good and bad, that make up who we are today.
Editor’s note: The house at 1616 Grand Street no longer exists and has been replaced by several smaller houses.
David LeMoine is retired from the Alameda Fire Department and now lives in Eagle, ID. These stories are excerpted from his book, I Could Have Died a Thousand Deaths, published by Big Boots Publishing of Redding, CA.