Firemen and crips: there's been a relationship for a long time. In Louisville, firemen raise most of the money for the local telethon. Why? Simple: they like to help folks. They help crips who find themselves stranded in bed, who get jammed in their chairs in too-narrow doors.
Writer Bill Bolt muses on what the fireman should mean to us.
The True Helping Professional
by Bill Bolt
The other night a friend and I went out together for an evening on the town. She's new to wheelchairdom, having squeaked by on her legs for decades, despite great difficulty. But aging with a long-term disability has forced her to get a power wheelchair. She can still "walk" with that uneven, forward-leaning leaping movement distinctive to some, but it is of little practical use. Whenever she tries being on her legs for more than a few minutes she's down for days with back pains and spasms. Still, she can handle the short distance from the rear of the mini-van she owns where a motorized crane lifts her power wheelchair aboard.
After a movie, dinner and a late coffee and hot chocolate at Starbucks in the Westwood section of Los Angeles, we headed back to her van. I said goodnight and, knowing that she had been worried whether her van would work, promised to drive by after I got into my van to see that she had gotten off all right.
It took me the normal long time to take care of business once inside my van, including the increasingly slow and difficult process of transferring from my wheelchair to the driver's seat. Yet when I approached the area where I had left her, I found her still standing outside her van, with the rear door still open. Her wheelchair had not yet been stored, but was hanging in mid-air over the rear bumper.
"The fucking thing jammed," she said. My friend is no wilting violet with language when she is tired and her strained joints are starting to ache.
"I'm going to kill the lift company who sold me this stuff and said it would handle a power wheelchair," she fumed. "I paid $200 just a few weeks ago for this special power wheelchair adapter." She had for a number of years used a lighter manual wheelchair, which the crane had lifted fine.
"Yah, but what are we going to do right now?" I interrupted.
But she was still venting.
"A Woody Allen look-alike who I asked for help said that he had a bad back. I told him I wasn't asking him to lift the damn wheelchair, only to go into a store and ask them to call the police. He asked me why I didn't go myself. I said, 'Jesus, would I be asking you if I could go myself?' So he broke his heart and went over to the store. Fortunately this really nice guy came out of a store, asked if he could help, and then called the police."
"Good luck," I said.
In my experience, cops don't do much that involves physical labor. Cops see themselves more as society's supervisors than its workers, I told her. The scene in the recent film Fargo, where a woman cop tramped through deep snow to view the scene of a crime, summed up my view of the average cops. She was, to say the least, an atypical cop: a diminutive, profoundly pregnant police chief of a tiny Minnesota town. The other cops stayed warm in their police cars while she did the trudging through the snow.
If the police were on their way, I could see us having a long night on the street.
My van was double-parked as she and I talked. Just then I noticed one of those smaller fire engines -- the kind of shiny red number they send out for personal emergencies ahead of the commercial ambulances -- heading up the street toward me, lights flashing. Soon it was bumper-to-bumper with my van. Fortunately, the 911 operator had directed the call not to the police, but to the fire department.
I backed up so that the firemen could get closer to my friend.
Three firemen with orange and yellow slickers gathered around her and the dangling wheelchair, their heads tilted toward her. I fetched out a high-powered spotlight kept under the seat and focused it between their bodies to shed added light on the crane mechanism. I could see the chair rise a bit and then disappear. When they separated, I could see that the wheelchair was now sitting neatly inside the van, where it would have been stored if the lift had worked.
The men quickly packed themselves back into the fire engine cab and, with a good-bye wave and a surge of deep fire-engine rumble, were gone. If I wanted to patent and market a sexy motor exhaust sound, my first choice would not be that of the Harley Davidson motorcycle, as beautiful as it admittedly is, but the deep thunder of a fire engine.
She came over to the window of my van.
"They listened to me," she said. "They fucking listened to me!"
It was an experience that she, along with most of us, had never had before: helping professionals who actually listened to cripples.
"Unbelievable! They actually listened to exactly what I told them. It went like silk. Just like that, it was fixed. Damn, those guys! Nice!"
"If only the people where I bought the lift had listened to me when I said it didn't look like this lift setup would handle the load," she said. "I wouldn't have to have called them."
The fireman may very well be the ideal professional.
Sadly, even these good men are not perfect. Right now, there is yet another one of those discrimination squalls we've seen sweeping the nation recently, this time affecting the L.A. County Fire Dept. Some Black fireman have been complaining about wall pictures of John Wayne in the day rooms, and a Black commander had one picture removed. Now, apparently in protest, 6-foot cardboard effigies of Wayne -- the kind that used to be seen in theater lobbies -- are appearing in a number of fire house day rooms. Wayne was known for his ultra-right-wing associations. A 1970s Playboy interview quotes him saying that Blacks should not get full civil rights until they show responsibility and become educated. Interestingly, his wife was Mexican and he spent much of his time in Mexico, a country where most people are of mixed racial stock.
Sometimes we read too much politics into every situation and ruthlessly apply the latest political correctness. I choose to believe that firemen embrace the characters Wayne played -- mostly straight-arrow defenders of right, honesty, and fairness; a guy who didn't fear going after the bad guys, no matter how powerful, in his defense of the little guy. They see him saving women and children from burning buildings, later commanding ships to help lick the Nazis. Most don't even know that Wayne was not quite as sympathetic a character when it came to the positions he took on political, economic, and social issues. Little notice is taken of ubiquitous, degrading images of "Injuns" and "niggras" in so many of the films in which he acted. In fairness, insulting stereotypes of anyone with darker skin, women, and the disabled were the rule and, too a great degree, remain the rule in many of today's films.
My uncle was a fireman, a quick-tempered but funny and very kind and generous Irishman whose job was to whip the giant steering wheel around as he sat atop the rear of a hook-and-ladder. He built me a 16-foot kayak in his cellar out of plywood and canvas, and painted it fire-engine red and silver. It was my magic carpet. I, a cripple, for the first and only time in all my childhood, found a way to fly away from others all by myself. Around the bend in the bay I found a quiet place of empty beaches where I could hear the ripple of the water streaming by me as I swung the massive two-ended paddle. I could hear the ripple of the small waves and the breeze and be alone.
My uncle, a man who liked to take bets at wakes on how many more drops of bourbon one could get out of an apparently empty bottle, had given me the gift of movement, the feeling of being on my own and in control of my life, an experience I would never forget and always fight for. In meeting firemen today, I still sense the kindness, strength, and self-effacing goodness of my Uncle Eddy Gilson, who wanted to help people be their best but would be embarrassed if anyone ever accused him of being a good man. Just writing the words Uncle Eddy brings a smile to my face. Only recently did I learn that he sometimes had to underwrite the cost of my family's food and rent. Uncle Eddy was, and is, the only true hero I have ever met.
My suggestion is that the firemen ditch Wayne, a fictitious hero, and find themselves a real hero. They need look no further than in the mirror and around them in the day room. Firemen should put aside a little of their firemanly "I'm just doing my job" self-deprecation for the sake of the real heroes that they themselves often are and for the sake of the unity that pride in what they do can foster. This is not a new idea. Years ago the visage of the fireman, his black rubber cloak blowing behind him and his ornate, brimmed fireman's hat pointing aggressively forward, as though a God about to take flight, was a familiar sight.
Forget John Wayne. Why not glorify the best of themselves? Why not get some manufacturer to turn out 6-foot effigies of firemen and put them up in their day rooms? Make sure to have the manufacturer impregnate the cardboard with the smell that lingers in their clothing of the fires they have put out -- a smell I remember when, a few years ago, a couple of firemen had to pick me up off my bedroom floor where I had fallen and broken a knee. They began monitoring my vital signs right away (my blood pressure was way up) and they managed to get me through some tight doors to the ambulance without a scratch by tipping me on my side in the stretcher. I wasn't treated coldly and ignored until I got to the hospital.
It is the fireman's wiry masculinity that represents the true hero. It is that good testosterone that saves lives. They should not waste it on the equivalent of a barroom brawl in a cheap Western -- on things that degrade and derail the real, humble heroism they possess.
If someone were to produce a cardboard effigy of a fireman I'd buy a gross of them. I'd like it to be on a base with the following words across it:
I'd go around erecting these effigies in places like my HMO lobby, the Dept. of Rehabilitation, Social Security, the Personal Assistant service, the subsidized housing offices and, yes, our own mini-bureaucracies called Indepen-dent Living Centers, where most of the measurable help takes place on payday. I'd send one to my City Council member, my Congressman and, definitely, my wheelchair and lift repair companies. Maybe I could get a grant to send the effigy to every office where people are being paid to help people but aren't. If I had my way, I'd make it a requirement that every morning the staffs of every agency serving the disabled and the poor would gather in front of my cardboard firemen for 30 seconds of silent introspection.
So, let us give three cheers for the firemen who come to help us crips when we need it most. While wiry masculinity is under full frontal attack these days, let's give a toast to those guys who show that testosterone can also save lives -- and do very good things for humanity.
Like the rest of us, firemen ain't perfect. We've all heard of the one who wanted to be a hero so much that he went around starting fires to save people from. Nevertheless, firemen are probably the best group of guys we've got.
"They fucking listened to me, Bill, and they did exactly what I asked of them, and it went as smooth as silk," my friend kept repeating on the phone later. "That is practically unheard of. Jesus! It was wonderful!"
Bill Bolt is a freelance writer. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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