My first fire captain came from a line of old school firefighters. He had been on the job for as long as I had been alive. People wondered why he hadn't retired yet. Many said it was because he enjoyed being mean to rookies. He was an old school guy who would say, with a lopsided smile and sneer 'what were you thinking?' to people at calls where they hurt themselves doing something silly like ride a motorcycle with shorts and flip flops. I was straight out of the 'academy' the first time I walked into his station, my uniform all crisp and pressed and boots polished. He greeted me with a smirk and pointed towards the bathroom and said 'when you go in there make sure you lock the door' and shut himself in his office. There were only 7 female firefighters in the department at the time and I was his first female assignment. I was terrified. This man had the reputation of drilling you without pause until you knew everything by rote. He would point to a cabinet on the truck and you would have to tell him from memory what was in there from how many litres of engine oil to every screwdriver and hacksaw blade in the toolbox. Every shift I had to pull out a map page from the book and draw it on the board and memorize the streets. Then he'd erase it so I could draw it from memory. He would set up a 'rodeo' in an empty back lot full of twists and turns and make me manoeuvre it through the tightest of obstacle courses. He was unforgiving with mistakes. I felt like I was 10 years old. Once I forgot to turn on the headlights of the firetruck and he flipped. I was near tears. He would make me take out the truck in the middle of a winter night and I would have to pump water with the deluge or the different preconnected lines over and over and over till the running joke was that I had better start bringing my longjohns we were out there for what it felt like an eternity. And then, just as soon as I had the pumping down to an art, he would pull some lever on the other side of the truck sending water spewing everywhere telling me to figure out how to stop it. If it was a joke, I wasn't laughing. I was soaked, cold and tired. My hands were frozen. No point in crying because my eyes would have frozen shut.
He was a hard on me. Ok, I'll be honest. He was a hardass. But in hindsight he made sense. At a firecall in the middle of the night you have to know where each and every piece of equipment is on the truck so you can grab it without fumbling or hesitating. You have to know the maps so you know where the heck you're going to the call, and yes, headlights are always a good idea. The reason he kept 'sabotaging' my pumping was that things can go wrong when pumping water at a call and he wanted me to learn how to problem solve now so that I could be cool as a cucumber if something went wrong at an actual working fire when lives were at stake.
When my rotation was up at that station (rookies are at 2 different stations for the first 6 months) he had his wife bake me a cake. I felt like it was a 'good riddance' cake and that he was happy and relieved to see me go. He is now retired but if I look back, he wasn't mean, or hard on me or unfair. He was like that with everyone... for the simple reason that he cared. He loved the fire business and wanted to make sure that each and every firefighter knew their job and was working to the best of their ability. It was just his way of teaching us. I credit this man for giving me the foundation of becoming an engine operator. I have learned to do it with my eyes practically shut. And just like in life, the things that scare me the most I often end up liking the most. And although I will never tell it to him, I owe him a lot. And I think, maybe just a little, he was more terrified of me when I walked into his station for the first time than I was of him. ;)