The Firefighter: A friendly haunting of my father

During the 1950’s my late father was busy running around the alleys in Pittsburgh’s South Side Flats neighborhood.  It was a typical big city atmosphere, where shop owners lived above their store fronts, everyone was within walking distance of their jobs and churches and small grocers popped up on every block to serve the needs of the community.  For a few years when he was between eight and ten years of age (circa 1951-1953), Dad and his friends would occasionally see a older firefighter walking down their alley on his way to work.

Dad described him as a tall man in his early sixties, with a full head of silver hair under his hat.  He didn’t know what his rank was within the firehouse, but based on the uniform he could tell he was one of the chiefs (There are a few of them in the United States anyway).  When the man was wearing his long company overcoat during the colder months, he had these amazing gold buttons or clasps that would run down the entire front.  Dad thought his uniform was really cool.

Dad never got his name, but he and his friends interacted with the firefighter enough to remember his voice and gait.  They talked to the firefighter in the street when they were pushing toy cars off of a stoop, playing sports or just sitting around enjoying a nice day.  When the man spoke to them, he came down to their level, never standing tall and hovering over them.  These interactions were never more than a few minutes at a time since he was heading to work.  Dad never saw him again after the age of ten or eleven, but he just assumed he retired.  The old firehouse was down around South 21st Street, and the man was always walking east from S. 17th St.  With all of the local grocers, churches, shoemakers, theaters, etc., people could live six short blocks from one another in 1950’s South Side and never meet.

Life went on.  After graduating high school in 1961 Dad worked in downtown Pittsburgh at a few places and then decided to join the United States Navy in mid-1960’s.  He came back home from the Navy in 1968 and continued living with his parents right off of the main street that runs through the South Side, East Carson Street.  After being in Hawaii for two years one would think Dad would complain about coming back to a congested house in a congested neighborhood, but the constant buzz of cars, trucks and trains twenty-four hours a day didn’t bother him since he grew up in that environment.

It was a Monday night in October, 1970.  Dad knew this because it was the first year ABC aired NFL’s Monday Night Football and he went out with a few friends to watch the game.  It was probably the fourth or fifth Monday game because Dad remembered wearing a light jacket that night.  The bar was on East Carson in between S. 14th and S. 15th Street.  After the game was over around midnight, Dad set off east toward home, which was between S. 18th and S. 19th Street.  The usual midnight buzz was around the neighborhood at the time, with trucks driving to and from the steel mills and workers walking to and from hospitals, steel mills and other jobs that required a nighttime presence.

Dad said it recently stopped raining that night when he set out for home, so a slight fog was in the air.  With no wind in the air, it made for a nice walk home despite the oncoming changing of the seasons.  He was walking alone because his other friends either stayed at the bar after the game, or lived in a different direction.  He couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment, but when Dad started walking down East Carson with his head down, he noticed everything was quiet.

The constant midnight buzz that I mentioned (and witnessed myself in early 1980’s) was silent.  Dad picked his head up to see no street traffic, no pedestrians, no sounds of trains, nothing.  Quiet.  Up ahead on the same side of the street, Dad saw a silhouette of a person coming toward him.  The wind suddenly picked up.  As the person got closer, it was clear that it was an older man in his sixties with unkempt silver hair and he was wearing a long overcoat that was unbuttoned and flapping in the wind. He had a hurried gait like he was walking urgently without having to run to his destination.

Right before they crossed paths, Dad looked at the man.  He looked familiar but he didn’t know why.  The man then said, “Good evening.”

Dad replied in the same fashion, and in the few seconds after this encounter he figured out how he knew this person–from the voice of the man.  It was the old firefighter from when he was a boy!  But there was so much that was different about him from what he remembered!  The voice was the same, but his hair was wildly out of control.  He had the overcoat with the gold buttons but it wasn’t neatly buttoned as it used to be.  The gait was the same, but the calm pace that the firefighter used to walk with was replaced with a pace of desperation.

Dad was also amazed that he didn’t age.  The firefighter should have been around eighty by now and he was walking very fast for a person that old.  When Dad turned around the catch up with the man, there was nobody there.  A few seconds prior, they crossed paths in the middle of a block and now, the mysterious man had vanished.  No businesses were open to enable a quick getaway off of the sidewalk and no apartment doors were nearby to quickly escape the cool weather.

While standing on the sidewalk in disbelief, Dad noticed that the wind that accompanied the man had dissipated, there was still fog outside (which didn’t make sense because the wind should have killed off the fog), people were walking all over the sidewalks again and all of the car, truck and train traffic had returned.

Dad continued to walk those same South Side streets until 1973 but he never saw the firefighter again.  He was never afraid during that strange encounter in 1970.  Dad felt that the firefighter wanted him to know that he remembered those innocent encounters years ago and was giving him a final goodbye before moving on.

October 1997: The Party At “Slim’s House”

Nineteen years ago this month I arguably had the strangest house party experience of my life and it had nothing to do with sex, drugs, beer, fire or some form of property damage.

There was this guy my friend Amy occasionally hung out with and my circle of friends knew him because he would occasionally pop in when my group would go out drinking.  I’ll call him “Slim” for this story.  Slim was a fat schmo who was arrogant, condescending, sloppy, cheap and a consistent jerk for no good reason.  I still remember Slim going out for chicken wings with us and always ordering french fries with a water.  I’m a “go big or go home” type of person when going out for food and drinks, so I thought he was an asshole just based on his food order.  I was never the sucker who would buy Slim a beer.

My friend Dave and I worked with Amy and she told us that we were invited to go a party at Slim’s house.  Apparently Slim had a new house and my cynical self was telling me that Slim wanted to show off his bachelor pad to EVERYBODY HE COULD because he wanted everyone to know who was boss even though he looked like total garbage.  How ironic.  Even though Dave and I couldn’t stand Slim, we agreed to make an appearance out of pure curiosity.  At least Slim would serve all the french fries and water we could eat and drink.

The party took place on a Friday night in mid-October.  I drove with Dave in his car and we got to Slim’s about an hour after the party started.  When we got inside we saw Amy, Slim, a few other friends of ours and about fifteen other people that I didn’t know.  The home was built in the 1950’s, a typical small suburban ranch house like many that were carved out in Pittsburgh’s south hills post World War II.  It was a good size for Slim but it was very small to house a family in.  The strange part about Slim’s house was the decor.  I didn’t ask, but most of the furniture was old.  Not retro chic old but 1970’s tacky old.  I assumed the furniture came with the sale of the house, so I grabbed a beer and hung out with Dave, Amy, Jill (from the “Rocker Girl” tale) and Jill’s boyfriend Jerry (whaa whaaaah).

About thirty minutes in, Dave and I overheard a conversation from a few guys that were coming up from the basement.  Apparently the basement was finished with a large television down there, and Slim had a Sony Playstation hooked up to it.  Some of the guys were taking turns playing Madden 98, which was and still is the best American football video game franchise produced.  Becoming bored with the conversations upstairs, we ducked out and descended the stairs to see if we could play a game against each other.

The room was simple but nice, with plenty of seating and good lighting.  There were four college age guys sitting around, two playing the game and two watching the game play.  Since the 1998 version was fairly new, Dave and I wanted to view the game even if we killed the vibe in the room.  Usually when guys get together to play video games everybody is loud and throwing snacks at each other.  These guys were quiet and calm while we sat around with them.

After the game was complete, we were asked by the four guys if we wanted to play since they were all heading back upstairs.  We agreed to take over the game and decided to play the longest amount of minutes per quarter since we were anticipating a few more people wanting a turn.  We wanted to get our thirty to forty minutes in and be done with it for the night.

About forty minutes later Dave and I completed our game, but there was nobody waiting to use the game console.  Having lost faith in the atmosphere upstairs at Slim’s, Dave and I fired up another game.  An hour (and a few beers) later, we apparently started to make a noticeable amount of noise.  In our eyes, Dave and I were just being typical twenty-one year old’s playing video games.  Slim came downstairs to see what the commotion was about.

“GUYS!  I don’t care if you play down here, but you have to be quiet.”

Dave and I looked at each other, confused.  I spoke up.

“Slim, what’s the big deal?  We’re just down here by ourselves playing Madden.  Why does anyone upstairs care about how much noise we are making down here?”

“Because my grandmother is sleeping in the other room.”  Slim points at a door on the other side of the basement.

Dave and I looked at each other again.  Dave had this look of both confusion and amazement  while I could not wipe the smirk off of my face.  I tactfully replied for the both of us.

“Oh, okay Slim.  Sorry, we didn’t know she was there.”

Slim went back upstairs, and we immediately started laughing uncontrollably.  Of course, we were laughing uncontrollably QUIET.  We finished our second game and went back upstairs.  We wanted to share the hilarious news that Slim’s grandma was sleeping in the basement, that it wasn’t Slim’s house and the party was lame, but we didn’t say anything to our friends until the next day.  Me, Dave and some twenty-five other people went to a house party…at Slim’s grandmother’s house.

So the revelation of Slim’s grandmother holed up in the basement confirmed why all of the old furniture looked like something my grandparents would have owned, why those four guys were acting so reserved in the basement and that Slim was indeed a poser.  He made it sound like the house was his, and we discovered the truth when we played drunken video games in his grandma’s basement.  I mean WHO THROWS A HOUSE PARTY IN THEIR GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE!?!?!  Slim does.

Dave and I left the party pretty quick after our conversation with Slim.  We went to a local bar where a lot of jolly older guys hung out and told tall tales and laughed at each other for hours.  On this night we had our tall tale to share with them, and we didn’t disappoint them.  They never heard of anybody doing what Slim pulled that night.