I love the Smell of Smoke in the Morning
A week ago, our garage burned to the ground.
The local volunteer Firefighters did an incredible job to save the house with not too much damage to the structure.
A few days later, I'm sitting among the wreckage salvaging the few identifiable remains of 50 years of collecting tools, spanners, sockets etc. and identifying anything remotely resembling something I could claim from our insurance company.
Eventually, I sat on a heap of charred timbers for a cold drink.
I’ve never had a flashback.
If I’m honest, I guess I never really believed it happened. At best, I’d thought it was a strong memory, at worse.... Well...
Okay, cut me some slack here, in my thirty years as a firefighter in some of the city’s busiest stations, I’d attended many hundreds of incidents. Fires, road accidents, chemical spills and I forget how many rescues, recoveries etc.
So I was genuinely terrified when a vivid memory of a fire I’d attended many years ago barrelled through my senses.
This wasn’t like watching TV or a movie.
This was real…
This was happening...
The sights, sounds, tastes and smells were just as they’d been around thirty odd years ago.
Not similar, not reminiscent, or… not... Well not anything other than reality.
This was playing out exactly as I recall.
I’ve never tried a virtual reality set, but after this experience I won’t be rushing to try one anytime soon!
Sitting here writing this now, it seems like I must have dozed off in the sunshine as guys my age sometimes do, and that I had daydreamed the entire experience.
But it wasn’t that.
It wasn't anything like that at all.
This was real.
This had been tangible.
I don’t know how long I sat there, but I was shaking and cold when my dog licking my hand brought me back from whatever hell my mind had taken me to.
Back then, our fire area covered a huge chunk of the South side, we had thousands of tenements. Long canyons of flats four high, with streets criss-crossing and running every which way with twelve families living up each close.
A deadly mix of coal fires, paraffin heaters, chain smokers and of course, the Saturday night Friars.
Now these Friars weren’t part of some religious order, no, these were the guys who would get home late from the pub, think it was a grand idea to have a plate of chips with a wee bottle of beer to wash it down, fall asleep on the settee while the overheated chip pan did the rest.
It wasn’t uncommon after we’d rescued the drunk to see him being battered in the street by some of the neighbours who’d lost what little they had in the inferno.
It wasn’t uncommon for them to head to the city morgue either.
I don’t remember many details from those, they were our bread and butter, and I make no apologies for saying that we were largely unaffected by the aftermath.
But this one, this one I remember.
This one I’ve never forgotten.
This one was as bad as it gets.
This is the one which had come back to haunt me, and to terrify me.
We were a few streets away when we saw the smoke, nothing unusual in that, but an early warning it would be tough going.
Turning into the street, the front window on the ground floor was now a massive blow torch fuelled by a mix of one-hundred-year-old timbers, cheap, highly flammable furniture, and everything else the flat had contained.
It seethed and pulsed as a living breathing thing.
As I sat there, those many years later in the remains of my own relatively insignificant tragedy, I saw, as clear as the day it had happened, a young woman banging her head against a smouldering tree. Two men struggled to hold her as blood from her forehead streaked down through the smoke on her face leaving her with a tragic clown like appearance. Her clothes had partially burned and melted. She wasn’t screaming, but as we rigged our breathing masks, there was a low, constant moan, a hellish keening.
The local beat cop, a big man we knew well, ran to us from the close mouth, he was shouting God knows what and pointing back at the house.
We knew then it wasn’t going to be a good day.
His cap was gone, his tunic was steaming, his face clearly red and roasted. As we passed him, he collapsed to his knees and was mouthing at us...’kids’.
There is nothing more terrifying, more electrifying, nothing which tears at your soul as the realization that someone is trapped and most likely enduring an indescribably painful end.
But even if you can imagine that, can you then multiply those emotions when it’s a child?
Can you keep multiplying as the number of kids mounts?
Later, we learned that the young mother had only gone a few hundred yards to the corner shop to get formula for her baby.
We didn’t find much of her baby, and little enough of his two-year-old sister, and three-year-old brother.
Start the multiplication again...
I know that many ex-firefighters, cops, and armed forces personnel have suffered PTSD, but until that moment, I’d rarely thought back to my time as a firefighter in Tinderbox City, a name bestowed on Glasgow by the press due to the number and size of the fires which raged across the city back then.
Any thoughts I’d had were of the good times we’d had as a crew.
Living on Station for up to sixteen hours at a time, you get to know each other pretty well.
The good, the bad and the ugly in our make-up.
We not only worked together as a crew, but we also socialised together, whether at a retirement night, a day on the hills, a fishing trip off Largs, or any other excuse just to get together away from the job.
It was only among ourselves that the dark humour could be shared; could be said openly.
Turns out, we weren’t unfeeling monsters, just normal people doing a difficult job under impossible conditions who’d somehow, stumbled on a keep-yourself-sane solution without the help of counsellors.
Our partners knew each other, we shared the achievements of our kids.
We shared tragedies, births, deaths, weddings and one very weird divorce party!
Many years ago, in my role as a union rep, I attended a seminar on PTSD hosted by an expert in his field. The audience were firefighters, cops, and ambulance personnel.
He told us, among other things which I now forget, that among the three services, cops suffered the most, with firefighters the least affected. It seems that working as a crew, we’d work together at a job, talk, and laugh through the work, go back to station, eat, talk drink etc as a crew, and in some rough, unknowing way, we talked out the entire experience and it didn’t bottle up inside us. We were, in effect, our own counsellors, therapists or whatever.
You can perhaps tell that I had little time for grief counselling, and very little if any use for the Brigade Chaplain. This poor soul was sent round to...well, I don’t exactly know what his purpose was, but very few of us were religious, some of us were fiercely anti religious. So we sat, stony faced as he prattled on.
He couldn’t help.
He didn’t understand.
He wasn’t there.
It wasn’t his fault.
But then we were short on sympathy for anyone from outside the club.
They didn’t...couldn’t know.
But mostly we figured, we didn’t need help. At least not of that kind.
Over the years, we saw and dealt with incidents more akin to a war zone than an inner city.
I don’t think we were hardened; I don’t think we were being macho. It was just what the job was.
These many years later, when I get across from the USA to visit my daughters, at least one day is set aside to meet up with some of those rascals who formed such an unforgettable and indelible part of my life.
We raise a glass to those we’ve lost since last we met, and we sing the lines from Eric Bogle’s wonderful anti-war song, Waltzing Matilda...
‘Years by years their numbers grow fewer.
‘Someday no one will answer at all.’
We tell ridiculously exaggerated tales about those lost comrades, and then on to more drink, leg-pulling, and insults.
We don’t talk much about the job, except for the many escapades and high jinks we’d had. About the gaffers we rated and the ones we hated.
We tell ourselves that we had the best of times, that we were the best of the best during those best of times.
We cry as we part, we hug, a few more insults about bald heads and beer bellies, suspecting that we will be fewer next time.
My daughters arrive to collect me and are greeted by one and all. The girls know these faces. A few of them had been Santas at station Xmas parties, and my girls had whispered in their ear what they wanted Santa to bring them.
My hometown, Glasgow, at one time had more picture houses and parks than any other city in the UK, so it’s hardly surprising that when I look for a quote, it invariably comes from a memory from a movie.
There’s a scene from, Apocalypse Now, where Robert Duvall’s, character, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, without a trace of irony says...
‘I love the smell of Napalm in the morning.’
That much quoted line ran through my mind as I sat there among the burned wreckage of our garage.
It was, after all, who he was.
It was what he did.
It was in his soul.
I love the smell of smoke in the morning...