When it comes to strange packages from Canada, you can’t be too safe

(As part of the second round of competition for The Public Blogger’s Performance of the Year award, we have been asked to submit a piece on “Community” or “Family” to be voted on this Sunday at 7 p.m. I’ll be posting about my firefighting family. We also must post two additional pieces on the Public Blogger’s Facebook page between now and Sunday. In keeping with my theme, I’ve chosen this post inspired by a package sent a while back by my friend Ross Murray. You probably remember when it happened. It was the first time the Terrorist Threat Level was raised to “Keylime.”)
____________________________________________________________________________________________________

I was taking no chances; as far as I knew, Canada may have stopped being our ally during my walk home...

I was taking no chances; as far as I knew, Canada may have stopped being our ally during my walk home…

The afternoon started out like any other: leave the office, walk two blocks home, pass through our white picket gate toward the front steps, then holler “EVERYBODY STAY IN THE HOUSE” while dropping into an army crawl. Naturally, no one at home had any interest in coming outside until I yelled for them NOT to — at which point three of our children and both dogs attempted to squeeze through the doorway simultaneously, closely resembling a horde of diarrhea sufferers trying to de-board a subway car for the last working restroom.

“STOP!” I commanded, freezing them all — yes, even the dogs — on the porch, just inches away from a small white package with the word Liquid written in several places in black marker. The name on the return address wasn’t one I immediately recognized. The fact that it was from a foreign country (Canada) made it even more suspicious. Continue reading

A steady stream of firefighting moments

image I’m fast approaching my fifth year as a volunteer firefighter. In those five years I’ve experienced some of my life’s greatest emotional peaks and valleys while fighting fully involved house fires, searching for lost hikers, transporting injured ATV riders off the dunes, educating kindergarteners about fire safety, and extricating both the living and the dead from mangled automobiles — sometimes within arm’s reach of one another.

Most of those images will remain reels of mental footage tucked away in my memory like the VHS cassettes of my youth; waiting for me to find them some day when, more than likely, I’m searching my mind for something else entirely.

As I sat here at the breakfast table quietly eating a bowl of Froot Loops, I began scrolling through some of the firefighting photos on my iPad. Among them are moments of fun, intensity, fear and camaraderie built on a shared understanding of trust and faith. Also among those photos are firefighters I once stood with who are now gone — some by choice, others… after having been chosen. Continue reading

I’ve been busy having my butt kicked this week

Are you sure these aren't for horses?

Are you sure these aren’t for horses, Doc?

Let me just say I feel more than a little guilty about posting next to nothing this week. I’ve let you down and I apologize for that. On the other hand, in another few minutes, I won’t care. That’s because I’ll have taken my next round of pain meds.

After that, the only thing I’ll care about is remembering to blink from time to time so my eye balls don’t dry out.

I suppose I can always moisten them with my drool.

It’s been a tough week here and I’m not shamed to admit I’ve had my butt handed to me. Actually, not really “handed to me” as much as thrown at me like a game of Olympic competition dodgeball. Some of you may remember I was the only kid required to wear a helmet when playing dodgeball in middle school. Continue reading

Some people should have to earn the right to use fire

image (When you consider that we once carried embers around in hollowed out animal skulls for fear of losing the potential to make fire, it seems we’ve come a long way as a species. Then, again, I’ve seen chimps driving motorcycles — it doesn’t mean they’re in line at the DMV.

Case in point: Some of you know, in addition to being a columnist, I’m also a volunteer firefighter. I generally try to keep those parts of my life separate because, more often than not, the experiences in my firefighting life have no place on a humor blog.

However, there are exceptions.

What follows is a re-enactment of sorts, pieced together from personal observations and details noted during an incident at a local campground this past Mother’s Day weekend…)

“You kids stay away from the grill! It’s gonna get very hot!” Mr. Kingsford said, ripping open a bag of briquettes labeled “easy starting.” Over his Bermuda shorts and a 49ers T-shirt, he wore a red and white striped apron with the words “It Ain’t Ready Yet” emblazoned on the front.

A prophecy, really.

After stacking the charcoal into a pyramid, he grabbed a quart of lighter fluid and proceeded to empty half of it over the briquettes, one hand patting his pockets. “I need matches!” he hollered, then pinched the cigarette from his lips. “No I don’t — never mind!” Continue reading

I’ll be off the grid today because of pasta

image In case you were wondering why I was mostly absent from my blog yesterday, it’s because I spent the day at the fire station preparing for our annual Siuslaw Valley Firefighter Association’s St. Paddy’s Day Spaghetti Feed. And by “preparing for it,” I don’t mean stretching out my stomach and putting on pants with an elastic waist. I was cooking off 60 pounds of pasta and dicing up 30 pounds of tomatoes while Capt. Liz Iabichello cooked off 40 pounds of meat and diced 10 pounds of onions.

Today, we’ll finish the sauce, make garlic bread and prepare the salad for tonight’s fundraiser dinner, which is from 4 to 7 p.m. If any of you happen to be on the central Oregon coast tonight, stop in! We’re expecting about 300 people but I’m sure we can find you a table.

And we promise you’ll get your food faster than you would on Hell’s Kitchen. Continue reading

Why I won’t — and can’t — be funny today

image I stand in the slightly cracked doorway of my son’s room, studying the sliver of his face illuminated by the dim light spilling in from the hallway. He’s 15, and just a year younger than the two teens who died earlier this morning. On the floor next to his bed is his cell phone, seemingly discarded, just below a dangling hand.

The one with the baseball scar on the knuckle.

It’s not until I notice the moisture glistening around his eyes, and see the tear edge hesitantly down his cheek, that I realize he’s only pretending to sleep

His phone buzzes and lights up momentarily as someone’s grief is expressed in a Tweet. I glimpse a screen that scrolls endlessly with disbelief. Outrage. Sadness and pain. Classmates, friends and family trying to comprehend the incomprehensible…

It began with my fire department pager buzzing and shrieking a little after 7 a.m., followed by the report of a motor vehicle accident 15 miles away. A car over an embankment. Possible entrapment. Five occupants; two unresponsive. The caller was one of the victims. All were students heading to school. Continue reading

Once the food in your refrigerator becomes self aware, no one is safe

People often get us confused because we look so much alike, but Sean is on the right.

People often get us confused because we look so much alike, but Sean is on the right.

As a tribute to my friend and fellow firefighter who is officially retiring today after 25 years, I’d like to offer this story from a few years ago as a testament to his bravery, dedication and complete lack of refrigerator cleanliness skills. Though I’ll miss having him on the nozzle when the flames are showing, I find comfort knowing he can turn his attention to serving the community in other ways, such as cleaning out his fridge more often to prevent another attack from self-aware gravy.

Thank you for your service, your mentorship and for being my friend.

But seriously, Sean — you really need to watch it with the food spores…

_____________________________________________________________

Admittedly, the closest I have been to an actual military “hot zone” was when, on a grey August day in 1977, my Cub Scout troop was deployed to sell candy on the same block as the Girl Scouts. Our prime objective was Hilltop Road, which was a critical strategic vector. At least in terms of foot traffic. Because our troop transport had overheated in the Carl’s Jr. drive-thru, the Girl Scouts had already claimed the high ground next to a busy movie theater. Outnumbered and without tactical advantage, we implemented our most effective defensive strategy, which was to form a tight perimeter directly behind 220-pound Billy Schlependorf. Continue reading

My firefighter fitness test shows I’m getting older and faster… say WHAT?

I shaved HOW many minutes off my time?

I shaved HOW many minutes off my time?

As a volunteer with our local fire department, I am required to take an annual physical agility test to prove I can, among other things, walk a balance beam and drag 100 pounds of concrete mix — things we often do as construction workers firefighters. The test includes seven stations that need to be completed during a running clock within 15 minutes or less. And there’s no station called “refreshment swig” or “brownie lift.”

I asked.

The seven stations of the test are:
1) Crawl and Lift: Cross the fire station bay on your hands and knees three times, stopping to lift a 20-pound roll of fire hose over your head each time. Think of it as shopping on Black Friday.

2) Hose drag: Pretty much what it sounds like. Drag 100 feet of hose for 50 feet in one direction, then the other. Kind of like taking your kids to the grocery store.

3) Lift and Carry: A dummy weighing 100 pounds is lifted and carried 30 feet in one direction, then carried back. I’ve seen this happen in bars at closing time.

4) Ladder Carry: Demonstrate the proper lifting technique and carry the ladder 50 yards in one direction, set it down, pick it up and carry it back. This is similar to helping your wife move furniture. Continue reading

It’s not just the smoke in my eyes this morning

image When you’re driving an axe into the door of a home on fire, a lot of things run through your mind. Is there anyone inside? Will the introduction of oxygen cause the fire to flash? Do these turnouts make me look fat? But when my pager went off this morning at 2:30 a.m., jettisoning me out of bed after a kiss for my wife and then out the door to the station, I had no reason to believe that I would experience something I had only experienced once before as a firefighter, early in my volunteer career. As we stood at the door in our three-man team prepared to enter the burning, single-level structure, I suddenly felt claustrophobic. My gear, strapped tightly over my turnouts and sealing me into my Nomex fire-proof hood and oxygen mask — things meant to protect me from the dangers I was about to expose myself to — felt more like a straight jacket. I felt my heart begin to race. My breathing rate increased. Inside my mask, the three green indicator lights displaying a full air supply dropped to two. Continue reading

While you were sleeping… I was dragging a dead cow

image Tuesday is normally when I post my riveting investigative journalism feature — at least compared to watching TV static — called The Box. Then again, normally I haven’t spent the early hours of the morning on the scene of a car accident involving a cow. Such was the case this morning at 2 a.m., when my pager went off next to the bed and, five minutes later, I was behind the wheel of a wailing fire engine with a crew of five wondering, Did I hear that call correctly?

Moments later, medics were on scene reporting over the radio that the driver was out of the car with only minor injuries. Though not audible, there was a collective sigh of relief by everyone in the engine. That’s because, in most cases, getting tapped out in the middle of the night for a car accident usually means rolling up on something pretty awful. Particularly in a relatively small town where there’s always chance you’ll be extricating — or placing a tarp over — someone you know. As an emergency responder, you build up coping mechanisms for dealing with the anxiety and adrenaline that occurs when you approach a scene, work the scene and leave the scene. Keeping that in mind, when you find out there’s no loss of human life, the result is like the release of controlled pressure in a steam kettle; it’s immediate and takes a while to simmer down. That’s when a different kind of coping mechanism comes into play: Gallows humor. Continue reading