The pager trembles and whines, then crackles with the wide-awake, insistent voice of the county dispatcher announcing that someone’s agony somewhere on the other side of the bay has now become, in part, my responsibility. I rise quickly, grab the static-spewing device from the bedside table, and flee because my sleeping wife prefers not to be disturbed at 2:30 in the morning. In the mudroom where the emergency gear bag is stored, I clumsily try to dress and listen as the crackling voice provides a few more details. A man who lives on Western Bay Road reports being awaken by the screeching of what he thought was a truck careening off the road and plunging into the woods below his house. The caller couldn’t see the vehicle and is headed back inside to put some more clothes on before investigating further. That’s all we have to go on — not very much, but motivation enough for racing to the other side of the bay in the middle of the night.
As I pull on my boots, I asked myself for the hundredth time, “How did I get into this, and why?” The ‘how’ is easy enough to answer; the ‘why’ of it all I’m still trying to figure out. What’s gotten me out of bed in the middle of this night is, for me, a most improbable thing. I’m the newest recruit of a volunteer fire department that I never intended to join. Last spring, a neighbor who knows I’m always on the lookout for something local to write about invited me to attend the Monday meeting of Coddington’s Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. The first person I met that evening was Sam Carter, the outfit’s training officer who asked me right off why I wanted to sign on with the department. I just couldn’t tell him that I was there to sniff out material for a story to add to a collection of essays I was writing. I didn’t know what to say. The situation made me feel like some nineteen-year-old who had idly wandered into a Marine recruiting station and now stood face-to-face with the gunnery sergeant recruiting officer.
I could see there would be no easy way out of this one. Stalling for time, I told Sam that I had once mentioned to the fire chief that I could be available to the department as a part-time chaplain if the need ever arose. Sam looked at me and said, “This is pretty much a hands-on outfit.” I told him I could see that, glancing at the nearby firefighters working on the firetrucks and equipment like bees clustered around a hive. Trying to think how I might eliminate myself from this equation, I went on to say that I was sure I’d be pretty much useless, if not down-right dangerous, running into a burning building.
Sam seemed to appreciate my directness. He thought for a moment, smiled and said, “Traffic control — you could do that. And, once we teach you a few things, you could graduate to being a ‘gofer’ for the command at a fire scene. Oh, and whenever a prayer is called for, you could do that, too.” “That’s a deal,” I said without hesitating, totally surprising myself that I could agree to such a proposition. I stayed for the meeting that night, and for the standing around and ribbing and bull-throwing that was part of each subsequent Monday night meeting, as well. For the next five weeks I kept asking myself, “What’s a wimp like me doing in this macho world? What was I thinking, signing up with this outfit?”
Now, it’s my first emergency call in the middle of the night and I’m still wondering why I ever let this crepitating pager into my life. I speed through the darkness down Johnson Point. The road is obscured by shrouds of fog billowing from fields and forest on either side. I turn onto Bay Road and the way ahead begins to clear. A crescent moon appears on high, casting a pallid light on the barns and houses of the town. I fly by the little town hall. Behind it the rippling bay shimmers in the half-light. For a moment, I feel like a figure on a dark canvas; I’m soaring in the sable sky of a Chagall painting, suspended over some beloved village that is wrapped in mystic sleep. I speed round the bay toward the accident even as I dread arriving at the scene, for fear of what I’ll find there.
Flashing lights — red, yellow and blue — line the road ahead. Emergency vehicles cluster around a dangerous intersection where the Bay Road takes a sharp turn to the west and meets the New Road that descends a steep hill and ends abruptly at a stop sign. Climbing from my car, I see the familiar faces of the department members. There’s no joking now, none of the bantering that goes on at the fire station. The lieutenant describes the situation briefly. A young man, driving drunk, missed the turn and plunged his truck one hundred feet into the woods that runs down to the bay. It took a while for the first responders to find him. He’s stunned, but appears to be unhurt. They’re letting him sit in the truck until the county sheriff arrives.
I’m told to help a younger firefighter assemble a traffic control sign. I do that, and then I’m ordered to direct traffic away from the intersection. Someone hands me a reflective vest and a two-way radio so I can communicate with emergency personnel at the scene. I take my post feeling grateful for a number of things: that no one was hurt, that a drunk driver was stopped and that there’s precious little traffic to direct tonight in this dark corner of the town. An ambulance appears out of the darkness, returning empty-handed to headquarters. The sheriff’s car follows close behind. I wave them both through and, as the cruiser passes, I catch a glimpse of a dazed young man in the back seat, on his way to a lesson I pray he will finally learn.
Now it’s a matter of “clearing the scene,” packing things up and putting them away, bidding my colleagues ‘good night’ — or is it ‘good morning’ we ought to be wishing each other? I climb into my car and drive slowly back around the bay. I reflect on the past few weeks and think how important it was to have taken part in all the kidding and bantering of the last month’s training sessions. I see now how vital it was to have been part of drawn-out conversations that seemed to go nowhere. That’s where people in shy and oblique ways reveal something of who they are. That’s where folks size each other up and where friendships you can count on begin to take hold. Most important, it’s where trust is built and saved against the time it will be needed and spent like capital on high-stress, crisis-riddled emergency calls. Tonight was a near-miss, a low-level situation, but I realize that it could have been very different, and much worse. And I know that one day — it could be any day — we’ll arrive at a scene and things will be a lot worse. Then, we’ll need to depend on each other and rely on that trust that takes so long to build.
As I turn into Johnson Point, I see the subtle tones of earliest dawn burnishing the eastern sky. Arriving home, I head back to bed, wondering if I haven’t witnessed a minor miracle in the last few hours. Tonight, nine men emerged from the corners of this sleepy village and headed out into the dark towards danger. And why? If asked, they‘d say they were simply responding to a call — it’s what they do. There’s more to it, though. I think they came out of loyalty to this little town and because it’s the way they care for their neighbors. In the small hours of the night, under cover of darkness, they worked together with a generosity of soul that most folks will never even know about. I climb into bed and slowly drift off to sleep, grateful for my bit part in this small, luminous wonder set against the dark canvas of life.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012