Once upon a time I went to a therapy session. The intent of which was to solidify from individual narratives of what happened or did not happen at a fire into a single narrative, nominally the truth. It was an event of finite curiosity. What I heard and saw was what I call narrative shifting. I am certain that there is a more appropriate academic term for this perhaps-meta-fiction-, but I prefer it my way.
There were narratives related at that session whose only resemblance to the truth were the characters involved. The characters were right but the motivations, the primal urges that provided the framework for thought and action in the heat of the moment, they were not right.
“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” Tim O’Brien said that and I experienced that. I am not sure what kind of truth I heard but I am sure that I heard some narrative shifts, slowly evolving truths, the kind of truths that developed increasingly finer detail the further away from the moment they got.
I was not at this fire and no matter how hard I try I can’t get to that particular confluence of events and time and people. I cannot recreate the dramatic oscillations in the response system that night. I cannot re-understand or re-explain why the hair was standing up on the back of my neck while I listened to the far-off battle, the voices of firemen under stress on the radio echoing across the silence of my sleeping quarters.
That moment is mostly gone. It is not completely gone because a story can never be completely gone. I am certain that the people who were oscillating and those others who were oscillating around them never noticed. The story lives forever as it dies the death of a thousand tiny fractures.
Once upon a time I went to a therapy session posing as a critique of a fire and what I wish I could have heard what not what I heard. I wanted so badly to tell them that the end only justifies the means in the more vulgar cultures.
I wanted to say that the removal of a body that was most certainly already dead in no way justifies freelancing, insubordination, and a general failure to “get it.” I watched and listened as the individual narratives unfolded, weaving a tapestry of “hero virtue”, a virtue virtuous only in terms of the outcome, a virtue marred ever so slightly by the muted, always qualified near admissions of fault.
I was not at this fire that they were talking about, but I was and after the therapy I am convinced that I will be there again. I know this because if this one fire was an anomaly things would be different; but it was the same. There was the usual rushing about, the cursory adherence to some unwritten rules of “firemanship,” the search for totems in the form of smoke stained accessories, the manipulation of language, “a quick search” as a smoke screen, pun intended. Oh, yes it was the same as it always is and was and shall be.
Joan Didion said of places, “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” I think the same is true of the narratives like the ones I heard tonight. Those “firemen” claimed their spaces hard, fought back with raised hair and bared teeth; they writhed, twisted and wrestled. It was painful to watch because it is always painful to watch self-deception. They claimed their space and I watched silently but this time without complicity.
If there is to be that change in culture that the fire service writers are clamoring for it would require that people begin to subordinate their personal agendas to the needs of the team even if they don’t think much of the team or team members. But how can that happen in our subculture while the parent culture continues to celebrate the “cowboy ethos?”
If we had at that fire first supported one small team (the first engine) until the priority changed to the other team (the team rescuing) we would have had a similar outcome. The body would still have been 50,000 PPM of carbon monoxide worth of dead but it would not have been a mindless scrum.
At some point, we must learn to work together towards common goals even if it requires us to not be the hero that day or if it requires us to support someone who we think sucks or whatever. I am not holding my breath.
Tonight I went to a therapy session about I fire I was not involved with in any way. I had to leave a little early because I was starting to laugh out loud in this room full of my peers, subordinates, and bosses. Why was I laughing? Well as Vonnegut says, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.” I am sure he is right.