In my department, the term refers to an object, place, and experience.
As an object, it is a gray monolith, six stories of anonymous cinder block and steel that hides a maze of stairwells, dead-end hallways, and dark rooms. The concrete floors are pitted with deep spalls and the rough walls blackened with thick carbon deposits, a testament to the intense heat these rooms withstood in years past when the AQMD still allowed the department to conduct live burns here. In fact, some guys still call it the “burn tower.”
As a place, it stands in the middle of the department’s eastside training center, one of three such drill grounds across this sprawling county. And my fire station happens to be located at this same training center, which also features a network of hydrants, roof props, classrooms, and a fleet of aging “training rigs.”
During the day, the tower is the site of a military-style recruit academy, with impatient captains barking terse orders at hapless trainees, exhausted from endless evolutions of pulling heavy hose and throwing wooden ladders, fully turned out in the punishing midsummer heat or frigid February rains.
At night, these vast, empty grounds are silent as a cemetery. Sometimes I’ll sit on a remote wooden bench, languidly puffing on a Dominican cigar and listening for an unseen owl perched high atop the tower, its plaintive call trailing off into the lonely night.
But for all firefighters, the term “The Tower” evokes the months-long ordeal each of us had to survive before earning a badge and embarking upon the rookie year of our new career. As such, this cold building and gritty asphalt lot are haunted by the memories of a million fleeting moments, an immutable past filled with physical pain, humiliating mistakes, grim humor, determined effort, and finally, a nascent pride. As an experience, “The Tower” is a common bond shared alike between thirty-year firemen, ambitious young captains, and old-school chiefs with graying brushy mustaches and tarnished brass bugles.
The stories are legion. No blog, book, or Hollywood movie could begin to capture the smallest fraction of them. But every morning, I smack a red switch on the wall of the station app floor, and the huge bay doors clatter slowly upward, opening on another gray dawn view of the tower.
And I think back.
Across the grinder at the foot of the tower, I see my former self standing stiffly at attention. A stern training captain paces between me and another of my academy mates, having just pitted us against each other in a push-up completion. After countless reps, my exhausted friend finally concedes; he lays on the wet ground while I rise up unsteadily, the victor. Now as both of us stand side by side, I steal a sideways glimpse to see my classmate, knees locked, wavering and rocking slightly on his heels. And without warning, he falls unconscious face first, striking the concrete with a sickening thud. (Later that day, he returns from the local ER, missing two front teeth but doggedly determined to continue on with the day’s training.)
I see myself pressed flat against the floor of a dark, claustrophobic room, deep inside the tower. Thick fingers of orange flame roil across the ceiling directly above us, the heat so intense that if I were to raise my head just a few inches, my neck and ears would immediately sting with second-degree burns. The only sound comes from the rhythmic in-drawing of face-piece regulators, as my fellow recruits and I work to calm anxious breathing patterns. We study the incipient fire development, our polycarbonate masks reflecting the red glare overhead like midsummer fireworks, before I slowly crack open the bale of the TFT nozzle and pencil down the fire, agitated smoke banking down black walls and obscuring the memory.
I have crawled through this tower, rappelled off this tower, gotten lost in this tower, hid in this tower. But it has remained a strangely singular constant in my otherwise itinerant career as a fireman these past eighteen years or so.
So the other morning, my buddy Norm, a fellow engineer turned project manager here at the ever-expanding training center, smiled mischievously, bursting to tell me a tale. He remembered, of course, that a couple of years back when I was training a prospective tillerman to pilot the back-end of our new fire truck, the boot over-steered around a turn, drove the trailer up on the curb and demolished twenty feet or more of steel pipe rail, obliterating the rear compartments, and causing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. Luckily, the mishap took place on the quiet campus of a nearby state hospital and no one was injured. But I was understandably stunned—and furious with the dimwitted fireman.
Norm knew this infamous episode remained a sore point for me, as the department inexplicably disciplined me for the accident and let the wayward fireman skate. Now as we leaned up against a stairway at the base of the tower, he gleefully directed my attention to his latest project: To improve safety, the stairway railing needed to be raised and reinforced. While touring the adjacent hospital grounds, he spied a pile of scrap metal piping and requisitioned it from the facilities manager. He then welded that pipe on to the existing stair rail.
Now every morning when I open the apparatus bay doors, I can look across the grinder and see the shiny silver weld points and gleaming new sections of stair rail ascending that gray block building…
Steel pipe that only a couple years ago had wiped out the entire side of my rig…
And know that my comic misfortune is forever enshrined in the very Tower itself...
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OK, that story was for Paige, who requested more fire stories. I guess I was pleasantly surprised to learn that someone still reads this blog...