In the dead of the night the siren wails. A tricolor of pulsing flashes filter through the blinds. Somehow, somewhere in D.C. a smoldering fire has erupted in bright brilliant flames. The siren is answering the call of a concerned grandpa or a watchful mother. Among the fire trucks tearing down the highway is Engine Company 23. It joins weary eyed ambulance and policemen and women; the trinity of emergency services is complete. These service providers are the backbone of any community. There is no hierarchy, each needs the other to function fully.
Every day for the past two months I have sauntered past a historic fire station in Foggy Bottom. The very architecture of the building breathes history. The first week of term I was aware of the fire stations presence on campus. The second week I began to see familiar faces around the station, washing the 'mother of the station', firetruck 23. After eight weeks of walking past its walls, I felt I had to dig deeper.
Today I entered the station.
"Can I help you?" a friendly voice asked. He would later introduce himself as Fireman Shaun Weiner. Fireman Weiner, perhaps in his mid 30s, with piercing blue eyes, kindly offered to show me around the station. I was fascinated by what he shared with me.
"Engine Company 23 was established in 1910. This was the original fire station from then until now. Come over here..." Weiner beckons.
"Do you see that blue paint?"
"Look closely, what do you see?"
"What you're looking at is the kicks of horses hooves from a hundred years ago."
And in my ignorance- "what were horses doing in a fire station?"
"Horses used to pull the steam pumper, a cart with a boiler attached to it. By feeding wood into the boiler, steam would be produced and this would create pressure that would pump the water."
Well, I thought, mum and dad were right when they used to say that the old days were tough - back then they used fire to fight fire!
"A lot of stations have spiral staircases... do you know why?"
No Sir I don't...
"Well, in the days when they had horses if you didn't have spiral staircases then the horses would run right up them!"
In my mind I envisaged cheeky chestnut Clydesdales nibbling on carrots after a hard night out.
Weimer introduced me to Lieutenant Lancaster, the head of the fire station. He invited me into his office and shared some moments from his career.
"My great grand daddy took the fireman exam three times. They never let him in. Afterwards it was a tradition in my family to join, and I had several relations who did".
Lieutenant Lancaster wants to retire in good health. After thirty years dedicated to keeping DC safe 24/7 it is a well deserved dream.
Engine Company 23 has been part of several historic fire fights, including participating in the efforts to contain the fire caused by the terrorist attack on the Pentagon on 9/11.
Concluding my tour with Fireman Weiner I asked one final question in regards to the ultimate sacrifice in the line of duty.
Those piercing blue eyes veered off into the distance in deep reflection and then looked back to the inquisitive Australian standing before him.
"This job makes and takes friends"
And that's all he had to say about that.
We shared a little more about our two respective cultures, shook hands and bid each other good day.
As I walk out of the fire station's gates I turn around. I have gained a deeper respect for the gallant men and at one time, horses, who have inhabited the walls of Engine Company 23 for the past one hundred and six years. They have made a difference every day. Today has been a personal meeting with every day heroes. My eyes are caste high above to the watchtower. At some point some able fireman had the task of climbing the five stories of stairs to chart the quickest route to reach engulfing flames. Beneath the watchtower on the Italianate limestone frontispiece I see Old Glory flutter nobly in the wind. I hear the neighing of the countless teams of horses that served to save. I think about Fireman Weiner's parting words. For firemen and women their job is more then an occupation, it is family. It is a duty. Suddenly the spectacle is broken: somewhere in the distance a siren begins to wail.