Friday, April 18, 2014
This photo comes from a free data base, but it is uncannily like the image I have in my head of a particular fire station in Indiana. (W.L.--West Lafayette?) One hot July day, my mother and I stopped there to see Uncle Ray at work. He and three other men were sitting out front on aluminum lawn chairs, playing cards at a rickety old table just in front of the blue chair in the photo above. I was nine or ten, much more interested in my popsicle than in whatever the grownups were jawing about. Until the alarm went off. To this day, I've never seen people move like those guys did. Probably under a minute to clear away table and chairs, don their gear, and speed off on a screaming truck.
Ray crossed that mightiest of all thresholds last week, just shy of his 86th birthday, which would have been tomorrow, April 19. My cousin, Nancy, wrote to tell me about his funeral: "All the active firefighters on duty Sunday night came to the viewing in their uniforms. . . one station after another. The Last Alarm was done by the Chief and about 60 firefighters, active and retired. I had never seen a tribute of this nature except in the movie, BACKDRAFT."
Nancy also described the ride to the cemetery, past fire stations where all the trucks were out with their lights rotating and the men were standing at attention. I would like to have been there, but I am happy with my own special memories:
Green grapes in Tupperware containers. More than once, Uncle Ray drove to Chicago to pick up my mother, me, and my brother. Mom didn't drive, and he was that kind of generous. Aunt Bev always packed up grapes, which my cousins and I ate all the way down I-65.
Fire trucks. In every conceivable form. Real ones, toy ones, old ones, new ones. I never see a fire truck without thinking of Ray.
Blue jeans, black shoes, and white crew socks. Uncool in the mod 60s, but Ray's iconic fashion statement made a lasting impression on me. Eat your heart out, Ralph Lauren.
Red velvet cake. Okay, maybe this was Aunt Bev's specialty but, often as not, it was made at Uncle Ray's request. They were into red velvet (the real deal, not some poncy mix) decades before anyone in NYC had ever heard of the stuff.
I'll miss Ray's smile, the genuine twinkle in his eyes, and the soft drawl I still associate with grownups talking late into the summer night while I slept on the pull-out couch in Grandma's living room. He was a truly good man.