Sound of the Siren

I just heard a fire engine or a squad car go by outside on this otherwise quiet night.  Susie is sound asleep in her bedroom, Steph has been at choir practice at the Unitarian Church and is now having pizza and wine with her fellow choristers, and the siren is the first noise I’ve heard from outside the house all evening.

We live close to a fire station, and are only a mile or so from Riverside Methodist Hospital, so sirens (along with the sounds of the trains) are pretty normal in this neighborhood.

The sounds of sirens only bothered me as a child, and then only at night.  During the day, they were quite exciting to hear.  I can remember the sound of fire engines or ambulances roaring by could cause people to drop what they were doing to rush out to the street and see what they could.  (I even remember one man who came rushing out of his house in a T-shirt, pants, and slippers, with shaving cream all over his face and a razor in his hand, just for a passing glimpse of whatever was happening.)  I enjoyed nursery school and kindergarten field trips to the fire station, and looked forward to the annual visits of firefighters to school during Fire Prevention Week in October (the anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871).

But that all changed after dark, when I was in bed.  I had a hard enough time getting to sleep as it was, but the siren roaring by on Third Street would upset any equilibrium I had managed to achieve.  I think I outgrew it out of necessity, since our house was about equidistant between the fire station and Marietta Memorial Hospital.

I must have paid good attention during the Fire Prevention Week presentations, because I never developed anything that resembled pyromania.  Several kids I knew were absolutely fascinated by fire–more by setting them than seeing them.  I shared a fleeting interest in firecrackers and fireworks, and blew up my share of empty Coke cans and even a mailbox or two, but I drew the line at using firecrackers on small animals.  (Plutarch wrote, "It was the saying of Bion that though the boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.")

I came only marginally close to being injured by a firecracker, and then only indirectly.  It was on Independence Day 1979, and two friends and I were waywardly heading toward the Washington County Fairgrounds for the annual pyrotechnic display.  (We weren’t going to the fairgrounds themselves; we planned to watch the show from another location with a good view, such as the hospital parking lot or maybe Lookout Point on Harmar Hill.)

Going through an alley, we found a backyard party in progress.  Everyone there was at least 25 (we were 16), and I think we hung around in the vain hope someone would let us have beer.  There was, however, something much more fascinating than beer at the party.  A guy was in the middle of the yard shooting several bottle rockets in succession into the night sky, using an empty wine bottle as a launch pad.   I stepped close for a better look, and maybe hoping that he would yield his lighter to me for one rocket, and let me have the honor of shooting off one of them.  I was less than a foot away, and looking in the direction, when some clown at the party put a cherry bomb in the bottle.  There was an abrupt BANG! and the bottle seemed to be blown completely to smithereens.  Blue smoke hung in the air, and you could smell nothing but gunpowder in the yard.

It was a minute before it registered with me how close a call I had.  I had been standing less than a foot away, and I had been wearing sandals, yet–miraculously–I had avoided getting cut.  Shards of broken glass from that bottle must have been traveling at very high velocity, yet they managed to miss my feet altogether.

I never knew where to buy fireworks in Marietta, although kids I knew seemed to be able to buy them by the pound.  In the neighborhood where I lived until I was 13, police officers’ families always had them in plentiful supply.  (They would bring home confiscated fireworks and shoot them off for their children.)

That makes me wonder about the eventual fate of confiscated narcotics.

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