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Sandra Kolankiewicz

The Volunteer Fireman


     The motto of my college was Temporis iter et sic nos: time marches on and so must we. I never thought about what the words meant while I was in school there nor in the many decades that have passed since I wore my cap and gown.  

     Unlike a lot of my college peers, in 1949 I was not an ‘older student’ going to study on the GI bill after World War Two.  Neither was I one of those high school students that had signed up for an education in exchange for years of service afterwards as an officer.  

     Instead, I was classified as 4F by the Defense Department, rejected for service.  In order to pay for my tuition, I took the traditional route of working in the summers. I painted county bridges, strung fences for local farmers, stocked the general store, and worked construction.  I cut lawns with a push mower.  My parents contributed however they could.

     I don’t know why the phrase Time marches on and so must we popped into my head as I looked at the tombstone, a flat-faced rock that some of his friends had pulled off one of the stone walls that crisscrossed his property and the other lots on the road, part of the old farm boundaries that had been superseded by the new five-acre grids surveyed by the builder who, like many of the locals, had finally let go of old family land in order to make a profit. 

     He had built eight houses on the cul de sac street he had created, wetlands at the end of the road where the land was the lowest.  To construct two of the houses, a creek had been interrupted, so water began to accumulate there after they’d laid down the asphalt, one of the county officers told me later, and the place was a haven for frogs and mosquitoes.  

     A more appropriate quote for me to consider might have been the one from the headline for the editorial in the Globe about his death, words which I also remembered and considered, standing there on a grey day, just myself and the birds, mostly doves, cooing as they flitted about and searched for food: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

     I had not been back to the town since moving to Florida thirty years before, and at first, I could not find the grave.  Something about the site was different, more exposed, and I realized the old thick-trunked white pine tree that had stood next to his stone was no longer there.  Once, the cemetery had dozens of them, evergreen and somber, creating dense shade, casting immense shadows like old men keeping guard.  Just one was left, off in the distance, like me having seen better days.  

     Those pines were hundreds of years old before they disappeared. During their tenure, they had served as silent witnesses of the laying to rest of nearly every person who was now under the ground there, even my own family in the plot two sections over.  From where I was standing in front of his natural rock marker with just a simple brass plaque, I could see the tall marble monument with my last name and a group of smaller stones clustered around the base, my parents, my grandparents, and more, all the ancestors together in the same place.  

     He was buried alone.

     He was thirty-eight when he died. My age was exactly twice the number of years he had lived.  With the news I had recently received about my health, I doubted that I would make it to eighty. 

     Though I had never met him, he had changed my destiny.  I stood looking down at the stone I had been carrying invisibly on my back since he died.  

     After my recent diagnosis, my wife and I had decided to come back and visit old friends in the town where we’d grown up. I’d told her I wanted to spend time at the cemetery alone, so she stayed at the house of the people we were visiting, the Schmidts, friends from so many years ago.  They also lived ‘downtown,’ in what everyone still called ‘the village.’ 

     The Congregational church and its graveyard, the Grange building, the fire department, the gas station, general store, the library, the police station (in the same old home as the library), and the historic preservation home still make up the village, where two county roads come together to create four corners.  There, the houses yet have what they call today “Indian shutters,” which you closed to protect yourself if you were attacked, or shut in the winter just to keep warm.  

     However, if you really know the early history of this community, you’ll realize that by the time the settlers arrived here to build the town, the local tribes had already been decimated by the diseases of white men, so the defense was not needed and, even by the time I was a boy, was considered just ornamental and charming.

     The house I grew up in was right next to the graveyard where I stood, the air cold for me after so many years down South, the leaves not yet unfurling in the early spring so I could see easily across the acres of markers and over the chest-high stone wall to my bedroom window and the small barn beneath it where my sister once kept a pony. The buildings were still painted light yellow as they had been when I was a child and before that as long as anyone could remember. 

     I’d raised my own family in that home, the house I grew up in, my parents living in an addition we’d put on the back until they got too old to live there. 

     Soon after the last child fledged, I’d sold the family insurance business, the house, and the land and moved to Naples, Florida, with my wife. I earned a license to sell insurance there and I got a job selling part time for someone else’s old family firm instead of my own.  The rest of the family, my sister and cousins, stayed there in the town though every year they would come visit.  

     Now my sister is gone, the cousins too. My own kids, and even the grandchildren they begat, are all grown and dispersed across the country.   

     Temporis iter et sic nos.

     The county had put a new bench in near his marker, so I sat down. My toes were getting numb as they had started doing if I stood too long.  I saw mud on the tip of my shoe, which brought me back to the open wound in the earth into which they’d lowered his casket, the white breath of the bystanders in the stark February air reminding us we were still alive, our faces crumpled in grief.  

     Now I was an old man, watching squirrels cross the grass and there to spend some time with the biggest tragedy of what had become my life. 

     First off, I was never in the military because I was deaf on one side.  When I was in middle school, I got a viral infection that took out my balance temporarily and hearing in my left ear permanently. This outcome didn’t interfere with my being on the football team or the track team, though, so until I had to register for the draft, I didn’t know I was considered disabled.

     Some of my friends’ folks were rich, but most weren’t, and a number of young men in my class would be using ROTC to pay for their college if they decided to go.  All the others just joined whatever service they wanted and didn’t wait to be called. 

     After living through the Depression and World War Two, most of us never questioned authority; instead, we trusted it.  The draft was just a fact of life, serving in the military a rite of passage that we accepted. A man put in his time, and then he went back to his life.  

     In the year I graduated, of all my classmates, I was the only male who was not eligible to serve. I felt embarrassed about my deafness and, I must admit, ashamed of my unworthiness. Even some of the girls were going to join the WACS, WAVES, or the WM’s.  When friends of mine would head off for their military training, I felt disgraced. 

     The young men I knew were being asked to sacrifice, and I had nothing to contribute. I’d been taught that the main purpose men had besides to provide was to protect, so I was a drone whose courage and manhood would never be tried.  

     I went to college to study business, but instead of going off to war afterwards, I came home and worked at my father’s small insurance company.  We had a shingle down at the end of the driveway.  Like his father before him, he farmed what was left of the acreage, mostly hay.  Between the farming and the insurance selling, we did all right.  Meanwhile, most of the men I knew were in Korea.

     Then, I married my high school sweetheart, just like we’d always planned to do, and we proceeded to do our social and economic duty by producing future citizens. 

     After Holton Faulk was lost at Incheon, however, I couldn’t stand my F4 status. Holton and I had been born the same week, gone to the same schools, the same church, and the same summer camp while we were growing up.  He left a widowed mother and disabled brother behind.  When friends came home on leave, I could barely look them in the eye. 

     My father was the one who suggested I join the Volunteer Fire Department, which shared  a parking lot with the old Grange building.  Since our house was right in the village and time was of the essence in a fire, I joined.  I knew I could make a difference. My friends were off fighting in the Korean War, and I wrangled house and woods fires back at home. 

     For the first seventeen years I was a member of the Volunteer Fire Department, we had an old fire truck that carried equipment, but no pumper, which was a fire engine that was a ‘triple combination rig,’ supporting a water pump, a water tank, and huge hoses to supply water.  The town next door had a pumper but no fire truck.  When the calls were made in the middle of the night, both departments met up wherever the fire was and worked together.  

     Along with owning the truck, our department also had the only ambulance in the area.  No one had ever perished in a blaze, though houses had been lost.  

     After he died in his housefire, the money poured in.  Suddenly we had more equipment than we knew what to do with, which in some ways made us who had been there that night feel more like failures, like our department was a charity case that needed to be rescued in order to save anyone else. The extreme generosity of the people who gave donations in his name made me feel even more guilty and like a sham.  Some of the others were excited, but I couldn’t even look at the new equipment without feeling a chill of culpability in my chest.

     From where I sat on the bench that day in the cemetery, I could see both the grave marker and across the town square to the fire department, no longer volunteer looking run down. Instead, I admired a spiffed-up historic building with a mansard roof, its footprint expanded on one side with open bays, trucks lined up inside and shining, ready to go at a moment’s notice, almost forty years later.  

     Because most of the houses in the area still had only well water, the biggest trucks of all in the firehouse were the pumpers.

     Besides having better equipment, nowadays firefighters don’t get lost on their way to an unknown destination, either, because of GPS, but that’s not what happened to us at two in the morning when the siren went off and the phone on the table beside my bed started ringing.  There was a fire reported at 3 Glen Summit Drive.

     “Where the hell is Glen Summit Drive?” I wondered aloud as I stood in the bathroom quickly shoving my legs into my pants. 

     At the firehouse, we pulled out a county map but could not find “Glen Summit Drive” anywhere.  At this point in time, 911 didn’t exist either. We were at a loss, our engines running, the town next door with the pumper on call and waiting to meet us wherever we needed to go. Someone called over to the police station—one cop— to tell us where we could find the address, but no one picked up.  

     Finally, I realized we could ring back the number of the person who had first reported because it was in the log, and a woman picked up.

     “Who is it?!” I heard a woman quickly say. 

     I explained that there was no Glen Summit Drive.

     “See if you can find Trask Road,” she said. “It used to be Trask Road, but the builder changed the name for some reason.  Hurry!  His kids just ran over here.  They say he’s still inside the house!”

     Sure enough, we found Trask Road on the map, but by that time we delayed twenty minutes, and because of that lack of information, the pumper was held up as well. We climbed into the ambulance and took off and drove as fast as we could in tense silence, the firetruck close behind us, my heart pounding, senses on high alert, time stretching itself so far that the twenty-minute ride through the dark with the sirens and the firetruck screaming behind us, lighting up the road ahead, seemed like an hour.

     From my vantage point on the concrete bench, I could see my entire life: my childhood home, the firehouse, my church, the Grange building, my family plot, and the grave of the man I had been unable to save, a composite that had formed me. 

     The lot between the Grange building and the fire house had been paved black, the edges marked with evergreen bushes, when before the ground had been just covered in gravel and any surrounding foliage in the usual grey dust. The Grange building, the biggest in the square after the church, now looked antiquated and tired, as if the doors hadn’t been thrown open to host meetings between farmers for years. 

     I wondered if there were still any members.  My father had once been president.  I had belonged when I was a young man, and so did many of my friend who, like me, still had some family land to farm.  

     Time marches on, and so must we.

     The Grange motto was In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

     I thought of the man I had been unable to save, the rumors that had been swirling about him even before he died, how my failure to rescue him had almost ruined my life.  I looked from the fire house to his stone.  The brass holder that said Korea, stuck in the ground and meant to display a flag, was empty. 

      I knew that come Memorial Day, an enormous American flag would be suspended between two giant oaks in the square. A parade would start at the firehouse and make its way around the four corners to the graveyard, led by former soldiers in their uniforms, bearing flags and followed by a drum corps beating out a marching beat. Behind them would walk the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and then the fire trucks would roll.  

     Some Girl Scout in the parade would lay a bouquet of ferns at his stone, as they did with all veterans, replace the flag, and salute him even though she hadn’t known him and by that time did not know his story.

     I had never met him, either. 

     I’d heard about him, though.  My wife was a member of the Women’s Club, and at their teas, bridge parties. charity events, they shared a lot of gossip.  She knew before anyone else who was divorcing, who was pregnant, whose child was in trouble, who had lost a job.  She didn’t offer up a lot of information herself, except to perhaps her closest girlfriends, but when women were talking out loud in a room full of other women, she couldn’t help but listen.  

     To her credit, she even got up and left when stories got too personal.

     He was a rogue, she told me. A rake.  

     Women couldn’t help themselves.  When he walked into a room, she said, they threw themselves at him.  She described Mrs. So-and-So or Mrs. Such-and-Such, all flustered and flirting if he ever ran into them. 

     She recounted his name being mentioned in the police report section of the Item, the local paper of the town where the car dealership was found, though he never was arrested.  He drank too much and totaled his car. With horror, she’d report he cheated frequently on his wife and sometimes didn’t come home at night. 

     Then she’d contradict herself concerning his character. He’d sold the president of the local historical society a used car for just a dollar. He had his dealership repair for free the decrepit car of a disabled World War One veteran.  

     People said he had performed heroically during a battle at Yellow Beach in Korea and earned a silver star. 

     He paid for some poor kids to attend a summer camp somewhere and funded the little league team’s uniforms out of his own pocket, not the dealership’s.  

     After he once came to a practice to deliver a car to a parent, he had been kind and shown our son how to correct his knuckle ball. 

     He gave our neighbors a generous deal on a station wagon they could not afford otherwise.

     Because I’d not met him, I didn’t know what to think of him except I generally didn’t like tall, handsome men with blond hair and blue eyes, who drank too much, cheated on their wives, and took the breath out of a room they entered.  

     I had never seen him up close and man to man until I shined the flashlight on his face to see if he had any debris in his mouth before I plastered my lips to his and tried to keep him alive. 

     That night had been unseasonably cold even for February. The snow surrounding the house was several feet deep, and when we pulled up with our lights and sirens blaring, his wife was standing out there in her nightgown, barefoot in the white, calling his name up to a window over the porch roof, where even in the darkness, we could see smoke spilling out and rising up to the sky.  What looked like the kitchen was engulfed in flames below.

     The neighbor that had made the call showed up with a coat for her.  He put it around her shoulders and walked her off toward his house through the deep snow as we propped the ladder and scrambled up.  I was one of the first to reach the roof.  The glass around the window was ragged, still partially covering the frame, so we had to fully clear it away before we could find him. 

     The smoke inside the house was so thick the first one into the room stepped on him.  He had collapsed just on the other side of the sill. Somehow, we got him through the window to the outside and lay him down on the snow-covered roof to begin first aid.

     When I started resuscitating him, he seemed to be still with us, the flashlights waving around, making it impossible to really see what I was doing, but after a few minutes, when I pulled my face back from his to check him, I wondered if he was gone.  

     Then we discovered the severed artery in his arm from when he had broken both the interior window and the storm, trying to get himself and the girls out, and we realized compressions had been the wrong move.  

     His blood had seemed black on the surrounding snow. At first we thought that the black spots on all the white up there were exposed shingles—until one of the beams from our flashlights hit the spill, and we saw bright red splatters.  We’d been forcing blood out of him. 

     One of the other men starting wrapping a strap around his arm as a tourniquet then, and I kept breathing air into his lungs again, trying as hard as I could to make a difference.  

     Once we had slowed the bleeding, we worked together to hand him down off the roof onto a stretcher, where the men who had been waiting for us below carried him across the lawn, retracing our tracks in the snow. The ambulance was running, waiting for us, and they loaded him into the back. I jumped in and kept working on him on the way to the hospital.  

     We didn’t have oxygen or plasma in ambulances back then, and both were exactly what he needed. I plastered my mouth to his and tried to breath for him, someone else holding the strap tight on his arm, trying to stop the blood.

     Under lights in the back of the ambulance, we could see that he was far off and maybe even gone—but we worked in a frenzy for the thirty-minute ride to the emergency room.   The man who was pressing on the bleeding called his name, cajoling him, telling him we were almost there while I inhaled through my nose and then exhaling into his mouth, inhaling and exhaling, inhaling and exhaling, mostly with my eyes closed because in some ways I was so repulsed—until we pulled into the small hospital, where he was diagnosed Dead on Arrival in the parking lot.

     When I went into the bathroom later at the hospital, I saw my features were smeared black from the smoke and red with his blood, caked on, impossible to scrub off even with paper towels and soap.  My face itched the whole way home as we road in defeated silence back to the village.

     I could not kiss my wife for years afterwards.  I couldn’t stand any pressure from another human being on my lips at all, like I would drown or somehow be unable to swallow air, as if a ghost was pulling life from me.  After that night, I was not the same.

     I’d close my eyes and see his gaping mouth, his distant stare.  A flash light beam in the night would make my heart race.  The dark shadows on the snow at the edges of the lawn in the early hours occasionally became the black splotches of his blood.  A siren in the distant would bring back the smell of smoke. The first thing I looked for in every building I entered was the fire alarm.


     These days, the graveyard of my old hometown has outgrown its original design and pushed back into the woods where, when the kids were little and the Memorial Parade marched to the graveyard to honor the dead, two buglers would be concealing themselves in the woods.  First, members who had served in the military would fire a salute with their rifles, and a bugler standing beside them would play the first part of “Taps.” Part way through the song, a second bugler would pick up the tune, a little farther off and out of sight.  

     Finally, way off in the distance, a third bugler would play the last notes of the song, like the dead, invisible and removed.

     Those woods where the two distant buglers used to position themselves in hiding to play was by then developed as an extension of the cemetery and lined with graves as far as I could see.  I wondered where the buglers went to hide now that the woods were gone.

     The man I tried to save had two daughters, one in my son’s class.  At the time of the fire, she and he were both twelve. Their last names put them alphabetically right next to each other for their entire schooling, and he sat behind her from kindergarten until the family moved away some time high school.

     When I came home early that morning, I didn’t know that my son had sat behind her in class or that he had stood next to her during spelling bees or any other time that the class had to be lined up in alphabetical order. 

     As I opened the door, I heard the news about the fire was already on the radio with the announcer breaking in to tell the story, beginning with the words Just in. 

     My wife had dozens of questions. Was anyone else hurt?  How had the fire started?  Where were they now?  

     I didn’t have any answers.  

     My youngest daughter was still asleep, but the two older kids were with my wife, eating pancakes and listening when I walked in, all of them in their clean pajamas.  I couldn’t avoid seeing them and didn’t want to talk, wishing I had snuck in another door.

     “Couldn’t you save him?” asked my son, and I immediately felt distressed.  

     “No,” I said, “I could not,” as if bringing him back had been my responsibility alone.

     He looked crushed, disappointed, and in disbelief all at once, his mouth a twisted knot. He’d helped me raise the flag at the firehouse, ridden with me in the fire truck for the parades, my wife and daughters waving to us from the side of the road. Since I worked out of my home, day or night they’d heard me go out to answer a call. My son used to sit on the steps of the firehouse and watch us do drills.

     Nothing bad had ever happened before.  People had been hurt, property had been lost, but no one had ever died with my lips on theirs while I was blowing air into their lungs, trying to keep them alive.  

     I hadn’t even admitted that I was the one doing mouth-to-mouth on him, but I think by the look in my eyes, which I am sure they had never seen before, that they knew I had failed to rescue his classmate’s father, a hero who had saved three people in the fire in the middle of the night and collapsed, bleeding out in his boxer shorts, asphyxiating from the smoke. 

     I had fallen short.  Unlike my many friends who had seen action in the war, that moment was the first battle I had ever faced, and I had lost.  

     I was a Boy Scout.

     What I would eventually learn was that after that first battle, I had to fight a very different combat with myself—a wrestling match that went on for decades and still sometimes rises from the deep occasionally, like some awesome sighting of the struggle between the squid and the whale— the clash between the guilt I felt for failing him and what I had once considered my sense of self. 

     That day in the kitchen, I knew that whoever I had been did not exist anymore, as dead as the man beneath the stone before me now.


     How do you tell your friends and family that you don’t know who you are? That everything you believed yourself to be has disappeared?  I had no feeling but anxiety and dread, which I tried to lock up inside myself, so they became my undercurrent.

     Being a husband to my wife, mentor to my children, a part of the community no longer had meaning for me. How does a man without direction guide his wife and children by protecting and providing for them, ensuring they have what they need in order to grow into the best people they can be?  

     I could find no purpose nor incentive. 

     Instead, I operated behind a new façade, a mask, going through the motions of my former life with a chasm inside, deep and full of constantly resurfacing images. Proud memories of who I once thought I was, a whole person with a family depending on him, who once ran a business, who cared for land, who served as a fire fighter, conversed with neighbors and strangers, who coached little league, now appeared in farcical fragments and flashes like I had been a vain poser or imposter that I now detested. 

     The people I could most relate to were by then the Schmidts, Dave and Mary, who had been over at the house playing bridge earlier on the night of the fire, who had showed up with a paper bag of ingredients to make hors d’oeuvres, so they’d needed to use the oven. The cause of the fire was not definitive, but investigators said the blaze had started in the kitchen, perhaps wire failure in the oven.  

     Like me, the Schmidts blamed themselves for what had happened.  I did not know them until they came to unburden themselves to me one Sunday after church, but I had held back and only hinted at the depths of the despair I was feeling.

     With his wife and the girls, the Schmidts tried to make up for what they considered their mistake.  Dave would go over and play board games with them occasionally.  They took the family up to their lake house for a week every summer.  When the plumbing went bad or a gutter tore loose once the house was rebuilt and they’d moved back in, Dave would run over there with his tools. 

     If I had been the one to sell them their home insurance or life insurance, I could have at least felt good about myself then because I always make sure my clients had strong coverage, but I was not their agent.

     Maybe if I had gone over there and asked to mow their lawn, I would have felt better about myself, but I didn’t.  I’d lost all motivation and ability to contribute.

     I stopped sleeping and prowled the house, went into the barn at three in the morning and started organizing my grandfather’s old tools.  I repaired handles on shovels and pitch forks no one had used in fifty years. 

     In fact, I was even unable to pick up the insurance company business phone and talk to clients. Where previously my ability to focus and remember had been my primary strength in business matters, I couldn’t organize my thoughts or my materials.  

     I would stand in my office, looking around, and not know what to do next.

     At some point, my wife stepped in, attended night classes to get licenses to sell property & casualty and life & health insurance, then took over my accounts. 

     Worst was that I stopped trying to talk to my kids. I didn’t know what to say to them or how to get out of my ruminations.

     When my son would ask, “Are you coming to my game?” I wouldn’t answer.  I don’t know why.  I’d either show up or I wouldn’t—because I would either remember or not.  

     My wife found me with a gun in my lap one day when she came home early.  


     There are lots of ways to kill yourself, and from what I heard after the funeral, he was on his way, the drinking, the driving, the women, and even hanging out with questionable ‘acquaintances.’  A lot of the people buried under the stones that surrounded me had been on their way too, but no matter how they’d ended up there, they’d all arrived. 

     Whereas before I had thought of him as someone irresponsible enough to have rumors spread about him, I now understood he was a man like me who, like me as well, needed to make friends with his demons.  A thousand people don’t crowd a funeral for a terrible person.  Greater love hath no man. They do go to pray for a soul they love who is lost and haunted. In all things, charity.

     I lost time to grief and guilt, to feeling unworthy, in truth, decades. For years, I could see the concern in the faces of my wife, children, and friends when they looked at me for signs that I was slipping away because my recovery waxed and waned according to how much stress I was under, whether or not a firetruck went by with its siren on when I was at a stop light in my car, or perhaps even because of the phase of the moon.  For years, I went in and out of misery through my own psychological revolving door, and sometimes the trip was a bad one.

     Eventually, I didn’t see that worry in their eyes, the penetrating concern that sometimes kept them wary and hypervigilant with me.  The looks on their faces when they saw me, even after they learned I was ill, were the reason I knew I was “better” because they appeared relaxed, and their eyes showed joy, reflecting my own.  

     We sold the insurance business when we moved to Florida, but my son stayed in the industry, moving to North Carolina.  He’s such a convincing salesman that he gets bonuses every year that are as big as his salary.  He’s never forgotten the girl with the blonde hair who sat in front of him for all those years of school, though none of us knows where any of the family is now. The mother remarried and took the girls away to a different state when the older one was in high school.  

     Time marches on and so must we. 

     We’ve always wondered what happened to them and how they are. My son admits he uses their story whenever he is working with a client who wants to perhaps cut corners in protection in favor of saving money.  

     He tells them that when he was growing up, he knew a girl whose house had a fire.  The father had bought a replacement policy on the house, so the insurance paid to rebuild , and afterwards they didn’t have a mortgage.  

     That was good, he’d say, because the father’s life insurance papers sat unsigned on his desk.  They’d never have been able to rebuild the house just with their social security, and social security was all they had.

     I heard a car door slam behind me, and when I looked over my shoulder, I saw someone had parked just inside the entrance to the graveyard.  A trunk lid went up in the back, and I wondered if someone was there to do a little spring decorating.  I heard the voices of two children I could not see, acting silly, and then their mother’s shush, teaching them the etiquette of graveyards.  

     Maybe he wouldn’t have wanted to live anyway, I told myself.   Perhaps by losing him, I saved him from another fate that would have been worse.   He never had to grow old, to get so sick or decrepit he couldn’t care for himself. Possibly it’s good for everyone to have this final image of him as a hero who died saving his family in a fire, which over the course of their lives may have been of great comfort to them.  

     Greater love hath no man.

Jeffrey Alfier Matin_Bleu.jpeg
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