January 6, 2000

The Fire Truck

"Another funeral,” I said to myself as I turned my car onto the street which runs down to Newburyport Center. I often travel this route which passes the Roman Catholic Church which fills the block. Instead of the usual empty row of spaces the road was filled with cars from a funeral procession. The hearse and the limousines for the family were parked and leading the way. A flash of red struck my eye. The early winter’s day had not yet yielded a touch of sunlight and the cold, hard, gray light blended all of the vehicles together. But one vehicle stood out: a shiny red fire truck.

My first reaction connected the scene to the recent tragedy in Worcester in which six firefighters lost their lives fighting a fire in an abandoned warehouse. Two of them entered the building after a report of homeless people living there. Those two became trapped and four more entered to save them. All fell, leaving seventeen fatherless children.

The funerals for those lost men were large public displays. Firefighters from around the country rallied in support of their fallen brethren. This display in Newburyport was too small to be connected – just one small fire truck. And yet I am sure that someone was rendered fatherless in Newburyport too.

The fire truck was not of recent vintage. It was too small and too rounded. Today’s trucks are large and have sharp angles with boxy noses. This truck I recognized as from the fifties, from the era of my childhood. On most days in the late fifties I walked by the firehouse in my hometown. I never did go inside. My Cub Scout den never did make the trip. I would stop across the street and peer in at the vehicles. Only the front of the trucks showed in the late afternoon light; the rest faded into the shadows of the barn. Those big rounded fenders were perfect for reflecting light and pulsed as shiny as a new red apple. They were safe. They were always there and ready in case there was a fire at my house. My family was safe. I was safe.

At the funeral, the fire truck had been transported from a different time. Here forty years later it stood out as a red marker in the last ritual of life. Black is the ordinary color of death, and yet the deceased, or someone on his behalf, chose red to be his signature.

I know nothing about this deceased. I prefer to make it all up. I believe that this was his antique fire truck. Somehow the love of a child for things big and loud and red was never lost in him. He retained that playful glee and drove his truck in parades to share his childlike feeling with others. It would be only fitting that his favorite toy be at his last public performance.

One other detail must be mentioned: the fire truck was covered with flowers. The incongruity of this splash of colors and softness was shocking. This truck, which in its heyday carried many men on saving missions and perhaps on missions which cost them their lives, was covered with flowers. This symbol of his childhood and of his life was a final resting place for the beauty of this world.

I bet the deceased would have smiled. No, he would have been jumping up and down with glee. His toy had been transformed into something he had never considered. It lit up the lives of all those who drove past it that day – even in death, a serious, playful reminder of the joy of living.

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