BY TOM BRENNAN
Editor’s note: Tom Brennan, our revered technical editor and former editor, passed away in April 2006. Tom shared monthly here his wisdom and knowledge of the tactical aspects of our industry, but he also wrote about the social side of the fire service as only Tom could. We are very pleased that Tom wrote down some of these interesting, funny, insightful, and colorful stories. We are very proud to have the chance to continue to provide for you the random thoughts of our dear friend and brother. Please note Tom did not change any of the names, as he felt none of his friends mentioned in these pieces are “innocent.”
My father and my grandfather were firefighters. Both were a product of old traditional Irish heritage when it came to family. I can only surmise the facts about my grandfather because he was killed with his whole company while fighting a fire in a Brooklyn Gas Works plant in the 1920s. Grandfather was the favorite male child and was responsible for all the siblings. His parents were at least two generations of natural-born American citizens, as none can trace any arrivals of Brennans or Clancys in the New World or departures from family locations in the Old World. Much of this was because of an age gap and the closed-mouth type of communication in our family.
My father was in his 40s when I, the oldest of three boys, was born in Brooklyn, New York. We lived for almost five of my years in a top-floor rear apartment of a three-story walk-up in the Midwood section of Flatbush. My brother Bill was born 16 months later. He was named for one of my father’s brothers who died before I was born-another event that we were never to hear about. Bill and I shared a rear room until we moved to a two-story duplex in more rural America-the borough of Queens.
The Irish heritage and the age of my father are what I believe were the reasons we (and a third brother Al, who arrived two years later) never heard any stories of yesteryear and specifically of my grandparents on his side or any stories of his sisters or brothers. We didn’t even know enough to ask the questions that would give a little more credibility to this story.
I knew that my father was a firefighter. He went to work at odd hours and returned home to us another day. He always dressed his best-suit, freshly pressed shirt and tie, shined shoes (as was our job), a top coat (as he called it), and his prized fedora hat kept in a box on the top shelf of the hall closet. He was always impeccably dressed as he marched to the “always used” car parked in front of the house reserved for that purpose and for taking the weekly and dreaded Sunday drive.
As I said, he never spoke of his family, his heritage, or his background. The only time we ever came near a firehouse was on a trip to a Brooklyn hospital from Queens to visit my ailing mother. It must have been payday, because we stopped at a red brick building with the name “Hook & Ladder 111” on Halsey Street in what is now the Bedford/Stuyvesant section of old Brooklyn on the way to the visit. We were let out of the car and told to stand on the sidewalk outside the small red building in front of the decoratively barred window next to the opening that housed the darkened bay holding the big red truck, the shiny chromed bell, and its trailer holding an enormous wooden aerial ladder. The odors of burning wood and paint emanated from the ‘black tunnel” that was the firehouse.
“Hey, are you Tom’s boys?” an adult voice seemingly from nowhere said. “Yes,” we both said, unsure of ourselves. “Would you like to come in and see the fire truck?” the voice belonging to the face of a very tall man dressed in mostly blue and gray asked. “No sir, my father told us to wait here for him,” we said in chorus. “Well, we’ll see,” was the answer that never got rectified as we stood there for what must have been 30 minutes or more. That was as close as I ever got to a firehouse or fire truck or fire anything until I graduated from probationary school of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) 15 years later and was assigned to my own unit.
I had enough “smarts” to get average marks all through my first eight years of education. I don’t know whether it was smarts on my part or the regimentation of the Dominican nuns who drilled intelligence into us, but I had enough schooling to maintain the number two position in my class (male list) and passed all the entrance exams to the high schools to which I had been told to apply. I got a scholarship for Bishop Loughlin Memorial Boys High School that was a long bus ride and two subway trains from home, so that was where I went more than two hours a day each way.
I had no study habits and was drilled there by the Christian Brothers, and motivated mostly by fear. Switching to the easier commercial/business courses as a junior, I continued to squeak by the cutoff marks for remaining enrolled and graduated just barely at the bottom of the group and was off to New York City Community College in Brooklyn.
I lasted there one semester and, after selling my books early in the school year for pocket change, I had no hope of a college career and announced that I would like to try the United States Navy. My folks agreed and signed me into the service four months before my 18th birthday.
I was 17 years old, basically on my own, leaving home for the wilds of boot camp somewhere outside of Chicago, and still had no clue as to what my father did or what my family was all about. I applied for submarine school and was rejected because of low marks in the Navy school system and was sent to a submarine tender (a large ship that serviced the little World War II boats in Norfolk, Virginia).
One of the units on the list was the Submarine Service Office. The petty officer noticed that I had volunteered for duty aboard the little 300-foot, 11-inch crafts that were tied up to the same pier and to one another like drifting metal fish in a Coney Island “Win a Doll” game. It must have been the old game of “get a live one any time you can,” for I don’t think my feet hit the ground before I was onboard my next assignment for the following three years, the U.S.S. Requin (a World War II submarine), which made my mother pass out because she thought I said on the phone that its name was the “Requiem.”
If talking to my father was a rarity, then hearing from him in writing was a nonevent. I had never received anything from him except smiles and hellos when I was home and was surprised to receive an envelope addressed in his handwriting that came six months before I was to be put out of the service, as my time of enlistment would be up one day before my 21st birthday. It was an application from the Department of Personnel, City of New York, to sit for the test for fireman sometime in the near future. It required a $5 money order to accompany it.
Well, what was a fireman anyway? I had no idea of the hours, the duty, the pay, the spirit, the history, or any dialog-there was never any motivation or thought on my part to ever go in that direction. I didn’t have any direction anyway but certainly no idea of ever becoming a fireman. So into the trash went the envelope and the application.
Pop must have known me better than I thought because at the next port mail call, there was another envelope with the same handwriting. The note surrounded another application and a familiar blue post office money order made out to New York City Department of Personnel for the sum of $5. “Better damn well fill out this one and return it!” I thought.
I was notified by Mom that the test would be given that February; could I make arrangements to get home? Sorry folks, we were scheduled for an extended cruise to the Mediterranean Sea and antisubmarine war games and great ports of call and I could not (probably didn’t want to) get the time off.
In March, after we returned, we were scheduled for another long cruise to the North Atlantic region, and it would last past my discharge dates. The executive officer asked if I would like to leave the ship early and be discharged from the land base in Norfolk. “Would I?” Now I was out. I was home. I had no plans short of renewing my old friendships and celebrating some mythical and perceived penance that I had enjoyed for the past three years.
Arriving home on Friday evening from a late night with friends and some libation, I was confronted by my Mom, who said, “You better get some sleep. You have the test for fireman to take at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow at Andrew Jackson High School.” “Nah, Ma, I missed that test in February. You must be mistaken.”
What a dope I was to think my Mom, the sage of all time, had mistaken some data that pertained to raising her boys. The test was the only one in the history of the Department of Personnel in the City of New York that had been postponed for a snowstorm on the scheduled day in February.
Dressed and showered and trying to hide a hangover, I appeared before Mom and Dad in the kitchen at 8:00 a.m. and was handed the saved IBM admittance card that said, “Do Not Fold, Spindle, or Mutilate.” It would be my ticket of entrance to what would be the turning point of my entire life, the test.
My father held in his hand a chocolate bar and two pencils. “What are they for?” I asked. “You will need the candy halfway through, and the requirement is for two sharpened number two pencils to be in your possession to take the exam,” he quoted the area of the card that I never even read.
I passed the test, and one and a half years later was appointed to the Fire Department of New York as a member of NYFD (I mistakenly thought those were the call letters). I marched off to probationary school. I graduated and was assigned to a truck company in Brooklyn.
At graduation, I noticed for the first time the attention my father was getting from all the uniform- and civilian-dressed members. A couple would say, “Are you Tom Brennan’s son? Figures!”
That question would haunt me wherever I went or whatever I did for the next few years. Unbeknownst to me, he had been one of the most loved and respected members of the fire department. He also was the most decorated in the history of the department at that time. Every so often another piece of the puzzle would be handed to me to fit into a picture I would be so proud of even after his untimely death at 71 years of age, a year after I was promoted to lieutenant and he began to open to me the door to his history and my heritage in conversation as we finally became closer and closer-too late.
TOM BRENNAN had more than 35 years of fire service experience. His career spanned more than 20 years with the Fire Department of New York as well as five years as chief of the Waterbury (CT) Fire Department. He was the editor of Fire Engineering for eight years and was a technical editor. He was co-editor of The Fire Chief’s Handbook, Fifth Edition (Fire Engineering Books, 1995). He was the recipient of the 1998 Fire Engineering Lifetime Achievement Award. Brennan was featured in the video Brennan and Bruno Unplugged (Fire Engineering/FDIC, 1999). He was a regular contributor to Firenuggets.com.