Firefighter

 

R O B E R T  B O U C H E R O N

 

Daddy didn’t want any more children, because they would probably be boys, and the army would take them. Feelings still ran high over the draft and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. So they stopped with me. They already had Carol Ann, my older sister. Older by a year, and more gifted in the looks department. That was the general opinion around town from the start. Of the Metzger sisters, Carol Ann was the one to watch. She was blonde and chubby. She giggled and cooed, whereas I was thin and colicky and cried all the time. As if that was my fault. I was also dark, and not just my hair and eyes. It was one of those things that babies grow out of, but disturbing. Daddy couldn’t stand by and watch me suffer. His mother died right after he was born, and the children were farmed out to foster parents. His father paid something for room and board, but life was grim in the 1930s.
“Mrs. Gilman raised her lamb to fear God and hope for mercy,” he said. “I was grateful to have a home.” At age sixteen he left and went to work.
With a sense of his own precarious past, Daddy took me on like a 4-H project. Things worked out even. Each parent had a pet, and each child had a patron.
Barbara Susan was my given name. Early on it contracted to Bobbie Sue. This caused Mama no end of grief. Bobbie Sue sounded like a low-class girl, someone who had dirt behind her ears and ran around barefoot in torn blue jeans. Which was an accurate description of me in summer. I liked to climb trees and ride my bicycle and explore the creek with Jimmy Cantrell. These activities did not appeal to Carol Ann, who favored dolls and crafts.

Like his father, Daddy was a brick mason and house builder. Metzger and Sons also built the Brickfront United Methodist Church, the office block that has the Dime Drugstore on Main Street, and the addition to the Town Hall. If you see a brick structure in Hapsburg that dates from1940 or later, chances are good the Metzgers are behind it.
When I was about age five, Daddy took me to his construction sites. Because of school, the site visits happened on Saturday morning. As soon as the sky showed a glimmer, Daddy dragged me out of bed, fed me a hearty breakfast of eggs, sausage and grits, and hoisted me into the cab of his pickup truck. He always worked Saturdays, even if his crew had the day off. He needed the exercise, he said, or his muscles would go stiff. Daddy was of medium height but strong from all the heavy lifting. His arms and legs were as thick as tree limbs. He always wore long pants and a long-sleeve shirt, so I never saw them until one family vacation when we went swimming in Bluenose Lake.
I loved walking on bare joists, climbing rickety ladders, and crawling through rafters. The wood frame of a new house was a jungle gym, as far as I was concerned. A rope left hanging in the structure was as good as a vine. I grabbed it and swung, doing an imitation of Tarzan’s yell up an octave.

Daddy wasn’t worried about me getting hurt. He saw that I was no dare-devil, and he knew his site was clean. He kept one eye on my whereabouts and let me play. Only once did he warn me against something, and that was later when he taught me to drive.
“Bobbie Sue, if you come to a stretch of road that’s flooded such that you can’t see bottom, turn around. There’s a pit waiting for the fool that tries to cross.”
Daddy taught me how to mix mortar, lift a hod to one shoulder, snap a chalk line, and so forth. I was his mason’s helper on Saturday. I was proud, even if it was tiring. Daddy wanted to build up my strength, as I was naturally thin and small. I never did put much meat on my bones. That was not the point.
“Work as you are able,” he said. “That’s all the Lord will ask.”
Mama pooh-poohed this construction labor, but they didn’t have a boy for Daddy to train. Anyway, she had Carol Ann to mold into her idea of a lady. That was my lucky escape. Not that I got off scot free. There were lectures on behavior and what was expected of a young woman.
“Expected by who?” I asked.
“Whom is grammatically correct, and don’t talk back to your mother. When you’re out in the world, you can ask all the questions you want.”
Carol Ann had it worse, since expectations were higher. She was a cheerleader and a field hockey forward, though she hated sports, and a Betty Crocker cook-alike, though she loathed wearing an apron. We both had to learn how to iron a shirt, sew a seam, darn a sock, fry an egg, and clean a house. In that respect, Mama was an equal opportunity tyrant.

To the extent that Daddy had a hobby, it was firefighting. From the time he could wield an axe, he was a volunteer on the Hapsburg Fire Brigade. Any able-bodied man was welcome. A builder was even better.
Daddy took me to houses he was raising, and he took me to houses burning down. He planted me next to the fire truck, inside the yellow tape barrier, and told me not to budge. The brigade equipped me with a helmet and a yellow slicker. They gave me badge number thirteen, which was too special for anyone else.
“You’re our mascot,” they said. “Instead of a Dalmatian, we have Bobbie Sue.”
House fires generally happen at night. This made it convenient for Daddy and the other men to rush to the scene, since they didn’t have to leave work. And a fire looks better against a black sky, the bright flames and billowing clouds of smoke. As I got older, both parents were less thrilled about me going to fires, especially on a school night. Once I sneaked out anyway, ran to the station where everyone knew me, hopped on the fire truck, and rode with the siren wailing in my ears. When Daddy saw me at the blaze, he was mad, but he couldn’t leave to take me home, so I stayed. I was grounded for a week.

We had a piano in the house, though neither of my parents played. It was a standard upright, a parlor piano that Mama inherited from her family. She decided that Carol Ann would take piano lessons when she was age ten. Unfortunately, Carol Ann had no aptitude for music. She was forced to practice, and we were forced to listen. Her lessons ended in tears as often as not. At the end of a year, Mama admitted defeat.
Meanwhile, I begged for piano lessons, to no avail. I was allowed to watch so long as I kept quiet. Then I practised on my own. When Carol Ann’s year was up, Mrs. Renfro taught me instead. To start, she made me unlearn everything. I held my hands in the wrong position, I used the wrong fingering, and I didn’t keep a steady rhythm.
Mrs. Renfro had a wooden ruler and she used it. She beat time on top of the piano. She rapped my fingers when I made a mistake. She held it under my wrists so they would arch. She held it vertically to my back so I would sit up straight. She hit me on the top of the head to remind me to think.

Daddy and Mama never beat us, but they gave Mrs. Renfro free rein. Whether or not pain was a motivating influence, I learned quickly. After the first year, the ruler limited itself to marking time and waving in the air. I progressed rapidly through John Thompson’s Modern Course series of books. My practice time was first thing in the morning, before school. That way, I stopped at forty-five minutes, which was the recommended daily maximum for a child. Mama supervised me, though it meant neglecting her chores.

By the time I reached high school, I wanted to join the fire brigade. Daddy said my hands were too precious. I was no longer allowed to handle bricks and mortar or to roam a construction site, even if I wore thick gloves. By then, I was busy with academic studies and other activities. I was assistant pianist to the school chorus, and I played rehearsals for amateur shows. During my junior year, Mrs. Renfro invited me to take organ lessons. As soon as I got my hands on the organ console at First Baptist, I was hooked. A slender, serious girl of sixteen, with long brown hair and glasses, I was just tall enough to reach the organ pedals. Once a week, I skipped gym class and walked to the church for my lesson. Mrs. Renfro was never one to praise, but it was clear what she thought. Women were scarce as keyboard performers. She was grooming me.

I went off to college at Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. At the time, there were no auditions. Piano students were assigned to faculty at random. I showed up for my first lesson and played a sonata. Mary Ellen Gornick was an older woman who knew nothing about me.
“You learned from Renfro,” she said. “I’d know that style anywhere, clean and precise. You have the technique. Now we’re going to work on drama.”
It was an interesting four years. Mrs. Gornick’s idea of drama was different from mine. In a nutshell, she liked Franz Liszt, while I preferred Beethoven. By my senior year, we compromised on Rachmaninoff. Also at issue was the possibility of a solo career.
“The public wants power and dazzle,” Mrs. Gornick said. “Concert pianists are generally men with upper-body strength. Your hands are too small.”

It was true that I weighed less than a hundred pounds, but I was not ready to give up. The organist is often invisible to the audience, and electronic tracking from the keyboard to the pipes makes gender and body size irrelevant. For two years, I studied organ at Baylor University. The only woman in the program, I proved that I had all the strength it took to produce a glorious sound. My parents drove all the way to Waco, Texas for my graduation recital, then drove me and my belongings back to Virginia.
That fall, the Hapsburg Public Schools had an opening for a music teacher. I slipped into it, guessing it would do for a year or two. Then Mrs. Renfro retired from First Baptist, and I stepped into her shoes. Literally, since she left them at the organ console, the thin-soled patent leather shoes she wore for playing pedal. Not only that, I inherited her private students. These part-time jobs kept me busy full time.

I lived with my parents. Carol Ann had left for nursing school. She then took some graduate business courses. It turned out she had a head for details and a talent for getting things done. She wound up in hospital administration in Fairfax and visited on weekends. I didn’t consider dating or marriage or setting up house on my own. Then a young man showed up in the Singles Class at First Baptist.
Kent Toliver was six years younger, a materials engineer. He played piano a little and sang in a sweet bass register. Due to the age difference, I paid him no mind. He asked me out to lunch or a movie, and I made excuses. It was lodged in my head that he was interested in Carol Ann and wanted to pump me for information. I also thought his name was Ken, because he ran the two names together, and I didn’t hear the T. After persistent phone calls, Mama drew me aside.
“It’s you he’s after, not Carol Ann. Why don’t you invite him for dinner?”
The morning of the day we picked, the sky was muffled white. Snow began to fall. It turned into a blizzard, one of the deepest snowfalls on record. Kent was not deterred. He arrived on cross country skis that afternoon, and we played in the snow. We slid downhill on saucers and rolled off. He tried to explain the properties of crystalline water in a loose packing arrangement, as opposed to solid ice, while I pelted him with snowballs.

Mama cooked pot roast, which was and is his favorite. Kent addressed Daddy as Sir, which went down well. He had worked for a carpenter one summer, so they talked construction. He stayed overnight in Carol Ann’s room. The next morning was clear and sunny. After breakfast, he helped Daddy shovel snow from the drive. Then he strapped on his skis and went home.

A proposal followed. Kent and I married in May, after the school year was over. That gave Mama and me time to arrange the wedding and find an apartment. Daddy built us a house that summer, the same brick house on Hill Street where we live today. It was his last construction project. He retired that fall and turned the company over to a nephew, another Metzger, so the name stayed the same. In the course of nature, Kent and I had a boy, and then another. We named the first one William after Daddy, and the second one Robert after Mr. Toliver. We call them Billy and Bobby. Soon after the boys were born, Daddy passed away. He was only in his sixties, but a lifetime of hard work wore him out. We buried him in Riverview, made sure Mama was comfortable, and got on with our lives. I was busy teaching, playing organ, and raising a family. The event didn’t sink in.

A week or so after the funeral, I woke in the middle of the night for no reason. Normally, I sleep like a log, through barking dogs and thunderstorms. If Kent or one of the boys needs something they have to shake me with both hands. So this was strange. The house was quiet. In the dark, I padded barefoot to the bedroom window. Hill Street is elevated with a view of the whole town. The sky was bright red to the Southwest. I heard the distant wail of a siren. A large building had caught fire near the railroad. It had to be the old Hotel Shenandoah, a rambling wooden palace from the 1890s, once a resort for city folks but long vacant. I threw on a coat and boots and drove to the scene. I parked and stood outside the yellow tape, next to the fire truck. I shivered, and tears streamed down my cheeks. I didn’t know why, but I had to be there. Chief Wilcox found me and gave me a hug.
“It’s okay, Bobbie Sue, “he said. “This heap of kindling was due for a bonfire. All it needed was a spark. We can’t save it, so we’ll let it burn to the ground. You’re welcome to watch from here, or you can sit in the cab. Might be you’ll catch more of the action up there.”
A half hour later, there was a tremendous crash, with flames and cinders shooting up in the sky like a Roman candle. The structure had collapsed. From that point on, it was a smoldering mess.
“The show is over,” Chief Wilcox said. “We have to stay until morning, in case it flares up. You go home now and rest. In the future, if you want to join as a firefighter, we will be proud to vote you in.”

I took the state-mandated training course and passed the examination. With Kent and the boys at my side, I was inducted in the Hapsburg Fire Brigade. I already had badge number thirteen. They gave me a two-way dispatch radio, which I keep on top of the piano. Sceptics may note that I can squeeze into tight spaces those burly men cannot. I have rescued cats, dogs, caged birds, and a six-foot anaconda. My volunteer activities do not interfere with my music, and vice versa. Billy and Bobby never took to the piano. When they were little, they liked to sit with me on the bench. They were fascinated by the dispatch radio. Much better was the big, red fire truck, which they got to climb all over when we visited the station.

Mama worries about risk, but that’s what the training is for, I tell her. Carol Ann does not approve. Due to high standards and an intimidating position at the hospital, she is still unmarried. We are working on her.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

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