I’m in Chattanooga as I write this, here for a couple weeks. There’s a new firehouse near where I’m staying. It’s a large facility with five trucks, each in its own bay. The other morning when I was walking back from the coffee shop I’ve been going to each day, one of the large doors began to rise. Lights were spinning on the truck and I watched firemen assuming their positions, climbing on at various points along each side. I stopped where I was on the sidewalk, sparked by the boyish wonder of watching this big, loud, shiny vehicle emerge from the building, sirens wailing, lights blinking and flashing.
After the first truck nosed out of the building and turned onto the street, the door rose on the neighboring bay and a second truck, with its firemen in their positions on board, followed the first down the street. As both doors were lowered I noticed many pairs of black boots, each at least a foot high, aligned along the sides of where the trucks had been. It made for an intriguing sight, the boots standing on the vast expanse of the pavement floor.
That evening, I walked past the back side of the firehouse where the doors were open and two firemen were sitting at a small table. One waved and said hello as I did the same. I stopped and walked towards them. I had a question. I described my morning observation of the black boots. The same man who’d said hello explained that they have to wear those regulation boots in the station and they change out of them into the special large, heat-resistant ones that, along with heavy overpants, stay at the ready beside the trucks. I didn’t know they needed to all wear the same boots in the station and he reiterated that indeed they did. I thanked him and he said, “You’re welcome, sir” as I walked away. Sir, an honorific for an elder. Young boys and old men stop by firehouses.
Being a fireman was not a career I thought of as a young boy. I think I first wanted to be clown, though that didn’t last long and may well have been prompted by my mother making me a clown costume for one of my early Halloweens.
In elementary school I briefly thought it would be cool to be a secret service agent. This may have been borne of a melding of the Secret Agent television program and James Bond movies with my memories of images of agents running alongside the president’s car when Kennedy was assassinated. The brevity of this particular plan for my adulthood was no doubt due to my total disinterest in sports and its attendant physical exertions, as well as a general sense that I didn’t want to be in the line of gunfire.
By junior high school I was taken with the idea of being an architect. I knew of an architect who was a friend of my parents. He played clarinet in a casual trio with my mother and an elderly man who played cello and smelled like old books and wet tobacco. They got together just for their own fun, not to perform. Since my mother was the pianist and we had a grand piano in the living room, they’d convene monthly at our house. Through that clarinetist/architect I heard about a magazine called Progressive Architecture and subscribed to it. It was way over my head, given that my main source of reading on the subject had been the occasional article in Life magazine featuring a particularly dramatic contemporary house. This magazine was for professionals, with ads for materials, fixtures, and devices. I took to sending away for the catalogs that were offered, mostly because I liked to get mail.
The desire to be an architect never went very deep. I didn’t spend time drawing houses. Instead, during my school hours I’d make detailed interior floor spaces for what I imagined recording studios to be like. But mostly I’d fill my notebooks with drawings of ridiculously expansive set-ups for rock bands: multi-keyboards, sprawling drum sets, and towering amplifiers for the electric guitars. By high school I was no longer citing architecture as a career path. I’d grown my hair long and played bass guitar in a succession of local bands. I wasn’t looking beyond that, continuing on the same trajectory through my first year of college. Then the band broke up and it was time to get out of Erie, Pennsylvania.
Coincidentally, when my daughter was in high school and was asked what she wanted to study in college, she would say “architecture.” She’d briefly elaborate on that answer by saying that it combined her interests in art and math. I admiringly observed these exchanges because, while having an element of truth to it, she saw that it effectively impressed the questioning adult so that they considered the matter closed.
Artist David Greenberger lives in Greenwich, NY. His latest CD of monologues & music is My Thoughts Approximately. www.davidgreenberger.com @davidbg