Commentary: I Slept with My Toy Firetruck

By Louis A. Zona

When I was a kid, dreaming about my future, I imagined myself a firefighter. I spent many days playing with my toy firetruck in our backyard and I encouraged the other kids in the neighborhood to join in.

I saw to it that other kids shared in my fantasy. My toy firetruck was one of my favorite things, so prized that I even took it to bed with me. Since I shared a bed with my older brother, Jerry, I can’t begin to tell you how many times that Jerry dug that truck out of my side when I’d fall asleep with it under the blankets.

My dad loved parades and took me to numerous Memorial Day parades, holiday parades, and especially 4th of July parades. He made sure that we’d have a prime spot on the curb at the corner of Mill and Washington streets.  We would not leave until every last firetruck from city and rural fire departments showed off its equipment.

Dad made sure that I stood with him closest to the street so I could get the full effects of the firetruck sirens. I’d cover my ears to muffle the sound and Dad would just laugh since loud sounds always bothered me. Boy did I hate it when cymbals crashed in front of me from a passing band. OK, I was a wuss!

My dream of being a firefighter began to fade in second grade when Sister Mary Irma entered my life. Sister must have felt that I had some artistic talent when she chose me to create the official fire prevention poster for my class that was entered into a citywide competition.

To this day I can recall the trauma that accompanied my selection. I told Sister that I would create a poster that included a house on fire caused by bad wiring.

All was going well until I attempted to depict fire. A 6 or 7 year old kid draws fire like inverted V’s.

Sister came up behind me while I was making my impression of fire and yelled ‘No!“ Taking the crayon out of my hand she said, “That’s not fire. Here’s fire!” as she created her rendition.

“You’ve ruined a good sheet of poster paper,” she yelled as she grabbed my hair and flung me across the front of the classroom as my classmates looked on in horror.

“Start over!” she demanded. Which I did, being especially careful to draw each flame of the burning house in a manner that would meet with Sister Irma’s approval.

I don’t know that my finished project was any better than what the other children had done. But I was honored to represent my class, being one of the poster contest winners.

Believe it or not, the winner from each school got to ride on an actual fire truck accompanied by the fire chief of the city.

There were probably eight of us who climbed up onto the ladder lying across the top of the truck. So there we were, sitting on the reclined ladder being told to hold onto the ladder as we moved slowly through the city.

Wuss that I was and a nervous wreck atop the slow-moving truck, I did not share in the fun the other children had as it proceeded. And to think that one day I wanted to become a firefighter!

As I think about that experience, I can’t help but remember the trauma that Sister Irma caused me. Did I tell my mother? Heck no! My mom, as religious as she was, would never have let Sister get away with using her son as a bowling ball.

As for the firetruck ride, as we all know, it simply could not happen today. Well meaning firefighters would be sued into infinity and beyond at the mere image of small children riding atop a firetruck ladder.

Is it any wonder that I did not live my dream of becoming a firefighter? I fear large fires. I fear heights. And I hate the thought of being in a crane bucket or standing on a ladder higher than seven feet. I would have made one terrible fighter of fires.

And having to fight a blaze in the middle of winter? I can’t even imagine.

While the subject of fighting fires is no laughing matter, one of my very favorite Seinfeld scenes involves Jerry’s crazy friend Kramer.

If you’re a fan of the show you might recall Kramer managing to become a New York City firefighter as he hops aboard one of those gigantic fire trucks that require someone to drive the back wheels.

Kramer has the greatest time waving at friends as he zips through the city streets not knowing a thing about controlling the back section of the large vehicle.

Every Christmas, the movie “A Christmas Story,” shot in Cleveland, is presented. Honest to goodness, that movie is my life growing up in the 1950s.

My favorite scene involves the father trying to control his furnace, which he sees as a monster in his basement. And every morning he goes to battle with his furnace through a barrage of swear words.

Minus the swearing, that scene could have been shot in our home on Center Street. We had an unruly coal furnace that my dad fired up every morning before he went to work. He’d load enough coal in it to keep my mother warm through the day.

Every morning a battle ensued as Dad broke large pieces of coal with a sledgehammer before he tossed it into the furnace. On some occasions, he worried that the furnace had won the battle by shooting flames up through the large vent in our wooden frame, very old, house.

He’d ask me to go outside and look up to see if flames were spewing from the chimney. Sometimes they were and Dad took ashes and threw them into the overheated furnace.

I don’t know for sure but I’d guess that Sister Irma is teaching the angels the proper way to draw a fire and Dad has a brand new digitally operated furnace to kick now and then.