Thirty Five Years: An Open Letter to My Father

By James Carino

Joan Didion wrote so many years ago, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Our stories are rarely told outside the walls of our firehouse, because in truth it is no one’s business what we do. Our stories are not fairy tales and they are not the stories told by 95 percent of the population. Our stories feature cars mangled in unimaginable shapes, people’s bodies contorted; a body burnt to ash, or just enough for its skin to fall off; a funeral for a brother who got trapped and died just steps from fresh air, or six caskets lined up because the job got that bad; the woman screaming in the doorway for you to save her husband, her children sniffling without understanding that this will be daddy’s last Thanksgiving.

Then there is this: the laughter in the kitchen; the off-handed jokes that get us by while repulsing the civilian; the fight against city hall; the knowledge that this is not just a job or a career but a calling, and that the fight is near impossible yet worth each punch we absorb and each punch we throw; the learning of this job, from the simplest moment of idle chatter to the most complex of drills; the belief that each day we gain just a little bit, that we can teach just a little bit, the satisfaction that we can never exhaust the potential for growth even after decades of doing it; the feeling of being a firefighter, the childlike amazement of going lights and sirens through our cities, children waving, the excitement always tempered with the absolute seriousness of the task at hand. Facts are rearranged by the mind: it didn’t happen this  way, or in that order, or did it? We are not reliable narrators of our own life, let alone accurate biographers of someone else’s. In the end, the best we can do is try to make some kind of sense of the years. The purpose of this is to tell my father’s story, and what can only be in the end my story. I never fought a fire with him. I never fought city hall with him. I did not spend 35 years on the job with him. I spent 35 years being his son.

New York isn’t the city of my birth. I wasn’t born to be a firefighter. The first step I made towards being an FDNY firefighter, in fact, didn’t occur until a morning at a good breakfast joint, Jimmy’s, in downtown New Port Richey, Florida, a couple of months after 9/11. America’s sentiment had obviously changed. A generation best known for a decent period of rock and roll music and better equipped to surf the Internet than to fix their own cars was suddenly tasked with understanding a national seismic shift on a level that had not been seen in 60 years. Despite a collective sense today of strange nostalgia for the American rah-rah, it was a far more complex moment in time than we remember. There didn’t seem to be much meaning in simple pleasures anymore, not with the nightly news providing a collection of horrible stories from that day, from people a thousand feet up jumping from the sky and people waiting by telephones for news of loved ones turned into dust. Life, of course, would go on for the nation, but for a few months it seemed like everything, everywhere, just stopped.

Family issues had brought me home shortly afterward and I found myself eating breakfast with my father at that diner. A catastrophic terrorist attack, coupled with an impending family ordeal, had served as the proverbial wakeup call from the clichéd Generation X stupor I was stumbling through.

I said aloud, “Dad, I’m going to @#$!%ng join the Marines.”

He may or may not have pinched his nose and sighed deeply– though that’s how I remember it, at least– and he just looked at me and said, “No, you’re not.”

 I answered by rattling off my failures thus far as a human being. There was some real emotion to it and maybe it healed a bit of the tension that had been building between my father and I ever since I decided I knew everything and what did he know, yet he just sat there sipping his coffee, slowly shaking his head.

“Okay,” I said, letting my hands fall meagerly to my side, giving up because I certainly had no chance of convincing him. “Okay,” I said again, “then I want to be a firefighter. And if I am  going to do it, I want the FDNY.”

I can’t be certain exactly what his response was, because it has blurred over so many years, but it must have been along the lines of, “Now we can talk about something.”

The earth doesn’t shudder when a senior man leaves this job and the sun also rises. The coming plague of biblical proportions ends up being little more than a common cold, a bit difficult to shake at first but cataloged into memory shortly thereafter. My own senior man retired shortly after I finished my probationary year, which at the time was unfathomable to me. Although he was just one of several senior firefighters in my company, he seemed the reason to do right. It wasn’t fear of doing wrong that pushed me to work hard, though, it was the fear of letting him down. Everyone told me how I had gotten off easy because in the old days he was a lot meaner bastard. I nodded in agreement but I always thought, I would have worked that much harder for that mean bastard if that was true. Life after him, I thought at the time, would be unalterably different.

I had other guys take me aside and try to explain reality versus idealism, though it went more like this: “You have to stop putting these @#$!%ng guys on pedestals, they’re just guys.” Time went on and then came more retirements and then a few promotions. In my seven years, I’ve seen nearly half a firehouse turn over, more than 200 years of experience replaced by the next generation. If one of the earliest lessons of a firehouse is that “You Are Not Bigger Than the Firehouse, The Firehouse is Bigger Than You,” then it stands to reason that a retirement, if not emotionally similar, is akin to a probie knocking on the door that first day. It’s simply a body being replaced by another body. And yet anyone who actually believes in this job knows it’s just the opposite. It matters when you lose seniority, it matters when you lose that experience, how could it not? This job is built on the shoulders of experience.

Valentine’s Day 1977: I was two weeks old when my father took his job with the Clearwater (FL) Fire Department. Thirty-five years and a day later he will hang up his bunker gear for the last time. He will leave a department that is not what it was the day he arrived, and it certainly may not be in the shape it should be when he leaves, but 35 years means his fingerprints having been spread across a department since Jimmy Carter was president. Thirty-five years have painted the middle portion of his life to this: he raised a family, educated himself relentlessly to his job, and dedicated so much of his soul to the simple prospect that his department was his and to that he had to fight as hard as he could. Uphill battles are a part of a firefighter’s existence. I am a member of a local union that boasts thousands; he fought for a union that had less than 200 against a seemingly insurmountable amount of ill will and indifference. David versus ineffectual Goliath. Misguided political vanity projects made my father’s hair fall out ,while the St. Petersburg Times‘s anti-union stance made his head bounce off counter tops. “Can’t they understand what the hell we are trying to do” He would say. “All we want to do is do the best we can and yet people pay pennies for our service and they will pay more than a thousand a year for reruns of Keeping Up With the Kardashians on cable.”

May 24, 2005: I stood, shell shocked, in an auditorium at FDNY’s probie school, dressed in a poorly fitting suit, shaved head, eager, putting my hand up and swearing that I would dedicate my life to the service of the New York City Fire Department. I did. Without hesitation. A drill instructor walked out and in his deepest military bark bellowed, “You are now members of the greatest fire department in the history of civilization.” I went home proud but shaking to my family. My father was up visiting me and he repeated what he had said over and over before: Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?

At just the earliest of night, the FDR highway along Manhattan’s elegant eastern curve is stunning. Blacktop takes you from one world to another. The towering bridges are stunning, reflecting off the deceptively powerful black water. Plunge from the bridges, plunge downtown in a yellow cab, a few shots of whiskey makes the view sing. It was then he said it for the first time. “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” I said yes, yet what did I really know? I still knew everything without knowing a thing.

Another evening we were driving across the Triboro Bridge just as the sun fell behind the city and I said, “Dad, that is why I know I want this.” I pointed to that shimmering city and I knew, here, here is where life is. New York is the city of perfect angles and endless nights. Being a New York City firefighter is like playing for the Yankees. I didn’t know then what I know now. He was proud.

I sat with my grandmother while she died. I was in the waning section, squarely at the end of the middle ground between that life –the life of college, childhood, drift–and the life after, the FDNY, my own marriage, my family, the future. Frequent flyer miles got racked up while I was shuttling between the one-bedroom in Richmond Hills I was calling home and the place I really needed to be, that condo in New Port Richey. It took a quarter of a century for me to stumble into the part of the story that grows you up real fast, with a plot twist along the lines of hospice getting called one day and life changes and it grows you up a whole lot faster still.

The Tampa Bay Rays had one good thing going for them at that time: they played the Yankees a dozen and a half times a year. If I wanted to take an hour trip to St. Pete I could buy a field seat ticket on the third base line for 10 bucks. The night she died we had watched seven innings together and she said she wanted to go to bed. I was lying on the floor, head against the couch, and I looked up and said goodnight. It took 30 minutes for her to call my name. I answered by asking, “Yeah?” She called my name again. I went in, and, an hour later, she died. There was a steady but frantic call to my mother telling her she needed to come over now. and then my mother’s frantic calls to my father, who was at work; there was Danny Boy playing one last time for her in her headphones; my mother begging someone just to let it end, because agonal breaths for your loved one isn’t just part of the job.

I sat there for an hour before I felt my father put his arms around me. He said, “Now you’ve got to go make her proud.” It may have seemed quick, but I can only imagine it was the best he could do with 40- minute drive time, and oddly it worked. It was a snap shot back into reality and a few days later when I cried, nearly uncontrollably for her, my father said, “Kid, I’m worried about you.” And I said to him, “Dad, I am just sad, I know what I have to do.” My ticket had already been punched. I was already one foot in New York knowing what was going to be and yet knowing full well I owed a whole lot to what just went down.

You don’t understand moments like that, truly, until you become a parent. People expect the hero talk when they ask why you became a firefighter. People want to hear some cliché that sounds along the lines of, “It was a calling.” I put 20 to your 10 that 99 percent of the fire service across the country shakes its collective head at that kind of sentiment. You ask me today I know for sure what I thought I knew then: I woke up to the idea that I didn’t know half of half of what I thought I knew and I took one look at my father, surveyed exactly how good of a life he provided for his bride and his son, and I nodded an emphatic yes, yes, that is the kind of life I can only dream of giving a family. I can think back now like I am looking at photographs in front of me of moments in my life. Youth is wasted on the unimpressed, and then you hold your own child and realize your worth, and you hope they don’t make your mistakes.

I have seven years on this job. This job. Doesn’t matter where you are, it’s This Job, this is our life. We show up every morning, duffel over our shoulder, into the smell of the apparatus floor, into the feigned apathy of the kitchen, into the job we cherish. It’s our firehouse, our fire department, our generational blessing. That’s why a firefighter has a picture of their baby in a boot or stuffed into a bunker coat stuck on their locker or in their wallet, and every firefighter says to that same child someday, “Please, go do something else, something else, something that will make you happier.” You think you know everything until one day your shudder, knowing you need to learn a hell of a lot more.

My father is retiring 35 years after he showed up at the firehouse for the first day. I joke, “What was life like back when everything was black and white?” He had a tackle box full of gauze for his first EMS run: arms, legs, bodies splayed out on blacktop, and all he had was some 4x4s and two minutes worth of knowledge. He is leaving a more modern fire department now, a department in some turmoil: a chief arrested on sex abuse charges; thinly veiled union busting; outsiders coming in blanketing their egos across a department that seemed to be able to put out a fire or two without them. In the end, the  important thing is he is leaving with his head up high, anyone who knows and cares about him believing he could do nothing more for a fire service he loved so much. He was a New Yorker who moved to Florida and it took him retiring to go buy a boat; his son was a Floridian who moved to New York and bought into suburbia and the American scheme, the apple not falling far from the proverbial tree. Father, son, we never did anything easy.

These are the moments I will remember, moments I can only remember because my father was a firefighter’s firefighter: My feet kicking the khaki cloth on my grandmother’s car on our way to New York and my grandfather’s lifeless body the next night covered in evergreen. And Frank Salfelder’s humanity. He just seemed to be what a man should be and he was a city firefighter and he came by my father’s firehouse one day and asked for something besides New York City and my father helped him, despite being confused as to why you would choose anything besides New York, and I remember that day in February when some assholes decided to bomb the basement of the Twin Towers and I remember later on when my father was telling my mother that the doctor felt a lump in Frank’s neck during his follow-up medical and I remember another February day, Valentine’s Day, my mom walking in to the living room and she said, “Frank died,” and I asked her to repeat herself and she choked it back and said it again, “Frank died.” Seventeen years ago and I can still remember he wrote short stories and my father saying what a good @#$!%ng guy that guy was. And then there was a Rescue 911 show that my father taped and replayed over and over again, the Patty Barr and Kevin Shea roof rescue, a dozen stories over a Manhattan street, ugly black smoke driving people to window ledges and there those two guys go with a utility rope and hope and a city pressed against panes of glass looking at these guys doing  the impossible, and then years later when I was a probie I was down in Clearwater listening to some rescue guys giving a class on firefighter survival and I am taking a piss and my father hears a voice and he says aloud, “That’s gotta be Kevin Shea,” and there he was, Kevin Shea in the flesh, in the bathroom, washing his hands and my father nudged me and said, “That was some rescue he had.” And then that day in September when things changed, I remember him saying, If Niels had died, I don’t know if I could have kept going. There was the day I took him to Fort Totten to pick up my bunker gear, bring the old man and make him proud, because that’s all you want at a moment like that, and he starts talking to an old-timer on his way out and I heard in their voices the clipped tone of men who know something, something that you can only learn if you do decades on this job. I heard it again when my father talked to my senior guys–they weren’t speaking a different language, but they were speaking a language you learn only when you do that kind of time in the fire service.

I have seven years on this job but listening to my dad talking to my now-retired captain makes me feel like I am a teenager listening in on a conversation I can hardly register. And then this: one morning I was sitting on the front bumper of my engine and my father called and said what I already knew, nine brothers died in Charleston and I had already booked my flight the next day and we hugged, dressed in our Class As, and we stood at attention and saluted and sent those brothers home and standing next to my dad I understood that while a firefighter’s death was the worst death there was we should stand tall and be proud and snap that salute because brothers, go home good, you did the right thing and there’s a place after all this for you. He used to rant against blank walls and rail to my nodding mother. The union was important; The Job was the world. The ultimate truth is, I couldn’t pull on my black bunker coat, FDNY and Carino reflecting yellow against that black, without my father.

I barely knew what a screwdriver did when he taught me to tie knots, told me handcuff knots are good for dragging a lifeless firefighter and he taught me a snap bowline and winked, said, “Impress them with that one, kid.” He gave me a prussic and a couple of carabiners and showed me 20 things to do with that loop of rope, like hanging onto a 2 1/2 for an hour despite squad telling me I am a wuss. Speaking of rope, take 100 feet folded in half and drop a firefighter down a hole and in 20 seconds you get one out and twenty seconds later you get the other guy out, and he taught me that with reverence to a dead brother by the name of John Nance, who despite being weeks away from retiring found himself down in a hole never to get out. Get a firefighter out a window in a two-story commercial? Mark Langvardt. Know that name, kid, because rapid intervention teams (RIT) wouldn’t be anything without that guy, those guys did everything they could to get him out and we need to know how to do it better. I learned, without him ever saying: The difference between a civilian and us is we never go to their weddings, we never hold their children, and that is why our brothers mean so much.

He did all the other things too: changed my diapers, kissed my boo-boos, shook his head at my endeavors, told me high school sweethearts should stay in high school, told me to take my stuff out of the attic and somehow believed the letters on the back of my coat eclipsed anything he did for a department for 35 years. The letters on the back of the coat, FDNY, does not make every  firefighter immediately great, just builds some ego, God knows.  I know that I am a member of the greatest fire department in the history of civilization, yet I know only what I know because of my father who will always be a much better firefighter than I could ever dream to be. The shift is simple: now it’s me who is trying to learn, trying to never make that mistake despite the truth that I make mistakes in every fire I fight, trying to do, God willing, 35 years myself. And there is something unspoken: it takes balls to do this job and it takes bigger balls to be a man to go home to your family in one piece, and there is nothing more important than the babies at home and the welcoming wife who thinks the scent of smoke in your hair is somehow sexy and you are home and that makes all the difference to them, doesn’t matter how sideways exhausted you are, you are home.

I wake up every morning and I scan the trade Web sites. I spend some afternoons, while my children are at school, listening to Brooklyn’s scanner and hoping for my brothers’ safety. I try to read every NIOSH report for any firefighter fatality and I try to learn. Some guys deride that as being a buff, but it’s ironic that half of what those kinds of guys are peddling, besides their own self-serving B.S., is the notion of pride in this fire service. How can you toe that line? I am old enough now finally to just shrug my shoulders and say: You can’t have it both ways. Effortless cool is rock and roll, not fire service. I may not know much, but I know why I love guys like Tom Ryan from Chicago and why I think Johnny Frats isn’t just a lieutenant but a real friend and why, no matter what happens, my acceptance everyday that I can’t do everything perfect is more a challenge than a defeated notion.

The day I sat in that diner with my father shaped my entire life and now I have to watch him do the right thing and retire and I hate that he’s doing it thinking he didn’t make a true difference and I hate that all of our knowledge is tempered by the fact that one day you may have to simply pass it along, pass that torch on. I have two toddlers and the proverbial picket fence (albeit a bit worn) and a career in the fire service. I say it is fitting that a man who loved this job so much says good-bye on the day we celebrate love. We were in a cab when he found out two of his brothers were saved from the fate put down by a corrupt administration and he said, “Kid, let’s get out,” and I said, “Hell yeah,” and we stopped right there on the avenue, paid the cabbie, and stumbled into a bar peppered side to side with old Russian mobsters and an Eastern European bartender. I put a few dollars into the jukebox and played some Irish working man songs and my dad says to me, “We have got to go, they want to kill us.” But I don’t care, because we won.

I told him I wanted to be an FDNY firefighter one morning years before and I did it, not because I am a savant, but because I can grind, because I can set my mind to something and just do, and then, yes, the FDNY because I had to get out from under my father’s shadow, for it was massive, and I wake up every morning knowing he gave his all to a profession that demands and yet does not deserve that devotion, and I wake every morning knowing I need to do twice as much just to accomplish half of all that.  From the day I showed up on Middagh Street I think about my senior men first, because they are there and they deserve that, and then I think what my senior men would say to my father and I push that broom harder and work just a bit more.

I have my proud moments: the picture with my father in front of my incredible apparatus door; my picture with my father while getting my bunker gear; my picture in front of the little green Nissan truck with my work duty tucked into my pants; my father hugging me with my grandmother laid out in front of me, knowing now he was just being a man holding onto his son, making sure his son was okay; my father hugging me after graduating probie school, the FDNY in capital letters in all our minds, when he held me that day I knew he was proud, yet I also realized I was prouder because this is New York and I just actually pulled off the miraculous; when I held my son, and then my daughter, both their fluttering eyes not yet dreaming what they will someday dream, holding them knowing I only could do that because the example my father set. The idea of family means more than just a word, it means meals around a table, tears, yelling, frustration, decades together, the gamut of emotion that makes us human; and when he comes up now, he just nods to me and in his embrace. I know what this was all about, this whole crazy, insane, utterly frustrating and irresistibly great profession. I am a firefighter. What the hell? I am, and maybe, after all that, thanks to my dad, I was born to be a firefighter.   

James Carino is a firefighter with Engine 205 in the Fire Department of New York.