I was an editorial assistant at a big legal paper. It was supposed to be a sweet job, a stepping stone to bigger things, but I didn't see the value of articles about promotions, new court appointments and meager scandals. I was bored to tears. I thought, "Is this all there is to working life?"
I made surreptitious phone calls to friends, and wore unprofessional outfits. I should have been fired. The gleam of my Stanford education was the only thing that saved me. I saw my future as a mundane flipbook where I sat behind a desk and moved only my typing fingers. It scared me.
Then, to everyone's surprise including my own, I took a job as a San Francisco firefighter.
I was the 15th female ever accepted into the SFFD. There were 1500 men. Honestly, it was like arriving in a foreign country, with a new language and new customs to learn. The men were nice -- but, let's face it, most of them didn't want women there. I didn't blame them; change is hard. But we had to overcome many unfounded stereotypes: that women were weaklings, that women were sissies, that women would run out of fires. It surprised me how hard it was to change a mind that had already made a decision about who you were. But not everyone was like that.
You can't see anything in a fire. It's soupy black, and hot. I loved fires. There was something about the adrenalin and the noise and the heat. I was too young and stupid to be really scared of the danger. After a few years I went to Rescue 2 because it was the busiest rig for fires in the city. I worked with brave people, and spent nine happy years there. Once I fell through a roof but my air pack stuck on the joists and I didn't go all the way through. Once I crawled into a fire where the floor seemed to be shifting; it turned out to be a hoarder's house and we were crawling through years of trash. Once I had a greater alarm for three shifts in a row. Once I had three greater alarms in one shift.
Once I was caught in a flashover. The explosion blew my whole crew down the hallway. We untangled ourselves, and there were a lot of curse words. It was the only time I hesitated going back in. We were all hesitating. But it was only a millisecond. Then we were jostling and pushing to get to the fire. Later we didn't say anything about being scared. We joked, and tended to our minor burns.
Effects of the job
We carried 100 pounds of equipment into fires; our air packs alone weighed almost 30 pounds. I had been a collegiate rower, and now worked out almost every day, but after a good fire I always felt as if I'd been hit by a truck. My crew specialized in rescues. We were trained to rescue in fires, in ocean surf, under trains or collapsed buildings, over cliffs, underwater in SCUBA gear. The San Francisco bay was full of silt. Only a foot down it was pitch dark -- like a fire, only much colder. You had to settle deep into the mud before you began. Then you swept your arms in wide arcs and moved very slowly. The crabs started walking all over you almost immediately. You could feel them through your wetsuit. The bodies were almost always gone, pulled out to sea by the currents.
Friends of mine with desk jobs would talk about their wheelings and dealings and I'd think "I helped to birth a baby today." We did a lot of medical calls. When someone died -- and they often did -- I always tried to be still for a moment and say a prayer. I didn't believe in God, but since being a firefighter I'd begun to believe in souls. I did corny things, like try to shut people's eyes after they died; but I soon realized that it's only in movies that eyelids stay closed, and stopped. I became both hardened and softened by the job. You don't see such powerful forces at work -- fires, deaths -- and remain unchanged.