The first time Drew's beeping pager interrupted my dreams, I thought that this surely must be a joke. I peeked out from under the blanket at the clock. It was 3:02 a.m. On a Saturday.
Drew jumped out of bed, still half asleep, and fumbled around the room as he put on his jeans and a T-shirt. I was too sleepy to ask what was going on - he must be sleepwalking again, I thought.
But as the dispatcher's shrill voice came over the scanner, I knew that this wasn't a dream: My husband was on his way to fight a raging barn fire in the middle of the night. And it wasn't his barn that was on fire.
I didn't quite understand what it meant to be a volunteer firefighter - or a firefighter's wife - until I met and married Drew. Until then, it just sounded like a cute hobby: a bunch of guys who like to play with big red trucks.
Now it sounds something like this: The man I love enjoys running into other people's burning homes, rescuing cats, dogs, children, or whatever else is in danger. He climbs on roofs (he is afraid of heights) and maneuvers large machinery through narrow streets - all this out of the goodness of his heart.
It sounds noble. Honorable. And crazy.
My first "unofficial" date with Drew was at his fire hall in Huntingdon, Pa., at the Hook and Ladder Fire Company's annual banquet. The trucks were parked in front of the building and the engine room was turned into a bar for the night. The large back room was filled with smoke and a lot of burly firefighters squeezed into suits.
After a huge dinner of roast turkey and mashed potatoes, there were speeches about bravery and valor. Some read poems about fallen firefighters and solemnly recited a prayer. The crowd cheered the fact that the annual fundraising campaign had been successful, and officers made plans for the Halloween Parade. Many received awards for being the best, youngest, or newest firefighter of the year.
There was something intoxicating about the atmosphere. These men really cared for each other and for their "hobby." On the outside, they looked like big guys with nicknames like "Chip," standing next to a fire truck and using expressions like "dispatch center," "traffic control" and "heat- vision camera." But they were truly extraordinary because they never questioned whether what they volunteer to do is the right and only thing to do.
Just as I write this, enjoying a quiet, rainy Friday evening, Drew is running out the door because there is a fire in our new hometown. He thumps down the stairs, jumps into his sandals that are always by the door for this purpose, grabs his keys, and yells "I love you!" as he charges out. (He usually doesn't close the door all the way, so in a second I will go downstairs to shut it.)
His tires screech on the wet pavement, and he is off.
I learned pretty early in our marriage that stopping him is impossible. My first few protests of "but we are in the middle of a movie/dinner/talk/night," were useless. "But Zsozso," he would say in his cutest, softest voice, "if I don't go, who will?"
There is really no good response to this. It's not that he likes to feel important or he thinks of himself as some of kind of a Superman. He just truly believes that the best way to serve his community is by being a firefighter.
"Couldn't you just rock babies at the local hospital, or read to a kindergarten class?" I once suggested to him.
"But this is the only thing I love to do," came the answer.
He knows that I worry. So he learned to let me know where he is or if something is taking longer than expected. And I learned not to go out of my mind while he is at a fire, trusting his fellow firefighters to look out for him.
He has been burned only once, on his arm, and the large red patch is a battle scar. I know that he is self-conscious about it, but I also think that, deep down, he enjoys it when the guys notice it and ask him how it happened. The story of how his faulty gear let the heat through is gruesome, and I've seen how his buddies look at him with amazement. Nothing like that has ever happened to them - thankfully.
Sometimes I wonder about how scared he might be before going to a fire. I assume he feels a mixture of boyish anticipation about riding on a truck and making a lot of noise, and perhaps a sense of dread about what might be waiting ahead. He is aware of the risks and the sometimes perilous nature of the job.
But he still gets up and goes, and that makes me admire him even more.
When he returns from a fire, he is covered in soot and sweat, his T-shirt gray from the smoke and his hair smelling like engine oil. He usually toasts a job well done with a huge glass of milk and a bowl of ice cream.
As I look at him, sprawled out on the couch, his cheeks still red from the excitement, I realize: How could I stop him from being a firefighter? This is exactly why I married him.