My only injury as a firefighter didn’t happen on the fire line. The scar on my arm which has woo’d countless babes (not really) didn’t come from from rescuing an invalid from a burning building or carrying a tiny spotted fawn from the path of a raging wildfire; no, alas, it was a simple accident. But it sure looks good, even after all these years and without any cosmetic enhancement whatsoever.
One of the chores around the fire station in between fires was to clean and sharpen all of the implements we used. There were the McCleods and the axes and the shovels and the brush hooks. We kept a large supply of these tools around ready to replace the dirty and dulled ones we brought back from the fires.
We had a tool room down in the basement under the station. It was located near the hose washing rack. You got there by passing the front office and walking down a stairway beside the station. The small room had a variety of tools and a workbench with a vise that had a round device for holding the handle of the tool you were sharpening. I learned early as a firefighter that a sharp tool is a safe tool. The seems to be contradictory in a logical sense but it’s sensible if you think about it. A sharp tool bites into whatever you are trying to cut whether you make a good strike at it or not. A dull tool can glance off and come back at you or at someone else.
To begin the sharpening process the tools were hosed off to free them of dirt and soot. The process also included sanding the wooden handle if needed and using a rag to apply a thin coat of linseed oil to it. The tool was them clamped into place and the appropriate edges were sharpened. After the tool was sharpened, the linseed rag was wiped over the black metal of the tool and it was ready to go in the rack until needed.
I got pretty good at sharpening tools and I enjoyed doing it. It was a rewarding thing to take a dirty abused tool and revive it to a like-new state again. I never thought that a shovel needed to be sharpened before fighting fire but it’s an effective cutting tool when it has a sharp edge.
The day I got injured I was sharpening a brush hook. A brush hook looks like it should be in a museum as some relic of a medieval war. It has an axe handle and a large iron cylinder that the handle is inserted into. The flat edge of a large, thick iron hook is welded to the cylinder and it is then sharpened all along the inside of the hook. It’s a great tool on the fire line, heavy and powerful.
So I was in the tool room sharpening this brush hook and I had just tested the edge with my thumb and admired its fine edge. I decided that it needed just a couple more swipes with the file so I proceeded to lean into it to finish it up when the file slipped and my forearm bumped into the blade. I could feel it slice deeply into my arm and I reacted by pulling away as quickly as I could. It didn’t hurt very much and that surprised me but I knew I was badly cut. I didn’t want to look at it so I put my other gloved and oily hand over the wound and made my way up the stairway to the captain’s office.
I told the captain that I needed to see the doctor but he wanted to see it for himself. He didn’t argue with me and grabbed the Ranger’s pickup keys and alerted the engineer that we were on our way to the only doctor in town. Peaches ran out of the barracks in an instinctive act of feminine care-taking and asked what had happened and to see the wound for herself. I took away my hand and at least six pints of blood poured (well, maybe it was a teaspoon) onto the floor of the garage and poor Peaches lost all impulse to play Florence Nightingale and she squealed in horror and took off running in the opposite direction back to the barracks. We all thought was hysterical: we were much too macho to be frightened by a guy’s exposed musculature and a splash of blood.
Anyway, the good doctor sewed me up and it was a miserable job too. The kindly old guy was simply not cut out to be a plastic surgeon. I still have a very wide scar on my arm from it so I am satisfied that the cut was not on my face.
Our crew was safe and lucky throughout my time fighting fires. The danger of the fire line did not enter our minds all that much, even when the heat and the smoke were all around. In my second year we were reminded that it was a dangerous job when some guys burned to death in a southern California fire. They were caught in a fire driven by winds they called “Sundowners”. It seems along the coast the wind blows in from the ocean on a normal day and then turn around and blow out to sea when the sun goes down. This can cause a fire to burn back down a hillside abruptly and these guys were from the north and were not aware of the danger. The fire they chased all day came back on them and several died.
To be continued…