Short-listed Entry: Non-Fiction Category
By: Ashley Woodmender
Kneeling at the base of the memorial, my hand brushing along the granite wall feeling every engraved letter, slowly forming names and my eyes fill with tears.
“Thank you,” I whispered, “Thank you for making a difference in the lives of us American’s. Thank you for making a difference in my life and pushing me in the direction of helping the community.”
On Saturday July 12, 2008, I arrived forty five minutes early for my first firefighting class. Doylestown was a far drive so I did not want to be late. This class wasn’t just an ordinary class; it was something I waited for. Eighteen years is a long time to wait for a class, but it was my dream and my dream was right in front of me… I could almost touch it.
Ever since I was little, I have been amazed by the wailing sirens and the big red fire truck that carries Santa on it every December. Then September 11th 2001 happened, and so many people were killed. I watched funerals of the fallen firefighters and saw how close their bonds were. All I kept thinking was: I wanted to become a part of this brotherhood.
I parked in the front parking lot, clearly facing the entrance. My hands were on the placed firmly on the steering wheel; my keys were still in the ignition as I sat in my car for five minutes trying to figure out if I had enough strength to actually get my butt out of the car. As I was sat staring at the window, I watched a tall, skinny, lanky looking man walk by my car, looking at me as he passed. A crowd of men started forming a group in front of the double doors slowly smoking their cigarette as they stared through my windshield and into my eyes. I finally decided I had enough of waiting and got out of my car and walked into the building. I stared at the white board in front of the doors, trying to figure out where I belonged and finally I saw it… Room 206 Fire One written in red.
Now Fire One is not just any ordinary class; it prepares firefighters for real-world experiences of firefighting. It goes over every type of scenario and tests you on your knowledge; it’s half lecture and half hands on learning. Firefighting is a skill learned, practiced and perfected. Without this class we cannot go into burning buildings. Why would someone want to even do this?
Every Saturday till the end of the year was dedicated to this class; every Saturday from eight to four; one hundred and fifty hours of this class. I was not sure I could complete this class.
I walked into the room and saw the toughest group of guys there. They had tattoos and muscles bigger than my head; I was intimidated. I took a seat in the back of the room, hoping I was unnoticed. I kept looking around the room trying to calm myself, taking notes on who the cutest was and what everyone’s names were. I looked at these guys and thought: I don’t think I can do this, I’m not sure if I am emotionally capable or physically capable to compete with these guys.
Our instructor for this one-hundred-and-fifty-hour course is a man named PJ Fortuner. He stood about six feet and weighed roughly three hundred pounds just by looking at him. He looks like an over stuffed teddy bear. He has a deep accent; he’s from Scranton Pennsylvania.
As PJ started the class, he looked around the room and looked straight at me. His piercing stare caused me to think he had laser vision and if he did, I’m sure I would have a hole in me. My face turned bright red and my eyes frantically darted around trying to find another object to look at. Finally, I looked back at him.
“You must be Ashley.”
“Yes that’s me…How did you know?”
“You’re the only girl on my list so I kinda put it together unless you wanna be called Jim.”
“No… Ashley’s good.”
After that moment, all eyes were on me. I was the only girl in the class. How could I ever be able to do what these guys were doing? I’m 5’4 on a good day and weigh only 120 pounds. And these guys were about 6’0 and weighed about 170 pounds with a muscle mass of 15%. There is no way I could be able to get through this experience and survive.
“Okay Guys, you can stop staring at the pretty lady,” PJ said. I guess that’s how people from Scranton talk.
I stared back at PJ and thought to myself; this is going to be a long couple of months.
It was obvious that being a woman was going to cause some problems in this classroom full of testosterone. Since I was the only woman in my class, I had all the guys staring. There was one who made it quite obvious that he wanted in my pants. This guy’s real name is Dave, but his actions earned him a nickname of Surfer Dude. He was blonde with the wavy hair and wore those stupid little seashells around his neck. To top it all off he talked like Crush from Finding Nemo.
Now Surfer Dude was a couple fries short of a Happy Meal. He would often shout out the most random comments and try to get my attention from it. He tried to participate but no one could take him seriously. He kept calling me Dudette. He was more of a distraction than anything. It was obvious that this brotherhood was not the right move for him. He provided a crucial moment for me… to never give up because I’m a pretty woman.
Surfer boy dropped out after the midterm and no one has heard from him since.
The lecture part of the class wasn’t as bad as I thought. It was based on a thirty-four chapter book with pictures and vocabulary words. Being the bookworm that I am, I read and studied hard and took great notes and I passed.
Now the hands-on part was different. There were various operations that we had to perform in order to pass the class. The first is to put all your gear on in a minute. This means boots, pants, coat, gloves and helmet. The instructors were picky about the minor things such as you had to have all your fingers in the gloves and we couldn’t begin the drill with our shoes already off. Then once you have done that, you get another minute to put on your air pack, mask, and breathe air. Now this air pack weighs about fifteen pounds and swinging it around is never a good idea. This was a hard part for me to perform. My 120 pounds couldn’t seem to get enough momentum to put it on my back without getting my one arm caught in the straps or hitting myself in the head. Sometimes I mustered enough momentum to swing it over my shoulders and parts would go flying and hit other people. I was frustrated. Let’s just say, everyone stayed away from me when it came to this drill.
Another hands-on learning experiment we had was to stop a sprinkler. The instructors gave us two wooden wedges that looked like door stoppers and told us to place them together to form a rectangle in-between the sprinkler head and the roof. The sprinkler was running, full blast, and it was my turn. They had a ladder set up underneath the sprinkler and told me to go for it. I had the two wedges in my hands ready to go. I climbed the ladder to the top and started fumbling with my wedges. The sprinklers had so much power that my wedges kept being pushed out of sprinkler. I was using all my strength to push them together to stop the water. Then, I looked up to see what I was doing and SWOOSH! I got hit in the face with a burst of water, and it knocked me off the ladder. I came out of the building soaking wet with tears forming in my eyes. I slowly looked around at my peers and they slowly stood up and started clapping for me. It was the biggest confidence booster I ever had. Getting hit in the face with a stream of water wasn’t the worst part of the day. The worst part was I ended up losing one of my contacts in the process and had to drive home, from Doylestown, with one eye shut so I could see the road.
Ladders were another hands on drill, and they are the heaviest objects I ever had to lift. One of our drills was to set them up against the side of a building and take them down in a matter of seconds. There were all different types of ladders: an attic ladder, thirty-six-foot extension ladder and a roof ladder that had hooks on the ends of it so it can hook on to the peak of a house. We did this drill for three hours. I was winded by the first set but the guys kept going and encouraged me to continue to push forward. I was partnered with the guy whom I call Smiles. All he does is smile; he never seems to have a bad day. Anyway, Smiles and I were bringing a ladder down, and I was on the end walking it down when -all of a sudden- Smile dropped the ladder right on my head. I fell to the ground. I yelled and screamed a lot of inappropriate comments, called him a lot of bad names, and swore I would never be partners with him again.
After Smiles dropped the ladder on my head, I now had a new partner whose name was Jim. I can’t give Jim a nick-name, he didn’t do anything to deserve one. Jim had the physical strength to lift the ladders and I would get have an easier time of guiding the ladder down.
Final time came fast. We went from still learning to taking the practical hands-on part of the test. We all helped each other. I put on my gear in under a minute and managed not to hit anyone and passed. Jim and I were partnered for ladders and we passed.
Everyone in my class passed Fire One. Graduation came on one of the snowiest days in December and from that day forward we all had our nationally certified certificates in our hands proud to show anyone that asked. We could now enter a burning building and not be held back from it. Graduation was the last time I ever saw any of them. And I thank them for helping me achieve and not give up. Now we are forever in a secret society of firefighters, The Brotherhood.
Four years later, I still have never seen the men I went through Fire One with, but we all know the bond we share is as strong as family. We are part of this brotherhood that will continue to look after one another.
As I stand at this September 11th Memorial wearing my class A uniform, I look around at these men surrounding me, knowing that we all have gone through the same things. We may not all agree on the subject, and we all come from different walks of life, but knowing that we have brother’s lost in the twin towers, is enough to make us family.