By Rosalie Tirella
I, like most Worcesterites, didn’t know Jason Menard, the 39-year-old Worcester fireman who died a horrible death this past week while doing his job. But I, like all of Worcester, love him. Not so much for “fighting” the flames in that Quinsig Village flat but for perishing while saving two of his “brothers” – fellow WFD firemen – up in that third-floor fire-trap on Stockholm Street, in Quinsigamond Village, Worcester’s old blue collar Swedish neighborhood. A neighborhood, like many of our older, ethnic neighborhoods, filled with 100-year-old two- and three-deckers: Kindlin’ wood.
One Worcester fireman was a newbie and couldn’t find the staircase in the carbon monoxide- and smoke-filled building. Jason found him (by touch? by words?) and led him to the staircase (did they hold hands?, lean together shoulder to shoulder?, whisper? cry out?). Jason helped another fellow fireman to an open window … to safety. And they say Jason was searching for the tenants’ baby when, and the cliches tumble out now: when the fireman was “overcome,” “overtaken,” “succumbed” … “didn’t make it.”
What does all the verbiage mean? Safe, sterile “nothing” words that can never convey the physical pain or emotional and bodily shock Jason experienced – or how a WFD “brother” pulled Jason’s body out. How that fireman felt lugging his dead friend out of all that crap. We call it smoke-inhalation, carbon monoxide poisoning, but Jason’s lungs were burning up! On fire like that building – his delicate, fluid filled lung membranes inflamed, burning… Only Jason gasped for fresh, clean, cool air. Only he felt his fireman suit and gear grow heavy! An encumberance between him and the stars in the cold Worcester sky, it turned out.
What if we could empty those Worcester night stars like coffee cups? And have Jason’s wife’s tears flow out of them to wash our city souls clean? Have Tina Menard stop all our clocks! Shut our city down!! To shout, like an ancient woman warrior: MY HUSBAND, A GOOD MAN, A GOOD FATHER TO OUR CHILDREN, IS DEAD!!
The man she loved at the grill, by their kitchen table, over their dishwasher, in bed, under the quilts … Jason died hurting and suffering in that crumby old Worcester three-decker.
FireFIGHTER. That is the trendy term to describe all firemen these days, including Jason Menard. Implying the guys FIGHT fires, BATTLE flames – which they do. But to me the term renders the men plastic, Disney-like, super-hero action figures – all iron-clad muscles, steely gazes, red cape-wearing fearlessness, even godlike … when in truth, the WFD guys – all firemen – are just guys. Guys who maybe love the challenge more than most of us, but men, often in the middle of life and love: youngish wives, young children, aging parents, mortgages, college savings accounts for their kids. They have fancy lawn mowers they love because they remind them how successful they are – married with kids and a nice home in the nicer parts of town. Leaf and snow blowers mark the seasons in their big back yards. Sex, BBQs, wide-screen TVs, Red Sox games – the fun stuff of guys in their 30s and early 40s! In their prime!
But these firemen, when they get into these fire-trap three deckers and warehouses in our old New England factory towns – Lawrence, Lowell, Worcester … – become guys in their prime doing their best. They save lives – and families. And communities. They save each other, too. All the time. Grabbing, holding each other hands, as they stumble to safety … giving each other hearty hugs of encouragement … pulling and pushing each other to that open window … sighing and maybe crying in all the smoke and darkness and admitting to the fireman next to them: I’M AFRAID, bro! A firefighter once told me, smiling: “There have been plenty of (WFD firemen) guys who’ve saved my life.” … intimating that he had returned and would continue to return the favor, again and again. If that’s not intimacy, true love, then I don’t know what is!
And that’s why the guys seem so close when you drive by one of their many Worcester neighborhood fire stations: together, they grill steaks on their grills/BBQ smokers outside their firestations; one guy will make a big pot of homemade soup or chilli for his crew on the station stove; they sit on lawnchairs outside on the drab cement parking lot, talking in the inner-city sun or maybe listening to one of their mate’s bag-pipe playing out by their sparkling red, just washed and hosed fire trucks, safe in their bays, ready for a parade – or a 3-alarm fire!
Jason Menard and the Worcester Fire Department firemen (and -women) are firefighters … but, best of all, they’re HUMAN BEINGS rushing into the void, not knowing, not thinking, about their mortality. Innocent as lambs.
“Just” men, “just” firemen.