On the morning of my firefighting
exam the sky was low, indistinct, hung with chilled veils of drizzle.
By the time the alarm roused my out of bed in the predawn darkness, I'd
already woken up several times to check my watch nervously and roll over
again. I was nervous, but looking forward to getting through the exam.
I had probably focused more personal energy towards this goal than any
other over the last four months, and today it would be at an end. I would
pass and be a firefighter, or I would fail, and my only option would be
to quit or retake the entire class again.
As I went over my gear and
got dressed, I reflexively considered the awful prospect of failure. This
is one of the few times that I've felt that the online journal would have
a significant effect on my regular life. As much as I didn't want to have
to tell friends and family that I hadn't passed, the prospect of making
this confession to the world at large was physically nauseating.
As I left the house, I tried
to tell myself I'll come back a firefighter. My mind sensed the
false bravado, and would not be induced into confidence.
On the drive up to the academy,
I halfheartedly scanned the fallow radio spectrum and looked for omens
good or bad. No perfect song presented itself as an indicator of things
to come. I plopped in a mix tape made by my pal Doug de Maine and listened
to Jackson Browne's I'm Alive. With it's implication of survival
despite adversity, it felt right for whatever may befall me in the day
Like the midterm,
the final test would consist of a 100 question written exam in the morning,
followed by a set of practical stations throughout the rest of the day.
We had to pass the written exam to continue with the practicals. We would
have to pass at least 70% of the practical stations on the first attempt.
For each station a student fails, s/he is allowed one retest. If you fail
any one of your second attempts, you fail the class.
I had managed to get through
the midterm without retesting a single station, but several other students
flunked one or more stations and had to make it up on the second try.
Although all of them managed to pass the second time, I felt that blowing
a station would be devastating to my mental focus, and I was determined
to get each test right the first time.
The written test was harder
than I expected, but as I counted up the questions I might have gotten
wrong it seemed clear that I'd passed definitively. Others were not so
certain. Among them was one guy who was had endured the entire class over
again because he'd failed the written test by one point last time.
We all waited out in the hall as they graded the exams. Most everyone
speculated on whether they could possibly summon the masochism to take
the class over if we didn't prevail today.
There were eleven of us. The
class began with 24 students. Although that getting that far might seem
like an achievement in and of itself, I knew it would all feel like a
huge and excruciating waste of time to anyone who didn't pass.
The instructors emerged and
we all fell silent. They made a point of counting heads, as if determining
how many would be moving on. "Get your gear. Let's all go test,"
the head instructor said, and there was a moment's pause while we all
realized what he meant -- everyone had passed the written. Everyone was
still in the game.
The first few stations were
easy stuff -- donning gear and SCBA, performing emergency procedures,
tying a harness for rescue, handheld fire extinguishers, power tools.
All the stations were both timed and graded; we had to perform the task
within the time limit and without any failing points. Some people had
a hard time getting the K12 saw to start, and failed the station. Suddenly,
things felt gloomier, more pained. The mists swelled to rain, and in our
soggy gear we talked quietly and waited to be called for the next test.
The remaining stations were
team skills. In some of them only one person would be graded at a time;
in others all members of the team would receive the same grade, passing
or failing as a unit. The next station demanded that two firefighters
shoulder a 16' roof ladder and take it up a 35' ladder, throw it to the
peak of the roof (where hooks on the end of a roof ladder allow it to
lock into place), get on to the roof ladder and climb it to the peak.
I had done this smoothly in practice, but everything went wrong this time.
The rungs of the ladder were slick with rain, and my partner and I couldn't
seem to get a consistent rhythm going to ascend the long ladder in unison.
In the upper position, I forgot a critical procedure, ran out of time,
and failed the station.
As I pulled the roof ladder's
hooks off the peak and began lowering it back to my partner, I was absolutely
furious with myself. I had performed worse than the very first time I'd
attempted this skill. As I maneuvered the ladder down, both my boots slid
off the slippery rungs and before I knew what had happened I was hanging
by my wet gloves from a single rung at the level of the third floor roof.
I had time for a single thought -- great, not only did I fail the station
but now I'm going to die -- before I scrabbled a foothold and steadied
myself again. I was shaking the whole way down the ladder.
Blowing that one changed my
perspective entirely. I would have one more chance at it, probably later
in the afternoon, and that was it. But I still had at least four more
stations to do, and I had to get it out of my mind and not let it affect
my performance on the tasks remaining.
So we searched blind for "victims"
in a room, and advanced a standpipe pack up into the burn building, and
the day just seemed to stretch on and on, with just enough time between
stations to catch our breath. By the end, my body felt unfamiliar, like
something salvaged from the grave and reanimated using clumsy technology.
By the time everyone had finished
their first round of tests, it was late afternoon, with little daylight
left. Everyone, all eleven of us, had to repeat at least one station,
but there wasn't enough time left to get everyone through. The head instructor
laid out the options: some people could do one station tonight and we
could come back at 8 the following morning, or else we would probably
have to wait until after the holidays to finish. We all agreed that we
couldn't stand to have this process go on any longer than it had to, and
we'd do whatever it took to get through it as soon as possible.
Four people were allowed to
retest one particular station right away, but the rest of us would have
to return the following morning. As I walked back to the car with my gear,
all I felt was bitterness and exhaustion. I had intended to come home
I tried to be philosophical
on the drive home. I was still in the game. And I began to examine the
real dimensions of failing the class, something I hadn't allowed myself
to do thoroughly until then. I wouldn't get to ride the heavy rescue truck,
but I would stay on the ambulance, which I love. Once considered, there
were many reasons that the failure might ultimately turn out to be a blessing.
But nothing much helped. I
was miserable. I listened to the radio for omens and received nothing.