Roy: A Whole New Ball Game
I was just finishing some scutwork, which we seemed to have an endless supply of, when I was hailed in an unexpected way for an unanticipated break.
"DeSoto!" Williams bellowed from the day room. "Phone!"
It was so unusual for someone to address me by my name, and not by the tiresome nickname "Probie," that I almost didn't realize at first that he was talking to me.
I propped the mop against the wall in the apparatus bay and went to pick up the phone.
Williams held his hand over the receiver, looking at me suspiciously. "Some woman," he said. "Not your wife."
Ah. That's why he used my name. That was pretty considerate, actually. The guys knew I was working on getting a mortgage, so Joanne and I could buy a house to accommodate what would soon be a family instead of just a couple. So he must have been thinking for a change. I mentally slapped myself on the wrist as I walked into the day room—Williams isn't dumb; just sometimes a little inconsiderate, or oblivious.
I picked up the phone, expecting to hear Mrs. Emerson from the bank.
"Hello, this is Roy DeSoto."
"Roy? It's Suzanne from next door." She sounded a bit breathless, which had me worried.
"Suzanne—is everything okay?" Once she and her family figured out I was a fireman (or almost a fireman; civilians never really understood the part about the probationary period, so it wasn't worth explaining), someone from their household was knocking on our apartment door once a week or so. I was always nice about it, but you don't need a fireman to turn off the circuit breaker to remove a broken lightbulb, or to pull a splinter from a child's finger. Or, I should say, you shouldn't need one. But some people, as I was learning even in the early days of my job, apparently do. I turned my attention back to the phone conversation.
"Well—yes. Joanne's in labor. It's a little early, but it's definitely happening. So I'm taking her to the hospital, and you need to meet us there."
I sighed. "Suzanne, she's been thinking she's in labor every day for the last week. Are you sure?"
I got my answer, and I deserved how I got it, too. "Listen up, buster. I've given birth three times, and what's your count? Zero? Yeah, that's about right. Your wife's in labor—trust me. And it doesn't look like that kid is wasting any time, either. Meet us at Rampart, and I'd recommend you make it snappy." She hung up.
Shit, shit; oh shit oh shit oh shit!
I stood there by the phone, hands trembling. This wasn't supposed to happen for three weeks! I wasn't ready! Joanne wasn't ready! The apartment wasn't ready! I had to stop this, somehow.
Oh. Wait. I couldn't. That's right.
Williams tapped me on the shoulder, and I jumped a foot in the air.
"Wife think she's in labor again, huh? You think maybe it's the real thing this time?"
I stood there dumbly for a moment. "Uh …"
He shook his head, and grinned. "I guess that's a 'yes,' huh?" He stuck his head into the apparatus bay and in the direction of Cap's office.
"Cap?" he shouted.
"For the millionth time, Williams, come in here if you want to talk to me," Captain Brock said.
Williams grabbed me by the arm and dragged me along with him to the office. I just stood there with my mouth open.
"What's going on, boys?" Cap asked.
"Probie's about to be a papa," Williams said succinctly.
"Well?" Cap said. "What are you waiting for? Shoo! Call us when the tyke is out. Good luck to you and Joanne, DeSoto."
Williams reached under my jaw and poked it shut with his index finger. That snapped me out of my shock.
"Uh, yessir! The neighbor lady is sure she's in labor. She has three kids. She would know," I babbled. "I, uh, won't be back today—I guess I need a sub. And the next four shifts, like we talked about. And I'm sorry—there's nothing I can do to stop it! Shit, shit, shit!"
"Listen to that, Cap—our probie can swear after all!" Williams said. "C'mon, daddy; let's get you out the door."
I wasn't really sure whether or not it was a good idea that they'd started sometimes letting fathers into the delivery room. I mean, it was probably a good thing—I guess. I mean, it's 1967, for crying out loud, not 1467, so I guess it's good that it was all getting demystified.
The nurse showed me into the room where Joanne was. She looked sweaty and flushed, but was up and walking around, a nurse at her elbow.
"Took you long enough," she snapped.
I was about to point out that it was forty-five minute drive from my station to the hospital, but I decided just to keep my mouth shut.
"Sorry, Honey," I said. I took her hand. "How are you doing?"
"Except for the meat grinder having its way with my insides every two minutes or so, just peachy," she said.
It didn't look that bad, I thought. I held onto her hand as she walked towards the bed, and was about to say something mild and comforting when I found my arm nearly being yanked out of its socket, as she doubled over, putting her elbows on the bed, forgetting to let go of me as she did so.
A sound came out of her that I couldn't identify, and I was relieved when it came to an end. But after she got a breath in, which didn't look easy, the sound that had made me uncomfortable was replaced by a genuine scream of agony, which stopped me in my tracks.
The nurse held her up—fortunately, since I wasn't doing a bit of good—until the contraction subsided and Joanne leaned on the bed, panting.
"Good, Joanne; good," the nurse said. She practically shoved me down into a chair. "Remember, every contraction gets you closer to holding that baby."
"I don't care about holding it. I want this thing OUT, and I want it out NOW!" Joanne said.
"Honey," I said, about to offer up some wise words.
"Shut up!" Joanne said. "Whatever you're about to say, just shut up!"
I shut up.
She breathed for another thirty seconds or so, and then the whole thing happened again.
I'd heard other people screaming before. The first time I was at a car wreck, and heard an injured person screaming, and then saw the blood, and the … well, things you're not supposed to see, I passed right out. The second time, I felt faint, but was a little better prepared. The third time, when we pulled an unconscious man with burned legs out of a fire, and he regained consciousness after we gave him oxygen, and then started screaming in agony while we waited uselessly for the ambulance, I still felt sick to my stomach, but was able to help hold his hands down so he didn't rip the much-needed oxygen mask off his face in his agony.
It sounds horrible, but I'd gotten used to seeing people in pain. Realized that if I wasn't able to control my own reactions, I wouldn't be able to help them.
But my own wife?
That was different.
Not only was she my wife—the woman I'd been in love with, whether I understood it or not, since we were kids—but there wasn't a thing I could do for her. Not a thing.
And, as she pointed out once the contractions started coming practically on top of each other, with hardly any breaks in between, I'd done this to her. And it was going on, and on, and on. I had to step out into the hallway at one point, tears in my eyes, but I went right back in.
I looked imploringly at the nurse. "Isn't there something—?"
She shook her head. "It's too late for an epidural—she's going to be pushing soon, and that goes better if you can tell when you need to push, and tell how well you're pushing."
"But aren't there drugs … I don't even know," I said, feeling useless.
"There are—but whatever mom gets, baby gets, and Joanne decided she doesn't want that. She can change her mind any time."
"Honey?" I said to Joanne imploringly.
"No! Just …" she couldn't speak again; not for a minute or so. "Shit—I have to push!"
"All right. Let's get you in the bed," the nurse said.
I helped with that—at least that was something I could do.
Forty-five minutes later, with a grand total of ten minutes of actual doctor time, our son took his first breath, which was immediately followed by powerful squalling. The instant I held him, the instant I looked into his tiny, scrunched-up dark blue eyes, I knew that nothing in my world would ever be the same again. Ever.
People had told me that, and I'd understood in theory what they meant. But I didn't really get it, not really, until I held my son for the first time.
Ten days later, the household had settled into some kind of routine. Joanne's mother, firmly ensconced in a hotel, was helping during the days. I tried to make myself useful when I could, and scarce when I couldn't. Our mortgage came through, with perfectly awful timing, the day Joanne got home from the hospital with Chris. I realized, when we started to make appointments to look at houses, that there would be one glaring disadvantage to having a larger living space: my mother in law could stay at the house.
It was with a combination of relief (to be away from HER), and sadness (to be away from Chris and Joanne) that I returned to work, after four shifts off. I was glad, for the first time ever, of HER presence—it meant that Joanne wouldn't be alone during the twenty-four hours (ten diapers, eight feedings and burpings, probably two or so total hours of crying, though at times it seemed like much more) that I would be away.
On my first shift back, I brought in and showed off the baby pictures. The guys without kids looked and commented politely; the guys with kids had a different look in their eyes as they congratulated me. I'd never noticed that before—that difference.
My first shift as a new dad passed without incident. I was sure, just sure, that the first shift would be filled with disasters and tragedies involving children—babies, really. But it wasn't—it was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill shift, with alarm activations, service calls, a minor car accident, a diesel spill, and a dumpster fire. And a guy who ended up with his arm stuck in a downspout while trying to clean out a clog of leaves and those twirly maple helicopter thingies that had sprouted and plugged it up. Why he thought his arm would work better than a broomstick is beyond me.
I came home the morning after my first shift back exhausted but glad to be back, and was delighted to hold Chris for a while so Joanne could take a nap while SHE went grocery shopping. SHE made me take a shower before I could touch HER grandchild, even though I'd just taken one at the station (which according to HER must be filled with mildew and fungus, since it's used and cleaned only by men, even though I knew perfectly well it was a lot cleaner than the shower in our apartment).
It was during my second shift back that we had our first post-Chris child rescue. It really hit me, then—I really understood it—the terror of parents when their child is in danger. It was a fairly simple affair—the child had fallen into the foundation of a new house that was being built. He wasn't badly hurt, but couldn't get out, and there were no ladders about, so it was up to us.
I could see the child wasn't badly hurt—he probably had a broken wrist—but he was young enough that it was frightening for him to be alone and in pain in the still-open basement of the new house. Luckily, it was a two-minute rescue—literally. Pete Jenkins carried him up the ladder and handed him to his mother, who whisked him off to the emergency room to get his arm looked at. But for the first time, I understood the look in the mother's eye, both before Jenkins got her son up the ladder, and after. Like I said—I knew nothing would be the same for me, ever again.
I was glad to have that first child-related incident out of the way. I knew there would be others—and ones that were worse. A lot worse. I tried not to think about those, even harder than I did before.
The thing that I wasn't prepared for happened on my third shift back.
The tones dropped at three a.m. We were headed for a structure fire at an industrial complex, where the night shift was working, and there were multiple people missing. Our engine was assigned to be the middle pump in a water relay—we had to use some hydrants nearly half a mile away, because the water main near the factory was already maxed out by the two engines pumping directly off of it. The engineer dropped the rest of us, our tools, and the end of the supply line at the site, and headed down the road, laying out all the supply line we had on the way. That was gonna be a pain in the ass to pack up later, when we were dead tired from what I was already sure would be hours and hours of firefighting and overhaul.
The battalion chief had me, my partner, and the two guys from the squad pack up and go in on a search and rescue assignment. I started putting on my gear, and checking the SCBA pack to make sure everything was right. I'd gone inside burning buildings before, about fifty times for practice, and twenty or so times for real—I'd lost count, but it was enough times that I'd quit crapping my pants—but this time, something was bothering me about it. I stood there, trying to process it, but it wasn't coming to me.
"Something wrong, Probie?" Williams asked.
I shook my head. "Let's go."
I did my job, all the while with a nagging feeling that there was something wrong about what I was doing. We found one of the missing men, under a desk in an office area, and dragged him out. We went back in, but didn't find anyone else in the smoke-filled rooms we'd been assigned to search.
As I exited the building, shut off my air, and removed the regulator from my face piece, it hit me what was different this time.
If I went into a building some time, and didn't come back, my son would grow up never knowing his father.
I sat down on the running-board of the engine to process what some part of me had figured out as I was masking up. My life wasn't just mine anymore. I was responsible to my child, in a far deeper way than I was to Joanne. Not just to protect him from harm—though that was something I would think about every second of every day. But to be there for him. To be for him.
In my job, there was a small but reasonable chance that I might not keep on being.
I sat there on the running board, far longer than was acceptable at an active scene, until Cap finally came over and sat down next to me.
"It just hit you, didn't it, son."
I nodded. He was a father, so he understood perfectly.
"Take five, and then I need you to get back to it. Chief says it's under control, but we have a damned big overhaul job. We'll talk after we're all mopped up here. All right?"
I nodded again.
As I took my five minutes, I suddenly questioned my entire life. I loved my wife, and knew that the dangers of my job were hard on her. But she'd gotten used to it—or so she said. I wondered, sometimes, how much that was true. I knew, though, that she understood that there was no other job for me. Nothing else that would do it. I sometimes felt selfish—and I told her that. She told me she knew she couldn't ever understand my job, not completely, but that she did understand that it was what I needed to do. I was damned lucky to have a wife who loved me enough—no, who understood me enough—to accept that.
But a baby? That's a different story. Even a child who'd reached some age where reasoning was possible (and I didn't even have any idea what that age might be) couldn't be expected to understand that his father chose to do a job where there was a chance he might not come home.
I loved my job.
I loved my child.
And I sure hoped Captain Brock had some damned wise words waiting for me, because I was lost.
Or, just for this series,