road not taken
By Tom Downey ’95
Tom Downey ’95 is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. His book, The Last Men Out: Life on the Edge at Rescue 2 Firehouse, was published in June 2004, by Henry Holt & Co.
My mother always told me not to become a fireman. “It’s a horrible life for your wife,” she told me, when I was way too young even for a girlfriend. “Long nights sleeping alone, wondering if your husband is dead or injured,” she intoned.
When I was a child I ignored her. I loved to visit the firehouse where my father worked. I liked to smell the smoke on my dad when he came home from work. But I didn’t become a fireman. Maybe it was my mother’s words, maybe not. Probably it was the deeper social ambition that those words also expressed: her desire for me to do better than my parents had done; to be more educated, wealthier, more successful than them, and to continue that quintessentially American upward social climb that had begun when my grandmother landed at Ellis Island in 1926.
After I graduated from college and talked to some cousins and uncles who still were firemen, I became interested in the way of life I had left behind. New York City firefighting is much more than a job. I wanted to know how these men lived.
That impulse set me off on what became a four-year journey filming and writing about firemen. I focused mainly on one firehouse in Brooklyn, a place called Rescue 2, one of the elite units of the FDNY. My experience documenting the lives of these men began two years before the 9/11 attacks and continued for a few years.
Now, after all that has happened, it is almost impossible to conceive of New York City firefighters from any perspective outside of tragedy and heroism. The stories, myths, and legends of these men have been firmly imprinted on our national consciousness. But when I walked in the door at Rescue 2, more than four years ago, the job wasn’t only about those things. Tragedy and heroism were a part of the fireman’s job – Rescue 2 had lost a man in 1996, and saved many others in prior years – but there was more to it than that: There was also fun, excitement, and a healthy dose of insanity.
The culture that I encountered was almost completely closed off to the outside world. There was a deep distrust of civilians who presumed to say anything about what these men did. The only reason I was able to nose around the firehouse kitchen without getting my ass kicked was that my Uncle Ray was these men’s chief. He wasn’t the kind of chief any fireman wanted to mess with. When he was captain of Rescue 2 the men would have fun downstairs, scuffling and screaming as he worked in his office. But as soon as they heard his steps on the stairs even the toughest guys would disentangle themselves from their wrestling matches and replace their sarcastic smirks with deferential and serious looks.
What I found at Rescue 2 was a culture that harked back to an old New York City, a New York that I had read about but never experienced, because I was a child of the suburbs. These men cared more about doing good, making a sacrifice to help others, and deeply loving their job than they did about making a mint. Those were values that had been in steady decline in New York through the greed-infused ’80s and the booming ’90s. The ethos of these men was much closer to the World War II era than it was to my time.
I’m not saying they were saints. Far from it. They were tough on each other. Brutal at times. At first I recoiled a little bit at this end of their job: the hazing, the harassment of new guys, the ball-breaking that everyone had to bear. But when I saw what they had to go through when they came up against a good fire, I understood a little bit better why they wanted to make sure that new guys could take some pain and suffering. The iconic images of 9/11 show these men shocked and stunned by what they see in the towers above them, or crying for a brother who is gone. But the images of day-to-day firefighting are a little bit different. I think of men doubled over in the gutter, puking up their guts after taking a huge feed of smoke inside a fire.
I live in New York City. Part of what made me understand the tougher side of the firehouse was my own recognition that, if my apartment caught on fire and I was burning up in my bed, I didn’t want some timid guy leading the charge to get me. I wanted the toughest son of a bitch they could find to pull me out of the flames.
One thing I found in spending so much time with these men was an insight into the social world that I had left behind when I went to Princeton, became a filmmaker and writer, and decided not to fight fires or arrest perps as people in my family one generation before me had done. I saw a kind of bond formed in the firehouse environment that I would never find in my job and that my friends – mostly lawyers, bankers, or other professionals – wouldn’t find in their occupational worlds either. Firemen have freedom in their working lives. And they immediately see the fruits of their labor when they walk out of a burning building. In many ways they are some of the most unalienated laborers you can find in America.
In the summer of 2001 I began to work on a book about these men. I was still filming a television documentary, but I wanted to capture stories in the book that I couldn’t get on film. One thing that I realized after 9/11 was that my book would have been impossible to write before then. Not because I was writing about 9/11, but because the tragedy made the men more willing to talk.
I was doing interviews a few months after the attacks when one firefighter whom I knew well, but who had never been willing to talk with me on the record, said he wanted to be interviewed. I sat down with him for a long time and he spoke eloquently about his life and the lives of other men in Rescue 2. At the end of the interview I asked why he was willing to speak with me now when he had been unwilling for so long. “I want my son to know what I do,” he said. “I’ve never told him about the job. I don’t want him to be a fireman. But if I get killed I need some record of what I’ve done so that he can understand.”
And so these men opened up to me for a little while after 9/11 in a way they never had before. At first I had my own problems writing the book: I couldn’t think about my subjects as anything but heroes or victims. In addition to losing my Uncle Ray, who died alongside 95 men from his special operations battalion, I also had known eight men from Rescue 2 and 11 men from Rescue 1 who perished. But I didn’t want to write a tragedy. I wanted to capture the experience of these men before 9/11. And to show that their lives weren’t tragedies. They had humor, perseverance, even ecstasy in the face of fire.
I recently had a reading of my book and invited the two firemen who figure most prominently in my narrative, along with their wives and children. I agonized over what to read because, while I wanted to honor them, I didn’t want to embarrass them. As I read from the book I looked out at the audience. I think, from the look in their eyes, that I was telling a tale that they are proud to have their children know. And that means more than anything else to me.