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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

Ladybird, Ladybird, Fly Away
by Charles F. Farrell

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Summer Nineteen-Forty-Two, Brooklyn New York

A five-year-old Jack Jr. is playing outside in the backyard of his home. His eyes squint as he looks toward the bright sun. He can barely make out a tiny bright red bug with small black dots flying above his head.

The ladybug lands on his arm. His natural instinct is not to slap and kill the bug but rather to recite a rhyme: Ladybird, Ladybird, fly away, your house is on fire and you can't stay. Fly away. Come back another day. The child gently blows on the bug and the bug flies away.

Going Swimming

They could only afford one car so Sarah always drove her Husband Jack to and from work. The plan was to pick up Jack at the firehouse and go directly to the beach. Six children kept her hopping. "Everybody up, pronto, we're going swimming," she shouted. Unlike waking them for school, getting six children ready for the beach was easy. The children ages were two to three years apart with Jack Jr. being the youngest at five years of age.

They arrived at the firehouse all packed and ready at eight thirty AM. Sarah could see Jack standing outside in civilian close waiting for his relief. An alarm came in over the bells. They had to respond. Jack threw on his fire coat and boots and jumped on the fire engine as they pulled out of quarters.

"OK," Sarah said, "Dad has a last-minute run, let's follow the fire engine and see what they have." She followed as close as possible. Jack was on the job fifteen years and she never followed the engine on a run. She would usually wait until they returned and Jack would than be relieved of duty. Why this time did she decide to follow the engine on their response?

The fire was in a row of one story stores not far from the firehouse. Sarah was savvy enough to know this was a working fire and Jack would be relieved of duty at the fire scene. So the beach will have to wait awhile. She parked the car and they watched with the other pedestrians behind the police line.

"Look," she said, "that looks like Dad on the roof." Her intuition proved to be true as Jack waved to them. He was still waving when they heard this tremendous loud roar. Suddenly there was a cloud of black smoke where Jack was previously standing. Her heart stopped and everything seemed to be in slow motion. She let out a loud scream and the children started to cry. Jack Jr. never got a chance to wave back to his Dad. Somehow Jack Jr. knew he would never see his Dad again.

Nineteen-Forty-Eight at Our Lady of Good Council Parochial School in Brooklyn, New York

A teacher is writing on the blackboard. A tall, lean Franciscan Brother, a white rope tied around his waist, draped down the side of his lengthy brown robe, a hood resting gently on his shoulders. The attention of the twelve year old students is broken by the sound of fire engines responding to a fire.

The sound of the sirens coming from the open school house window grows louder and louder. Then lower and lower as it fades away as fast as it had stolen their attention. "Take a moment of silent prayer for the firemen" the Brother says, then continues his lesson.

One of the children, Jack Kelly Jr, has an ache in his stomach as he stares at the open window and a vision appears; the fireman waving on the roof along with a loud roar followed by all that black smoke.

Like Father... Like Son

On December eight, nineteen-sixty-two, Jack was sworn into, as they say, "The Job". It was special as he received his father's original fireman's badge.

Special Breed

Firefighters are a special breed. Fear, risk, destruction, tragedies are all part of their job. These demons are tucked away in their subconscious and are camouflaged with humor. Whenever firemen get together they rarely talk about fires but more about the funny things that happened while on the job. Firehouse humor has its own uniqueness, sometimes it's a biting humor and other times it's a mischievous childlike humor.

Introduction to the Firehouse

Jack received his orders to report to an Engine Company in Queens. He was both excited and nervous to report to his new company. He entered the door to the firehouse and saw a fireman on house watch. "OK kid, the Captain is waiting to see you in his office upstairs." The trip up the long straight stairs to the Captain's office went on forever.

Finally Jack entered the office. The Captain looked very young. Jack thought this guy must be sharp to advance so fast. "Don't just stand there, come to attention and salute your Captain," he said. Jack responded "Yes Sir" and almost stuck his thumb in his eye in his haste to salute him.

"This job will not be a walk in the park. Do you think I had it easy?" he threatened. "Well, ah, oh ah" Jack replied. "Things are not always what they look like" he continued with a less threatening tone to his voice. He stood up from behind his desk and walked over to the file cabinet. To Jack's amazement, he was completely naked from the waist down.

Suddenly Jack heard a sound of laughter coming from just outside the office. This character was not the captain but the Probe appointed to the company about a year prior to Jack, dressed from the waist up as the captain. The brother firefighters were behind the open door, crying from laughing so hard.

The Demise of the Fire House Mouse

When Jack arrived, the mouse was already a legend. The mouse trap would be set every night with cheese, peanut butter, any left over they thought would work. The next morning the food would be gone, the trap snapped but no mouse. They could hear his presence but could never catch him.

One morning Jack reported for work and found a line formed outside of the bunkroom. At the end of the line he saw one of the brothers knelling over a matchbox half open. The matchbox was made over to look like a coffin. There was the legendary mouse, stiff as a board, lying in the cotton filled coffin, I mean match box. They even made little cards expressing grief. One card read, "Good" signed the Cat. Another, "Rest in Cheese".

Fire Fighting 101

Training school did a great job of preparing Jack to fight fires. But now it was time for the real thing. Firefighters have to serve six months on Probation where they are known as the Probe of their company. Every fireman will always remember his first big fire. Jack's was at 4:00 AM on a cold winter morning.

The fire was in an Italian Bar and Restaurant on Woodhaven Boulevard. His company was the first company to arrive. The restaurant was closed but you could see the black smoke through the windows. One of the brothers smashed the window with a six-foot hook and glass went flying in every direction. The smoke came rolling out and the restaurant flashed into flames.

Meanwhile they had the hose charged with water and were moving in through the large opening of the broken window front. Every thing was happening fast. Jack can still remember the sounds of voices over the handy-talkie scrambling out information and the sirens of the incoming companies filling out what they call a second alarm.

He was more excited than scared, however it did feel strange that they were going into an area where most people would be running out. The more fire they put out the darker it got and the more difficult it became breathing in the thick black smoke.

They kept moving in, pulling the heavy hose with them. Suddenly the ceiling lit up and flames were rolling over their head like waves of water in an ocean. The nozzleman quickly pointed the nozzle over his head knocking off his helmet in the process. The back up firefighters struggled to help him keep control of the hoseline. You don't want the fire to get behind you as it can cut off your exit.

Jack describes fire fighting as planned chaos. For outsiders looking on, it looks like everyone is running around like a chicken with its head cut off, when in actuality each fireman has a special assignment according to when he arrives, first, second, third to arrive; Engine or Ladder Company.

The thing is that each fireman is depending with his life that the other fireman will do his job, hence they call each other "Brothers". The officer of any company, who has a Probe at a fire, watches over him like a Mother Hen. When you live, eat, sleep, and depend on each other for your life and safety along with socializing together, you develop a deep sense of comradeship. Jack felt closer to his Dad ever since he became a firefighter.

The Dark Side

It wasn't very long before Jack saw the dark side of the job. When it was his turn to be the nozzleman on the hoseline one night he was aiming the nozzle on a large body of fire in the living room of a private home. As he extinguished the sofa fire, the area filled with dark smoke. It's at this time that firefighters are trained to shutdown the nozzle and give the smoke a chance to clear.

As the smoke cleared Jack had to rub his eyes to be sure of what he was seeing. It was an old lady sitting on the couch still holding a telephone in her hand next to her ear. Her lips and nose were burned away. Somehow patches of long hair remained shooting out like weeds on a sand dune.

Her eyes were open and she was staring at Jack with a horrifying expression. Jack saw this gross sight over and over in his dreams for weeks after that fire. He knew the dreams would eventually go away but when you witness this experience without warning, you never forget it.

It's as if they were Jack's Own Children

The hardest thing to accept was the loss of little children. One winter morning they responded to a call to a private home. It was six am and there was a major snowstorm with accumulations of six to eight inches of fresh snow. The house was only a few blocks from the firehouse.

When they arrived, the house was fully consumed by fire and Jack knew if there was anyone in there they needed to get them out as quickly as possible. As it turned out three small children awakened before their parents. They apparently turned on the gas range that somehow ignited the kitchen curtains. Fearing that their parents would be angry with them they hid in the second floor closet while their parents slept. The closet was located directly over the kitchen fire.

The fire and smoke eventually awakened the parents. Once they saw the children were not in their beds they searched frantically. They finally left the burning house, hoping to find their children outside. Once outside and not seeing their children, they tried to go back into the house. The heat was too much. The burns on their arms and hands were testimony to their valiant attempt to save their children.

It was about this time the firefighters arrived. The parents were standing outside in the snow yelling that their children must be inside the house. When the fire was extinguished and Jack came down stairs and saw the bodies of three small children placed on the table where the firemen who found them tried unsuccessfully to revive them. Jack would never forget that sight. They looked like little lifeless rag dolls lying on the table. For many of the firefighters the beads of sweat on their face could not hide the silent tears rolling down their cheeks.

Renovating the Firehouse

The firehouse building was very old and in great need of repair. In the summer they would barbecue in the back of the building where the building wall was ready to collapse. They had an old refrigerator that someone had thrown out and they affectionately called "Herby." They had the refrigerator for years, never took care of it, It was outside throughout the winter rain and snow.

It had a loud hum but like the Timex watch it kept on going. They use to joke that someday the wall would collapse burying them all and all that would be heard is Herby humming.

Not Fit For a Pig

Finally the powers to be thought it was time for the building to be renovated. The firehouse occupied three companies, an Engine and Ladder Company and a Battalion Chief. They were able to relocate the Ladder Company and the Chief, however the Engine Company had to remain in quarters during the renovation.

As the renovation progressed, the living conditions worsened. One of the brothers who lived on the East End of Long Island obtained a baby pig to live with them as their mascot, telling the powers to be they were living in a pig's pen. They set up a pig's pen in the back of the apparatus floor with cinder blocks from the construction material on the premise.

They had to feed the pig and walk it in the morning. The feeding was easy, he ate all their leftovers and seemed to enjoy the food although he insisting on sitting on his food while eating. One brother in particular loved to walk the pig on a leash in the morning when people were walking by the firehouse on their way to take the subway to work. People were never sure what breed of dog they were seeing.

When the mailman came in the morning one of the brothers asked him if he knew anything about dogs? He replied, "A little." Good, said the brother, come in the back and look at this dog someone gave us to keep. It was in the winter and the pig was coiled up sleeping next to a radiator. The pig's eyes were closed and the mailman's eyes were wide open trying to figure out what was with this dog.

As the pig opened its large eyes that took up most of its face the mailman yelled, "That's no dog! That's a pig." The brother could not stop laughing. It didn't take long before the Chief found the pig and they had to transfer the pig to a farm.

When You Have to Go, You Have to Go

The building was two stories with the apparatus on the ground floor and the kitchen, eating area, TV room, sleeping quarters, bathrooms, and office space all on the second floor. While they were renovating the bathrooms on the second floor, they used a small toilet in the back of the apparatus floor.

On one night tour, they found that the constuction workers removed the apparatus toilet during the day leaving them no where to relieve themselves on that fifteen-hour night tour. There was a large empty hole where the toilet was located.

It didn't take long before one of the brothers decided to construct an artificial turd. That's right, a piece of artificial s--t. He used every thing imaginable in the cupboard, from flour to food coloring, finishing up with a few kernels of corn. Ugh! He strategically placed the artificial turd next to the hole in the floor.

When the Captain came on duty at the start of the next day tour he immediately went to the toilet to do his thing. When he saw the toilet was removed, he questioned why? Then his face turned bright red in anger. "Who is the animal who s--t on the floor?" he shouted. "It must have been one of the construction workers," one of the brothers said. "Don't touch it," the Captain grunted. "Leave it until 9 AM when I question the constuction foreman. I want him to see this".

Then his imagination took over as he said, "Gee - it stinks." At 9 AM he could not wait to question the construction foreman. "Do you see this?" he shouted. "What animal did this?" As the foreman meticulously studied the artificial turd, he finally said, "That's not one of my men's." The captain quickly replied, "You mean to tell me that you would know your men's s--t when you see it." It took at least ten minutes before the brothers stopped laughing.


In the Seventies, interchange simply meant that a company in an area of the city that was not busy would swap with a company that was located in a busy area for the duration of a fifteen-hour night tour. Every so often the Ladder Company in Jack's Queens firehouse swapped with a busy firehouse in the Bedford East New York section in Brooklyn. In one night of an interchange the night took on a transformation.

The Ladder Company would pull out of the Queens firehouse at six-thirty PM sharp and proceeds up Queens Boulevard to the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. Once off the expressway Jack looked out the window to find the green lawns had transformed into cement. The white faces into brown faces, the spacious single family homes into crowded tenements. Garbage pails overflowing into the dirty streets.

Whenever they came close to the firehouse at Sheffield and Livonia streets they would receive a call over the radio to respond to an alarm. This went on all night, responding to working fires and false alarms. Three o'clock in the morning, a hot humid night, the streets crowded with people sitting outside to escape the heat in their oven-like flats. A little naked baby playing in the street. Children running in and out of the water spray coming from an open hydrant.

Six-thirty in the morning they headed back to Queens exhausted from a busy night. They were going home to a place where life's problems were more easily tolerated. Jack, like his father before him was well aware that the other world still existed. Jack thoughts echoed in his head "Take a moment of silent prayer" for the poor people of the world.

Who is This Guy?

One of the brothers Jack particularly liked always gave him and the brothers a laugh when they were down and needed one. How do you explain him? He had different characters that he would role play. The brothers knew them all and would refer to them by name.

There was the French midget artist Toulouse Lautrec. At any given time you could hear a loud pounding at the kitchen door. They opened the door after the consistent pounding only to find this brother with his knees in a pair of shoes given the appearance he was about 4 feet tall.

He would just stand there - I mean kneel there, smiling, with a high hat and the cane that he used to pound on the door. One of the brothers would say, with a straight face, "Hey look! Toulouse has come to visit." No matter how many times you would see it, you had to laugh.

His most famous and feared character was "The Blind Man". All the brothers would be sitting in the kitchen when suddenly the door flung open. There stood the dreaded "Blind Man" He wore dark black glasses and would enter the kitchen swinging this hard wooden cane as wide and as forceful as possible. Anyone or anything got in his path was stuck down. His sudden appearance would cause grown firemen to flee in all directions. He left a path of broken coffee cups.

Day of Decision

Jack's thoughts were so intense it was like the car was driving on remote control. He was about to make one of the most important decisions of his life. The drive to the firehouse took only fifteen minutes and he was not sure what he would do when he arrived. The union said the majority of the firefighters voted to strike. This would mean firefighters had to break their oath of office to protect the people of the City.

What are my options? Jack thought. Take the easy way out and call in sick was out of the question. Join his brothers that decided not to work and picket the firehouse? Who would be responsible for loss of life and property?

The city said the firefighters would be responsible for breaking the Taylor Law. The Union said the city has the ultimate responsibility. When he thought of crossing the picket line, the oath of office he took convinced him he would be doing the right thing. How could he go against his brother firefighters?

This was not about money but rather about manpower. The firefighters contract was demanding a minimum of five men on an Engine Company to respond to fires. Their argument was five-manning would save lives, both firefighters' and the public.

What would my father do? Jack thought. As jack pulled up to the firehouse he could see the brothers outside the firehouse with Strike signs. Should he cross the picket line and report for duty? It was at those moments he had an out of body experience. He was watching himself get out of the car and walk toward the picket line. He did not know if he would pass the picket line or join his brother firefighters.

Jack approached the line as a brother held out a strike sign for him to take. He hesitated than took hold of the sign. The brothers applauded Jack's decision. They were determined to win. God forgive all of us firefighters if we're wrong, Jack thought.

The strike lasted twenty minutes before the city agreed to the five-manning rule. Miraculously during those twenty minutes there were no fires causing death or property damage.

Millennium 2000

Jack is retired now and often thinks of his father's life cut short by the job. He wonders what his Dad's life would have been like if not for that fatal day on the roof? Than he smiles as he realizes he knows the answer to that question. He lived it.

The all to often vision of his father smiling and waving on the roof appears. Only this time there is no loud explosion, no smoke, only time stood still to allow Jack to wave back to his smiling father.

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