It was a sunny, cool Springtime morning in 1987 about 8 o’clock. I had just arrived to work at my firehouse on West 48th and 8th Avenue in Manhattan. That part of the city had a pleasant feel to it in the morning. Commuters were beginning to arrive in droves from parts all around the city. They were focused, moving with purpose toward nearby high rise buildings where they would quickly disappear within. There was a stillness within the hubbub that I liked. That faux stillness was fleeting; it would go away quickly as the city began another frenetic day.
The firehouse was empty. I set about trying to figure out where everybody went. There were thirteen men on duty with Engine Company 54, Ladder Company 4 — my company — and the Battalion Chief of Battalion 9 with his driver. While I was looking at a printout of the alarm that rousted the men on duty three hours earlier, the phone rang.
“Charlie, I’m glad it’s you. I need a chauffeur”.
It was Steve, the Ladder Company Chauffeur. Firefighters need special training before they can drive and operate fire apparatus. Steve wanted to be relieved. When I picked up the phone — I was a qualified Ladder chauffeur — I made Steve’s search a little easier.
“Can you walk to the job and relieve me”?
The “job” Steve was at was a fire in a high rise office building about four city blocks away from the firehouse. Steve had a a family obligation he wanted to get to and was looking for someone to replace him.
“Sure, no problem”.
I donned my fire gear: a protective coat with boots and our traditional helmet. Off I went. I got a few glances from passing pedestrians on my ten minute walk. But New Yorkers are placid bunch of folks. Nobody took much notice.
The fire building was a forty story office building. There had been a serious fire in the basement that had originated in an electrical transformer. The fire was out, all searches were complete and the companies were wrapping up their work. As I walked through the entrance doorway into a large commercial lobby decorated with art-deco murals and a shinny marble floor, from a security counter now functioning as a command station Battalion Chief Foley spotted me.
“Charlie, you are just who I need”.
Chief Foley was a Fire Department legend. He had been a Firefighter, Lieutenant and Captain in very busy fire companies in the Bronx during a time when there were lots and lots of fires happening. Upon becoming a Battalion Chief, Foley wound up in Battalion 9, perhaps the most prestigious Battalion in the department, covering midtown Manhattan. Chief Foley was knowledgable and experienced. And he was conscious of his own short fuse. Now that he was a Chief, he did his best to be congenial. I liked him.
“There’s a electrical break-down transformer on the twenty-eight floor. I need you to go up and check it out for me. The elevators are out of service”.
“Do I need this”? I asked pointing the the thirty-two pound breathing apparatus Steve had just handed me as he thanked me for coming and skedaddled off to his family affair.
“Nope, I don’t expect any problems. But I need to get eyes on the electrical stuff up there to be sure there are no problems. Everybody here is pretty beat up. I need a fresh guy to climb the stairs”.
As I began climbing the twenty-eight flights, I felt proud. Foley did not have to offer me his reasoning for selecting me. Besides, I knew he was lying. There were guys present who had been held in reserve during the fire that the chief could have ordered up the stairs. Chief Foley picked me because he knew I could handle it. Twenty eight flights for me was a warm-up.
After completing our work at the high-rise fire, I drove the apparatus back to quarters where the company officer would reassign me as the roof man for my upcoming twenty-four hour tour of duty. The roof man’s primary responsibility is apparent in the title. And elevators, when present, should be avoided. By the end of my tour I had completed my one day record of stair climbing: fifty-eight flights of stairs. While the early twenty-eight flight climb was without my thirty-two pound air pack, the remaining thirty flights — in six story intervals — I climbed with eighty-two pounds of tools and equipment.
Fast forward thirty-four years to today. I just completed climbing thirty-two flights of stairs in four flight intervals. My rented home in Bangkok is four stories. I do other exercises; push-ups, sit-ups, Bikram Yoga and long fast walks.
Last year I fell into a malaise present for many around the globe. I stopped exercising and ate too much while we all worried about a pandemic. I gave into that mind-set for about ten maybe twelve weeks, a length of lazy-time that would not be all that damaging back in my studley Fireman days. But at seventy-one?
Damn, my body wants to get old. Within a remarkably short period of time my old body made it known to me that left to its own accord, I would be pear shaped in no time. Now there is good news and bad news.
The good news is even at seventy-one, it is possible to stay fit. The bad news is it is harder, much harder. You have to get behind yourself and push.
I think a touch of humility is an attractive trait for a writer. Ah, yeah, I’ve abandoned that trait completely for this self aggrandizing essay because today as I quickly climbed the stairs in my home several times, I remembered how I felt when Chief Foley ordered me up the stairs at a fire. I felt useful.
I like feeling useful. And the best way to be useful is to be strong and fit.