MY FATHER'S BOOTS
I saw them standing there in the corner, a pair of rubber fireman's boots. The top cuff on each boot was rolled down, revealing the brown canvass lining inside. The rest of the boots were made of shiny black rubber, with twin yellow lines circling the calf area and a yellow stripe where the hard rubber sole met the upper shoe of the boot. They were a little dusty and looked sorts of forlorn sitting there in the corner of my mother's basement, at 24 Ramona Ave., in Buffalo, N.Y. in early 1976.
Dad had just passed on and his many children had flown in from all over the United States to bury him and comfort my mother and each other. My father was much beloved by all of us. It wasn't an easy time for our family. We treasured the magic of his memory though. It is captured forever in each of us.
Above the boots, on a small peg on the wall and looking equally as forgotten, hung his metal fireman's helmet. Emblazoned across the front of it was the legend “Buffalo Fire Department.” Francis Harold Martin had been a professional firefighter for 33 years before retiring. Now, four years later, we were saying good-bye to him for the final time.
I remember seeing those boots, and that hat, in dad's locker at the Engine #8 Firehouse on Chicago Street, in Buffalo's Old First Ward. Dad had been born on nearby Fulton Street. Generations of our people had walked the same streets. Now Dad was helping protect them 100 years later. The “First Ward” was always a special place to us.
'Dad had spent most of his career in this two-story, redbrick firehouse. It had been built in the 1890's and was first used as a station for the horse drawn fire brigade. Whenever Dad brought us to the firehouse, we were agog with the many new and unfamiliar sights. From an old safe in the back, we were offered candy bars and given the run of the place. Dad and the others were stationed there in 14-hour shifts. Between calls, they tended to the equipment and performed routine chores around the firehouse. One of the men was usually fixing some food in the kitchen area. If a call came during dinner, the food would be left on the table as the men scrambled into their rubber boots and long rubber jackets, often sliding down the shiny brass fire pole, from the floor above, to jump onto the waiting Hook and Ladder truck. On an alarm run, dad sat at the end of the truck, steering the rear wheels around corners.
On the truck, the metal fire hat gave the men a distinctive look, with its peaked crown and elongated rear brim. Many a firefighter owed his life to the protection of these sturdy helmets. At the fire, the men wielded an axe and hoses with a sense of desperate urgency. Lives often depended upon their courage and quick thinking. After the fire was put out, the grime covered and weary men would roll up their hoses and return to the firehouse, to await the adrenalin rush of the next alarm. It was all in a day's work for these gallant Knights of the hook and ladder.
During the downtime, between fires, the men would polish to a glossy finish, the cherry red surface of the very long hook and ladder truck. The men lovingly burnished the abundant chrome work on the rig and treated it with the care and devotion reserved for a machine whose proper functioning might make the difference in whether or not they lived or died. Fire fighting is a dangerous job. Each of the men knew that any fire could be his final call.
Dad never talked about the dangers of the job to us. Once in a very great while, he would mention the fate of some poor soul who had been caught in a fire. He was saddened at their loss. When one of their own men died in the line of duty, the fire community gave their fallen comrade a ceremonial farewell worthy of a president and did what they could to help the fallen man's family. There is a tight knit sense of fraternity among these men and women, a brotherhood of shared danger in harm's way.
Most people don't realize how difficult and dangerous a fireman's job is, because the firefighters make light of the dangers and every day heroism. They treat injury and death with the casual nonchalance of those who risk their lives daily in service to others.
“Lots of people wanted to be a fireman,” dad used to say, “until you were up on a ladder, in zero-degree temperatures and a forty mile an hour wind.” “Then,” he said, “Not too many people wanted the job.”
On another visit, we really got the treat of our young lives. Dad took several of us on a tour of his old station, the fireboat “Edward M. Cotter.” It was berthed near a spit of land, at the foot of Michigan Avenue, where it meets Lake Erie. Dad's great grandmother, Catherine Tevington, had once lived here where the boat is moored.
The sturdy vessel, “Edward M. Cotter,” is painted all in red with black trim. It looks like a double-decked harbor tug. The swivel mounted water cannon, on the foredeck, shoots forth a continuous jet of water in a sweeping watery arc that delighted all of the watching children. The engine room glistens with polished brass fittings and shiny steel engine parts. The steady hum of the marine diesels is thrilling and mysterious. It was a wonderful tour of the boat that we all remembered for years afterward.
We have a great picture of Dad, as he and a few firefighters stood on the top deck of the fireboat, watching the many dignitaries that attended the ship's christening. It seems odd to see him there, a handsome young man in his thirties, wearing the dark blue firefighters dress uniform, with badged cap. Dad had the dark curly hair and startlingly blue, turquoise eyes that we attributed to the “black Irish” in our line. Legend has it that the older Irish families in Buffalo, who had lived on nearby Times Beach, inter-married with the Spanish and Portuguese Great Lakes sailors living there. The resulting progeny had dark curly hair and bright blue eyes. It is an attractive combination of both ethnic groups.
Dad had an engaging Irish smile and could charm everyone with his infectious grin and casual rendition of “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” or some other popular, ethnic ditty. Everybody liked my father. Years later, when I was involved in local politics, people would take me aside at a rally or function and tell me what a great guy Dad was. I always felt grateful to those friends who shared stories with me of his life.
And now, Dad had answered the final call. For 33 years he had done his job in the quiet, steady fashion that was the trademark of everything he did in life. He never reached command rank in the fire department, because he always had one and sometimes two other jobs to support his brood of 12 children. There was no time left to study for promotional exams.
Dad started work at an early age. During the depression he entered the Civilian Conservation Corps, at age 17, and worked in the pine forests of Georgia. He sent his entire salary to his mother to help out at home. My grandfather, Emmanuel Martin, was a “scooper” on the Buffalo waterfront and the rough and tumble longshoremen often faced periods of unemployment. Dad was like that, always helping somebody.
Later on in life, as a bartender, Bible salesman, mailman, boilermaker, floor polisher, beer salesman and a score of other jobs, he complimented his modest salary from the fire department. Many of the area businessman recognized the disparity in pay and offered a “fireman's discount” to the men. We used to cringe with embarrassment when Dad asked, “Do you give a Fireman's Discount?” But, much to our amazement, many of the merchants did give the men a break. They were appreciative of the dangerous job the firemen did, in protecting their shops, and cognizant of the low pay that firemen then received.
Dad never complained about anything. He never got ruffled, just kept plodding along however deep the waters got. He always told us that you had to “roll with the punches.” He never bought anything on credit and he always paid his bills on time. We were more than fortunate in what he provided for us.
I remember that we often ate dinner early, at 3:30 P.M., when Dad had to be at the firehouse by 4:30, to begin his 14-hour shift. We didn't see much of him because he always had a job doing something or other. As a firefighter, activities on weekends and holidays were dependent on dad's schedule. Many a family event was celebrated without him, while dad manned his post.
When he was home, we followed him around in silent awe and wanted to be part of his day. He had his mother, Mary Tevington's temperament and was both gentle and easy with us until we crossed the line. Then the discipline was both swift and sure.
There are many memories that I carry of my Father. One of the most colorful was his penchant for betting on the horses. He was a knowledgeable student of the nags. He told me that he had started out running for the bookies, when he was a kid, and followed the horses ever since. He bought “Turf” magazine and studied it like the bible. We would pick up his racing forms, from a small store on the corner of Smith and Seneca, in Little Hollywood. When Dad had made his picks, two ten-dollar bills would be wrapped in a piece of paper with his bets written on them. He would then drop them through the rear window of his bookie's gas station, on the corner of South Park and Elk Streets. It all seemed sort of mysterious to me at the time and I thought it very exciting.
Dad was a capable handi-capper who would only bet on one or two races at a meet. He picked those races where he thought that he could correctly assess the jockey and horse's ability and their relative chances at winning a particular heat. As a rule, he would only bet on thoroughbreds at the nearby Fort Erie Race Track, across the Niagara River in Canada. Sometimes he and a few buddies would drive the hundred miles to the Finger Lakes Race Track, in Canandaigua. He avoided the local Harness Racing Tracks, because he thought that harness racing wasn't on the “up and up.” He told us that once he had been invited to sit in the owner's box at a harness racing track. It was suggested to him that he bet a certain combination for the daily double. Sure enough, that combination came in and paid handsomely. That was enough for Dad. He never went back. He was smart enough to know that you wouldn't always be sitting in the owner's box and you can't fight “coincidence.”
Although he would go through periods when he couldn't even steal a winner, Dad often won at the track. I recall one especially big Exacta that came in for him. He was able to pay for one of my sister's weddings and take the whole family to the Crystal Beach Amusement Park, in Canada, for the day. That was a big outing for a family our size.
Even with his wins, Dad always told us that “The Horses,” and gambling in general, were a sucker's game and that the odds were stacked against us. He passed along to us much of his hard-earned wisdom. He left us a good and honored name and a legacy of hard work and bulldog determination that has served his children well these many years.
All of these thoughts careened through my head as I looked at those boots standing in the dusty corner. It is funny how much that we lock away in our memory, not even aware of its presence, until some trigger sends it all gushing forth. Finally, curiosity got the better of me. I slipped off my shoes and stepped into Dad's boots. I found that they were way too big for me and that I couldn't fill my Father's shoes. But then, I guess that was something that I had discovered a long time ago.
Joseph Xavier Martin