I spent the whole car ride praying to the universe to spare Big Steve's life. The images from the morning news terrified us, and there was so much mis-communication were weren't sure what to think. Some reports had it that he was injured and taken to Northwestern hospital. Other reports said that he perished in the fire. In fact a few family members showed up believing he had died. My family is so used to tragedy--we're experts at gnashing, weeping, wailing. Funerals are no brainers in my family. My mom writes obits & elegies like a fucking champ. In fact, its where I got the writing bug from. How to dress, what to sing, car pooling for the processional to the cemetery, what food to serve at the repast is all too familiar in my clan. Still, none of us wanted that. I kept telling myself that he'd be alive, but what if he was a mangled wreck like the son at the end of The Monkey's Paw?
But there he was. Bless the Gods, he was alive. He appeared to have all ten fingers and toes, but I was I afraid to look at him. There was so much energy in the ER, I wanted to do my very best to be invisible. I felt like I wasn't supposed to be there...and I shouldn't have been. None of us should. Most civilians aren't privy to emergency rooms in action. And I can tell you, it's nothing like what you see on Grey's Anatomy or whatever lab coat drama you can think of. The doctors, nurses, and staff don't have shiny hair, and perfect teeth. Unflattering lights and long shifts in a triage make for bad skin, coffee stained teeth, and scrubs that make you want to call the fashion police. Some sleep deprived doctors have no bedside manner and don't fucking care. They'll pour salt on a slug. Medical practioners aren't perfect. I know if I owed 1.9 billion dollars in med school loans I'd be Evilene too. Doctors can be detached, aloof and down right nasty. I know I've had to act my zip code on a couple of quacks for talking down to my mother while recieving medical treatment. I don't have a problem shoving a difibulator up yo ass (no homo), cuz my fingerprints already in the system ya dig?
Of course everyone wants Trapper John MD fine ass to pull back the curtain and intubate them, but it doesn't work that way. Make no mistake, the staff at Advocate Christ were wonderful. They were compassionate, and did their best to make matters better. They allowed so many of us to go back and be with Steve. I was grateful, he was alive. But I admit, I was afraid to look at him--to take him in completely. I knew if I did, that I would loose it. Everyone was crying--even my brother's eyes were red. And my brother does NOT cry. He's sort of English that way. "Keep calm and carry on" is how he shapes things.
From what I could see Steve had all ten fingers and toes. He was still in his uniform. Smoke choked the olfactory from yards away. He was covered in soot, and debris. His eyes were blood shot red, no doubt from smoke, debris and tears.
THE HERO I NEVER KNEW I HAD
Steve spoke quietly to his fellow firefighter detailing what happened the moment before, during, and after the collapse of the roof. Out of respect to the CFD and the families of the deceased, I will not repeat what I heard. But I can tell you...it was gut wrenching to hear his account. He painted a picture worse than the most dramatic moments in the film Backdraft. I don't think I will ever forget the pain on his face. His comrade kept saying "Black you did your thing man. You done good man. You did what you could. You fought it. You done good Black, you done good." Steve just kept shaking head and saying "No." You see Corey Ankum was his partner. Corey was a CFD candidate (he served a little over a year in the department) and my cousin is a 23 year vet. And when your comrade falls, naturally you will do anything to save him. Unfortunately Corey died moments before, just across the hallway. Steve was crestfallen---all of the firefighters were. Steve's comrade kept trying to give him words of support and encouragement...that's when Corey's sister stumbled into our room.
"My brother is dead." She dissolved. We held held. Fanned her. I applied a wet compress to her neck. The poor baby was devastated. There were no words to offer. Moments later Gerald (Cory's older brother and fellow firefighter) came to collect her. She moaned--I can't describe it. Gerald picked her up from the chair helping her to her feet.
"Come on baby. We gotta go. We gotta go into the room. We gotta do this." Gerald led her across the hallway back to Cory's room.
Big Steve's glove had fallen to the floor. I picked it up. The glove smelled like a forest had burned. I stuck the glove into my pocket. I don't know why. But I did.
CHAPPIE JENNIE & Other Heroines
"Hey folks. Hi everyone. My name is Jennie Swanson. I'm a Chaplin with the Illinois Corps of Fire Chaplains. I'm here to help. We're asking all firefighters, law enforcement, and families to come with us to the auditorium next door. We'd like to give the doctors room to work, and also to give us a chance to come together. Will you follow me?"
We did. All of us.
PROMETHEUS STOLE FIRE, AND I STOLE LOOKS
Let me gone head and get this out of my system. Those firemen were fine as hell. Some were off duty, some straight from the fire. All of the brothers were tall, hella built, like a modern day sepia Adonis. The fine white ones looked like Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno. Yes I know you're thinking "My god, this whore mongering trollop had the audacity to look at these men while they were in crisis? Who does that?!" I did. I was like Ryan O'Neal at Farrah Fawcett's funeral repast. He flirted with a woman only to discover it was his offspring. Fucking gross right? But! I later found out from some of my other cousins, that I wasn't the only one imaging the next CFD hunk calender. ThereIsaidit.
PRAYER WARRIORS DEPLOYED
Walking out into the 30 degree weather was a delight. The cold air was refreshing, and oddly it lifted our spirits. I suppose that's a Midwestern thing.
We arrived into the auditorium lobby. Mostly firefighters, and a few of us civilians. Most of them chatted on cell phones, text non stop, or quietly spoke to one another. We sipped coffee and nibbled on snacks provided by the staff. The Wendy Williams Show was blasting from the screen and trust me when I say no Chicagoan wants to here a Jersey Shore accent on a day like that. We promptly had the staff switch the channel to WGN. The fire coverage was a live feed, and the room went silent. It was like watching 9/11. We all felt helpless and angry.
"If you'd like to join us folks, we're going to say a prayer. If you haven't met me, my name is Jennie Swanson, I'm a Chaplin from Hanover Park. I uh---Corey...well, he was a friend of mine...many of the guys out there today are our friends, brothers, sisters, loved ones...we can't control what's happening. But, we can pray. It's quite alright if you choose not to. Grab you neighbors hand if you will. Uhh...I'm a Lutheran pastor, and welcome you to offer praise to the god that you love...whatever you'd like to say...whatever you'd like to offer...please do."
We all joined hands and prayed. There must have been 70 of us in that room. We were some praying fools, let me tell you.
A firefighter (I don't know his name sorry) came into the lobby and instructed us follow him. It was time to go and salute Corey. At first I thought he was only speaking to those in the department, but he was speaking to everyone in the room. He spoke with great command, and it was as if he dared us not to follow his orders. We all grabbed our coats and quickly followed. And can you believe it? Not only did they allow us to walk amongst them, they even held the door for us. I could hardly believe I was being invited. My mother, aunts, cousins and I were welcomed into the CFD family as if we had served with them.
"I want all you guys to line up on both sides of the ramp! Over here and over here. On my command take off your hats. All of you! Take off your hats. We're gonna do a slow salute with the right hand! The right hand! On my command!"
I stood next to my aunt Officer Lewis and Chaplin Jennie. There were mostly men out there, but I wanted to be with the pride of lionesses. We were at the beginning of the ramp, waiting for the caravan. I could see the CFD paramedic truck transporting Corey's body from the corner of my eye. The police escorts drove slowly down the ramp, followed by the truck and other escorts. The Lieutenant barked the command and we all snapped to attention. Cory went by. I stood side by side with men and women who put their lives on the line daily. I was deeply saddened for the families of Corey Ankum and Edward Stringer. I quietly thanked them as the caravan descended down the ramp. And then it was over. I could see the news cameras across the street filming us. I was grateful that they kept their distance and remained respectful. I cannot describe what an honor it was to be amongst those giants. It was to date, the most humbling and proud moment of my life.
KEEP CALM & CARRY ON
The ER waiting room became a family reunion. We chatted, laughed, kids played, and waited for an update on Steve after his treatment. Mind you, all this happened and it was only 1pm in the afternoon! And then suddenly Big Steve appeared. He was all smiles. Everyone rushed to him planting hugs and kisses. Although he was swarmed he made eye contact with me. I flashed him a smile and pulled his glove from my pocket. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes. I think this belongs to you Mr. Ellerson."
He smiled brightly and said "I know things must have been bad today if you came all the way from Hollywood for me!" I couldn't do anything but laugh. He winked at me, and I saluted him from across the room. I wasn't quite ready to embrace him, but I think he knew. I was there. We all were.
Thank you Corey. Thank you Edward. Now you belong to the ages.