Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

One test I’m glad I missed

After I got out of the Marines in August 1982, I was back at home with my parents. It was pretty obvious that I couldn’t live “on the arm” and in the basement forever, as my father sometimes said, so I had to do something: look for a job.

For four years I had been insulated from the economic distress in the country, but I found getting a job to be a challenge. Like a lot of people, then and now, I decided that the best thing was to start taking civil service tests because of the training they offered as well as the scoring advantages offered to veterans. I took the New York City Police Department test and the Postal Service test, but decided to pass on the Fire Department of New York test.

Before I began working for the Postal Service, I met up with someone who’d been in my squadron in the Marines. Art (not his real name) had been in the ordnance shop, while I was avionics. He’d left the Corps before me and moved back to Queens, and I had run into him one day. He had turned me on to the Postal Service test. In fact, he had worked for the Postal Service and then the Police Department, but soon transferred into the Fire Department.

He said the Fire Department was a snap compared to the police and especially the Postal Service, with firefighters getting unlimited sick leave and shifts that guaranteed huge amounts of overtime. In fact, he had a second job, though I’ve heard tell that some firefighters in New York City consider the Fire Department the second job.

But while I could have gone for a job with the Fire Department, I still had the memory of my experiences when detailed to the “Wheels Watch” at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma in Arizona just before I got out.

Compared to mess duty in the mess hall, Wheels Watch was relatively easy. You were driven out to a little glassed-in room between the air station’s parallel runways, and you watched the planes come in to land while making sure their landing gear was down. There were foot-pedal-operated flares that you could set off if a plane was coming in wheels up, and a flare gun if that signal was ignored.

The aspect of Wheels Watch that made it not so much fun was that your base of operations was the base’s airfield fire station.

The “crash crew” was the most unmotivated and least happy group of Marines I had ever seen in my time in the service. They had enlisted for the excitement of putting out aviation fires and saving pilots’ lives, but the overwhelming majority of their time was spent cleaning their firetrucks, checking their gear and sitting around and getting on each other’s nerves.

Occasionally, for a drill, an officer would set off a fire-generating device of some sort so they could drive the trucks around and practice putting out the fire, and there were crashes at the field, maybe once every six months or more, but the rest of the time was akin to living through the film “Groundhog Day.” One day was like the next, on and on. And they hated the Wheels Watch guys who got to escape at the end of 30 days.

The enlisted men hated their commanding officer, and the feeling seemed to be mutual. It was always a relief to leave the station and head back to VMA-513’s barracks, where I felt like I could breathe again.

Some of that thinking came back to me when I read one time that one of the biggest problems fire chiefs have to deal with is boredom in the firehouse.

I like action, not sitting around waiting for something to happen. In my job as a copy editor, I sometimes find myself having to wait for a story to be ready for me, but the waiting is rarely that long because of tight deadlines, and often there’s other work to do in the meantime.

If the copy desk were like the firehouse, you might edit a story a week, but you’d never know when that story would be there. The work at a newspaper is mostly predictable, though of course news can break at any time and cause everything to change, but there are not the soul-destroying waits for something to happen.

At the Marine air station, disciplinary action against Marines was pretty common, as the place just seemed to breed insubordination and disrespect for authority. It was hard for the firefighters to advance because they were constantly being written up and disciplined, and that has a tendency to hurt one’s career. In the avionics shop in my squadron, it might get slow but some work would always come up. I felt really sorry for the guys in the crash crew.

So that’s why I decided the Fire Department wasn’t for me. Also, I’m not too crazy about fire. And while I was called in by the Police Department, it was after I was hired for the Postal Service, and I decided that I didn’t want to risk my life anymore. Call me chicken, if you want.

So in a nutshell, I’m glad I made the choices I made, and glad I missed that firefighter test. The job just wasn’t for me.

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July 29, 2010 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , , , ,

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