The Firefighter

The lull between lunch and dinner was always the most productive part of his day. In Spain, most people would be taking their afternoon siesta around this time, but even when he used to live there, he preferred to get his work done while others relaxed. Perhaps that was part of the reason he moved to America: he never understood the carefree European ideal of comfort. He preferred to tread on the reassuring density of a hard-packed trail than waddle in the whimsical weightlessness of sand on a beach; he would rather wipe grease from his calloused hands than lather sunscreen onto his limbs, and unlike his Spanish compatriots, he did not think it comfortable to nap while there was still work to be done – after all, it was a man’s duty to work hard and make a life for himself, and that could not be accomplished while napping.

Don Phillipo was exactly what one has in mind when one calls a man, “a man.” He woke up before the sun’s bright eyes shone over the horizon, and he did not linger too long in the comfort of his bed. He bathed both thoroughly and efficiently – most men tend to choose one over the other (most often the latter), but Don Phillipo was not “most men.” He brushed his teeth in the same excellent way, and he put on his pants in a most efficacious fashion: both legs at a time. The walls of his modest home were not overly-adorned, and neither were they bare. He was not particularly talented in any one thing, but he did most things better than most other men. He was the kind of man who would drink his coffee black and order his whiskey neat, and one would be hard-pressed to ever catch him running late. He seemed to be able to carry a compelling discussion with just about anyone, and yet was never accused in any private conversation of being a talker. If his circle of friends stood in a circle, he would find himself in the centre of it, not because he was the alpha, as it were, but because he was the only one who knew each other one well enough. It would be unfitting to ever call Don Phillipo, “the man”, precisely because he was nothing more, and nothing less, than “a man.”

It was some fifty years ago when Don Phillipo made his transcontinental voyage to America. His humble means had only just afforded him his passage across the ocean, and he immediately found himself working in construction in exchange for food and lodging. He ate the same ham sandwich for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and if it were not for the fact that working in the evening would have disturbed the neighbours, he might never have put down his hammer. Not once did anyone hear him complain, either about the monotony of his day or about the perpetual soreness in his body – he was busy, and that was the way he liked it.

He worked that way for quite some time, and now, as he looked down his street at the row of houses he owned, his pride was only matched by a nagging sense that there was still work to be done. The fences needed painting; the lawns, mowing; the windows, cleaning; and some of the roofs needed re-shingling, and despite the fact that he was now quite old enough to retire, and could have easily paid someone else to do the work, he would rather do it himself than watch someone else do it: inevitably – in his eyes – he could do it better.

It would be fair to say that Don Phillipo spent all of his waking hours either working, or thinking about work that needed to be done, if it were not for the afternoons he spent watching the street soccer games that the neighbourhood children played after school. It goes without saying that he never let himself become too distracted from the never-ending series of chores he felt compelled to work on, but he did not let that stop him from occasionally yelling out coaching advice to the children.

It was on a certain day in March, while Don Phillipo was outside painting a particularly worn-down fence, that the youngest boy in the neighbourhood approached him. The boy was too young to keep up when the older kids played soccer, so he usually spent the time with the kind old man. His name was Joseph, and he was as curious as four-year-olds come. His mother was always needing to remind him of his manners, but Don Phillipo liked talking to him because he asked a lot of questions, and  Don Phillipo liked to answer questions; it made him feel quite clever, except when he did not know the answer, in which case he would always say: “well that is just the way life is, Joseph,”

It was on this peculiar day in March that something seemed strangely odd to Don Phillipo: he could hear the birds singing their spring songs, he could see the children playing their beautiful game, and he could smell the crisp afternoon breeze that carried in it the fragrance of the sea nearby: all quite foreseeable sensory experiences for such a day in March – all but one. Don Phillipo could not usually hear the birds sing because the incessant chatter of the young boy usually drowned them out. When Don Phillipo turned to find out what could have possibly been preventing the boy from expressing himself in his usual way, he found him reading a newspaper. The sight of the four-year-old boy still in his school uniform, sitting in an old lawn chair and staring intently at the newspaper that was almost as tall as he was made him oddly reminiscent of the old man, and that was enough to make Don Phillipo laugh – mostly because he knew that the boy had not yet learned how to read. Undeterred by the small obstacle that was his illiteracy, Joseph stared intently at the front page; trying to glean some shred of information from the pictures and symbols he could not decipher.

“What are you reading that for, Joseph?” the old man asked. “Would you not rather watch the soccer game?”

“No,” the boy said seriously, “all the adults are talking about the news today, and I must know why.”

It was at that moment that Don Phillipo remembered what it was that everyone was talking about; a large passenger boat had gone missing just the day before, and the front page showed a picture taken of it on the day of its departure.

“Well,” the old man started, “that big boat in the picture was meant to sail across the ocean, but – “

“Across the entire ocean?” Joseph interrupted (his mother would have given him a stern look for having behaved like that, but Don Phillipo was used to the boy’s interrupting questions).

“Yes, this one could go across the entire ocean. Well, at least it was going to, until – “

“How was it going to do that?” the boy asked innocently.

The old man was caught quite off guard this time. “Well, that is what boats do:” he finally blurted out, “they float on water.”

The boy threw his arms in the air. “That is amazing! No wonder everyone is talking about it – it can float on water!”

Now, Don Phillipo had every intention of telling the young boy the truth of the matter – not out of cruelty, but because he was of the opinion that any lie, no matter how small, was to be avoided – but after seeing the boy’s reaction to the boat, he could not bring himself to inform him of the boat’s unfortunate fate. He decided in that moment that it was better for the boy to experience that loss later, perhaps from someone else. Don Phillipo knelt down next to the boy, and picking the newspaper out of his hands, took a closer look at the picture of the boat; “mhmm…yes…yes, quite amazing indeed! You know, it reminds me of the boat I travelled on to get here.”

At this, Joseph’s eyes widened with wonder in the way that only a child’s eyes can. “You mean, you have been on a boat? What was it like?”

“It was huge – no – it was massive!” Don Phillipo exaggerated as he held out his arms in a grandiose way. “There were one hundred people on the boat Joseph, one hundred!” he said, exaggerating again.

Joseph was confused. He had not learned that number yet, but he knew all the way up to ten, and that was a lot. “Is one hundred more than ten?” he asked, hoping it was.

“Much more than ten! Ten times more than ten!” Don Phillipo had not finished high school, but he remembered at least that much of his maths.

Now, Joseph did not understand multiplication, but that did not stop him from trying to imagine this enormous number. He pictured in his mind a huge boat and then filled it with people, but found that the boat was no longer huge if it was full, and found that there were not enough people in it if was not overflowing, but he did not linger on the thought too long because it occurred to him that the boat must have been very, very heavy. He simply could not fathom how a boat of any size, much less a boat full of people, could float. He was as curious as he was amazed: “how come the boat did not sink with so many people in it?”

Don Phillipo did not understand the principles of buoyancy and he began to ask himself the same question, but instead of admitting ignorance, he feigned a knowing smile, and leaning in close to the awestruck four year-old, said: “well, that is just the way it is, Joseph.”

In this way, the two made a habit of discussing the news while they worked on some chore around the neighbourhood. Of course, the news was invariably dreadful and gloomy, but Don Phillipo always found a way to engineer a story that was either jolly, or exciting, or at least silly. Sometimes he exaggerated a little, and sometimes a lot, but regardless of the tone, the stories were always based on some event in the old man’s life.

After some time of following this daily routine, Don Phillipo felt that he had begun to run out of true tales, and it was becoming difficult to think of good stories that somehow explained the tragedies that were sure to be plastered on the front page of the day. On one such day, under the scorch of the summer sun, Don Phillipo began to panic: what would he tell the young boy about the picture that so clearly depicted the devastation in a nearby town which had been consumed by a fire? No story came to mind, and it was all he could do to put on a good face for the boy who was looking up at him expectantly: “well, Joseph,” he hesitated, “it seems as though there has been a big fire.”

“Oh…have you ever been in a big fire, Don Phillipo?”

“No, no I have not.”

“Why was there a fire? Is everyone alright?”

“Not quite, Joseph.”

There was a long pause, Don Phillipo felt a pressure to say something – anything – to calm the whirlwind of thoughts that was surely running through the boy’s innocent mind. He was relieved when it was not him that broke the silence.

“Who is the man in the picture?”

That startled the old man. He looked again at the picture and noticed the figure in the corner of the image. He was armed with a winding hose and his only protection was his red helmet.

“That is the firefighter, “ the old man said, his eyes still fixed on the picture.

“What does the firefighter do, Don Phillipo?”

“He protects people from the fire.”

“He sure is brave,” the boy said, even more impressed with the firefighter’s bravery than he was at the fact that a boat could float, but the old man could not hear him anymore; he was too busy imagining himself as a younger man, donning the distinctive red helmet and wielding the power of the ocean, and he wondered if he ever could have become the firefighter in the picture – standing in ash and covered in soot, face-to-face with his fiery enemy.

This thought never occurred to the boy; it seemed perfectly natural to him that if there was a fire, he would put it out – that was just the way life was. If he wondered anything, it was this: why was everyone not a firefighter?

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