by Sallie Tisdale ’83
Every winter night of my childhood, my father built a fire. Each element of the evening’s fire was treated with care, with the caress of the careful man. The wood, the wood box, the grate, the coal, black poker, and shovel: he touched these more often than he touched me. I would hold back, watching, and when the fire was lit, plant myself before it and fall into a gentle dream. No idea was too strange or remote before the fire, no fantasy of shadow and light too bizarre
But for all the long hours I spent before his fires, for all the honey-colored vapors that rose like smoke from that hearth, these aren’t the fires of memory. They aren’t my father’s fires. When I remember fire, I remember houses burning, scorched and flooded with flame, and mills burning, towers of fire leaping through the night to the lumber nearby like so much kindling, and cars burning, stinking and black and waiting to blow. I loved those fires with a hot horror, always daring myself to step closer, feel their heat, touch.
My father was a fireman. My submission to fire is lamentably obvious. But there is more than love here, more than jealousy — more than Electra’s unwilling need. It is a fundamental lure, a seduction of my roots and not my limbs. I am propelled toward fire, and the dual draw of fascination and fear, the urge to walk into and at the same time conquer fire, is like the twin poles of the
hermaphrodite. I wanted to be a fireman before, and after, I wanted to be anything else.
At odd times—during dinner, late at night—the alarm would sound, and my father would leap up, knocking dogs and small children aside as he ran from the house. I grew up used to surprise. He was a bulky man, and his pounding steps were heavy and important in flight; I slipped aside when he passed by. The fire department was volunteer, and every fireman something else as well. My
father was a teacher. We had a private radio set in the house, and we heard alarms before the town at large did. It was part of the privilege of fire. Before the siren blew on the station two blocks away, the radio in the hallway sang its high-pitched plea. He was up and gone in seconds, a sentence chopped off in mid-word, a bite of food dropped to the plate. Squeal, halt, go: I was used to the series; it was part of our routine. Then my mother would stop what she was doing and turn down the squeal and listen to the dispatcher on the radio. His voice, without face or name, was one of the most familiar voices in my home, crowned with static and interruptions. My mother knew my father’s truck code and could follow his progress in a jumble of terse male voices, one-word ques-tions, first names, numbers, and sometimes hasty questions and querulous shouts. She stood in the hallway with one hand on the volume and her head cocked to listen; she shushed us with a stern tension. She would not betray herself, though I knew and didn’t care; in the harsh wilderness of childhood, my father’s death in a fire would have been a great and terrible thing. It would have been an honor.
The town siren was a broad foghorn call that rose and fell in a long ululation, like the call of a bird. We could hear it anywhere in town, everyone could, and if I was away from our house I would run to the station. (I had to race the cars and pickups of other volunteer firemen, other teachers, and the butcher, the undertaker, an editor from the local newspaper, grinding out of parking lots and driveways all over town in a hail of pebbles.) If I was quick enough and lucky enough, I could stand to one side and watch the flat doors fly up, the trucks pull out one after the other covered with clinging men, and see my father driving by. He drove a short, stout pumper, and I waved and called to him high above my head. He never noticed I was there, not once; it was as though he ceased to be my father when he became a fireman. The whistle of the siren was the whistle of another life, and he would disappear around a corner, face pursed with concentration, and be gone.
Oh, for a fire at night in the winter, the cold nocturnal sky, the pairing of flame and ice. It stripped life bare. I shared a room with my sister, a corner room on the second floor with two windows looking in their turn on the intersection a house away. The fire station was around that comer and two blocks east, a tall white block barely visible through the barren trees. Only the distant squeal of the alarm downstairs woke us, that and the thud of his feet and the slam of the back door; before we could open the curtains and windows for a gulp of frigid air, we’d hear the whine of his pickup and the crunch of its tires on the crust of snow. The night was clear and brittle and raw, and the tocsin called my father to come out. Come out, come out to play, it sang, before my mother turned the sound off. He rushed to join the hot and hurried race to flames. We knelt at the windows under the proximate, twinkling stars, in light pajamas, shivering, and following the spin of lights on each truck — red, blue, red, blue, red — flashing across houses, cars, faces. We could follow the colored spin and figure out where the fire must be and how bad and wonder out loud if he’d come back.
There were times when he didn’t return till morning. I would come downstairs and find him still missing, my mother sleepyeyed and making toast, and then he would trudge in. Ashen and weary, my father, beat, his old flannel pajamas dusted with the soot that crept through the big buckles of his turnout coat, and smelling of damp, sour smoke
Prometheus stole more than fire; he stole the knowledge of fire, the hard data of combustion. I wanted all my father’s subtle art. I wanted the mystery of firewood and the burning, animated chain saw, the tree’s long fall, the puzzle of splitting hardwood with a wedge and maul placed just so in the log’s curving grain. I wanted to know the differences of quality in smoke, where to lay the ax on the steaming roof, how the kindling held up the heavy logs. What makes creosote ignite? How to know the best moment to flood a fire? What were the differences between oak and cedar, between asphalt and shake? And most of all I wanted to know how to go into the fire, what virtue was used when he set his face and pulled the rim of his helmet down and ran inside the burning house.
It was arcane, obscure, and unaccountably male, this fire business. He built his fires piece by piece, lit each with a single match, and once the match was lit I was privileged to watch, hands holding chin and el-bows propped on knees, in the posture Gaston Bachelard calls essential to the “physics of reverie” delivered by fire.
I build fires now. I like the satisfying scritch-scratch of the little broom clearing ash. I find it curious that I don’t build very good fires; I’m hasty and I don’t want to be taught. But at last, with poorly seasoned wood and too much paper, I make the fire go, and then the force it exerts is exactly the same. That’s something about fire: all fire is the same, every ribbon of flame the same
thing, whatever that thing may be. There is that fundamental quality, fire as an irreducible element at large; fire is fire is fire no matter what or when or where. The burning house is just the hearth freed. And the fire-trance stays the same, too. I still sit cross-legged and dreaming, watching the hovering flies of light that float before me in a cloud, as fireflies do.
How I wanted to be a fireman when I grew up! I wanted this for a long time. To become a volunteer fireman was expected of a certain type of man — the town’s steady, able-bodied
men, men we could depend on. As I write this I feel such a tender pity for that little, wide-eyed girl, a free-roaming tomboy wandering a little country town and friend to all the firemen. I really did expect them to save me a place.
Every spring we had a spring parade. I had friends lucky enough to ride horses, others only lucky enough to ride bikes. But I rode the pumper and my father drove slowly, running the lights and siren at every intersection and splitting our ears with the noise. We had firemen’s children perched on the hoses neatly laid in pleated rows, bathed in sunlight, tossing candy to the spectators
as though, at parade’s end, we wouldn’t have to get down and leave the truck alone again.
He would take me to the station. I saw forbidden things, firemen’s lives. On the first floor was the garage with its row of trucks. Everything shivered with attention, ripe for work: the grunt of a pumper, the old truck, antique and polished new. And the Snorkel. When I was very small, a building burned because it was too high for the trucks to reach a fire on its roof; within a year the town bought the Snorkel, a basher of a truck, long, white, sleek, with a folded hydraulic ladder. The ladder opened and lifted like a praying mantis rising from a twig, higher and higher.
Above the garage was the real station, a single room with a golden floor and a wall of windows spilling light. The dispatcher lived there, the unmarried volunteers could bunk there if they liked; along one wall was a row of beds. No excess there, no redundancy, only a cooler of soda, a refrigerator full of beer, a shiny bar, a card table, a television. I guess I held my father’s hand while he chatted with one of the men. In the corner I saw a hole, a hole in the floor, and in the center of the hole the pole plunging down; I peeked over the edge and followed the light along the length of the shining silver pole diving to the floor below.
I remember one singular Fourth of July. It was pitch dark on the fairgrounds, in a dirt field far from the exhibition buildings and the midway. Far from anything. It was the middle of nothing and nowhere out there on a moonless night, strands of dry grass tickling my legs, bare below my shorts. There was no light at all but a flashlight in one man’s hand, no sound but the murmurs of the men talking to one another in the dark, moving heavy boxes with mumbles and grunts, laughing very quietly with easy laughs. My father was a silhouette among many, tall and black against a nearblack sky. Then I saw a sparkle and heard the fuse whisper up its length and strained to see the shape of it, the distance. And I heard the whump of the shell exploding and the high whistle of its flight; and when it blew, its empyreal flower filled the sky. They flung one rocket after another, two and four at once, boom! flash! One shell blew too low and showered us with sparks, no one scared but smiling at the glowworms wiggling through the night as though the night were earth and we the sky and they were rising with the rain.
Only recently have I seen how much more occurred, hidden beneath the surface of his life. I presumed too much, the way all children do. It wasn’t only lack of sleep that peeled my father’s face bald in a fire’s dousing. He hates fire. Hates burning mills; they last all night and the next day like balefires signaling a battle. He hated every falling beam that shot arrows of flame and the sheets of fire that curtain rooms. And bodies: I heard only snatches of stories, words drifting up the stairs in the middle of the night after a fire as he talked to my mother in the living room in the dark. Pieces of bodies stuck to bedsprings like steaks to a grill, and, once, the ruin of dynamite. When my mother died I asked about cremation, and he flung it away with a meaty hand and chose a solid, air-tight coffin. He sees the stake in fire. He suffered the fear of going in.
I was visiting my father at Christmastime, years ago, before he died. There are always fires at Christmastime, mostly trees turning to torches and chimneys flaring like Roman candles. And sure enough, the alarm sounded early in the evening, the same bright squeal from the same radio, for a flue fire. There had been a thousand flue fires in his life. (Each one is different, he told me.) As it happened, this time it was our neighbor’s flue, across the street, on Christmas Eve, and I put shoes on the kids and we dashed across to watch the circus, so fortunately near. The trucks maneuv-
ered their length in the narrow street, bouncing over curbs and closing in, and before the trucks stopped the men were off and running, each with a job, snicking open panels, slipping levers, turning valves. We crept inside the lines and knelt beside the big wheels of the pumper, unnoticed. The world was a bustle of men with terse voices, the red and blue lights spinning round, the snaking hose erect with pressure. The men were hepped up, snappy with the brisk demands. And the house — the neighbor’s house I’d seen so many times before had gone strange, a bud blooming fire, a ribbon of light, behind a dark window. Men went in, faces down. My father didn’t go in anymore. He’d gotten too old, and the rules had changed; young men arrive, old men watch and wait. He was like a rooster plucked.
I live in a city now, and the firefighters aren’t volunteers. They’re college graduates in Fire Science, and a few are women, smaller than the men but just as tough, women who took the steps I wouldn’t — or couldn’t — take. Still, I imagine big, brawny men sitting at too-small desks in little rooms lit with fluorescent lights, earnestly taking notes. They hear lectures on the chemistry of burning insulation, exponential curves of heat expansion, the codes of blueprint. They make good notes in small handwriting on lined, white paper, the pens little in their solid hands. Too much muscle and nerve in these men and women both, these firemen; they need alarms, demands, heavy loads to carry up steep stairs. They need fires; the school desks are trembling, puny things, where they listen to men like my father, weary with the work of it, describing the secrets of going in.
Sallie Tisdale ’83 is the author of many books, among them the Northwest classic Stepping Westward. This essay is excerpted from her new collection of essays, Violation, from Hawthorne Books in Portland.