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Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman

by Zac Unger

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


Working Fire by Zac Unger
The Penguin Group, March 2004
ISBN: 1594200017

Sometimes I'm a cynical bastard who is assured that the human race is doomed. But part of me knows that there have always been cynical bastards, who, all the way back to the first pessimistic cave man, were awaiting the doom of the species, which never came--we just kept right on going, hunting giraffes and building rockets to the moon. We've made it here today because, even despite the most cynical dystopia scenario, there have always been, and always will be, people dedicated to the service of others, and this is what keeps civilization rolling along. Above all else, I suppose that is what should be taken away from reading Working Fire, the new memoir by Oakland fireman Zac Unger. Unger is unapologetically ernest about his job and his responsibilities to the public. During this election year when all the pundits and politicians come out to play, Working Fire stands in stark contrast with its selfless (that's the key word here) and honest devotion to community. Willing to put his health, and perhaps life on the line, this bay area fireman's unquenchable sense of duty rings more compassion for others in one paragraph than one-thousand jabbering CNN-heads can expel over months of
general election coverage. While Unger sometimes teeters on the edge of the corniness abyss, he always seems to maintain his gravity with adrenaline tales and brevity of language.

"These fire engines belong to the citizens, and the people like to have a look at what they've paid for. It's the same reason I leave the bay doors rolled open during the day. If people drive by and see us, ready to go to work for them, they feel safer. They know that their city is watching out for them. In many of Oakland's neighborhoods, the fire engine is worth more than any of the surrounding homes. I want the rig to look nice; Oakland deserves it."

I've never seen a big house fire with my own eyes outside of the local news, but surely I've seen fire trucks all around the city and heard them, with alarms blazing, zooming through the streets to some emergency somewhere. I learned a lot about the art of the fireman from this book, but what was most surprising is that fighting fires was only a part of their job. Firemen are often the first response to medical emergencies and urgencies of all kind.
Firehouses are dotted all over a modern city, and they can often be the first people with some kind of medical training to a situation scene--often before ambulances or police. Unger describes in vivid and riveting detail being called to the aid gun shot victims missing their faces, junkies accidently shooting up with bleach, and the occasional homeless guy just looking for some attention or a ride to the hospital. All of the scenes of tragedy, and yes, heroism are as exciting as the best E.R. episodes (I'm talking the early seasons--the Clooney years).

The secondary story of Working Fire is the story of a middle-class Jewish son of suburban professionals, who after seeing an ad on a bus station bench, decides to become an urban fire fighter, and must learn to cope with people with very different backgrounds. I could relate to this--the summer after I graduated from high school, I went to work for my school district's buildings and grounds department, and felt utterly alienated from the pot-gutted union guys the district paid to keep the schools functioning and attractive. I really didn't have much to add to their conversations about professional wrestling, and tried to avoid their machismo taunts and insults.
It was an experience that helped to solidify a disdain for all those mustaches and beer bellies sitting in the grandstands on ESPN, raising their plastic cups full of watered-down Bud and cheering as NASCAR cars race around in circles. Along his journey Unger learns, as I would later in life, that you should never feel shame for where you came from, and he easily trades jovial Jewish barbs with friendly jabs at his working-class black and hispanic peers--and through this male bonding ceremonies, finds acceptance. I on the other hand still don't particularly care to talk to people who would rather go to a boat expo than a modern art museum--maybe it's part of that cynical bastard thing.

Throughout, Working Fire is an exhilarating read which gracefully balances the adventures of the job with the nuances of the personalities under the helmets. I don't know if Unger's writing would shine as brightly outside of the memoir genre, but for what it is, Working Fire is an honest and riveting tale of the human race, and why through all the global wars and street crimes, we are still worth saving.
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