Chapter One: Not a popular guy
I was sitting in the parking lot of Secaucus High School when I first saw the Department of Public Works truck go by.
From time to time I saw Chuck Snyder, the captain at that fire house, glaring at me from his Department of Public Works truck. But it wasn't until I sat in the parking lot of the high school one morning and saw his truck pass me.
This was a particularly remote part of the lot and no one but a few joggers on the track were around at the time. I had picked the spot so I could have peace to handwrite a story for the next day while I was inbetween events.
Snyder wasn't a big man, but he was wiry and tough. His sunburned face and sunbleached blonde-hair testified to how hard he worked. Normally, an amiable man, his expression -- when angry -- spoke of something ruthless and something I had no desire to encounter in a fight.
I didn't think much of his passing once. The DPW did various jobs at the high school and he often checked on workers in the field. When he passed again, I took notice, keeping my head bent so as not to let him know I saw him -- though I suspected at the time he might have wanted me to as an excuse for conflict. This impression grew as he passed again, this time traveling in the opposite direction.
I wasn't afraid so much as puzzled. Why was he so angry?
Over those few weeks, I talked to then Chief Robert Cordes, who was caught in the middle of the battle between town hall and the militant members of his own fire houses.
"You're killing me with these stories," he told me -- by which he meant he wanted to issue dropped.
In a less guarded moment, he groaned about the numerous problems he faced as chief when he had hoped department would run smoothly during his two years as chief.
He didn't have to tell me the threats coming out of town hall for him to take action or face the hiring of a paid fire chief who would. In a volunteer department, these chiefs wanted to be popular and wanted to keep the friends they made during their rise to the top. Punishing people, setting up regulations weren't the stuff Cordes had envisioned.
With each story, he seemed more deeply wounded, as if I attacked him. The fire department, he inherited, became divided. While they maintained a public face of unity, some insiders agreed the department had to change. The town no longer served pig farms and garden centers, but rather corporate headquarters and shopping malls. Drinking and firefighting didn't mix.
The department had had scandles in the past -- the most nortorious was the battle over beards. They had fire fighters who had absconded with cash, used the fire house telephone to call phone sex lines, even fire fire fighters whose personality disorders kept them moving from house to house because no one could deal with them. But alcohol went to the core of the department, with roots deeper than any tradition, and though most fire fighters didn't drink in the houses, those who did defended the issue with potency.
When Raymond Cieciuch ran for the rank of assistant fire chief, some people in the department plotted against him, believing that he would -- because he did not drink -- would prevent other people from doing so when he became chief. Yet many of these same fire fighters, when a fire truck struck a young child on the way to a fire -- were secretly greatful Cieciuch was behind the wheel -- since he would pass any sobriety test. This small group of fire fighters also displayed gratitude to another sober fire fighter who jumped behind the wheel when the truck struck a vehicle during another call -- the driver having consumed enough alcohol to possibly face conviction for Driving While Intoxicated. The good samaritan, however, soon learned the depth of loyalty his fellow fire fighters presented when his personal car insurance tripled, and not one fire fighter offered to help him pay the difference.
As shocking as it was to learn that several fire fighters used one of the fire house recreation room for a recretion not initially intended in the design, laying their dates out on a pool table instead of a bed, no one doubted the role alcohol played. Although unreported to the police, one drunken fire fighter actually chased several other sober fire fighters with a fire ax while on the scene of a fire. Another drunken fire fighter, bent on facing off with someone who had slighted him, drove his vehicle across town, pulling it up onto the curb as he leaped out and shouted for his advisary to come out of the house, only to learn later he had come to the wrong house.
I reported none of these or the dozens of other instances of drunken misbehavior, I wrote only about how no one could be sure about who was sober and who was not when on a fire scene. Eventually, Snyder ceased to pass, and only later, when I bought the competition's paper did I see the full page ad the North End fire house had taken out against me.
While assuring the public that the fire fighters would continue to serve the residents in the highest regard, they felt compelled to answer my stories.
"Against our wishes, we are writing a letter to defend our character and pride against repeated published stories," their ad said. "These stories come from a non-resident, senior staff writer (Secaucus Reporter) who emphasizes slander and negativity towards the department.
"We, at the North End Firehouse -- who seem most targeted -- provide many speciality services besides fire calls. For example, we handle motor vehicle accidents, oil and chemical spills, marine emergencies, lightning, elevator emergencies and carbon monoxides alarms.
"These along with constant updates on training, require us to sacrifice many hours away from our familes. We, along with our families, take these articles extremely personal."
This was classic Secaucus, and proved that even after ten years reporting in the town, I remained an outsider, someone not to be trusted. Oddly enough, even as they attacked me, I was writing stories about their exploits as fire fighters in the local meadows.