The Fire Pole

Every year, my sister and I, along with our friend Martin, would go to the St. Louis Art Fair in Clayton. The event plops itself smack dab in the heart of Clayton, blocking off otherwise busy streets like Forsyth and Maryland for a temporary colony of artists from across the country who display their work in small white tents. 

And every year, as we made our way down Meramec and Central and Bemiston—taking only right angles, Pacman-style—we’d pass the City of Clayton Fire Department off Forsyth and comment that it is our favorite fire station in the whole world. 

This sentiment, of course, is prompted by the mural just inside the station, on the back wall, behind the fire trucks. You can see it only if the giant garage doors are open. But when they are, and when you can, the station assumes an almost artifactual presence, like a museum honoring the history of extinguishing municipal infernos. 

“You should ask them if you can slide down the fire pole,” Martin once announced to my sister as we admired the building and its artwork. 

She laughed. “What? No! They wouldn’t let me.”  

“I bet they would…” he countered. “It’d be awesome.” 

Martin’s family was from a small village in Vietnam. His father had been an officer in the South Vietnamese navy during the Vietnam War, but as the conflict progressed, the family was forced to flee. Shortly after they left, the Viet Cong destroyed their town, their home, and everything they owned. For a short time, Martin’s family lived in a refugee camp in the Philippines. From there, they made their way to Ellis Island in New York, and finally, to Missouri. They started a farm. They learned English. And their youngest son, Martin, eventually became a successful and coveted international finance lawyer.  

He also became one of our dearest friends. Martin was magnetic. The moment you met him, you wanted to be part of his inner circle. He was smart and capable and confident. He had integrity and a strong sense of justice. 

And, as it turned out, he also had a lifelong desire to slide down a fire pole. 

I thought the topic had been put to rest. I was wrong. 

“So guess what I did?” Martin said one evening not long after the event. “I slid down the fire pole.” 

He went on to tell the story. He office was in downtown Clayton, and one day, while walking back from lunch, he saw that the garage doors to the fire station were open. So he waltzed in, asked one of the firemen if he could slide down the pole, and upon obtaining permission, did just that. 

Martin had always said that the St. Louis sartorial situation left much to be desired. In his words, “St. Louis just doesn’t make suits for short, round Asian men.” So, every so often, when he would fly to New York to visit his brother, he’d also get fitted for a custom suit. In every other area, Martin was excessively frugal, so we liked to give him trouble for his suits. Still, he insisted that Manhattan tailors knew how to handle his situation better than anyone. 

And so on a Tuesday afternoon, wearing a business suit tailor-made in New York, Martin slid down the fire pole. 

At that moment, it became my lifelong desire to slide down a fire pole. And not just any fire pole, but the fire pole at the City of Clayton Fire Department at Forsyth and Bemiston. Because it’s my favorite fire station. Because it always has been. Because it’s the fire station where Martin got to slide down the fire pole, and that makes it even more special. 

And every day that goes by in which I don’t slide down the fire pole, I die a little on the inside. 

Martin slid down the pole in 2003. 

That’s a lot of dying on the inside. 

Since Martin’s achievement, I have run by the Clayton fire station hundreds of times. And each time, I look at the doors with hope, bargaining with myself that if the doors are open, and if there is a fireman in sight, and if he or she doesn’t look too busy, why, I will march right into that station, just like Martin did, and ask if I can slide down the fire pole. 

Most of the time, however, my specific requirements aren’t met. Either the garage doors are closed, or they are open but no one is in sight, or they are open and someone is in sight, but that someone looks busy. 

On the rare occasion in which all of my stipulations are met, I experience a brief moment of panic—This is it!—before inventing another caveat. 

Shorts! Alas, I’m wearing shorts! I think just as I reach the open garage doors. It would be indecent to slide down the pole in shorts. At the very least, it would be physically difficult. 

If there is one thing I learned as a kid on the playground, it’s that exposed skin and metal don’t mix. I picture myself on the fire pole, my clammy thighs stuck to the metal like flypaper, resisting all gravitational pull. It is a humiliating scene. 

Well, I think, I’ll just have to wait until I’m wearing tights. 

And then I run on, relieved.  

It probably seems strange that I work so hard to avoid something I want to do. But, you see, as much as I long to slide down the fire pole, I am more afraid to ask. Sure, the firemen had said yes to Martin, but everybody loved Martin. Martin was capable and responsible and, more than that, he looked capable and responsible. They probably took one glance at Martin in his custom-made suit and thought, Now this man has his act together. We’ll take our chances

But me? I’d be a liability. I’m sure of it. I’ve never been one to charm people into bending the rules. I’ve been pulled over for speeding three times in my life. And each time, I’ve gotten a ticket. Not a warning. A ticket. My first ticket: 35 in a 25. My second: 45 in a 35. My third: 70 in a 55. 

Okay, so I deserved the third one. But still. I’m pretty sure Martin could have been nailed going 30-mph over the speed limit with a dead body in the backseat and still have gotten away with a warning. 

“Better get that body on some ice before it starts to stink,” the cop would have told him before wishing him a happy rest of the day. 

But I am afraid to ask because I am afraid they will say no. But if I don’t ask, they can’t say no. And if they can’t say no, I can still run by the fire station with dreamy eyes and think, “One day, I will slide down that fire pole.” Because our little ideas and wishes and longings are safe as ideas and wishes and longings. It’s in the transformation from longing to reality that the danger lies. 

That’s why, last November, as I ran by the fire station and saw the garage doors wide open and two firemen standing leisurely next to their trucks, arms folded across their chests, and as I looked down and realized that I was, in fact, wearing long, black tights, I hesitated. 

This is your chance! I thought. Stop! Ask them! Stop, stop now! 

I didn’t. 

Turn around! This is your chance! 

But it was too late. I saw myself approaching them—shy, bashful—saying that, you see, I’ve always wanted to, and I had a friend who once, and I was wondering if I could, perhaps— 

I saw their faces. Stoic. Then incredulous. And, finally, condescending. 

“We’re sorry, ma’am,” they’d say as though talking to a child. “We just can’t let you slide down the fire pole. We’re in the business of saving people’s lives here, and you’d be in the way. And besides, what if you fell and hurt yourself? We’d be in all kinds of trouble. I’m sorry, but we just can’t let you.” 

And then I would apologize for harboring such a foolish wish, and I would turn away and start running again. They’d talk about me at the table while they were eating dinner and then forget about the whole incident, leaving my little wish not only shattered, but swept away like so much rubbish. 

And so I kept running. 

That was six months ago. I’ve run by the fire station dozens of times since then, and not once have all my conditions been met as they were that day. 

 Next time—I promise. I’ll ask! I tell myself, adding that I’ll even erase the shorts proviso. 

But deep down, I’m not so sure. I know myself. No, I’m not afraid of big dreams and big failures. There’s something admirable about shooting for the impossible and failing spectacularly. But the little things, the ideas and wishes and longings that don’t threaten failure but merely embarrassment—those are the things in which I waver. I think that’s what gets to me the most—my own hesitancy, my own lack of bravado. 

Perhaps that’s why I wanted to slide down the fire pole in the first place. Not for the action itself, but for what it represented. Spontaneity. Confidence. Charm. Bravado. All the things I admired in Martin. All the things I want to possess. 

I once heard a leader described not as someone who isn’t afraid to fail, but as someone who isn’t afraid to fail while everyone is watching. The first part I’m pretty good at. It’s the second that trips me up. There are dreams, and then there are dreams that involve an audience.

The luxury of the fire pole rests in the high probability that there really will be a next time. This is a lucky reality for me, since I usually have to learn things the hard way. I always have to do things twice. But some opportunities are once-in-a-lifetime, and that’s why I need a second try at the fire pole. I need to practice so when I have an opportunity for which there is no next time, I’ll be ready. 

Amy L. Marxkors

Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story.  Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.

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