By Lizabeth S. Tucker
I was surprised when I got the call from my agent. I certainly didn't expect what she said.
"Cathy, your new book is tremendously interesting; you know that I love it. But..."
Whenever Minerva Gallway says "but" and pauses, you're in for trouble. "But what?"
"Well, you are writing about firemen and you've never seen them in action."
"That's not true, Minerva. I lived next door to a fire station in New York City for six months. I spoke to the men there as well as firemen in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. Their stories are interwoven in my book, as you well know."
"Yes, stories. But you need some practical experience, some first hand knowledge."
"You want me to join the fire department? I don't think they allow women in any of the major departments as yet."
Minerva let out one of her ladylike guffaws. "No, I don't expect you to become a fireman. However, we would like you to observe the men in action."
"And exactly how will I do that, Min?" I asked, knowing that the diminutive of her name annoyed my agent enormously.
"We've arranged a…what do they call it? Oh, yes, we've arranged a 'ride-along' for you."
I leaned back in my chair, peering outside at the palm trees of Los Angeles. "Min, I really don't have time to fly back to New York. I'm in the middle of rewriting a movie script currently in production."
"Of course not, Cathy. I know that. It's why we've arranged for you to do your 'ride-along' with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. I have the number of the Public Information Officer. You need to call him and make definite arrangements as to the time."
"Minerva, I really don't feel like tagging along with some Hollywood hose jockeys. I'm busy."
Minerva's voice deepened, indicating the seriousness of this request. "Cathleen O'Reilly, if you won't go, the publishers will not sign you up for the three book deal we talked about."
It was blackmail, but efficient blackmail. "Fine. Give me the number and I'll call when I get a chance."
"Today, Cathy. I've told Dick Friend, the Public Information Officer, to expect your call by 5 p.m. your time."
I sighed, but agreed. She was annoying, but Minerva was also one hell of an agent. I was eager to sell a three book series about the fire department, fictionalized renditions of true stories told to me since I was a child growing up in Florida. Time spent with my grandmother in New York and my other granny in Boston only reinforced my respect and love for the men who wore the shield. If doing a ride-along with the L.A. County boys was a condition of my book deal, then ride-along I would do.
The day had arrived. I was assigned to ride along with Station 51's A shift. I was a little disappointed as the station was one of the new paramedic locations, glorified ambulance drivers who would administer first aid with the assistance of a remote control doctor on the radio. It wasn't what I considered 'real' firefighting, but there was still an engine at the station. Unfortunately, I was assigned to ride with the medics, not the real firemen.
I took a deep breath, tucking a stray hair behind my ear. "Captain Stanley?" I stuck my head in the office door. The man behind the desk looked up at me and blinked. He got to his feet, unwrapping into a tall, lanky man who brought to my movie-obsessed mind Gary Cooper and Jimmy Stewart. "I'm Cathy O'Reilly. I think you were expecting me?"
"Yes, Miss O'Reilly, I was. Welcome to Station 51." He held his hand out and shook mine. He was gentle, but I could feel the strength in his calloused hands. "I'm Hank Stanley."
"Please, call me Cathy."
"Let me show you around, Cathy."
He escorted me through the station house, a brand new building that made me long for the cramped quarters of New York. This was too clean, too new. I saw the dorm, the locker rooms which led into an open bathroom. "Only one toilet and shower? How many men are assigned per shift?"
"Six total. One engineer, two paramedics, two firefighters and a captain."
"And they only gave you guys one toilet and one shower? Somebody wasn't thinking!"
Captain Stanley chuckled. "That's what my men say after returning from a dirty fire or after eating one of Kelly's dinners." He cocked his head to one side, listening. "Let me show you the kitchen. I'll buy you a cup of coffee and introduce you to my engineer. He just arrived."
"You have good ears, Captain."
Captain Stanley escorted me to the kitchen where two men sat at a large table, sipping from coffee mugs.
"This is Engineer Michael Stoker. On the opposite side is Marco Lopez. Gentlemen, this is Cathy O'Reilly. She'll be riding with Roy and John in the squad."
The two men got to their feet and shook my hand. Stoker was movie star handsome, just the type of fireman I expected to find in LaLa Land. Yet he didn't preen or seem self-absorbed. In fact, I got the impression he was a bit shy. I turned to the other man and was struck, not by his Latin good looks, but by his kind eyes. I hated to admit it. It seemed that I jumped to some seriously wrong conclusions about the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
I was discussing the differences between Mexican and Spanish cooking with Marco when I heard an altercation from the apparatus bay. I looked up, noticing that none of the three men even reacted. I couldn't help it. I got to my feet, walking slowly to the doorway. In the bay I saw three men, two arguing and one watching.
The man watching was boy-next-door pleasant looking, the kind of man you instantly knew you could trust with your life and your heart. There was a faint smile teasing at his lips as he watched the arguing pair.
I turned my attention to them, feeling a smile spreading across my own face. One of the combatants was moderately tall, looking even taller due to his extreme skinniness. He was also covered with white powder of some type. His hands were weaving about as he stuttered and stammered during his tirade. I couldn't get a clear look at his face. His voice, which tended to squeak, led me to believe that he was fairly young.
The third member of the group was smaller and I just knew he was Irish and from back east, either from New York or Boston. He had the bushy mustache so loved by firemen the world over. He was feisty and adorable, just the type of fireman I had grown up around. I could guess just how annoying he could be when pulling practical jokes on some member of his station. From the reaction, or non-reaction, of the others, this was a common event.
"Kelly, I'm gonna kill you!" The abused fireman turned on his heel and disappeared back into the dorm.
"Chet, did you have to do that? Especially today?"
"But today is just the time for the Phantom to hit his Pigeon." He turned to face me with a cheeky grin. "Chet Kelly at your service."
Tongue firmly pushing at my cheek, I nodded. "Cathy O'Reilly."
"Ahhh, beautiful and Irish, what could be better?"
"Blarney and bull won't impress me, Mr. Kelly. I'm no where near beautiful and I know it."
Throwing a thick Irish brogue onto his speech, Chet continued. "I'll be sayin' what's beautiful and what's not."
"Yeah, yeah." I muttered, cocking a suspicious eye at him. He would bear watching. I would need to harden my heart where he was concerned. His twinkling blue eyes could seduce a lemony spinster with very little effort.
"This is Roy DeSoto, one of my two paramedics. The other, John Gage, was the figure in white heading to his locker to change." Captain Stanley led me gently by the arm past Chet toward the other man. "You'll be riding with Roy and John in Squad 51."
"Pleased to meet you." I realized that I actually meant it. This visit might be more fun than expected. I looked into Roy's eyes, a warm friendly blue. "I don't really know much about the paramedic program."
"And didn't care to know, huh?" John Gage came back, finishing buttoning his clean uniform shirt.
"Well, I wouldn't go that far." I didn't want to insult the two men before I began riding with them, but I had to admit, if just to myself, that I still considered them glorified ambulance drivers.
"Yeah, sure. Oh, I'm John Gage. I'm a paramedic too. And I'm not an ambulance driver." He stalked off to the kitchen.
I blinked. How did he know what I was thinking? "Whoops."
"Sorry about that. Johnny's a little sensitive about that subject," Roy said.
"So I see." Honesty compelled me to admit that he was right. "Like I said, I don't know much about the paramedic program. It just seems that you are ambulance drivers. No offense."
"None taken." Roy shrugged. "I think you'll get a better idea of what we do by riding with us." He followed his partner to the kitchen while I stood in the bay.
"They're more than ambulance drivers, Miss O'Reilly, much more." With that comment, Chet followed the rest.
"Well, I've been told, haven't I?" I said to myself.
"Yes, you have." Mike Stoker had appeared in the apparatus bay, standing near his engine.
"I didn't mean to insult anyone."
"I know. So do they, even Johnny, but it's hard when people disrespect what you do, day after day. They've been on calls where people refuse to allow them to help. After all, they're just firemen, they're just ambulance drivers. It wears on you after a while. There were a couple of articles in the newspaper complaining about the cost of the paramedic program. They used the term 'ambulance drivers'."
I looked at him. He was sincere, not just because these were his crewmates. "What they do. It's important?"
"Life-saving. Give them a chance, Cathy. I think you'll be impressed."
I nodded. "You don't normally say this much, do you?"
He laughed. "Who can get a word in between Chet and Johnny?"
I laughed with him as we walked to where Captain Stanley was holding roll call. Before he had finished doling out the assignments, the station's tones went off.
Roy and Johnny trotted to the squad. "Coming?" Roy asked, waving toward the middle of the bench seat and handing me a helmet.
"Oh, yeah. I wouldn't miss it."
According to Roy, the first call was a very common type. Dispatch gave very little information other than "woman down". Johnny worked as navigator and lookout, warning his partner of impending turns and possible dangers from other drivers on the road.
The "woman down" turned out to be an elderly woman who had been knocked down by two young boys who had been skateboarding in the shopping center parking lot. Her brittle bones couldn't take such punishment. Between the medical-speak on the biophone to Rampart, I understood she might have a broken hip. The poor woman, a Mrs. Saperstein, was in tears, not only from the pain of the injury but the loss of her independence.
"My daughter, Ruth, she wants me to sell my house and move into a nursing home. Now I'll have to!" she wailed.
"Now, Mrs. Saperstein, that might not be true," Johnny soothed.
"Yes, it is. She's been looking for an excuse. Oh, dear. What will I do?"
Johnny gently took her wrinkled hand in his. "Would you like one of the doctors to talk to your daughter, explain that with some therapy you should be as good as new?"
Mrs. Saperstein sniffed delicately and blinked her tears away. "Would you, would they do that?"
"I don't see why not."
"Oh, that would be such a wonderful thing to do." She smiled bravely.
The ambulance arrived and Johnny went with the elderly woman. I joined Roy in cleaning up the area. We climbed into the squad and followed the ambulance to Rampart.
Inside the emergency room, I watched as Johnny tried to chat up a beautiful young nurse. Roy and I stopped at the nurses' station and I watched the young Romeo. The woman didn't appear too interested, flouncing off. An older blonde nurse came up behind him and spoke. I couldn't believe it. He was flirting with her, leaning in close, his smile mischievous.
"Hmm, anything in skirts," I muttered to myself.
Roy gave me a look. "Let me introduce you to Dixie McCall. She's the emergency room Head Nurse and one of the strongest supporters of the program."
Before we could join the other two, the treatment room door opened and the portable x-ray machine was wheeled out. Johnny excused himself and walked into the room. I moved to the doorway and watched as he spoke softly to Mrs. Saperstein.
I saw her smile, and then take a closer look at Johnny. "Are you married, Johnny? My Ruth could use a good man like you."
Well, well, well. Young John Gage was easily embarrassed. I was really batting a thousand with my judgment.
The handi-talkie in Roy's possession bleeped and we were off before I could meet Nurse McCall.
We trudged back to the kitchen after four calls that took us from one end of Los Angeles County to another. I got a good view of the importance of the paramedic program to the general public. Yet I still had doubts as to whether this program should be a part of the fire department.
I collapsed onto the couch alongside Henry, the basset hound. Chet was sprawled on the other end of the couch. He looked at me. "Bad day?"
"Long day. You guys haven't been very busy today, have you?" I rubbed Henry's floppy ears, earning a groan of ecstasy from the dog.
Marco brought me a cup of coffee, bless him. "Thank you, Marco, you're a prince!"
"Nope, we haven't done much at all other than chores," Chet replied after I took my first sip. "It's been pretty slow."
"Thanks, you two," Marco said.
"What?" I asked innocently, knowing the superstition of firemen when it came to commenting on a slow day.
"We're in for it now."
"Yeah," Mike chimed in.
As if to prove the point, the tones began going off. I could feel the men's easy-going attitudes harden as more and more tones were sounded. This was going to be big. I ran after Johnny and Roy as the dispatcher reeled off the stations, battalions and squads for a large structure fire.
Roy gave me instructions as we drove toward the call's address. "Cathy, this will be a dangerous call. You won't be coming inside with us, obviously. I need you to do what I say, no deviations."
"Whatever you want," I replied. "I don't want to get in the way."
"You're to stay with the engine or with Mike. If Mike tells you to get inside the engine, you do it. If he tells you…"
"Blue car coming on the right, Roy," Johnny interrupted. "I don't think he sees us."
Sure enough, the car pulled out in front of the squad, apparently deaf, blind and very dumb, unable to hear the sirens and horns or to see the lights of the engine and the squad.
Roy tapped his brakes, swerving around the car. He continued. "If Mike tells you to go someplace else…"
"I'll do it. Don't worry; I won't give him a hard time. I'll do whatever he tells me."
"Okay." He paused. "We just don't want you to get hurt."
"I understand. Don't worry, Roy."
"It's Roy's favorite pastime to worry," Johnny commented, tightening his helmet as we arrived at the fire site.
I watched them hurry over to Captain Stanley, getting instructions on where to search. The building was an old pre-World War I era apartment building, filled with the elderly, the poor, and immigrants who would know little English if any at all.
I whispered a heartfelt, "be careful" before heading to the engine. Mike nodded at me and I climbed up into the engine cab. It would keep me out of his and everyone else's way as well as giving me a better view of the fire ground.
Television always showed fires as clean white smoke, wispy and easy to see through. Firemen could walk upright with little protective gear. This was nothing like that. The smoke that billowed out of the building was black and thick. And the heat. I was clear across the street and could feel it, oppressive and nearly unbearable, despite my casual light blue cotton shirt and dark blue slacks. How Mike could handle it with his heavy turnout coat on was beyond me. It had to be horrible for the men inside the building, wearing their turnouts and the SCBA gear.
I was watching Chet and Marco, barely recognizable in the mass of identically dressed firemen, when I heard two blasts of a horn. I leaned out the window, about to ask Mike what was going on. The swarm of men running out of the building gave me the first clue. The order to evacuate had come. The fire was getting out of control.
"Mike, will this be surround and drown?"
He nodded, watching his gauges as well as his crewmates. "There's danger of a gas explosion."
A shout went up from the front of the building. A fireman came out and waved to the others outside. Two men broke from the crowd and rushed back inside. I saw Mike's face set and knew. It was Johnny and Roy.
I continued leaning out, staring at the entryway, willing the men to return. Listening to the radio's squawks and mutters, I understood that a person had been found inside, one that needed assistance to evacuate.
The explosions started small, growing larger and more powerful. My eyes were stinging, focused on the door. "C'mon, c'mon."
Four men came stumbling out of the building, carrying what appeared to be a door upon which was a large gentleman of considerable girth. More explosions tore through the apartment building. The last one was of such power that the men were tossed forward, dropping the makeshift stretcher.
I gripped the window of the cab, fighting my urge to run to their side. There was nothing I could do for them. I had to wait.
Mike looked up, smiling in sympathy. "They'll be alright."
Mike was right. Merely shaken up, the two paramedics were soon back at work. I watched and learned. I now understood the importance of the paramedic program. I was beginning to see why it should be part of the fire department. The fire department was first on the scene at most emergencies. If the paramedic program was made independent or attached to the hospital by way of their ambulance service, there would be a delay in medical care.
I was invited to ride in the front of the ambulance when Roy took the victim to Rampart. I was also allowed unprecedented access to the Treatment Room. I was amazed at how much Roy continued to help, even with the doctors and nurses present.
Forced to wait for Johnny to arrive with the squad, I was introduced to the main individuals in the Emergency department, from Doctors Kelly Brackett, Joe Early and Mike Morton to Nurses Dixie McCall and Carol Williams.
Kelly Brackett, an early opponent of the program, explained the Golden Hour. Victims of accidents or mayhem had an hour after the event in which to be saved. Allowing firemen in the guise of paramedics to perform more than basic first aid saved lives. I was becoming a convert.
Now I wanted to find a way to weave the paramedic program into my books, to encourage other fire departments to start a similar program. I was musing over a way to do this back at the station when a squabble between Chet and Johnny caught my attention.
I watched Johnny as he fought back and protested some action of Chet, not hearing the words, merely watching the actions. Looking at him now, who would guess that he was, according to Dixie and Brackett, one of the finest paramedics in the program? I must have frowned as Mike moved his chair closer to me.
"Puzzled by Johnny?"
"Yeah, I am. This is not the same man I see out in the field."
"No. This is Johnny, part child and Pigeon to Chet's Phantom. The man you see out on the job is John, a gifted and intuitive firefighter as well as a talented paramedic. Same man, different facets."
I mulled that over for a bit. I then asked Mike his opinion of his coworkers. "You're the quiet one, the observant one. What do you think, what do you see and feel when I mention your fellow firemen?"
Mike didn't answer. I was about to apologize for putting him on the spot when he smiled.
"First off, let me say that all of them are my friends."
"You call me the quiet one, but Marco and Roy are almost as quiet. In fact, next to Chet and Johnny, everyone would appear quiet." He paused. "I guess I'll start there, with Chet and Johnny. You have probably figured out that they are great friends."
"I wasn't certain at first. With the way Chet picks on him, I can't imagine why Johnny would be his friend."
"Theirs is a strange and unusual relationship. Firemen consider themselves brothers."
"So I've heard."
"Well, it's true, but more for some than for others. Chet is that pesky little brother who always pushes too far. Johnny is the brother who frequently becomes the butt of the joke, mainly because he's always willing to forgive and forget."
"Strange," I commented, still watching the two men bicker.
"Frequently." Mike chuckled. "Roy and Johnny are also brothers, not only partners on the job but best friends. Their relationship is more protective, somewhat calmer. I think Johnny can be as open as he wants here because it's safe for him."
"Do you know anything about his childhood?"
I waited for more, but there was none. "No?"
"Johnny doesn't talk often about his background. We know he's half-Indian, but not what tribe. He has an aunt, but never mentions any other family to us. Maybe Roy knows. He said he was raised on a reservation, on a ranch, and went to high school somewhere in this area. For the first couple of years, I didn't know anything other than he was a hell of a good rescue man and paramedic."
I looked again at the mystery man. "I can't imagine it. I mean, I've only ridden with him for a day, yet I've figured out that he talks about everything and anything."
"We call it the Johnny rant. If you pay close attention, you'll notice that it is all set in the here and now, no history." Mike got up to get a refill. Returning, he settled himself on his chair, turning his attention to Roy. "Roy is salt of the earth."
"Boy next door."
"Yeah, but there's more to him than that."
"I've noticed a wicked sense of humor," I said.
Mike nodded. "Exactly. Sometimes he will get Chet and Johnny and they won't even realize it. He's married with two kids."
"I heard. I was vastly disappointed," I said, earning a laugh from Mike.
"Roy will probably go all the way to Battalion Chief someday. He's a born leader, but leaving the paramedics will be hard for him." I watched him move his attention to Marco. "Marco Lopez, quiet and intelligent, a fantastic cook. I expect that he will open a restaurant when he retires."
"He's close friends with Chet, isn't he?" I commented.
"Another unusual relationship, huh?"
"That's one way to put it. Talk about opposites. Chet is so outgoing and mischievous while Marco seems almost studious. I actually see him more as a professor or, now that you mention it, the owner of a very successful, upscale restaurant. What about your captain?"
"Captain Stanley is something else entirely. He's very easygoing and is incredibly knowledgeable about the job." Mike sipped at his coffee. "I hope to be half as good when I'm promoted."
"He strikes me more as a salt of the earth kind of guy. You know, the farmer type."
"He's a good guy, a good leader." He chuckled. "But be glad you don't see him when the Chief is due to visit."
"Because he gets a little…paranoid."
"Hank? Paranoid?" I couldn't imagine it.
"Hey, Roy, c'mere a moment."
"What's up, Mike?"
"I was telling Cathy about Cap and his reaction to a visit from Chief McConnikee."
"Oh, yeah. Cap's a great guy, don't get us wrong, but he and the Chief…it's like oil and water."
"Is it a personality thing?"
"Something happened when Hank was Captain McConnikee's engineer," Roy replied.
"What?" I asked.
Mike shrugged while Roy shook his head. "Don't really know. I heard something about a hat burning, but no details."
The argument was getting louder. We all watched while Marco worked at preparing dinner.
"Will you two twits shut up? I can hear you in my office. You're giving me a headache." Stanley popped his head in the doorway.
Johnny threw himself onto a chair on the other side of me, grinning. "So, Cathy, having fun yet?"
"Yes, Johnny, I am. And I want to thank you all. I've learned quite a lot."
"You're writing a book, right?" Roy asked.
"Three books at least. It'll be a series about firemen, fictional. Only now I want to add paramedics. I'll be doing some serious rewriting when I leave here."
"Let us know when they're published. We'll buy a copy."
"Thanks, Roy. My first sale!"
The tones went off, this time for the engine. Mike hustled out the door, following Chet and Marco. Johnny moved to take over chopping vegetables for Marco.
Evening came all too quickly for me. There had been two more calls for the squad and one for the station, a minor house fire of the type referred to as a bean pot fire in New York City. It was usually caused by a pot of beans cooking away on the stove and left too long, hence a bean pot fire. Dick had been quite clear. When it was time for the men to turn in for the night, I was required to leave. They simply couldn't afford the possible scandal of a woman staying overnight in a room full of firemen.
"Thank you, Captain Stanley." We shook hands. "I appreciate your allowing me to observe the operations here. I've really learned so much."
"Thank you, Cathy. Please keep in touch," he replied.
"And let us know about the book," Mike added.
Marco gave me a quick hug. "Adios, niña.
I thanked Johnny and Roy, apologizing forever implying that they were merely ambulance drivers. "Believe me, I know better now."
"Good," Johnny said. "And I want an autographed copy."
"Like you can read, Gage," Chet said. And with that, they were off and running again.
I laughed, shaking my head. With a last look, I walked out the rear of the apparatus bay to where my Gremlin rental was parked. I would never forget this ride-along. I had to remember to thank my agent. She'd never let me live it down.
Thank you to my Internet friends for all the encouragement I received regarding this story. You all know who you are! Certain scenes and conversations in this story are from my ride-along with the Saint Lucie Fire Department (on the engine, not the rescue squad). I encourage all fire buffs to call their local department's public relations officer and ask about a ride-along. It's the adventure of a lifetime!