Wednesday, April 10, 2024

The scent of childhood

Late Saturday afternoon, my husband and I were out taking a walk when we heard a lot of sirens. I checked my phone - our county fire and police have a live dispatch app - and saw there was a house fire about two blocks from where we were walking. So obviously we walked that way.

Our town is technically a borough, and in our weird county, each borough has its own fire department, most of which is volunteer-run. You would think that would make the response less efficient, but the exact opposite is true. The call had gone out less than three minutes before we got to the block, and there were already four trucks there. The call goes out everywhere at once, and anyone who's available will show up - especially for a house fire, with the implied possibility of people being inside. 

It was pretty clear from looking at the firefighters that they already knew that wasn't the case. They were calmly going about their jobs. Moving quickly, yes, but not with the underlying anxiety of potentially having to rescue anyone. We stuck around for a while, and watched as another half dozen engines eventually appeared.

It was really cool watching them, all these men and women who obviously work together all the time, because the companies were acting interchangeably. At one point there were firefighters from three different companies balanced on the roof line, cutting a hole in the roof. Just the sight of that is enough to turn my knees to water. 

Everyone watching - and it was a lot of the neighborhood - had their shirts pulled up over their noses because it did stink. But to me, it also smelled like my childhood. My dad was a Philadelphia firefighter, and he came home everyday smelling like whatever blaze he fought. He could have probably showered at the firehouse, but he wanted to get home to his family and his bathtub full of scalding hot water where he could rinse off the smell and soak away his aches and pains. 

What happened to those two houses in town was tragic. The first house looks like a total loss. It was unoccupied at the time, though being worked on. The second house, adjoining it, has some pretty significant damage. 

But this is one of those times where I can hold two opposing thoughts in my head. Any loss by fire is tragic, but the smell of that fire took me straight back to my childhood, straight back to Sunday mornings on the curb with the other fire kids while our exhausted dads paced back and forth in front of the shell of a building and refought the fire until they were satisfied. 

Fire is bad. Fire is also the smell of my dad. And for that, I will always have a moment of warmth, and a smile, before my brain clicks over to the present. They say that smell is our strongest memory sense. I think they're right.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing your memories. I hope the owners of the houses will be okay.

Unknown said...

I have long admired firemen (they were all men in my childhood) because I grew up in Philadelphia right down the street from the firehouse at Hartel Street and Frankford Avenue and they were so nice to all the neighborhood kids, letting us in the open door of the firehouse from time to time to admire the firetrucks (an old firehouse, now torn down, it had no AC so the doors were always open on hot nights and we could hear the pings of the callbox). I felt protected and safe knowing they were always there, always ready, and the sound of the sirens when they went out on a call wasn't annoying; it was reassuring because they were going to help someone. I was afraid of the real fire my father took me to see one night, however, thinking I would enjoy it! The sparks going into the air, the sound, the flames, were frightening to me and made me even more in awe of anyone who would sign up to fight fires. I hope your father knew he was appreciated by the residents of Philadelphia as much as by his family!