I wore ballet slippers to every blaze

When I was a firefighter, I used to wear ballet slippers to every call. It was not because I was busy dancing in between fires, nor was it to make me feel any lighter on my feet when wearing 40 pounds of protective clothing and dragging a 31/2-inch-diameter charged hose. I wore them simply because they made my boots fit better and were easier to slip on than an extra pair of wool socks.

In a paid-volunteer fire department on a Navajo reservation with tightening federal funding, special women's-size boots were not a priority item. It was suggested I ''make do with whatever might work'' - stuff in newspapers, wear extra socks, or have rubber inserts made (at my expense, of course). Have you ever pulled soggy newsprint out of a fire boot? I opted for a cheap, clean solution: ballet slippers.

The guys in the fire department had a lot of fun with the idea of wearing ballet slippers to fight a fire . . . but not nearly so much fun as when I responded to a late-night alarm frantically pulling curlers out of my hair. The jokes about ''Swan Lake'' and tutus were mildly disconcerting but mercifully short-lived.

Larry, however, was the most persistent ribber. He was the assistant fire chief, a big, muscular fellow who wore black, lace-up Army boots with steel plates in the soles. ''These babies'll never wear out,'' he asserted, ''and they give great support!'' Then he'd scoff, ''What you got those on for?''

Mr. Subtle he wasn't. At the siren, I would dismiss my class, change to the slippers, walk briskly out of the school building, and be running to the fire station when he'd bellow, ''Dance for us, Yasek,'' loud enough for the whole school (which evacuated for a fire drill when an alarm sounded) to hear. I finally learned just to smile and wave.

Then came a midafternoon call, a hogan fire behind the high school. I could see the smoke. Children released, classroom door locked, I put on my slippers while hopping down the hall, knowing this was not one of the false alarms that had troubled us lately.

Larry and several others were already there when I got to the station. Don, the fire chief, was pulling out Engine One. I slipped into my boots, yanked up the canvas pants by their red suspenders, and grabbed my coat and helmet. Rushing past Larry, I saw him tugging at his Army boots, trying to get one off without loosening the laces. The laces held fast, and he kicked the bench in frustration. I had jumped on the back of Engine One with two other firefighters and we drove off. I could see Engine Two pull out with everyone on board except Larry, who was standing alone in one fire boot and canvas pant leg.

Two hours later, we returned to find him suited up and calmly rolling hose. The Army boots sat in his cubicle, the laces of one cut neatly through with scissors. Larry never commented on my choice of footgear again.

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