Thomas Wolfe was wrong; you can go home again. Michael Perry comes home to New Auburn, Wisconsin, population 485, and reintegrates himself back into society by joining the local volunteer fire department. This is my third read by Perry and as always the armchair philosopher takes precedence in the narration. On his brothers, also volunteer firefighters:
Our pursuits and avocations have little in common. They drive log trucks, I sit in a chair trying to herd words. Put us in a row and turn our palms up–mine are soft and clean. There’s your story.
On the human condition:
Children are fascinating, and surprising, and at their best, heavenly sprites, but before you go in too deeply for the idea that the world would be a better place if we were all more childlike, try sticking three kids in one room with two toys. You’ll witness conflict-resolution techniques synthesizing the very worst of the Marquis de Sade and the World Wrestling Federation. The world is like it is because, on the whole, we tend to act like children.
Describing the ending to his most recent relationship:
…a relationship that ended in a way that simply brings to mind the word abbatoir.
Ouch. Keenly observing, painfully acute, Perry scatters gems like that on at least every other page. There are belly laughs
I was chugging along here last fall when I was forced to the shoulder by a pack of Amish youths cruising down the hill on RollerBlades. There is really no way to prepare for that sort of thing.
some firefighter trivia
…it is widely agreed that when [Benjamin Franklin] formed Philadelphia’s Union Fire Company in 1736, he set the organizational standard for all volunteer brigades to follow…Thomas Jefferson, Sam Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, Benedict Arnold, James Buchanan, and Millard Fillmore were all volunteer firefighters. The first female volunteer firefighter of record was a slave named Molly Williams. The juxtaposition of “volunteer” and “slave” produces a certain irony.
some seriously “eeyEEW” moments
We picked up a sick little old lady. She was on the floor in her nightgown, hands clenched over her belly. We carried her out on a backboard and put her on the cot. Halfway to the hospital she relaxed a little, and a basketball-sized mass of flesh rolled out from under her nightgown and thumped to the floor. It remained attached to her abdomen by a thin, fleshy umbilicus. Arnold and I exchanged a glance across the cot. Then Arnold picked the thing up and popped it back under the nightgown like ti was the most natural thing in the world. Never said a word. The lesson was twofold. Number one, failure to detect a free-floating tumorous mass the heft and circumference of a supermarket watermelon reflects a certain inattention to basic patient-assessment protocols. Number two, be cool. And if you can’t be cool, act cool. The patient will draw comfort from your demeanor. Another day, your countenance should say, another little old lady sprouting giant flesh balls.
and some interesting local errata
Depending on how the glacier treated your farm, picking rock is a rite of spring here. When we were growing up, the farmers used to hired gangs of kids…to slog along behind hay wagons in the plowed fields, pitching rocks on the wagon bed until it sagged and the wheels pressed deep in the dirt. When it was full, the farmer hauled it to the end of the field or the edge of a swamp and dumped the load. You can still see these cairns all around the county, the smooth brown and pink and tan stones in mounds the size of a Volkswagon.
The book begins with one death and ends with another, both agonizing because inherent in being a volunteer first responder is the fact that you will be responding to scenes involving people you know, and sometimes, people you love.
…most of all, she is one of us. When we gather around her we are firefighters and first responders and EMTs, but we are also neighbors, classmates, family. If she doesn’t make it, I’m going to see her parents around town.
My favorite story comes from the chapter “Running the Loop,” where Perry runs a regular loop around New Auburn and passes one story after another. This one is about Herbie Gravunder who died at 87 the year before Perry writes this book, and who lived an out loud life, up at four a.m. to milk his cows, drove the school bus, the milk truck, the truck that oiled the county roads, put up light poles, owned and ran the local blacksmith shop. In between work he bought a used hovercraft and armed it with a Model T horn. It didn’t go far or fast but he and his cousin Delmar had some fun with it. Later Herbie bought a crashed airplane and fixed it up enough that he could taxi it around his hayfield. He’d give you a ride if you asked him.
Herbie is America, where you work hard but you live the life you want. So is Perry, not without pain because pain comes with the territory, but always with enjoyment and gratitude. Highly recommended.
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Author and founder of Storyknife.org.