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The Wacker

(c) 2016 Daniel Dunn

With apologies to anyone who actually fights fires. I probably got a lot of things wrong in this story.

He shouted orders with precision and clarity. He surveyed the area, predicted in his mind how the wind would drive the fire, made a plan, and confidently declared what had to be done, before quickly heading off to connect the hoses.

But nobody payed any mind. They all had real work to do and weren't about to take orders from some idiot who had only been there six months, four of which was just the training period. The prevailing thought was that it was helpful to have another man on the woefully understaffed team, but even then, opinions of John had been dropping by the day since he arrived.

Still, he was always first to respond to every call. He sometimes gave useful insight, even if not quite as often as he gave completely useless advice(A department so understaffed and underfunded that they needed him, did not have time to waste scouting the whole block during the beginnings of a house fire for "possible suspects")

And then, there was the time that he saved that guy. The fire was only his second, and one of the worst they had faced that year, and the huge amount of spilled gasoline meant that the hoses just made things worse. But John charged right in and grabbed the guy; earning himself a week in the hospital, and the respect of the the rest of the crew for it.

So you kind of had to respect him, you kind of had to see that the station needed him, maybe; but it was very hard to like him. He just wasn't a likable guy.

For one thing, you got the feeling he really didn't care how things turned out, as long as he looked like a hero.

And for another, things didn't turn out well as often as they should have with his "heroism" in the mix.

For as much as he liked to talk about the guy he saved, he never did much like to talk about the time the chief almost died saving him, or all the times he wasted precious seconds with his useless drivel, or the fact that the six months he had been with the department was the longest he had ever held down a job in his life.

But one day the department got a call to a manufacturing facility. They didn't know where or even if there was a fire, as the building was evacuated when the first sensor tripped, but he was cool an confident.

The minute he saw the computer screen flash "Tuckland Mfg Sensor 15-89 trip sector X" his eyes lit up like nothing the crew had ever seen before.

Almost all the sensors had tripped, so John knew this would be a big one. It would have everything: Chemicals, Metal, Electricity, Confined spaces, unknown layouts, industrial robots possibly still in operation, millions of dollars on the line; It was just the challenge someone like him waits a lifetime for. And the rest of the crew could tell. They saw how exited he was and it made them nervous.

"Heroes don't live past 30" the chief would always say. "Use your head and you might tell your grandkids about this. Rush in and you aren't gonna be rushing out with your own legs"

None of this, of course, had any effect on him. It was just so much dramatic fluff, important only to set the stage for a grand spectacle. His grand spectacle.

The chief took charge, directing one of the other younger firemen away from John. John definitely knew how to talk. He could usually convince the newer hires that he had much more experience than he did.

But when the chief saw John talking a bit too confidently, he always just had to shut his mouth, and whoever was listening usually quickly saw the truth and walked away, embarrassed to be seen listening so intently to what amounted to a complete amateur.

The men gathered their gear, breathing equipment, hoses, and a brand new thermal camera, and put on their suits.

The chief stood by as they got into the truck, looking each one over to make sure they hadn't forgotten anything obvious. "Your hose is dragging" he said to one of the men, who quickly clipped it into place.

On the way there, John was slightly quieter than usual. He was studying the instructions for the thermal camera, and installing new batteries in a hand-held air quality analyzer he had bought with his own money. The rest of the crew were just happy to have a few minutes off from his incessant useless verbosity.

He was so quiet, in fact, one might even have thought he was starting to take this seriously. A look at his face told otherwise.

They arrived at the scene and exited, the chief getting out first and watching everyone get out in much the same way he watched when they got in, and they made their way across the dark parking lot to the main entrance.

Small groups of people were still onsite, mostly managers wearing steel-toed dress shoes and white hard hats, and looking very much upset at the whole affair.

But the building itself appeared to be perfectly normal. There was no smoke, no fire, and John did not see any excess heat through the new camera.

For a moment, He looked like he was going to open his mouth, or perhaps leave the group to go check out the other side, but the chief gave him an unmistakable look of disapproval and he went back to looking through the green-tinted eyepiece of the camera.

The chief walked up to one of the managers, while the rest stayed a safe distance so as not to crowd the already angered bosses. He showed the chief a clipboard, and he motioned for his crew to make their way in.

They moved in slowly and quietly almost as if they hoped any fire would not notice them. With as much as they had seen, nobody could fault them for thinking that way. A lot could go wrong in a place like that if you weren't careful.

But there was no fire in sight. No signal on John's air quality sensor or from the camera, and no sound except one ventilation fan in the ceiling that had not automatically shut down.

No sound, that is, until John turned around, assuming a much more indignant and aggressive stance than his fellows' humble and careful gait, and started walking back towards the exit.

"Hey!" shouted one of the more senior firemen. "Splitting up the group is how lives are lost"

He paused and crept back towards the group. The chief looked sadly towards the ground.

John was strong. He never missed a workout no matter what. He seemed to know how to handle things when everything was crashing down around him. But as soon as the disaster ended he couldn't help himself from causing another. It was where he felt at home.

The chief found himself lost in thought. Remembering the first few months with John, How he was the only one to notice when the air tanks were underfilled before the night when three buildings went up. How he always showed up exactly on time.

But more than anything, how happy he was when John had saved that man. Seeing such an act of selflessness filled him with pride.

He disobeyed orders, sure, but he had only been out of training for two weeks, and in time he would surely learn not to be so reckless. A hospital stay has a way of teaching most people. John was, after all, the chief's personal project in a way. John knew from the start he would be a hard case. But he saw potential in him and was not about to let that die.

For a moment he almost felt like he would have to hold back tears. But then he felt something he hadn't felt in a long time. Six months was far too long to still be pulling things like that. Walking out, deserting the rest of the crew in the middle of what was still a possible fire was unacceptable to him. He felt anger, betrayal, an disgust. He wasn't sure what to make of it all.

The rest of the crew were starting to move on to investigate the back of a stamping press by the time he snapped out of it. As expected, there was no fire behind the stamping press. There was no fire behind the milling machine. There was not even a fire in the janitor's closet, where oily rags had been piled in stereotypical fashion just waiting to become a blaze. They went over every square foot of the factory.

Eventually they gave up and went home. An unhappy night shift manager who had just arrived home got the call and headed straight back to work, along with those of the employees who didn't sleep right through the calls. Production carried on as normal.

But John didn’t seem as relieved as the rest. In fact, he seemed utterly agitated. Luke almost thought about asking what was wrong, but he already knew. It was disappointment. Disappointment that you could see in John’s eyes as soon as he saw that the fire of a lifetime was no fire at all.

All the members of the crew were real get-things-done kind of people. Nobody was sitting down and making performance reports. If things were going well, everyone knew it, and if they weren't, everyone usually knew who or what to blame.

But this time nobody was sure. Nobody knew if they were doing a good job. The only thing anyone knew is that something was not right. There were whisperings in the hallways, people wondering what to do, but the chief didn't say anything at all. He felt like he had completely lost control of everything.

If he kicked John out, people could die. Not many people were willing to do this job, and certainly not with as much enthusiasm as John had, even if it was all completely misdirected.

And what would become of him outside the department? The chief's wife had showed him a magazine article about psychopathy one time, and he was beginning to wonder more and more just who this John was. Would he become a criminal? He clearly needed excitement in his life, as was going to find it any way he could.

The chief wanted to believe in John. He hoped that somewhere John really did care about the lives at stake every time they suited up and started the old truck. But now he didn't even know how he felt or what he wanted.

So he poured himself a glass of strong bourbon, put three ice cubes in, turned on the news for background noise, drank it down, and fell asleep in his chair.

Time went on and John slowly learned to show a little more respect. Ever so often, he would spot something nobody else did, or be there just in time when nobody else could.

He wasn't rushing in without his gear anymore, or disobeying orders as often; but every now and again he would make some callous remark or obnoxious mistake that had the whole crew doubting why they tolerated him. Nobody could really tell if he was really learning and improving, or just learning to pretend. Could he ever be trusted with any real responsibility? Or would the rest of the crew just have to spend the rest of their careers keeping tabs on him?

I don't know the answers. I don't know what you do with a person like John. I don't know what's going to happen to him or that department or the chief. I don't even know if there are any good answers to questions like these. I don't even know if he's still there.

But maybe we can at least learn from this story. Maybe we will never be firemen and women, but when an important decision comes up, maybe we can remember that it's not always just about us. Maybe we can remember that being a hero isn't just wearing a costume, and that villains can have capes too.

Maybe we can stop spending so much time chasing power and recognition and pretending to be things that we aren't. Maybe some of us need to step back and remember the person next to us is a real person too, and not just some anonymous member of our own private audience.

And maybe if we can learn that from John's story, maybe it really was worth keeping him around at the firehouse.