By Michael Morse
It all starts with a spark. The key to everything is there; without it nothing grows, nothing catches, smolders, or burns; there is no fire, and without fire a firefighter may as well be tending the furnace somewhere.
For me, the spark that grew into an all-consuming desire to become a firefighter started early, when my brother and I would set up our clothes at the foot of our bunk bed; set the alarm clock for wicked late, something like 10:30; then wait for the bell to go off. When it did, we would get dressed on a dime and run from our bedroom, down the stairs (Dad said no pole!), and into the living room where the victim sat on the couch watching TV, unaware that her house was on fire. She played along for a while, but after a few fires threatened to wake up “The Chief” if we didn’t stay in bed.
Back in bed, I would dream of the firefighting life–other things, too, like being a soldier or cowboy or bank robber, but the firefighter fantasy always won and would come back night after night. It was a good dream and fun to think about–and think about it I did, much like everybody else, I think, when we were young and everything was possible.
My dream turned into reality, and I got to get dressed on the dime, slide a pole, and not be sent back to bed by my mother. Rather, I would be sent into burning buildings by my officer and wouldn’t come out until the fire was out. But the fire never went out inside of me. It grew, and with each passing year grew stronger, and the more I learned the brighter the flame became, and the more experiences I put under my gear the bigger the fire got.
A glow in the distance, cold wind snapping through the tiller cab, the cold not needed to keep me awake, the promise of fire in the distance getting my heart pumping. A tillerman on the Providence (RI) Fire Department heading toward a two-alarm fire in the middle of a cold winter night is the King of the World. Everything is in focus, the rear of the ladder truck your only responsibility, the wheel in your hands keeping you grounded. Three triple deckers burning, high tension wires falling to the ground. The first fire building let go, the front of the building collapsing in front of Engine 12, cutting off the water supply. A forth home ready to ignite, the vinyl siding already melting to the ground, the family who lived there running out the front door. Me and Danny Brodeur taking a 2½-inch attack line from the rear of Engine 7, Carl Richards at the pump squeezing a little more water out of the overburdened pump so we could save the exposure. Lieutenant Healy, standing in the loft of the third fire building before the smoke had cleared, looking toward the east, simply stating, “We’ll be here at sunrise.”
The spark gains momentum as the years progress, this time years later, in the loft of an abandoned home on Bowen Street, just me and Peter Sperdutti: heavy fire, a window, and a charged 1¾-inch line. Two other houses burned on either side of us. I was on my third SCBA bottle, just about spent, as was everybody else on this Memorial Day afternoon. It was us or the fire. The fire lost.
Now it’s me and Chris Lisi on the third floor of a filthy tenement on Smith Hill. A woman called because her husband was sick. He took his last breaths as we walked into their apartment. We strapped him onto the stair chair and hauled him out. I called for backup; Engine 7 could be heard in the distance as we put the man on the stretcher and started CPR. I sat in the Captain’s chair and watched the guys work, IV, 02, ekg, epi, atropine, check pulse, epi, atropine…all the way to the ER. They had a pulse when we left. When things quieted down I looked into the back of the rescue, recalling the effort just put forth, and knew the spark was alive and well.
I am not a religious man. I don’t believe in fate or destiny. I’m not sure of the existence of God. All that I’m sure of is what see and feel. The things I’ve seen in 22 years make it difficult to believe in much of anything. What I’ve felt is a different story. When surrounded by chaos, and my life and the lives of others relying on how we respond to the challenge before us, an indescribable calm takes over. It’s as if the rest of my time is spent merely existing; and when crisis hits and the outcome is in question, I truly feel alive, and the flame burns brightest.
I do not remember when it peaked, it just happened, and for years I was consumed with it, living the dream, and never thinking it would end. Somewhere along the line the fire, like all fires lost its strength, and the fuel that fed it burned out, and the oxygen needed to sustain it grew scarce. I still slid the pole, and charged the line, or vented the buildings, but it was a job, and I was good at it, but there comes a time when it is better to let somebody else live the dream.
I didn’t mourn the loss; rather, I embraced the experience, grateful that I was able to live it for as long as I did. Not many people are able to live their dreams. I was one of the lucky ones, and it was everything I could have imagined. I like looking back now, and every now and then take my helmet from the nail in the garag, and hold it in my hands, and when nobody is looking put it on my head, and close my eyes and think back to those days when my brother and I sprang from our bunks and dressed in a flash and nurtured those sparks that would become our destiny.
He ended up in the Army and fought in two wars, was awarded a Bronze Star for his troubles, then came home. Life moves on, and dreams end, and the lucky who live their dreams and survive the experience can talk about it for as long as there are people with a similar spark inside of them and similar dreams to share. And if you are any good at telling stories, there is a lifetime of lessons to be taught for those willing to listen.
Once a firefighter, always a firefighter, and ain’t that the truth. The fire within me may be just a spark now, but a spark is how it all began.
Michael Morse, a Providence (RI) Fire Department member for 22 years, writes about his experiences as a firefighter on Engine Co. 2, 7, and 9 and Ladder Co. 7 and 4, as well as his time on Rescue Co. 1 as a lieutenant and Rescue Co. 5, where he is currently captain. He lives with his wife Cheryl seven minutes from his station, which, fortunately for him, is “worlds away.”