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My husband, who is from Utica, calls where I’m from “southern Canada,” just so you know. Tiny little town outside Plattsburg called Peru. That’s where I spent my formative years.
He had his definite ideas about things; everyone should know how to swim, how to drive a boat, a tractor, and a stick-shift. You should know how to perform CPR, change a flat tire, and be able to cook a meal, clean up, and how to build a fire. You should stand up straight, read often, and be able to tell a potato plant from a weed. You should be able to sew on a button and how to drive a nail. You should always read the instructions. You should know how to bait your own hook, catch fish, and clean them. And it didn’t matter to him if you were a boy or a girl.
The grand-kids, and there were a gaggle of us, half girls, half boys, called him Poppy.
When he wasn’t farming or swimming, fishing or reading novels, he was a volunteer EMT. Halfway down the stairs, there was a two-way scanner. Middle of the day or middle of dinner or middle of the night, the scanner would make a warbling alert tones and the dispatcher would come on. “Local Peru, local Peru, we have a building fire at…” and Poppy would be out the door, hat in hand. His car—a very normal-looking car in all other ways—had a magnetic fire bubble he would slap onto the roof, plug into the cigarette lighter, and whoop away down the road.
(The grand-kids all loved to fuss about who got to reset the scanner after a call—since if you didn’t remember to press the button, we wouldn’t hear the next call. And woe betide the kid who punched the reset button before the dispatcher was finished with her information. Why yes, yes I did do that, once. Once.)
So one day, my cousin Hilly and I are with Poppy. We’d gone to get an ice cream at the DQ. It was our special reward if we both managed to beat him at cribbage in a single week. To this day, I am a cribbage-shark! I’d gotten a cone with that chocolate shell on it and was trying to manage to stuff the whole thing in my mouth all at once without losing any of the chocolate when the car-scanner went off.
My cousin and I glanced at each other but expected him to ignore it. Poppy often did if we were out with him; there are enough volunteers that not everyone is needed for every call.
But the dispatcher sounded worried. Even I knew that was unusual.
A local trailer park had a fire. One building was already engulfed and others were catching. Trailers are bad fires; it’s hard to get out of one, and they go up in flames really fast. I knew that, I’d heard him talk about it over dinner and out on the deck. Trailers were deathtraps. We were all told that. Repeatedly.
“Girls, in the car!” We scrambled for the backseat. “Get my helmet!” I dug around in the back of the station wagon for his battered black fire helmet as Poppy slammed the bubble on the top of the car.
We got to the fire really quickly. I’ve never been in a car moving so quickly in my life—and I hope to do so exactly never again!
“Now stay in the car!” Poppy paused to give us both really stern looks. My grandfather was a big man; over six feet tall and covered in ropy, lean muscle. Not the kind of muscle you get from lifting weights in a gym, but the kind you get from bucking hay bales and fixing fences. We didn’t argue with him, and Poppy was not the kind of man you disobeyed. Not if you ever wanted to sit down again.
We stayed in the car.
And watched the firemen and the firetrucks. And watched the sobbing owners of the trailers. And their worried neighbors. And the kids and dogs and lookey-loos. It was—to me—a wonder that no one got hurt in all the crowd shuffling and milling around.
When Poppy got back in the car—hours and hours later—he reeked of smoke and sweat. He was tired and dirty with his helmet sitting lopsided on his head. He had no reason to think of us—or how badly we both needed to use the bathroom by that point! He should have wanted nothing more than to go home, wash up, and have some dinner.
“Thanks for being good, girls,” he said to us. “Did you all want to get another ice cream?”
I never really thought about my grandfather as being special. He was just my Poppy. And he was one of the best men I ever knew.
Lynn Townsend is a geek, a dreamer and an inveterate punster. When not reading, writing, or editing, she can usually be found drinking coffee or killing video game villains. Lynn’s interests include filk music, romance novels, and movies with more FX than plot. She has published over a dozen short stories on topics ranging from steampunk to Cthulu, from contemporary to urban supernatural to the zombie apocalypse. Her safeword is Oxford Comma. You can follow her on Facebook or on her blog at Paid by the Weird.
From “Big Trucks” by Lynn Townsend
The tones went off at the bottom of the tenth.
“Goddamn it!” Steve Tillery jumped to his feet, throwing his Cardinals cap to the ground in disgust.
Amy Whitaker, Engine 31’s driver, unfolded from the battered, stained sofa.
Steve was acutely aware of the brief contact between their shoulders as she brushed past him. He paused, mid-alarm and mid-frustration over missing the game, to watch the curve of her ass and the smooth shift of thigh as she was out the door toward the stable.
“There’s no good time for a fire, Steve-o!” Chris Neily responded. “The Rangers won’t whip your boys’ asses any worse if you’re not watching.”
“If someone’s burned the freaking popcorn, I swear, I’m—”
“Can the chatter, boys,” the captain called out. “I’m seeing too many lips flapping and not enough asses and elbows!”
“Yes, Captain,” Steve and Chris responded, in stereo.
Then it was nothing but boots and gear and getting on the steed. Banter came in short, limited doses, at least until the trucks were rolling, sirens screaming as the dispatcher gave more details: structure fire, eight homes in the one building, with two similar-sized buildings in danger of going up.
“Step on it, Whitaker!” Voices crackled and popped in Steve’s earbud as the chatter grew more animated.
Amy acknowledged with a brief “Gotcha,” before she slammed the pedals of Engine 31 down, her strong, confident hands on the wheel. She drove like a racer, smooth and unhesitating, jamming thirty thousand pounds of truck, water and equipment onto the streets with confidence.
Chris rocked out of his seat briefly—of course he hadn’t buckled in. “Damn woman drivers,” he joked, straightening his gear.
“You can always get out an’ walk, Neily,” Amy snapped, squeezing between an SUV loaded with half the local soccer team and one of those little electric commuter cars.
Steve winced, but Amy was—smart-assed remarks aside—a remarkable jockey.