Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sunday Story: Fire Whistle

Fire Whistle

By Bruce H. Mero

It was just past noon and already the late-August heat and humidity was oppressive.  I was bored.  My best friend from sixth grade was on vacation with his mom and dad, I was stuck entertaining myself and I had run out of interesting things to do. 

Lazily, I tossed my hardball against the cinderblock wall of my Grandpa’s machine shop wall, catching the ball in my baseball glove as it returned.  I had tossed the ball a half dozen times, or so, when Grandpa Curt, holding up his trousers, stormed out of the shop and told me where he intended to put that ball if I didn’t immediately stop throwing it at his shop wall.  Apparently he was sitting on the toilet, one cinderblock width away, when my first toss hit the wall.  I had disrupted his mid-day constitution and he was not happy.  He threatened me with severe harm, shook his fist and went back inside muttering something to himself.

I learned early in my short life to avoid my Grandpa when he was mad, and it seemed that he was mad at me a lot.  Once, after a Thanksgiving meal, Grandpa, my father and an uncle or two were watching a football game on the TV when I stepped between Grandpa and the TV screen. 

“Boy,” he warned, “you’re standing in front of the TV.” 

Before the words had even reached my ears, Grandpa’s slipper bounced off the back of my head.  The men were amused.  I ran out of the room in tears. 

Grandpa Curt was a hero to his sons-in-law.  He quit school in the fifth grade and gone to work to help support his family.  He had worked a variety of jobs over the years and by the time his youngest daughter and my dad were married, he owned a small airport, several airplanes and a machine shop employing a score of machinists.  The airport and the airplanes had been sold by the time I came along, but he still worked everyday in the machine shop.  I had been warned more than once about throwing my baseball against his shop wall and had been chewed out every time I forgot about the warnings.  I seemed to forget a lot. I know he yelled at me a lot.

I wandered off into the back yard and sat down on the grass.  I was so bored that I found myself wishing for school to start.  Just then the fire whistle sounded in town, several short blasts, then several long ones.  The short and long bursts of the fire whistle were a code to tell the location of the fire in town.  I knew that the code was listed on the front page of the telephone book, so I ran inside and checked the book.  The fire was on North Willow Street.  Soon I could hear the sirens on the fire trucks heading to the fire and I wished I lived closer to town to be able to go to the fire and watch.  Then I would have something to do, I thought.

Returning to the back yard, I climbed up my favorite apple tree, picked a couple of green apples and put them into my pocket.  I sat in a crotch of branches about twenty feet above the lawn and began to eat green apples. 

The windows were open in Grandpa’s shop and I heard the telephone ring.  A minute later, Grandpa came out into the back yard and said, “Come on, boy, let’s go for a ride.” I ran to catch up with him and we jumped into his 1948 Willies Jeep.

“Where are we going, Grandpa,” I inquired, as we drove out of the driveway and sped down the street.

“North Willow,” he replied.

He paid no attention to the stop signs.  Tires screeched as we turned corners.  The engine of the Jeep whined when we bounced across the railroad tracks that separated Willow Street into north and south sections, and my head hit the ceiling of the truck.  Ahead I could see three fire trucks, two police cars and a hundred people in the street looking up into the crown of a giant Elm tree.  The Fire Department’s ladder truck was in the street and the ladder deployed up into the Elm tree about half way to the top.  I looked around for a fire, but there was nothing on fire that I could see.

We parked, unnoticed, behind a long line of cars.  Grandpa got out of the Jeep and he stared up into the Elm tree.  I looked also, but couldn’t see anything.  I had no idea what everyone was looking for up in the tree.  Finally, Grandpa seemed to spot something and he grabbed the pellet gun that he always carried behind the driver’s seat of the Jeep.  He put a pellet in the chamber, cocked it and pumped the gun six or eight times.  Leaning on the front fender of the Jeep he took aim and fired.  There was no sound, but from the top of the Elm a few leaves fluttered and a huge yellow cat came crashing through the tree as though his tail was on fire, at times running and at times he seemed to fly down the tree trunk.  I know the cat was airborne the last twenty-five feet; he smacked the ground with a thud and ran off across the street just as fast as he had come down the tree.  The entire disembarkation process had taken less than ten seconds.  During the cat’s decent, Grandpa Curt had put the pellet gun back in the Jeep and he sat in the driver’s seat.

“Let’s go, boy,” he said, as he closed the door and started the engine.

Grandpa turned the Jeep around in the street and as we drove away I could see the crowd of people looking in the direction of the retreating yellow cat.  Nobody had seen us arrive, nobody had seen Grandpa ping the cat with a pellet from his gun and no one was watching us leave.  In less than ten seconds he had accomplished what dozens of people, the City Police and the Fire Department hadn’t been able to accomplish.  Only he and I knew what possessed that cat to fly out of that Elm tree with all of those people watching.  Only us and whoever called Grandpa Curt to North Willow Street in the first place.

Grandpa had a wry smile on his face as we drove slowly back to his machine shop. He parked the Jeep in its usual spot, gave me a wink, and then went back into his shop.

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