Chief

I smile awkwardly at the camera, wondering why I had to give an interview. I knew what the reporter would ask, and I had no intention of answering it in the way intended. After all, the personage they intended for me to eulogize died at odds with me.

The irony of it hit all of us hard. August is a cursed month. Three years before, three of our fellow first responders died in the line of duty within the month of August. This one was another weird occurrence.

“Are you ready?” the reporter asked as she clipped a mic to my shirt collar. I was the only one in the montage not wearing the department’s uniform t-shirt, a combination of defiance and circumstance.

“Sure,” I said. “Let’s get ‘er done.”

She pressed a button on the camera and looked at me.

“What is the most memorable thing about Chief Thoms?”

A second or two dragged by. Behind the wistful smile, my mind struggled to sort through the last seven years, digging through the indignation, frustration and fear associated with my now deceased fire chief, whom I’d been wishing would retire for the last two. I can’t say the most memorable thing about him was his 45 to 90 minute mass reprimands which routinely accompanied every Tuesday night meeting. I can’t mention that he reprimanded me for doing exactly what he told me to. I can’t tell all of the state that this guy would blow something off one day and rip you apart over it the next day. I can’t relate to half the nation how the deceased singled me out of a crew when he said, “I don’t want any crybabies calling for a stress debrief.”

“Chief was passionate about this department,” I said instead. “He was very tough on us.”

“What was it like when you first joined the department? How did Thoms welcome you?”

How do you define “welcome”? I wanted to ask her, and I checked myself as I realized the flippancy of it wasn’t justified.

“I’d say he treated me like everyone else. I had to prove myself as a firefighter, but I never got the sense I was treated any differently.”

“Even as a woman?”

“Even as a woman.”

“How was Chief in the field? Was there anything in particular you remember about how he was on calls?”

“He was always busy. Even during mop up he would fiddle with things. He never sat still.” 

From there, I started telling stories about Martin Thoms. This was safe territory for me. I could tell a story with relative objectivity, as long as she didn’t ask what I felt about it.

The stories were what she used from the interview, and I was fine with that. Maybe by pointing out the fact I’m of the female persuasion she wanted a specifically female perspective on being a volunteer firefighter in a relatively professional district, but my answer left much to be desired. While the first six years of my career in the department never caused me to believe I was treated any differently, the last year and a half was completely opposite.

The main cause of that was another female, one with very little skill or experience as a first responder, but an ace at persuasion and manipulation. Chief, who was in his sixties, still called me “kid” in the Humphry Bogart sense, and lived by pure masculine machismo, didn’t know how to deal with her. Besides, she had dirt on a few of the officers and kicking her out under any circumstances would come back as a MeToo quality scandal, even though she was the instigating party.

Years later, as I look back for the first time without overwhelming bitterness, I can see that all he wanted was for the drama to go away. Maybe that drama contributed to his heart attack, maybe not, but I bet it did.

The fallout leading to and following his sudden death led to my retirement from firefighting as a whole and over two years of sorting through emotional baggage. The department itself is still dealing with problems left in his wake, but despite the mess, he was a valuable member of the community.

He possessed great pride in his town and that fire department in particular.

He set a high standard, and he kept himself to it the same as his subordinates. Possibly, that’s why he chewed us out so often.

After our uniforms got upgraded to button-downs and blue slacks, complete with brass insignias, I remember getting paraded in front of the city council meeting, feeling very much like a pony doing tricks. But the pride in his voice as Chief told them about our season, the status of the department and plans for the future, made the humiliation worth it.

He always struggled with the idea of being hands-off enough to effectively command a scene. Maybe that was because he had a hard time letting others do their job, but at the root, I think he simply missed being a regular firefighter, being given a straight-forward task without having to worry about the liabilities of the outcome. One time, he was so consumed with driving a brush truck in a pump-and-roll attack and trying to run a command that the truck overheated so badly the transmission locked up right in the middle of a hotspot. Fortunately there was enough water on board to keep it from burning up.

Now, I can finally look back and see the good times, like when he found a beat-up girl’s bike exposed in the wake of a burn. He tried to ride it. I razed him about being the Lone Ranger in Pink, and he just laughed. I have that picture stored on my hard drive. It’s blurry, taken after dark, but he’s holding his hardhat high with the bike rearing up in a classic western pose, looking as serious as a macho guy can on a tiny, charred, pastel bicycle.

One of his traits which many of us both admired and feared was his lack of a filter. Once or twice a year the county got fined for his use of profanity over the radio. It was also the responsibility of the engineer to keep him inside the truck so that motorists, oblivious to the lights and sirens, wouldn’t see him flipping them off or hear his string of obscenities. 

He was also known for some unorthodox methods of firefighting, such as ramming hay bales with a truck so they would unroll for easier extinguishing. That incident in particular gave rise to our favorite line, “Hold on! I’m going to do something stupid!” That was engraved on a gold-headed axe the department gave him for a commemoration one year. Sadly, with him gone, and most of the old squad now moved away or retired, that story is fading from the cultural memory. It’s one of those that serve as a lesson and pure entertainment.

I don’t remember what day they held his funeral, but I didn’t make it. That was a bad year for major fires in the state and my contract crew got called up to the reservation a few days prior. Posted on lookout, waiting for the aspen stand to flare up in the heat of the day, I stepped away from my crew about the time the procession was supposed to make its way through town. The song “Shine Your Light” came to mind, not just because of Ladder 49, but because of the accuracy of its words. I’ll always think of Chief Martin Thoms when I hear that song, and while part of me wishes I could’ve been part of his last ride on the truck, I commemorated him as he might have seen fitting, by doing my job and fighting fire.

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