Thursday, November 25, 2004

Fire Brigade Stories

Image used with permission from Currier and Ives

Growing up in an Afrikaner family, when I left school my English was very rudimentary. But at the Cape Town Fire Brigade I had no choice. About half of the firemen seemed to come from the British Isles; they all spoke with some Cockney, Irish, or Scottish accent, and everything seemed to happen in English too.

For me it was sink or swim, so I did the best I could. Until I took a fire call from the Strand Street Concourse, a labyrinth of underground shops crisscrossing Cape Town’s downtown area. With no idea as to the gravity of my mistake, I dropped the bells, and loudly announced to the running men that there was a fire at the Strand Street Intercourse.

It took a real long time for them to forget that.

Although they all would mercilessly pounce on others’ mistakes, they also had a real camaraderie. Beneath the rough exteriors, there were some truly nice people.

According to the men, just before I joined they had some sort of show and tell. Dignities arrived from all over. The Chief was all dressed up in his ceremonial outfit, while the men were working hard at a demonstration of their skills. But when they tried to use foam, the hose severed right next to the chief. Before he could move out of the way he was covered in the smelly goo. Only his eyebrows were visible.

There were many stories about other mishaps, not all of them funny. One fireman broke both ankles when he rushed from the shower covered in shampoo, and projectiled down the fire pole. Another got his hand almost severed when he tried to pocket an expensive bottle of champagne during a fire at the opera house. (Proof that crime does not pay was the general agreement, although he always maintained that he just tried to move the stuff!)

Then there was the guy that got sick to his stomach when he used an axe to clear some smoldering rubble. When he pulled it back it was crimson with blood. On closer inspection, it became evident that he actually buried his hatchet into a bag of beetroot, fused together because of the heat. Even so, the poor man took a couple of days to get over his grim experience.

However, my most memorable moment occured one Saturday evening. As usual the families of the firemen showed up for a free movie. I was on duty in the control room when one of the cleaning crew proudly came by to show me his new suit and radio. Then he left for some party.

A few hours later just as the moviegoers were exiting the meeting hall, the front door opened and here he was again - wearing nothing but yellow underpants. Obviously roughed up, and seemingly unfazed by the crowd of astonished onlookers he asked me to call the cops.

I quickly hid him in the control room, and found out he had been beaten and robbed. Within a few minutes the police arrived, and while I was taking a fire call the cop mistook the situation and started to strong-arm the character. Astounded by what was happening I shouted some obscenity at the cop, but had to continue with the call.

By the time I was done, the policeman had determined the true state of affairs. Ashamed by his initial reaction he offered to take the unlucky fellow back to where he was robbed to look for the perpetrators.

Afterwards I heard that they never found the bad guys, but that the cop had been so embarrassed about his earlier mistake that he gave the man enough money to make up for his loss.

Jan Tik.

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