Last night I dreamed about our old neighborhood fire station, again. It is a dream I have off and on, with no particular point to it, or message from it that I can discern. I am just happy when I do dream about it, and always wake with a sense I have been home.
In the real world of the 1950’s, the road on which we lived ended three blocks from our house in a T-intersection with another little two lane road, and right there in the middle of the T was a one truck fire station that had a small house attached to it. If you stood facing the large double doors, behind which stood the shiny red fire truck, a completely sheltered walkway to the house’s front door, deeply recessed and almost hidden from the street, was visible to the left. It was a cool, shaded stone walk that had beds of violets growing on either side, and just to the right of the front door was an old wood bench, its claw feet nestled in the violets.
The family that lived in the firehouse had two kids, a boy my age, and a girl a year younger, both wilder than my brother, sister and I; and that was saying a lot, because we three were absolutely unfettered in our behavior. When the five of us got together, it was pandemonium inside and out; pure unrestrained fun with no limitations imposed by anyone, because the grown ups were either busy, or did not care that we were chasing whatever had caught our interest or eye at the moment. As long as we were not bleeding, broken, or unconscious, nor had inflicted any of these conditions on anyone else, we had free rein to do as we pleased. The only demand on us five kids was to be home by supper time, and that was easy, because my brother had a watch, and knew exactly how long it took to get from anywhere in our neighborhood to our houses by six o’clock.
Their mother had the personality of a circus clown, and besides speaking in a voice twice as loud as any other adult I knew, it seemed she laughed at the end of almost every sentence while using her hands and arms to punctuate everything she said. This woman was funny, and the more someone laughed at her, the funnier she got. Added to her flamboyance, was an appearance that included really long, jet black frizzy hair (not curly, just finger in a light socket frizzy), gauzy, gathered yards of crinkly, ricrac trimmed dresses, all in the brightest reds, oranges, and purples I had ever seen, pierced ears with huge gold hoops, and the deepest reddest lipstick to ever grace a 1950’s, fireman’s wife’s lips. I could not get enough of this lady, and besides being her greatest audience, laughing nonstop at her antics, I thought she was beautiful. Everything about her was bold and striking; endlessly appealing to the bohemian me that had not yet awakened, nor been introduced to the world.
The dad fireman was my neighborhood mystery. He was not very big, and I am pretty sure his wife was taller and weighed more than he did. He had dark wavy hair, and wore wire rimmed glasses, altogether giving him a seriously studious look. He was so quiet when he spoke, I could never quite be sure what he said, but the mom was always nearby, and would repeat his words as though she was his and our designated interpreter, helping us understand just what it was he had attempted to communicate, and reassuring him it was all right, he had done fine.
He also had something in his house I had never seen before, nor since in a private residence. Along one wall between the kitchen and living room was a floor to ceiling glass enclosed cage filled with tropical birds. They were gorgeous, noisy, and sang all the time. I was wide-eyed mesmerized that anything could look and sound as pretty as that wall of birds. The kids told me these birds were really special to their dad, and no matter what, no one ever was to scare them, or hurt them. They whispered the birds had saved his life. I had no idea what that meant, but it did not matter, because their song was so beautiful, and I would never hurt a bird, anyway.
We played at the fire station often, and as long as we did not push any buttons, pull any chords, or disturb the neatly folded fire gear, we were allowed to climb all over the fire truck. I knew then we were the luckiest kids alive to have an actual fire truck to play on, and our adventures as firemen took us all over the universe of imagination. There was nothing as exhilarating as sitting in the driver’s seat, grasping the huge steering wheel, and pretending to drive a fire truck to the local castle to put out a fire ignited by the king’s pet dragon who had caught a cold, and accidentally sneezed fire from its stuffed up nose. My favorite was when we rushed to our school, and saved the cafeteria. Our lunch ladies were baking liver, and because they knew none of the kids liked that stuff, they turned the oven very high to bake out the bad flavor, but instead it all burst into flame, and threatened the whole school with a raging inferno centered on purple brown meat. We saved everything except the oven and its contents, and because of our heroism, the principal declared no child would ever have to eat liver again. Not a bad reward for imaginary valor.
It was after one of our fire fighting afternoons when I was leaving the firehouse to return to my own home that I found the dad sitting alone on the bench outside their front door. He had his head in his hands, and sounded as though he was sniffing, like someone does when he is crying. I walked past him, and for whatever reason, had enough sense to keep quiet and leave him alone. When I got home I told my mother about what I had seen, and she said my dad would explain it when he got home from work. I did not know why I was going to have to speak to him, because if my dad got into the middle of anything, it usually meant big trouble was afoot, and I was pretty sure I had not done anything wrong.
The evening proceeded as normal, and after we were done with supper, my dad asked me to come sit on the front porch with him. I was hoping I was not in trouble, and sitting on the steps of the front porch was a fairly neutral setting when it came to venues for discipline. We sat down, and he told me he understood I had seen my friends’ dad looking sad that afternoon. I told him I thought he might have been crying, and how I did not say anything to him as I walked by. My dad said I did the right thing, and then he told me why things were a little different for this man, and how some days were harder for him than others.
He explained our neighborhood fireman was a soldier during World War II, and had been stationed in the Philippines, on the Bataan Peninsula. The American and Filipino efforts had gone badly, and our soldiers had to surrender to the Imperial Japanese Army on April 9, 1942. The soldiers who were there then were forced to march in groups of 100 for 65 miles, from Mariveles, Bataan to San Fernando, Pampanga. My dad, speaking to an eight year old girl, did not describe the horrors and brutality of that march. He did say the men who participated were treated very badly, and even though they survived and the war was over, some still had trouble with their memories, and there were days and nights when they struggled with what had happened to them.
He told me one of the ways my friends’ dad had made it through the march was to focus on the tropical birds that sang along the way, and how he believed their song kept him going and helped him survive when so many of his friends had died. That is why he had the wall of birds in his house. To that day, their song made him want to live, and he needed them to sing and remind him everyday that he made it home when so many did not. I listened to my dad in complete silence, and appreciated the time he took to explain all this to me. I especially felt gratitude for the story about the birds; they were so colorful and beautiful, singing all day long, and then I knew it was for a purpose. I chose to believe they sensed the joy and healing their music provided, and never after that evening did I take for granted the value of a simple bird song filling the air.
Our friends moved to the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains the following year, and the last I heard, their dad was fire chief in a small town up there. I missed them and that wonderful fire truck, their zany mother with all her gorgeous, bouncy hair, earrings and dresses, and I missed their dad and his birds. After they were gone, I often walked to the end of our street, stared at the firehouse, and thought about the days we played there. These were some of my first experiences in learning to let go. I had to force myself to accept loss at a young age, and it has never gotten any easier.
One morning when sadness overwhelmed me, I crossed the street and walked right up to the front door of the firehouse. The bench was gone, but all those lovely violets still grew on either side of the stone walkway. I bent down and picked as many as I could hold, and carried them back home, believing as I walked that they would comfort me just as I was sure they had comforted my friends’ dad when he sat on the bench outside his front door.
And to this day, if I see a violet, I am instantly reminded of neighbors who had a fire truck parked in their garage when the rest of us had cars, who brought their own unique pizzazz to our neighborhood, and who taught us how much strength resided in a quiet, gentle nature that was forced to bear inconceivable brutality, and yet overcame it one step at a time, because he could hear a bird sing, and follow its song.