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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.
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
"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
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
"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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
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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