Fire in the belly

My family spent Easter visiting our college son at Sewanee, that beautiful place gracing 13,000 pristine acres high on the Cumberland Plateau. We've spent every Easter for almost a decade there because of that beauty and the proximity to our kids. My oldest daughter lives in Washington, D.C., a direct flight to Nashville where my oldest son lives, so he can pick her up for the one-hour drive south. This year, our middle child decided to travel Europe while working remotely for a New York bank. Go figure. An Easter commute from Scotland wasn't happening.

With one gone, seven of us remained to enjoy the big family experience. As is our custom, we first met at Shenanigan's, a locally famous restaurant situated in an old house on Sollace Freeman Highway. With its creaky pine floors and stained picnic tables, the atmosphere is ripe for reconnecting. We were sitting around a table ordering appetizers and beers and getting to know each other's faces once more when the radio fastened to my college son's belt crackled to life.

He adjusted knobs and listened. The rest of us leaned in.

I mentioned that Sewanee is on 13,000 acres. I hinted that means rural Tennessee. As in, the fantastic location commonly known as the middle of nowhere. Cabins and estates dot the acreage surrounding the university campus. Mobile homes and small neighborhoods lie ensconced within old-growth forests. The university has dozens of structures and thousands of undergrads and graduate students.

All that leads to the need for a student-led volunteer fire department smack-dab in the middle. My college son joined the 70 students trying out for a spot and managed to snag one of the six slots available to freshmen. He's now a volunteer firefighter.

This is new to our family.

Like practically all boys growing up, I dreamed of being a fireman. To this day, I will stop a class and allow my students to stand at the windows when a firetruck passes nearby. I tell myself there's no sense in fighting the inevitable distraction, so just allow everyone to enjoy it. Deep down, I'm wondering about the age limit for firefighter tryouts.

My wife and I were in a fire once. We were eating at an Asian restaurant next to the old Steak and Ale at the bottom of Cantrell Hill when chatter suddenly poured from the kitchen. I had my credit card out to pay our bill and the lights flickered, then went out. Our server swooped by our table and snagged my card. Smoke rolled out of vents. The server swooped back in and gave me my card, a pen, and a demand: "Sign now. Hurry."

I signed. I even left a tip. My wife was standing, grabbing my arm, urging me to the door as I put the cap back on the pen.

We ran out with the other customers, and I looked where flames licked the underside of the roof--right above my car. We heard sirens. I dove in the car and backed it up, my wife jumped in and we took off for the big parking lot across Cantrell Road. Then, the firetrucks roared in.

Good training led to a precise response. Those firefighters had hoses uncoiled and determination uncorked. The fire was out in minutes.

Just a few days ago, we had our annual tie-burning ceremony at school, an annual occasion marking the beginning of spring and the end of tie-wearing season. All 700 boys deposit their ties in a 50-gallon drum. A science teacher adds flammables. A countdown ensues and ... whoosh! The ties blow up.

A few years ago, some seniors connived with the local fire station to have a truck on standby. When the ties blew and a white mushroom cloud rose above our campus, the lights and sirens came on and a firetruck pulled into campus. The boys jumped and cheered when the firefighter pulled a hose and doused the barrel. The firefighter looked at me and grinned. I nodded. He let loose a spray on the student body that sent them dancing like kids in a lawn sprinkler.

That's what I call community service. The boys there that day are now graduates and still talk about it after all these years.

So when my son's radio squawked, we all froze in anticipation. Nothing. Just a radio check.

The next day, he met us for lunch and he looked exhausted. "Did you get a call last night?"

We all leaned in.

"Yep," he said nonchalantly.

"Annnnd ...?" My daughter encouraged, flapping her hand.

"It was a dorm fire at 3:45 this morning. Not really a fire. A kid was cooking and set off a smoke detector. I ran to the station, got dressed, headed out, and, well, it was a kid who doesn't know how to cook. False alarm."

We leaned back in our seats.

I'm sure a lot of the firefighting experience is like that. I'm sure there is the routine, the moments of quick thinking, and then the mistakes that lead to unnecessary action. All the while there is preparation for whatever comes next.

Sounds a lot like life.

I'm not sure my son will have a firefighting career after college but I do know that his experience with the campus department has him heading in the right direction--even with the occasional false alarms.

Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. "The Strenuous Life" appears every other Saturday.

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