Next week I’m traveling to NYC for the screening of the series finale of Rescue Me. The viewing of the very last episode–with cast & crew in attendance–is partnered with an after party. The evening, in addition to being a bitter-sweet farewell, is also a fundraiser for Leary Firefighters Foundation, founded by Rescue Me’s co-creator Denis Leary.
I was discussing the show with some folks this morning and it hit me smack upside the head–and heart–how much I’m going to miss the guys of 62 Truck, their families & friends, the stories of their lives. I love the humor. An always entertaining mix of top-shelf spot-on smart in regard to social & political issues, pop-culture, relationships of family, the workplace, and our communities, whether by virtue of religion or sports or heritage. The ha-ha factor on Rescue Me runs the gamut of eliciting laugh outlouds, eye-rolling groans at the potty and immature sex jokes, eyes wide-open in the stunned response of No, he did not just say that! Did he say that? Oh my god, did you hear what he said?!? And, last but not least, the laugh until you cry.
One woman in the conversation about the show this morning commented that while networks are always churning out the next cop or lawyer or doctor series, Rescue Me will not be replaceable. I concur completely. I believe Rescue Me is unique. It’s not just a series that’s situated in a firehouse, the way shows are set in hospitals or cop shops, and involve those characters and the goings-on that relate to their particular job, the hazards of their career, the people they come across in the carrying out of their duties. Rescue Me revolves around the lives of firefighters, yes, but the setting–from the very first episode–has always been September 11, 2001.
If you asked me where the heart of Rescue Me is located, it wouldn’t be the 62 Truck firehouse–it would be Ground Zero.
And if I had to compare Rescue Me as a show, I’d say that it best compares to M*A*S*H. That series was so much more than a show about doctors in a mobile army hospital unit. It was about war; about those very souls whose job it is day after day after day to intervene, heal and stitch back together, to save the lives of others in the midst of a campaign of killing. It examined the damage–the toll in all its subtle and not so subtle manifestations–on the minds and hearts, friends and families, of those serving as first medical responders in a war zone, far away from home, isolated in hostile territory. It explored the bonds, the intimacy–for better and worse, the dynamics of honor, trust and respect in that kind of front-lines life-and-death kind of enterprise, showing the functions and dysfunctions of a family whose members are not related by DNA, but nonetheless bound forever, through the blood of others.
I think that for Tommy Gavin, the guys of 62 Truck, all the firefighters (& other first responders) of NYC, the job can never be separated out from what happened on 9/11. They carry it with them always. Even more than the brotherhood of firefighting, they are knit together with the memories of those lost, much like survivors of the Holocaust. And they are haunted by it, living each day forward with survivor’s guilt niggling in the back of their brains.
Stories matter to me. I invest myself in them through the characters. Rescue Me, Tommy Gavin, all of them–I care. Enough to have traveled on this journey with them for over half a decade. I know what it’s like to carry an event, a single day in the past, for the rest of your life. But even more than my own experiences, I’ve felt a strong tie to September 11 and Rescue Me and Tommy Gavin because of the experience of someone very close to me.
My father was in the Navy, a photographer, during World War II. On the heels of that war’s conclusion, tragedy struck in Texas City, near his hometown of Houston. It was the deadliest industrial accident in our nation’s history, and it is still considered one of the largest explosions ever witnessed.
My father, Leon “Bengy” Sebesta, was called to Texas City along with many others to assist in rescue and recovery efforts in the wake of the Disaster. And as a photographer for the Navy,
he was asked to take pictures of the devastation for historical documentation. In the weeks that followed my father served unofficially as a volunteer firefighter to help control the fires still igniting from the widespread mix of smoldering debris and chemicals. While the Texas City Disaster of 1947 was not–as far as anyone could tell–an act of terror against our country, it was a cataclysmic tragedy of explosions, fire and smoke, people trapped in burning buildings and vehicles, where all but one of the city’s firefighters was killed in the initial response, on a morning where the sun was blotted out by smoke and the sky deluged everyone and everything below with ashes and sparks.
My father’s memories held the faces of those he could not help rather than the faces of those he did help. The images in the photographs he took are seared into his brain; they used to come to life, “living” color, when he least expected. And though he was never a real firefighter, with the training and title and badge, he offered himself in that role during a time when those whose job it was had all given their lives in service to their community.
When I was little we used to go around to firehouses, my father and me. We’d walk up to the one by our house in the Montrose area and to the station by his office downtown. My father almost always brought along gifts of food or beverage. When I was six we moved to a new house in a different part of town. The first thing we did after unpacking was take a case of Dr. Pepper and a case of Schlitz to meet the guys of the firehouse serving our new neighborhood. Once I was a little older, I often rode my bike to deliver care packages of pastries my father sent. The baklava and other goodies came (greatly discounted in price) from a cafe on Main Street run by a Greek family who had two firefighter sons.
There are other reasons I have a special place in my heart for firefighters. Chief among them the fact that my life was saved by one when I was a toddler (though it was not actually an incident related to fire). The firefighter was even off duty, which is probably a misnomer or an oxymoron, because anybody who knows firefighters knows they’re never really off duty.
When I tell people that I’m part of Team LFF when I ride my recumbent trike in the New York Marathon–that I devote myself to raising awareness and funds for Leary Firefighter Foundation–sometimes I get the response, Oh, you’re one of those women with a thing for fireman, huh?
My answer is, of course I love strong guys in uniform with life-saving skills. (what woman doesn’t?) But in truth I choose Leary Firefighters Foundation to champion because of my father. Because he did the job (for a very short time) without any experience, just because the job needing doing. Because he’d helped carry what was left of the men who gave their lives doing that job in that city.
And because, like many firefighters–especially those in New York City on September 11, 2001–my father lived each day in the company of those he could not help, the ones he had to leave behind, the ones whose names were never known, the ones who were identified by pieces of jewelry or dental work because they were burned or maimed beyond facial recognition.
On the day my father died he still had the faded scars of burns from too-hot metal, on his left leg, his right shoulder and both hands. The one on his shoulder looked like a kiss, and always reminded me of the rosy imprints my mother used to leave on tissues after blotting her lipsticked lips. If you asked my father how he got those scars he didn’t tell you about his own injuries, he told you the stories of the people in Texas City on that fateful day in 1947. He talked about firefighters. And when he told these stories his eyes would go to another place, that other time. His voice would grow wavy, breathy, thin; he would clear his throat and cough. Whether he was sitting or standing, his arms would float up and out in front of him–as if of their own volition, as if they had their own memories–palms facing the sky. And I could see the weight of what he’d carried decades before.
When I was a little girl I loved having my father carry me.
I especially loved it when I’d fall asleep in the backseat of his Comet station wagon while we drove home from somewhere at night, the way I’d wake up halfway in recognition of the familiar series of turns through our neighborhood to our house. I’d become a little more aware when the tires bumped over the end of the uneven driveway. I’d play possum; breathe deeply; wait in anticipation. The door would creak open and my father would lean in and slip an arm under my knees, then pull me up into his embrace. I focused so hard, so determined, on not betraying my awake state. Being ferried from that backseat to bed by my father’s strong arms was one of the safest feelings I knew. And because I was feigning sleep, it had that extra zip and satisfaction of getting away with something. Truth be told, I think he knew that at least half the time I was not sleeping. I think he liked carrying me as much as I liked being carried. And just maybe he needed to carry me, his only child, alive and whole and healthy–knowing I would awaken to more of the same come morning.
I often wondered about the others my father carried with those arms. The ones not faking sleep. The ones wide awake and screaming, perhaps struggling, their limbs slick with blood or oil or both. I’m a language person, so if I’d been in Texas City that day, I’d be haunted by the words. I’d never be able to forget, to un-hear, to turn down the volume. But my father was a photographer, a visual artist, who also drew and painted. That’s how I know it’s what he saw, what he took in with his eyes, that stayed with him.
Tommy Gavin is a character on a show, I know that. But Tommy Gavin’s struggles represent those of real people. Many of them firefighters. Many of them in New York City at Ground Zero on 9/11. Tommy Gavin has carried Ground Zero inside him every moment since, much the same way my father went through his life with the wreckage of Texas City inside him, the ghost-weight of too many bodies in his arms. I don’t know what’s going to happen with Tommy Gavin in the last episode of Rescue Me, but my writer’s mind has definitely been spinning with the various possibilities. There are spoilers saying that he’s going to die, and while I’d certainly prefer that he live, I can envision his death as a fitting end to the story.
What I most want for Tommy–alive or dead–is what I wanted for my father and still pray that he found. Peace. A complete release from any burden, guilt or regret. I want Tommy to know that what he did was enough–more than enough. He showed up, willing and able. He changed lives. He saved lives. Just like my father did.
I want Tommy to embrace his life and his loved ones fully, without an ounce of survivor’s remorse that he remained here with the living after 9/11. Even if that wholehearted yes to being alive comes at the end, the very last moment.
I’ve imagined my father’s death, over and over, because I wasn’t there and I need something to hold onto. I can’t live with not having been with him so I tell myself this story–like a prayer-mantra–to convince myself that it’s true. I see my father’s chest still as his spirit leaves, his body being lifted, gently, from his narrow bed at the VA hospital, secure in his father’s arms. I watch the thin white sheet slip away; I see the scars of those burns evaporate from his flesh. My grandfather is humming–the same song my father used to hum to me as he carried me to bed–and that’s how I know my father is safe, he has solace. He will never again taste the bitterness of soot on his tongue, he will be able to sleep without dreams of flames or screams. When he wakes, he will be greeted by everyone he’s been missing, family, friends and navy buddies, the citizens of Texas City whose lives he touched, and firefighters–the ones he carried on for in the weeks after the Disaster, all the ones he met and made friends with over his lifetime. There are tables filled with platters of Greek pastries, enough baclava for everyone. I hear my father laughing at a story he is being told. My mother and Aunt Helen are by his side, his parents and brothers, too. He asks for a beer. In the background the smacks of wood on puck and the swoosh of skates across ice; a hockey game awaits. His arms rest easy at his sides. He sees only the faces of people he loves, who love him. He is laughing, laughing, laughing. Flakes of phyllo dough dot his chin.
So I guess if I were to imagine the beginning of the afterlife for Tommy Gavin, there would be a party filled with firefighters too. I’m sure that Jimmy, Jerry, and Tommy’s dad would be front and center, slapping him on the back, making him the butt of their jokes, filling up his glass. But before all that celebration, there would be Connor. A reunion of Tommy and his son. Holding Connor again, Tommy would be whole, uplifted, set free once and for all. I have to believe that in that moment, Tommy would find absolute absolution, the dissolution of any notion that he had ever failed his child.
What I want for our real life firefighters is exactly what Leary Firefighters Foundation provides: the necessary equipment and training to do their jobs of saving lives. I’d absolutely love it if you’d help me help LFF help our nation’s firefighters!
I only have a few weeks left to reach my fundraising goal and I really, really need donations–no matter the size!
As you’ve no doubt gathered by now, an obsession with the Texas City Disaster is one of the things I inherited from my father. My mother was there too, though they didn’t know one another then. She was a nursing student, a volunteer with the Red Cross, helping doctors in the medical tents during the recovery efforts of the Disaster and in the make-shift hospitals in the weeks following. She later took a job at a photography shop to pay off her nursing tuition, and that’s where she met the handsome photographer who would become my father.
I’m writing a novel based loosely on my parents’ experiences of the Texas City Disaster and the aftermath. Here’s the prologue if you’d like to get a feel for the morning of April 16, 1947.
* * * * * *
Texas City, Texas—April 16th & 17th, 1947
At first it was just long tapered fingers of steel-grey smoke, snaking, then feathering into the early morning sky. Like those ephemeral white curlicues the stunt planes would paint on the horizon as they flew up into the blue whenever an air show came to town. But this smoke was solid, and after awhile it glowed with an orange hue. It was fascinating, lovely. People began to make their way down to the harbor to get a closer look: factory workers, businessmen, housewives, even children. Especially children. There just happened to be a group of them already at the docks for a field trip that very morning.
Without warning the smoke grew thick and heavy and angry. It turned a sick green-brown with a saffron halo, rose to a menacing height and stretched its rubbery wings, blocking out the sun. Some people grew cautious, began to leave. Some decided it was time to get on with the workday. Some ran away, set upon by an unshakable sense of foreboding. Still, some kept coming. Perhaps to offer their help if it was needed. Perhaps drawn to the possibility of danger, the way people chase a storm, or buy a ticket to watch a death-defying act.
The smoke seemed to come alive. And then it got hungry. It crawled over and consumed the boats in the harbor with one swallow. It blinded the volunteer fire department that had just arrived; it feasted on the dockworkers. There were muffled cries of surprise as they found themselves lost on their own feet. Officials came from the nearby factories and refineries, worried about what was happening. They were just as confused, just as thwarted by the fumes and the darkness.
The black grew from the size of a block to the size of a dozen blocks in a handful of startled heartbeats. It swam and flew, ran and howled. It gulped down buildings whole, drank up roads with cars still moving on them, sucked up pedestrians standing at crosswalks or hurrying to work, a boy late for school. The beast grew fetid and fat, so obese the factories and refineries just dissolved in its wake. It was as if God had dropped a ghostly shroud of darkness from the heavens.
Everyone’s lungs filled with the stench of sulfur, their eyes burned and ran with stinging tears. All they could hear was the popping and snapping of flames and a low mounting roar razoring through the smoke.
All at once the world went sharp and sideways.
Everything lit up like the 4th of July and Hiroshima combined. But in slow motion, with a blast so loud it stopped hearts and dropped birds from the trees.
Two airplanes fell from the sky.
Telephone poles hurtled into building structures, pierced vehicles, tore through or crushed human bodies. Tons of steel and iron rocketed in every direction, into the harbor, into the railroad station, into the heart—every artery—of the city. Flames sprang up where the molten shrapnel fell, catching homes, storefronts, anything and anyone on fire.
A man’s clothes blew right off of him. A woman’s arm, her hand still holding her newly bought purse, separated clean from her body and flew into a plate glass window across the street. A girl was thrown into a field, her cotton dress melting into her flesh, while her hair curled up to the top of her head and smoldered. Her eyes were wide with horror and disbelief. She lay there, frozen and on fire at the same time. The only things moving on her were the last tongue of flame on her left shoe and her lips. Her mouth was a hollow wail—opening and closing—desperately searching for sound. Just enough breath for one word. Mama.
It went dark again just as suddenly.
But no longer quiet. This time it was all sound: screams and shouts, groans and grunts, whimpers and whispers, fragile and flailing cries. There was praying, too: silent, screeching, mumbled by confusion and garbled by blood. They were small prayers, a couple of words at most. The kind of prayers that leap from those in the presence, or on the threshold, of death and devastation. Some prayers were for others, some for themselves: My baby! Not now! Oh God… Some were just single words thrown out into the chaos and craziness that ensued: No, Please, Here! Help! Jimmy. Over and over if they could, or just once, with all of their might. Perhaps their last gasp of life.
Across the bay in Galveston and forty miles away in Houston, people were knocked off of their feet by the shock wave from the explosion that rippled the ground. Windows in houses and cars blew out. When people looked across to Texas City, what they saw was a huge mushroom cloud of billowing smoke. The blast was heard from as far as a hundred and fifty miles away.
Many were sure that America—Texas, no less—had been the victim of an atomic bomb. Some scrambled to hide under desks and in doorways waiting for the next attack. Others ran to radios anxious for news of what was happening, what they should do, where they should go.
The phone company in Texas City had gone on strike the day before. Thus the calls out for help or in to get information, were significantly delayed. Almost every car in the city was destroyed, or at the least rendered inoperable, by the explosion. The industrial buildings and complexes were blazing infernos. Granaries, hospitals and schools, thousands of homes, were transformed into twisted rubble ribboned with oil and blood and body parts. And molasses—its syrupy sweetness a ballast, an insult, to the overwhelming copper-and-salt bitterness of blood.
The people and property that the blast didn’t decimate suffered another crushing blow when a tidal wave—created by the force of the blast—came slamming back into the harbor. The wave’s wrath descended just as the town’s surviving citizens, doctors and nurses, city officials and policemen, had arrived to rescue the injured and fight the fires that ensued everywhere flames and shrapnel and boiling oil had landed.
Only one of the city’s volunteer firemen had lived through the explosion. The first one, that is. There would be another explosion—just eighteen hours later—doubling the number of fatalities to approximately six hundred and injuries to around five thousand.