I got it. I didn't like it, but I got it: Tony the Plumber was having a busy week.|
I'd called his shop because my sewer line was clogged. "He's swamped with work," his wife said; the recent flooding had dumped a foot of water into some customers' basements, ruined furnaces and hot water heaters in others'. She told me Tony would come within a few days. I didn't like it, but I got it.
Shortly after noon I decided to walk to the library, and no sooner was I out on the street than I was distracted from my plumbing problems. Smoke and flames were shooting out of a window in the house of the young couple across the street. Sirens shrieked as neighbors threw open their doors. My pounding heart quieted as I saw the four youngsters who live in that house were all standing with their Mom in a yard across the street, safe, shaking. I had no doubt Dad would soon arrive.
Like most of us, I'd seen firefighters at work before, but I'd never before been present when they arrived on the scene. I can say only this:
These guys flew. As the screaming red trucks slowed, the firefighters jumped into action. Dressed for battle, they grabbed hoses and tools and ran across the lawn. They didn't stand around debating what approach to take; they already knew.
The firefighters in my city are volunteers. Though they were wrapped in layers of protective gear, I recognized some of them from around town: the real estate agent who handled the sale of my mother-in-law's home, the quiet guy with the ready smile who lives up the street.
The assistant chief needed my neighbor's attention. So did her little girl, a toddler too young to understand what was happening. Her three boys, old enough to grasp the situation, needed attention, too. Since their Mom was busy, I sat in the grass and gathered the boys around. We discussed important things. When a kid has a question like, "Do you think my special blanket will be OK" or, "Where will I sleep tonight if my bed burns up?" he deserves an answer. Sometimes the only answer is a hug, and I gave the best answers I could.
When the flames had been extinguished and the situation -- a kitchen fire -- was under control, one of the firefighters walked away from the house, took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his face.
It was the face of the guy I'd been hoping to see clearing sludge out of my sewer line. His wife hadn't been exaggerating; Tony the Plumber was having a busy week. It's tough to balance your responsibilities when you're both unclogger of drains and deputy chief of the fire department.
Neither Tony nor anyone else standing in my neighbors' yard had planned to spend their lunch hours attacking a burning building. We sometimes confuse the terms "volunteer" and "amateur."
But I saw no amateurs as I watched these volunteers attack and subdue this fire. Clearly, volunteer firefighters aren't part-time amateurs; they're professionals who happen to also work in other fields. They stand ready to rush out of their stores, offices or beds and fly across town to charge into your burning home with water, ladders and hope.
I still need to have my sewer line cleaned out. But I can wait if I have to. I get it -- Tony's having a busy week. In fact, he's swamped with work.
Frank Mullen III of Aledo is a former Navy band leader.
Moline, IL Details
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