Looking around for the lieutenant, I find him standing alongside the firehouse, staring down into a neat row of freshly clipped hedges. I hurry to his side and he tersely commands, “Get to work.” Right then and there, my life changes forever.
For firemen, there is nothing more startling than a Verbal Alarm–the riotous banging of fists on the firehouse door. It can sound as loud as a stampede of buffalo trying to crash their way in, and it has only one meaning–something dreadful is occurring just outside of quarters.
It’s early summer 1973, and we are having roasted chicken for dinner. As a newly assigned Probationary Fireman, I am expected to eat faster than everyone else, and then get to the sink to do the dirty work. It is there, while scrubbing baked on chicken skin from a roasting pan, that I hear my first verbal alarm.
The instant the banging begins, dinner is forgotten and the kitchen empties. Not knowing what’s occurring (because they don’t teach you this in Proby school) I simply follow along as everybody hurries to the apparatus floor, where they put on their gear and climb aboard the rigs.
My lieutenant runs outside and then returns in a flash. “Proby get the first aid kit and follow me,” he orders before disappearing outside again. Grabbing the kit from the rig and rushing outside, I encounter a mob. I know intuitively that something horrible has taken place.
Where the bush ends and the child begins is impossible to tell, but the rapidly expanding pool of blood in which she lays, face first, cannot be ignored. Holy shit, how did this happen and what in God’s name can I do about it? Think Tom Think, a little voice inside my head speaks. Nothing can be done with her tangled up in this bush. Get her out.
I grasp her legs and attempt to pull her free of the bush and onto the lawn. She doesn’t budge. Now what? I pull harder and still she doesn’t move. It’s almost as if she is nailed to the ground. I force my head among the branches to get a closer look, and the realization hits me like a knee in the nuts–she is nailed to the ground. A branch the diameter of my thumb has penetrated her cheek. I slide out of the bush and kneel next to her. OK Tom, just lift her face a bit and she’ll be free, the voice inside my head says. I try, but to no avail–her face isn’t moving. I exert a little more force. Still nothing. At this point, the voice shouts Stop fucking around and get this kid loose! I stand and reach down, placing one hand on each side of her impaled head. Finally, I yank her free of the branch, which, after going through her cheek, had pierced the roof of her mouth and then buried itself somewhere deep inside her skull.
As gently as possible, I turn her over, realizing as I do that every bone in her body feels broken. I am prepared to start CPR, but when I open her mouth I discover that it is filled with leaves. In addition to her broken body, she is bleeding slowly, weakly, from ears, nose and mouth. She isn’t breathing. Even a Proby could tell this kid was dead.
In the four or five minutes that have passed since I was scrubbing pans, the crowd has grown enormous and angry. Something bizarre is going. Kneeling beside the lifeless body, I look up at the lieutenant, “she’s dead.”
“Don’t move,” he replies, and then walks over to where the Chief is located. After several seconds of discussion, they both return to where I am kneeling and the chief orders me to begin CPR.
“But Chief she’s dead.”
The chief is an old timer. He knows the mob wants to make someone pay for this atrocity, and he’s going to make sure that we aren’t the ones to pick up the tab. Covertly pointing at the agitated mob behind him, he tells me, “We’re not doing it for her, we’re doing it for them.”
Suddenly I understand. We aren’t saving a life; we are simply maintaining an uneasy peace. I am just another actor, performing his role in this theater of the street. Pressing my mouth over hers, I give a breath and in return get a close up view of blood and leaves as they spew out through the gaping hole in her face. Thank God, an ambulance arrives and I do not have to continue the charade.
I join the other firemen who are standing in a cluster several yards away just as a cop begins filling them in on the particulars of what has transpired. Two eleven year-old boys had taken the girl, who was eight years-old, to the roof of the twenty-story project building adjacent to the firehouse. Once there, they attempted to rape her. The girl tried to fight back, threatening to tell their mothers. They all lived in the same building. She knew both of them and their families. They threw her off the roof.
Just then, flanked by cops, the two little killers exit the project building in handcuffs. They are both laughing. I am not. I return to the firehouse and strip off my clothes, which are encrusted with mud, sand, and blood. A long, hot, soapy shower cleans my body but I don’t have a clue as to how to cleanse my mind.
It’s not until years later, after I become a lieutenant myself, that I figured out why the boss chose me, the least experienced man to work alone on this child. It’s simple: he was friends with all the other firemen. I was just a newly arrived Proby. Ask yourself the question, who gets the nightmares? A friend or a stranger?