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The Shipwreck Rose: Band of Brothers

Tue, 11/21/2023 - 18:19

The first thing I did as a provisional member of the Shelburne Volunteer Fire Department, up in Nova Scotia, was to climb into the hot seat of a dunking booth at the annual Firefighters’ Bazaar to be heckled by the crowd of lookie-lous and wait for a boy with a good arm to knock the lady from New York into the dunk tank. “Oh, my!” people in the crowd said, pronouncing it “Oh, moy” and looking up at me with arms folded across their chest. “Oh, my glory. Oh, moy dear.” A woman holding a baby on her hip shouted, “You’re brave! She got balls! You ain’t finding me up there!”

I did get dunked repeatedly. A guy named Bigfoot on my truck, Truck One, thought he’d tricked me into the dunking booth by telling me that all new members had to do it, but I wasn’t stupid enough to believe him. I did it anyway because it seemed like a good idea to let Bigfoot and the rest of the department know I wasn’t intimidated. I was a Vogue editor and had been in frostier social situations than that.

This was in June of 2009, when I was married and lived in Canada. Shelburne was a country place, a small drinking town with a lobstering problem, out among the fir trees and boulders of a coastline that, compared with here, felt barren and lonesome. Turkey vultures and granite and Joe Pye weed. I was the only woman in the department, an out-of-towner among a group of blue-collar men who had known one another since before kindergarten. Their dads and granddads had been members of the S.V.F.D., too, and they mostly, as a class of men, hated Americans with a burning passion. They didn’t hate me, per se, as an individual; they were mostly nice to me after the hazing of that first year, but they hated rich Americans, they hated stupid Americans who thought there were ski mountains and grizzly bears in Nova Scotia, they hated leftie-liberal Americans who had never held a long gun and couldn’t change their own flat tire if you held a hunting rifle to their head. Being accepted into that group was my proudest moment. I may have many flaws, but I’ve stood on a ladder pointing a hose through the window of a house ablaze on St. Patrick Lane, and you can’t take that away from me.

Because I had a toddler at home and worked at our kitchen table on Charlotte Lane editing for the magazine remotely, I had cabin fever — was “shack wacky” — even in summer and was always eager for an excuse to leave the house for a half-hour. I’d work my way at a snail’s pace through Sobeys supermarket, stopping in every aisle for a gossip with one of my fellow firefighters. No one is as gossipy as a volunteer firefighter.

The manager of the Sobeys produce department was captain of the ladder truck, a guy in the “attack truck” worked in the meat department, and a huge mammoth of a man on my pumper stocked shelves. Other firefighters went out as crew on boats in lobster season, from Dumping Day in November through the last day of May, in Lobster Fishing Area 33, from Cow Bay to Port Latour. One was a mechanic, one worked for the Department of Natural Resources, a guy nicknamed Never Sweat was a flagger with the Highway Department. The chief drove the Zamboni at the Arena (which is what they called the ice-skating rink). I knew I was in good when the chief called me “Bessie.”

It was rough and tumble firefighting with old equipment, but there were several highly competent firefighters in the department, people who’d been doing it for 40 or even 50 years, and a handful who’d been professionals in Halifax or abroad. Shelburne, my old department, my old band of brothers, was the department at the center of the Nova Scotia wildfires that burned so hot in June that the smoke turned the sky orange over New York City and the Hamptons. One time, around 2015, a fire-training service from Halifax brought a mobile training unit to the parking lot of the Shelburne Fire Hall, and, let me tell you, the Shelburne boys beat the pants off the city instructors when it came time to climb onto the top of the van and chop through a heavy wood-plank roof with an ax.

Because we lived in the boondocks — an hour’s drive from the closest movie theater, in Yarmouth — most of our jurisdiction didn’t have fire hydrants. We draughted out of streams and even drew salt water from the harbor when fishing boats at the wharf caught fire. We handled frequent chimney fires and conflagrations from carelessly disposed-of ash from wood stoves. This was Atlantic Canada. The wind blew hard off the water, blasting the flames inland when a neighbor’s porch caught fire on Dock Street. Barrels and beers and Valvoline.

I was in the department for six years, and eventually became the captain of my truck. I was the first female officer of the S.V.F.D. in its 130 or so years. I was also Firefighter of the Year one time, but, to be real, that was only because I was the most eager member and always showed up when the pager went off; my attendance was perfect. I started wearing my bra to bed because I didn’t want to take the extra 60 seconds to put it on if the pager went off, and I also didn’t want to respond braless to the fire hall. One time, because I happened to be the captain of Truck One, the department’s main pumper, I also by sheer luck and default got to run the show one drizzly August day — handling the control panel and issuing instructions to a dozen different departments — when Shelburne hosted an all-county training session to practice relaying water from truck to truck over a mile distance. That was out by the old boys’ school, an abandoned reformatory. Goldenrod and black flies.

Whether you drank white rum or dark rum was a matter of inheritance in Shelburne. This was the Maritimes. All sorts of things went on in the fire department that in other places (America in 2023) would be considered inappropriate or possibly illegal. I didn’t mind the good-old-boys shenanigans, remnant rituals of the patriarchal past, to tell the truth. I rather liked it. I liked being the only woman in the department, and I liked the look on my husband’s face when a carload of extremely drunk firefighters rolled up to the house to drive me away to the “Smoker,” which was an annual party for firefighters held in the snowy depths of dark January. We drove first to the chief’s house to crowd into his tiny living room to watch porn. (That was awkward, let me tell you.) Then we walked — stumbled — under the broad, starry night sky to the fire hall to eat from a giant vat of fish chowder prepared by an ancient former chief under the fluorescent glare of the S.V.F.D. club room, and then the firemen sat in circles to smoke cigarettes and cigars and play poker and a card game called 45s. Many dirty jokes. Many jokes about “low flying ducks” when someone farted.

We practiced ice rescue. I climbed into the waterproof suit and slipped through a hole in the ice into the black water of a pond in February. I got my air-brakes license and drove Truck One, trying to keep it from fishtailing when there was slush on the road.

Shelburne was a poor town. The cod fishery was dead and gone, the sonar-surveillance system at the Canadian Forces Station on Sandy Point had powered down in 1994, and the boys’ reformatory left to the weeds and rot in 1998. In Shelburne, when we needed a “new” truck, we sold hot dogs and held car washes and pancake breakfasts — for actual, literal years — to save up spare change for a secondhand engine. Because I wasn’t on the attack truck and rarely came close to the flames, I didn’t qualify for new turnout gear. I wore the red helmet of a captain but my turnout gear was worn out, bright yellow half-blackened with soot, a hole torn under one knee and both pants cuffs frayed from where they hung down over the heels of my boots. When I read in The Star last year that the Village of East Hampton had voted to appropriate $4.6 million for new equipment for the East Hampton Fire Department, my eyes just about rolled out of their sockets. Four and a half million dollars? Oh, moy glory.


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