My father was a lot of things; the one that gave me the most joy was fire buff. I don’t know why dad was so involved in the fire department and then the Red Cross but he was, and I benefited greatly.
Engine Company 56’s house was on 83rd Street between Amsterdam and Columbus, a block from 222. It looked like most other firehouses in New York City. The big red doors, the brass poles, the engine floor, the boots and gear set up for a quick exit, the kitchen space, the pool table and the bunks. Those big doors were often open, a safe haven, a friendly neighborhood spot.
I don’t know if it was unique but this house still had the three doors in the back of the engine floor and the pulleys on the ceiling. Yup, the three doors opened into the area in the rear where the horses that pulled the steamer had once lived. The pulleys helped control the harness that was dropped on the back of the three horses after the bells rang and a fireman called out the address and yelled ‘get out’ while the horses ran to their places. It must have been amazing to watch.
I grew up in this firehouse. We were there, it seemed, all the time. I learned how to slide down a brass pole, how to cook and how to play pool. I learned about comrades in arms regardless of age or religion or color.
When we weren’t at 56, we were in the dispatchers’ office in central park. Nestled in the 79th Street transverse was a one-story building that housed the communications for the F.D.N.Y. in Manhattan. When you pulled the handle on the red box on the corner this is where the signal came, light flashing over the box number in a giant oval that surrounded most of the work area. In the center of the oval was the switchboard where calls were routed when you dialed ‘O’ and said, “I want to report a fire”.
There were two kinds of personnel here, dispatchers and injured firemen on light duty (they were all men in those days). Also inside the oval were the radio consoles and the ‘key’. These were the two methods of communication that got the engines moving and kept them in communication. The key was like a telegraph key used to tap out the fire alarm box number. The one on our corner, 83rd and Amsterdam, was ‘1138’. The tapping resulted in bells ringing all over Manhattan. The watch officer in each firehouse listened and counted, he then looked up at the board which listed the boxes to which that fire company was to respond. At our firehouse when our box was pulled he then shouted “Box 1138, Amsterdam and eight three street, first due”.
Dad’s hobby and his profession met many times. There was the film “FDNY” which even included a boy who said “when I grow up I want to be a fireman” and there was the film “The Job is Fire”, you can imagine what that included. I own prints of both these films. There was also Dad’s attempt at a regular radio program “Your Fire Reporter”. When I listen to the “demo” tape his voice rings so clearly, his talent so sharp and the tears well up stinging. He never sold the show but it lives on for me.
Being a buff meant touring with visiting fire buffs like the guys who came up from Baltimore two weeks after the Wooster Street Fire where they were still pouring water on the pile of rubble that had been the building that collapsed killing six members of the department: two firefighters and four fire patrol members. The building had been used to store huge rolls of newsprint and it could not support these rolls when they were soaked. It was a terrible day in February 1958. I was eight. We were all silent during that visit.
Dad rode the Red Cross canteen for many years, working out of it to provide coffee, soup and sandwiches to firefighters on the lines. I got to go out on this rig sometimes but not to real fires. The volunteers were members of the Third Alarm Association, responding to multiple alarm fires to serve those who served us.
There was more to being a buff for me too. I became Junior Buff #2 in the City of New York. I still have my badge, bestowed on me by Chief of Department George David. He was a tall man. In the official photo I stand on a chair between him and my father. We were in size order, Chief, me and dad.
Dad and I visited the dispatchers regularly until the end of November 1963. After the assassination of our beloved JFK the fire department changed policy and no longer permitted visits like ours. The firehouse changed too but not so dramatically. After all, these buildings were a part of community life.