A Long Stem Rose by Fred Miller

At the onset of a typical uninspiring, earth-shattering day in the life of a fireman, my eyes rose to a bony, red-cheeked character with a large manila envelope tucked under one of his wiry arms. Where he’d come from we never knew, even up to the day we shared, unrehearsed, but heartfelt eulogies for him.

He paused, his blues eyes blinking and searching his new surroundings, then landing on me, the Captain of Station 6. We were alone. The crew of our ancient firehouse, a monument to bygone days of pride and corruption, was upstairs intently absorbing the latest installment of a new cartoon series.

With a bemused grin, he said, “Jeffrey O’Toole, reporting for duty, sir.”

“Welcome to Station 6, O’Toole,” I said taking the proffered envelope. “Guys are upstairs. Introduce yourself and stow your gear. Bunk at the end of the row is open.”

In those days one of us manned the station phone for emergency calls until relieved. Abandoning my post would have been out of order. I pointed toward our clamorous stairs, he nodded and sauntered off.

Thus, began an extraordinary chapter in my long career, one that left me struggling to understand the most unpredictable character I’d ever had the pleasure and angst to encounter.

Soon echoes of raucous laughter emerged from the stairwell. I’d no choice but to await my replacement to tell me what the commotion was all about. Waves of laughter continued.

Later, my eyes fixed on a newspaper item, I heard footfalls behind me.

“Tucker, what the hell was all that racket about?” I said.

“Jeff was regaling us with some of the antics he’d pulled on his teachers back in high school,” he said.

‘Jeff’, he’d said as if he’d known our new firefighter for ages. And that’s how O’Toole struck each of us. He could walk into a room of strangers and, within minutes, capture the imagination and interest of everyone. Yet this remained a small part of what this fellow was all about.

***

“You come any closer and I’m gonna jump,” a wild-eyed misfit standing on the outer edge of a fenced overpass said to me.

“Take it easy, my friend,” I said in muted tones. “No one wants to hurt you. We just don’t want you to jump. You have so much to live for, you know,” I said.

“You don’t know me. Don’t come any closer or I’ll jump,” he said.

“You don’t want to do this, pal. Jumping is not the answer. Let’s talk this over.  What’s your name?” I said.

Over the years I’d successfully talked down potential jumpers of every conceivable description, but, with this guy, I was getting nowhere.

The rest of our crew stood near the pumper truck at the end of the overpass. A police cruiser blocked the other end, but law enforcement had yet to stop traffic on the busy CA freeway below.

I paused and gazed at the now mute, white-faced young man facing me through the fence. He quickly glanced behind him at the traffic below and turned back in a flash with a crazed look on his face.

“I’m gonna jump when the next truck comes by so don’t try to stop me,” he said.

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see O’Toole shuffling down toward us from the fire truck, his hands in his pockets as if nothing unusual was taking place here. At this point, I could think of no new angles, so I didn’t attempt to stop his approach.

The screamer stared at O’Toole and said, “Don’t you try anything. I’ve made up my mind. I’m gonna jump.”

O’Toole stopped about a foot from the fence, turned to one side, and spit tobacco juice on the pavement by his feet. Then he looked up the street away from us.

“Where’d you come from,” O’Toole said.

The jumper looked at the firefighter as if he were the crazy one here and said, “I came in my car.”

O’Toole looked left then right, paused to spit again, then looked at the desperate young man. “Where? I don’t see any car.”

The jumper paused, his mouth agape as if he could not believe what he’s just heard. “It’s parked right up there on the hill, the blue one.”

Jeff looked in the direction the young man had nodded toward and squinted his eyes, “Where?” 

Now I was puzzled. The car was plainly visible to anyone who cared to look.

“Right over there, the blue sedan,” he said with irritation in his voice.

“Where?” Fireman O’Toole said.

Now completely flustered with our rookie firefighter, the young jumper stuck his finger through the wire fence and pointed, “There, right there,” he said.

And before he could withdraw his finger, O’Toole’s hand shot out like a Western rattler on a hot summer day and grabbed the digit. Then nonchalantly our recruit turned to me and said, “Captain, we got any bolt cutters on the truck?”

The red-faced jumper cursed and yanked, but O’Toole held fast until we could cut the fence and pull the young man to safety. Whistles and a burst of applause followed once we had a firm grip on the man.

Thus, this became the first of numerous feats Fireman O’Toole pulled off in front of us, each seemingly off-the-cuff and far beyond the ability of any reasonable soul to predict.

***

Our fire district teemed with scores of oddballs, many of whom thought nothing of harassing our station and preventing us from carrying out the sworn duties of this hazardous profession. One, in particular, comes to mind, a middle-aged woman nearby who loved firemen, all firemen. And she’d try most anything to beguile us into visiting her residence.

She knew the game, and she was so good at playing her role, it’d become almost impossible to refuse to respond to her so-called emergency requests.

“Station 6, what’s your emergency?” I said.

“I’m lying on the floor,” she wheezed, “and I’m sure I’ve had a heart attack. Please come, come quickly,” 

“Your address, please,” I said though I recognized the voice and I knew the address. But protocol was protocol and every call was recorded.

“I’m at…at 1230 Elm, she said and puffed into the phone. “I think it’s happening again. Please hurry,” she said and hung up.

I hit the alarm for a scramble and down the pole came the crew, the engineer first since he’d be driving the truck. He paused and looked at me.

“It’s Agnes again, 1230 Elm,” I said. “She says she’s having a heart attack.”

He shook his head and climbed into the cab as everyone hopped aboard. This was O’Toole’s first encounter with Agnes, and strangely enough, it became his last.

Because of previous visits to this house, we never bothered to knock; we knew the door would be open. We rushed in and saw her husband in his easy chair in front of a television set. He never looked up. He pointed at the hallway. “She’s back there,” he said.

When we arrived at the bedroom, our paramedics leading the way, Agnes lay spread-eagled in a pink negligee atop a flowery duvet, her limp hand across her forehead, her face bathed in expectation.

“Tell us what happened,” one of the paramedics said as the other held a stethoscope to her chest.

“Pain,” she said, “in my chest.”

“Where in your chest, ma’am,” he said.

“All over, young man, all over my chest,” Agnes said, openly attempting to flirt with the paramedic.

“I see,” he said standing and no doubt wondering what else he should do before the ambulance we were required to call arrived. I could hear a siren in the distance.

Just then, O’Toole stepped into the room and grinned ear-to-ear at Agnes. A broad smile soon dawned across her face.

“Could you stick out your tongue, ma’am?” he said, and she complied with dispatch.

A pair of tongs we used to lift smoldering objects appeared from O’Toole’s side and quickly clamped down on Agnes’s tongue. Both paramedics, now agog, looked on.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” Fireman O’Toole said while examining her tongue. “Just as I thought.”

Agnes lay very still, her eyebrows half-moons. “Sorry ma’am, these tongs are routinely used in our coal scuttle, but we had no choice,” he said. “T’was the only pair I could find on short notice.”

Then O’Toole pulled something from his jacket and shoved it in her mouth. She attempted to look down and see what it was, but he was so quick, she had no idea what he’ slipped between her lips. 

“Oh, that,” O’Toole said. “T’is a rectal thermometer, ma’am. All we had on the truck and, well, this is an emergency.”  Agnes’s eyes widened further; her face blanched in bewilderment.

Then, smooth as you please, he pulled the thermometer from her mouth and released her tongue. The woman remained speechless, her mouth moving as if she wished to speak, but couldn’t.

“Uh-huh, uh-huh,” O’Toole said as he gazed at the thermometer. His lips pursed, he nodded, and said, “Hmm.” Then he turned and gave Agnes a big toothy grin. Still stunned she looked like a deer caught in midnight headlights.

With the countenance of a surgeon who’d just explained to a family how, against all odds, he’d pulled their loved through, he said, “Ma’am, I believe we caught it just in time.” Then his facial demeanor changed. “But I can’t be one hundred percent sure. If you’re not feeling any better in an hour, just give us a call and we’ll hurry back and try this again.”

And with that Fireman O’Toole placed the thermometer in his pocket, put the tongs under his arm, and marched out of the room. As captain of the company, I announced with what verve I could muster on the spot.  “Let’s go, men.” I then turned to Agnes and said, “Ma’am, we’ll hurry right back here just as soon as we hear from you.”

Agnes had finally been vanquished. We never heard from her again.

***

One incident I recall merited a reprimand for our young recruit. He knew it, I knew it. And his colleagues appeared to be aware of the dilemma I’d been put in. I could hardly vindicate his actions, but neither could I bring myself to act. Here’s what happened.

One afternoon we were dispatched to a four-alarm fire at a nearby private airport we knew had limited equipment to fight a major blaze. We scrambled both of our pumpers and our ladder truck. O’Toole had been selected to man the tiller at the back of the ladder truck. I should add that the tiller operator guides the wheels at the rear of this long truck. He has neither an accelerator nor a brake, just a wheel. Thus, he is at the mercy of the engineer who is driving the truck. The tiller operator has earphones that connect him to the engineer and if the latter is properly trained and communicates well, the tiller operator knows when to turn the wheel to make proper turns.  For a rookie operator confusion may reign, since he is required to turn the wheel to the left when right turns are in progress and vice versa.

As we raced down the street, I recall seeing a line of people awaiting service in front of a Dairy Queen, the crowd mesmerized with our progress toward our destination.

About halfway to the airport, dispatch called to cancel the emergency.  I informed the engineer and we soon found a boulevard where wide turns could be completed, the two pumper trucks close behind the ladder as we started back toward Fire Station 6. O’Toole seemed to have a knack for his new position as smooth turns ensued for the ladder truck at each corner.    

Again, we saw the line outside the DQ and again the crowd paused like meerkats entranced with the sight. About a mile further down the street, I received a call to reverse course and proceed to the airport post haste. We found a wide cross street, made a smooth turn, and accelerated toward what I surmised to be an out-of-control jet fuel blaze. As we passed the Dairy Queen all eyes followed us with amazement.

As we approached the airport entrance a call came in for us to return home. Once again, the emergency was under control. O’Toole had distinguished himself with professional maneuvers at his new post. Then something changed.       

A couple of miles down our route, O’Toole yelled for the engineer to stop the truck. In the rare instance instructions come from the tiller, the engineer has little choice but to respond even if the truck happens to be in the middle of the street. The engineer came to a squeaking halt, tires burning the pavement.

The engineer peered out of the cab window as O’Toole climbed out of the tiller, dismounted, and strolled across the street toward the Dairy Queen. Soon a dozen firefighters were in line for cones as the crowd had moved to one side with cheers and applause. Our men stepped up to the window for what was to become free treats for us.

On reflection, I knew it was my duty to write O’Toole up for this stunt, but the esprit de corps of the crew took precedence in my judgment. 

And I was hopeful this episode would never come to the attention of the LA Fire Chief, yet I was confident that by sundown every firefighter in LA county would know about the exploits of the crew at Station 6 that day. 

***

There were other oddities about Fireman O’Toole that remained unexplained as long as he was with us. One gave me a few sleepless nights: our inspections. Our district Battalion Chief was required to conduct surprise inspections to ensure our readiness in every respect. But these occasions never became a revelation to the crew at Station 6. One of my colleagues in firefighter training was now the chief’s personal assistant. When a visit was imminent, my friend would ask the dispatcher to call and inform me he’d be late for our appointment. That was the signal and the entire company remained prepared when the chief arrived. Yet O’Toole was never present for an inspection. To that fact, I can attest. But why, I had no clue. Since we were on a twenty-four hour on, twenty-four off schedule, there were times O’Toole would be expected to be absent. Yet there were occasions when he should have been present, front and center, but this never occurred. He’d mysteriously disappear just before the chief arrived. No one in the crew could account for his whereabouts and I was not about to inform the Chief I had a firefighter whose absence remained unexplained.

Sometime following O’Toole’s demise, I learned what had happened, but no one in the crew was about to blow the whistle on him while he was with us. What I discovered was that O’Toole had never been officially assigned to Station 6; he wasn’t even on the payroll. Yet his initial papers appeared to be in order. And he knew everything a rookie should have known from the initial training including the procedures for a four-way hookup, the proper stance for holding a hose under pressure, and how to recover and stow a hose on a truck. And since I’d delegated the task of distributing the paychecks, I had no clue as to what was going on.

In those days we occasionally employed volunteer firemen so he may have gained experience elsewhere. But if that was the case, we never learned where he’d received his instruction.

Back to the disappearing act. One of our most experienced firemen, Reuben Gomez, knew where O’Toole had been hiding. He’d seen him disappear but was as loyal to O’Toole as O’Toole was to the entire crew. And Gomez could keep a secret.

On the sides of our long ladder truck were compartments to hold every conceivable gear a firefighter might need for an emergency. And O’Toole had found enough space in one compartment to tuck himself in and shut the door until Gomez could give him the all-clear signal. Of course, Jeffrey O’Toole could ill afford to face a chief’s questions about his identity or what he was doing at Station 6.

***

The end for O’Toole came one morning when the dispatcher issued a six-alarm response to a fire at a huge chemical plant. We were the first company on the scene, and I was holding a map of the plant’s interior as we jumped off the trucks. 

Though no professional firefighter wishes to admit fear, when we arrived, we could see employees racing out of the plant in a panic.  I shared my worst fears with the crew.

The most dangerous chemical fire we might face at this location was a liquid oxygen blaze. Why? It burns clean, no smoke, no visible flame.

A firefighter doesn’t know where the conflagration is until he steps into it, and then it is too late. Thus, we carried outstretched brooms ahead of us and if the broom caught fire, we knew the danger was just ahead.

We rounded the building at a fast pace and made our way toward a door leading to the cutoff valves for liquid oxygen. 

On the way, I heard screams through an open door and looked back as one of our men raced in. I instructed a paramedic to wait at the door for our firefighter to reemerge. Then I hurried on to the shutoff valves.            

Later I learned that Fireman O’Toole had responded to the screams and entered the building without hesitation. When he came out with two bodies, one over each shoulder, I’m told he resembled a mountain of charred cinders.

No one I talked to at the hospital could explain how he’d managed to carry two seriously burned employees out of the building. When he collapsed on the pavement, he was dead. Our paramedic told me O’Toole had been so badly burned, the only way to identify him was to remove his face mask and reveal the one recognizable feature left on his body.

By this time Jeffrey O’Toole had been with us close to twenty months, long enough that most of the firefighters across Los Angeles county had heard of this remarkable character. About three thousand of his colleagues attended his final rites.

His origins remained a mystery, and no living relatives could be found. When the crew at Station 6 was informed of this, one of them asked if Jeff’s ashes could be interred on our firehouse property. The request was unusual, but since the mayor was soon to stand for reelection and this might offer him an additional opportunity to speak in public, the request was soon approved.

Each year in October, the crew at Station 6 gathers by the bronze plaque over O’Toole’s final resting place. As we remember and reminisce, we always find a long stem rose lying on his marker, its source as much a puzzle to us as was our friend and fellow fireman, Jeffrey O’Toole.

Fred Miller is a California writer who specializes in penning short stories of eclectic themes, his first selected by Constance Hunting, the New England poet laureate in 2003. Over fifty of his stories have appeared in publications around the world in the past ten years. Many of his stories may be seen on his blog: https://pookah1943.wordpress.com. 

1 thought on “A Long Stem Rose by Fred Miller”

  1. Once again, I am touched by a real writer skilled at nuance, with no maudlin effect. I loved O’Toole when I first met him, and still do to the last page. H

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