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I Was the Fireman
by Dr. Lawrence Nannery
2013-10-11 08:53:09
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The ambulance people called on the Fire Department.
I was the fireman sent in to bring him out.
Mister McKeon. He had not broken 81.

As children we'd known him as the gym instructor.
He worked at the school for free.
Repellent in his vigor, inhumanly ruddy,
He terrorized us with his medicine balls, even the girls.
His commanding eye led us in jumping jacks, he outdid us in every exercise.
His voice was stentorian, threatening.  I so feared him then.

He was in the basement of his home, on a cot against the wall.
When I first saw him, I thought it was a grotesque contorted doll.
(His son the Olympic swimmer and insurance man accompanied me.)
His tint was green.  His flesh came off in my hands.
His teeth were clenched in a grimace of pain, and the eyes —
Those penetrating gimlets — now were — just like the skin — dead whitish green.

He had been the Babe Ruth of water polo, long before I was born.
He held millions of records in swimming (no one could name them all).
He held the world record for holding his breath under water.
I was so afraid of him that I'd cross the street to avoid him.
I never really knew him at all.

They say he remained perfect into his eightieth year.
Then there was a pinprick of pain, and a tumor in the gut no bigger than the head of a pin.
From such a beginning, like the fabled mustard seed,
It spread and spread, moving him down, month after month,
Down from his allotted two hundred to thirty-nine pounds.

The pain, they said, was awe-inspiring.
The emotional cost was total: without his health he had nothing left.
Month followed month, and nothing but pain, no relief.
He had himself moved down near the boiler:
He needed the noises to cover his moans.

When I first lifted him, I fell back from the weightlessness,
Stumbled onto the feet of the crying son.  We righted ourselves and proceeded.
I looked into the face when we hit the sunlight.
The lips were parted but silent now,
Silent from the holding of the breath, from the whooping exertions,
Silent from the screams.

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