Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Lives of Others

When I put up the last post I was disheartened. I realized as I wrote it that I knew nothing about the lives of the men and later women who protected our homes and property. Yes, I rode on the trucks and watched the parade and went home dutifully at 8:00 each evening but what it meant to have your life disrupted by a loud, insistent whistle, what it meant to perhaps see the home of one of your friends in ruin, those were things that meant nothing to me. And why should they. I was a fifth grade boy with a boys concerns. Cub Scouts, grades, book reports, games, baseball, all those things were important. Sure firemen seemed brave but that had been drilled into me constantly as a boy. Why it was a brave thing to be a fireman was not immediately apparent. This may seem dumb but the actual fact that you could die putting out a fire was not something that occurred to me. Burnt beyond recognition was not a phrase that would ring a bell with me. Yet the men who manned the trucks were for the most parts vets of the Korean Conflict and World War II. Many, if not all of them, had seen men "burnt beyond recognition" and far, far worse. Still when the whistle blew they pulled back the covers and rushed into danger.
But this rumination is not just about their bravery it is mostly about my ignorance. And the ignorance of most fifth grade boys and girls in South Jersey in 1963 in the second year of the Kennedy administration. Yes, we saw war on TV and read books about it but it was all a movie or a cartoon. After all, the Coyote always came back alive. And beyond our ignorance of real things like death and sorrow and ugliness there was our ignorance of the lives of adults. We knew precious little about what it meant to be a man or a woman. That was not on TV for the most part. I learned the facts of life in fifth grade from Chris DeHart on his porch. It seemed absurd. You stuck your wee wee in a girls wee wee and some milk came out and then she had a baby. You might as well believe the moon was made of green cheese. We were just a few years away from sexual maturity but centuries away from wisdom.
When our parents had parties we sat upstairs and listened to the Mills Brothers and Frank Sinatra and the loud, sudden laugh of a woman in her thirties. Raucous, rough sounds that were the sounds of a world so far from our own they might as well have been coming from India. Work was just a few chores. Raking leaves or pulling weeds or putting our clothes away. Our fathers left each morning and returned each night but what they did while they were gone bore no relation to anything we could imagine. Death? Oh, maybe your great grandmother might pass away or the grandmother of a friend but no one I knew had lost a brother or a sister or a father or a mother. But wait, I'm lying there. My mother and Aunt's distant relative (sort of a cousin), Madelaine, had lost her brother in a "tragic accident. They said he had hung from a rope on his bunk bed. Suicide? Accident? Who knew, because it was not talked about. It was mentioned among adults and then never spoken of again. That was how death moved in and out of our childhood. We romped through the quick mud in the swamp and rode our bikes no handed down Cherry Street and threw ourselves and our sleds down Cemetery Hill with no thoughts of death or injury or the future. There was only a huge and nearly perfect NOW and that was where we lived.
So, my apologies to all the firemen and women of Wenonah for not taking the time to really envision your lives. I am writing this primarily from my perspective as a child and so that leaves out pieces. Some of them we pick up along the way. Like sex or injury, but many of them won't happen to me until this part of the blog has faded into dust.

One request, if anyone reading this has a photo of the old Wenonah firehouse or Police Station please send it my way. I tried to find one on the net but apparently none exist. Thanks my faithful readers:)

1 comment:

carey said...

Hi Jack. My FIL is an honorary (retired) fireman, and he and his crowd (the Dominys and Harts) still attend the annual banquet, which is coming up 2/23. (I've been to a few as well.) MIL is still in the auxillary. I'll ask them if they can come up with a picture.

The firehouse vibe of today is nothing like it was back in the day. They used to have a lot of fun and got into mischief with other departments. Some really great stories. Now, not so much.