Highway 109 was backed-up for miles and despite the shiny logos on my door, no one was getting out of my way. So I did what any good photog does when presented with such an impasse: I activated the flashers and pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. There I accelerated in fits and starts, working my way past stalled traffic and hoping the tall grass I was traversing wasn’t hiding any broken glass or unseen ditches. Luckily it didn’t and I managed to get to the head of the pack with only a few dirty looks from the stagnant travelers. ’Sorry’, I thought as I rumbled past, but those flashing lights in the distance are calling my name. More importantly, my bosses were hovering over laminated maps back at the shop, wondering why Stewart wasn’t at the house fire yet. Before long, I was. Pulling in behind a farm truck with red lights in the dash, I threw Unit 4 into park, grabbed my gear and made a trek I’ve made a thousand times before. As I stepped over hoses and dodged distracted firemen, the smell of freshly cut grass and burning furnishings transported me back to the early 80’s.
I grew up in a rural community that revolved a single church and a nearby fire department. Whenever the emergency whistle blew (and it did often), my older brother and I would drop everything and run as fast as we could for the church softball field next door. Once we scaled the outfield fence, we’d dig out our special key and officially unlock Saulston’s Volunteer Fire Department. By the time the bay doors had risen to reveal a few dilapidated fire engines, someone older would arrive - a farmer, a mechanic or any one of the dozens of no-nonsense men who fancied themselves first responders. If we were lucky, my brother and I could stow-away on one of the trucks as church leaders in turn-out gear cranked their antiquated keys. What followed was a screaming blast of adrenaline, a mad dash across Saulston proper that ended in smoke, crumpled automobiles and always, intrigue. For a couple of outcast kids doin’ time in the sticks, it was as close to adventure as we ever got.
But that’s how it was when I was young. A bastion of good ole boys and good intentions, the volunteer fire department was as much about socializing as it was saving lives. Whenever the whistle blew, an impromptu town square formed around the conflagration in question. Hoses were pulled, water was summoned and grown men gossiped under the sweat of their helmets as they matter-of-factly extinguished the blaze. I was just a kid of course, scampering around the edges of these gruff assemblies with my buddies and always, always watching. I wasn’t alone. Everyone too old, young or (then too) female to join the fire-fighting force would amble up, loiter and chat - giving the emergency at hand the air of a church picnic. Those endless roadside scenarios held me enraptured for years. Eventually, I graduated from voyeur to participant. Following in the fotsteps of my older brother, who was embarking on a lifetime of emergency response, I joined the department as a junior firefighter of sorts. It was all my 15 year old buddies and I could do to 'can the grab-ass' and listen to our elders as they indocrinated us into the world of blaze containment. I may not have been the greatest firefighter in the world, but I got one hell of a kick suiting up.
As I leaned on my tripod yesterday and watched Wallburg's Bravest roll up their hoses and sweat under their protective clothing, I realized little had changed in rural North Carolina. Blazes still break out in unwanted places, taciturn men still race to the scene and the community at large still turns out to watch. In my broef time along Highway 109, I saw pretty girls hanging out of pick-up truck windows, neighbors with dirt under their fingernails comforting the distraught and young boys and girls in oversized firecoats staring mesmerized into the sooty abyss. One fireman with a walrus moustache approached my camera, curious to know what the guy with the fancy-cam and the loud shirt was up to. We chatted for a moment, talked about scanners and weather bunnies and kids in the department. When a helmeted figure on the horizon beckoned him, my new found friend walked away with a weariness that can only be earned. I stayed and stared at the gutted structure, wondering how much longer I'll surf on the edge of inferno.
Quite a while, I'm guessing....