A/N: I blame—I mean thank—Avirra for this story, by starting with "A is for Arson." Anyone wanna take on the letter "C?" Cookie? Cake? Candy? Oh, all right … Courage? Complications? Carbon Monoxide?
'B' is for Big Red
Today's the day! Sure, it's exciting for the other guys too, but they all know I'm practically peeing myself with the excitement of the new engine's arrival. The guys from the factory should be delivering her any time, now. She was made in Elmira, NY, and shipped by freight train out here, along with a couple other identical ones for the department. I hear 110s is getting one, and some new station up in the northern part of the county.
I said my goodbyes to the 'old' Engine 51 last shift. The Crown was a beaut, but it's time for her to move on to greener pastures—somewhere where she can do a job from time to time, but won't be run ragged like she was around here. It's not time for her to completely retire, yet, but she's slowing down. Charley from the motor pool collected her yesterday. I heard Rollins actually shed a tear when Charley drove her off.
Don't even ask me what those guys did for the rest of the shift, without an engine. Hookrader probably made them clean the apparatus bay floor with their toothbrushes, or something. But I bet they had a quiet night. I'd say "lucky dogs," but frankly, I think we're the lucky ones, since we get to take delivery of a brand new Ward LaFrance fire engine, any second now.
Ward LaFrance had a couple guys out here with a demo engine made to LACoFD's specs last year, to train all us engineers on the new equipment. There's really nothing that's spectacularly different in terms of how it operates. The fire pump is a good bit more powerful than on the Crown—I just hope the hydrant systems can stand up to getting 2000 gallons per minute sucked out of them. Some of the water mains in this city are getting old, old, old, and nobody wants their hydrant to fail because the main collapsed. You better believe I'll be keeping an eye on the residual pressure, because I don't want a collapsed main shutting down the water supply for my crew. No way, no how.
One thing I'm really glad about is that the cab on the new engine is enclosed. I was never a fan of the completely open cab. I had the misfortune to be one of the responders to a wreck that involved an open-cab fire engine. I'm not going to go into details, but it wasn't pretty for the firemen in the engine. Who weren't in the engine any more. And I'll leave it at that.
I'd be a happier engineer if the cab actually had doors that closed, and—call me crazy—seat belts. Someday, maybe, but not today. Seriously—can you imagine trying to get a bunch of firemen to put on their seatbelts?
Not that I'm not a happy engineer now. Let me tell you, there's a feeling of power that you get when you're behind the wheel of a fire engine. And I don't think it's just because of the size of the thing. When you're driving one of these babies, the road is yours. And everyone who's not a total moron knows it. Which of course doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of total morons out there.
One thing that'll be a little tricky to get used to is how far forward the cab is on this new engine. I mean, the Crown was a cab-forward design, but on the Ward LaFrance, the driver's and officer's seats are practically at the windshield, and a good five or six feet in front of where the front tires hit the ground. I'll get used to it, though. I'll probably swing my turns a little late for a while, but I doubt anyone but me and Cap will notice, and he'll understand. Hell, when he started driving, he didn't even drive a cab-forward model. He told me about the first time he was learning to drive the new cab-forward rig, and had to do a tight turn where the cab hung over a ditch. He said he was so sure he was gonna put the rig right into that ditch, that he opened the driver's-side door to actually look at the wheels on the ground behind him, just so he could believe that he wasn't about to fall into the ditch.
There's a lot more storage space for equipment on our new engine. We're getting a whole new complement of equipment for MVAs, which is terrific, because with the 405 right at our back door we respond to plenty of wrecks. And everyone knows the traffic around here is just getting worse and worse. I don't think a shift goes by where we don't respond to at least one wreck. Lopez and I went to a two-day training at the academy a couple months ago where they taught some new extrication techniques. Now we'll have the equipment for, say, stabilizing a car that's on its side before we start extricating the occupants.
And … there was the air horn! Not that I've been, um, waiting in the bay since roll call or anything. No, not me.
Okay, yeah, I was. So what?
I wasn't the only one. I mean, okay—Cap's office door is usually open, but I could tell he wasn't paying any attention to his paperwork, just like he could tell I wasn't really organizing the tool chest.
"Here comes the big moment, Stoker," Cap said.
Another man might've pushed me to make a big speech, make a big deal of it, but not him.
The driver from Ward LaFrance handled our new baby with care, backing her smoothly into the bay. Man, she's a big one. I didn't really notice, at the training session at the academy, since we were outside the whole time, but compared to the Crown, this new gal is huge. Really dwarfs the Squad. Looks like the poor little thing is cowering in her shadow. Heh heh. Poor Gage already has some kind of inferiority complex; I'll bet I can work it from this angle. Subtly and quietly. I'm not the water-bomb kind of guy, but I do have my ways of digging at the other guys when it's necessary.
I guess the sound of the new Engine 51 dragged the rest of the guys away from the TV, because I heard the pitter-patter of four pairs of little feet coming from the day room. Damn, they'd all kill me if they heard me thinking that way. But really, Cap's size 14's and my size 12 ½'s do stand out from the other guys' 8's and 9's.
Okay, Stoker, boot sizes? I guess I've got a case of nerves going. Calm down. Sheesh.
As soon as the engine cut out, I headed straight for the pump panel, but someone grabbed me by the shoulder. What the heck?
"Uh, Stoker—it'd probably be appropriate to talk to the Ward LaFrance guys at this point. We'll have all day to play with our new toy."
"Whoops—sorry, Cap. I guess I got a little carried away."
We introduced ourselves to the guys from the company that built our new engine. Cap chatted with them a bit. I tried to pay attention—I really did—but I'm no good at small talk, and plus, there was this big, beautiful red fire engine sitting there right in front of me, waiting for my attention.
"Stoker?" Cap said, eyebrows raised.
I snapped my attention back to the conversation. One of the Ward LaFrance guys must have asked me something. Which I had completely ignored.
"You planning on gracing us with a reply?"
I could tell Cap was trying really hard to keep a straight face. He wasn't doing a terrific job.
"Um, I guess I didn't hear the question. Sorry," I said to the fellow.
He was grinning ear to ear.
"Oh, all I asked was whether you were planning on taking her out for a spin."
"That's the plan, right? You, since you're the engineer?"
He was kind of laughing at me, but I didn't really care.
"True. Who's coming along?" I asked.
Chet and Marco raised their hands instantly. Gage and DeSoto were just standing there looking glum; they weren't stood down, so they really couldn't come along.
Cap laughed. "I'll tell you what. You five pile in, and I'll follow you guys in the squad. We'll just stay in our district, and we'll pull over and switch out personnel if the squad gets a call."
The bay filled with sounds of glee. We all headed to our racks to get our gear.
"How about you guys?" I asked the two fellows who'd delivered our treasure.
"Oh, we're fine—we'll just hang out in your ready room, if you don't mind."
"Sure," said Cap. "There's coffee on the stove, and mugs in the dish drainer. Stoker here made the coffee, so it won't even give you an instant ulcer."
"Great. Now you boys go play with your new toy."
Yeah, they have us pegged. I guess they must see this every time they make a delivery. That wouldn't be a bad job, actually. Kind of like Santa Claus, but without the scratchy outfit. And no screaming kids peeing on your lap.
"I call shotgun!" Gage shouted.
Fair enough—he never gets to ride in the engine. If he and DeSoto squabble, I'll just pull over and make them get out and switch seats. For now, Lopez gallantly took one of the uncomfortable jump seats, letting DeSoto have one of the good ones.
I opened the door of the cab and climbed up. It was a good bit higher than the Crown.
The smell was all wrong—not a bit of sootiness to it at all, just the odor of new upholstery outgassing. Some guys like that new car smell, but it's just not right in fire apparatus. No matter, though; after our first real fire that'll be taken care of.
I'd driven the identical model at the training a couple months ago, so I was familiar with the gauges and the controls, but I gave everything a good looking over anyhow. One thing this baby had that the old Crown didn't is a counter for how many hours the engine had been running. That makes a lot of sense—I mean, maintenance-wise, your odometer doesn't really tell you much on a fire engine. For a nasty fire, you might run your engine for hours on end in pump gear, which puts wear and tear on the pump and on the engine, but doesn't show a single tick on the odometer. We used to have to keep track of the approximate engine hours in our log book, but no more.
"What're you waiting for, Stoker? Let's hit the road!" Kelly said.
"Chill out, Kelly," I said. "You want me to wreck her on the first time out?"
"Worrywart," he muttered.
I flipped him the finger, without even turning back to look at him, as I checked over the other gauges and dials. No surprises here.
I'd forgotten about the huge bank of batteries this girl has. I flipped the ignition switch on and pushed in the two buttons that put the batteries to work to start the powerful engine. I closed my eyes and let the vibrations wash over me as she thrummed to life.
We were sitting on top of a huge engine, and boy, could you tell. What I really wanted to do was put my head on the floor of the cab, right over the engine. But that would look even weirder than I must've looked just sitting there with my eyes closed, so I'd put that off for a while, till she and I could have a moment to ourselves.
Mindful of not filling the entire station with diesel fumes, I put her in gear and pulled out of the bay onto the road.
The cab was so much higher than in the Crown that I felt like I was twenty feet off the ground. The engine was a good bit more powerful than on the Crown, too. It was still a diesel, of course, so there wasn't a lot of pickup, but as I shifted up I could tell there was a lot of power at work. It's a good thing, too, since this engine is about half again as heavy as the Crown, between the larger booster tank, the greater amount of equipment, and the sheer size of this girl. She's definitely big.
I headed for the closest hill in our district, and downshifted as we climbed. I slowed for the hairpin switchbacks—one of the more challenging driving tasks in our district. We got to the top of the hill in record time. I stopped near the fire tower, and started the sequence of backing and ooching forwards to turn this big lady around. Not a neat three-point turn, but didn't put any more points into this turn than in the Crown, since the wheelbase is actually the same.
I kept her in low gear as we crawled down the hill. I got a feel for the pneumatic brakes. Pretty responsive. Good.
As we got towards a straight, not-so-steep section of the downhill run, I came to a complete stop. I flipped the switch that turns off the engine-braking system, just to get a feel for what the air brakes could do without the Jake Brake engaged.
I took my foot off the brake, and started coasting. Gage put his arms in the air and hollered like he was riding a roller coaster, even though we were only going about ten miles per hour.
Yeah, okay—so maybe this was a bad idea. This gal is just too heavy to coast down a hill with out the engine brake engaged. I flipped the Jake Brake back on, and heard the deafening but reassuring chugging of the engine brake kicking in just as I could feel us slowing down. All right, it was a good experiment, but not again. The only reason you can even turn the engine brake off is that some places have a noise ordinance, and the engine brake is really loud. But what I'd like to tell whoever decided that those ordinances should apply to emergency vehicles as well as commercial vehicles is that the sound of a fire engine crashing into something at the bottom of a hill is pretty darned loud, too. And expensive for the taxpayers.
Luckily, since our station is pretty much at sea level, our emergency-mode runs would only be uphill, so I'll have plenty of chances to fool around with downhill runs when we're not in a hurry.
The mobile radio came to life.
"Engine 51, Squad 51. Time to go back to the barn, boys."
The cab filled with "aaaws!" as the crew protested Cap's pronouncement.
But Gage replied like a responsible adult.
"Copy, Cap. We're heading back now."
I'll admit I didn't take the most direct route. There was one sharp corner I wanted to try out, in a subdivision that really wasn't planned well for large vehicles. I took a tiny detour to check it out, but Cap didn't complain. He knew what I was doing.
No problem. We left the neighborhood with all the mailboxes and picket fences exactly where they were when we entered.
Five minutes later, we were back at the station. I used my landmark of a particular vent stack at the refinery across the road as I backed the new engine slowly and carefully into the bay.
Once I was fully on the apron, out of traffic, I paused. I realized I wasn't entirely sure yet where my girl's rear end was. The guidelines painted on the floor of the bay told me where to put the wheels of the Crown, but I had a nasty feeling that if I tried to put Big Red's front tires on that line, her back end would be in the parking lot.
"Hey, Marco, would you mind backing me? I'd rather not take out the back wall of the bay this morning."
"Sure thing, Stoker."
Lopez hopped down from the cab and headed to the driver's side rear corner of the engine. I waited until I could see him signaling me to start, and followed his backing signals. Sure enough, when he crossed his forearms to tell me to stop, when I popped the door open so I could see where the front tire rested on the floor of the bay, it was about eighteen inches forward of the guide line. Big Red might have the same wheelbase as the Crown, but she had more in front of her and more behind her. I was sure Kelly or Gage would have some choice way of putting that, and I was sure I'd hear it by the end of the shift. My money was on Kelly—the squad wasn't stood down, so Gage wouldn't have as much dead time to think stuff like that up.
I shut off the engine and climbed down, leaving my coat on my seat and my helmet on the doghouse between the driver's and officer's seats. The Ward LaFrance guys were waiting.
"So?" one of them asked.
"Terrific," I said.
"That's it? That's all you have to say?" said the other.
"He's already used up his quota of words today," Kelly said.
I glared at him, and turned back to Santa and his elf. "She's a lot heavier than the Crown, but she handles nicely considering her weight. The extarder is a clear necessity for a descent of any steepness, so the switch that turns it off is never moving again on my watch. The engine-hours counter is a great idea—no more guestimation on that front. And we'll paint a new guide line on the floor today, if I have anything to say about it."
So there, Kelly. I don't have a quota; I just don't like to say anything unless I have something to say, unlike some of the guys around here.
"She got a name yet?" the first guy asked.
I realized I'd named her without even thinking about it.
The two guys looked at each other and laughed.
"Go Big Red!" one of them shouted.
We all looked at them. It sounded like a sports cheer, but we were baffled.
"Oh," the second guy said. "Um, see, our plant is near Cornell University, and their team is the Big Red. Terrific hockey team. So that name kind of works."
I didn't really have any idea where Cornell was, but I guess it must've been somewhere near Elmira. I didn't follow college hockey, but maybe I'd start, if the crowd would be cheering for Big Red.
A red fire department Chief's car pulled onto the apron. A uniformed man I didn't recognize got out, and waved to us.
"Hey Cap?" I hollered towards the office. "Looks like we've got company."
Captain Stanley popped out of the office.
Our tall Captain, who dwarfed the fellow standing in front of him, shook the man's hand.
"Good grief, Hank, how many times to I have to tell you to call me Fred?"
Cap shook his head. "There's something about your very first captain, Chief. Not gonna happen."
Huh—so this was Cap's very first commanding officer. Interesting. We'd all told stories about our probie years, of course, and it always sounded like Cap's first boss was one of the best of the best. I was glad to see that he was still in our department, and from the number of stripes on his sleeve, it looked like he was way up in the brass, too.
"What brings you by, Chief?" Cap asked.
"Just picking up the Ward LaFrance fellows. How's the new engine?"
"I haven't had the pleasure, yet. My engineer—Mike Stoker, here—took her out for a spin with the rest of the boys, and I followed along in the squad, just in case. But I'll get my chance."
Chief Jefferson shook his head. "You were always a bit too patient for your own good, Hank."
"Keeps me young, Cap. I mean, Chief," Cap said.
"I'll tell you what," Chief Jefferson said. "You're authorized to drive this baby. So why don't you and your young engineer here—sorry, son, what was your name?"
"Mike Stoker," I replied.
"Why don't you and Specialist Stoker here take a drive, work out the kinks, fill up that booster tank, and what have you, and I'll hold the fort down here. We can stand you down for an hour or so."
I blushed furiously—in my excitement to drive Big Red, I hadn't actually checked the gauge on the booster tank. Of course it was empty, since the engine just came off a freight train. Sheesh. I cleared my throat.
"It's a good idea, Cap. And you could put the rest of the guys to work sanding off the old guide line on the bay floor while we're out."
Cap looked at me, and we grinned at each other.
"You're on, Mike." He turned towards the day room. "Lopez, Kelly! Out to the bay, please!"
Kelly and Lopez appeared in the bay, and straightened up when they saw our brassy-looking visitor.
"Chief Jefferson here's gonna stand us down while Mike and I take the engine out for a dry run and fill up the booster tank. You guys can go ahead and get out the floor buffer and start getting rid of the old guide lines on the floor, here. Just the ones for the front tire—the rest are fine."
I could see Kelly just about starting to complain, but Lopez elbowed him in the side.
"Yessir," Lopez said. He's a sensible one, that Marco.
"See you in an hour or so," Cap said. "C'mon, Mike. I'll flip you to see who drives first."
I shook my head. "I've already driven first. You're up."
Cap rubbed his hands together in undisguised glee. "Don't mind if I do," he said, his grin threatening to split his face in half. "Don't mind if I do."
I opened the door for my Captain, and he climbed on board. I took my turn in the officer's seat, and off we went. Two little boys with our brand new toy.