Sunday, July 21, 2013

Destination 4: Gloucester, MA

I'm virtually out of words at the moment. My eyes are square, my mind is empty, and my book is two chapters short of the ending. But all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, so...

When the sun shines what better to do than bobbing about in a boat? Here's an assortment of photos for the grandparents, the wider family and every one else who is interested.

Playing cat's cradle on board the MV Lady Jillian.
The ship's captain showed the girls lots of magic tricks, but they couldn't make their fingers disappear no matter how they tried. 

Where Iola goes, the Truff follows...

... but he hasn't learnt to climb trees yet. 

This one is for Auntie Lucy... we found a ship with your name on it. 

Maya smiles all day long...

... while Nathan goes for a more contemplative approach.

See what happens when I try to get on camera?

Monday, July 1, 2013

Fire fighters

It is one of the simplest things to understand about living in America: fire fighters are heroes. There might be television shows and books galore about corrupt cops and disillusioned doctors, but I can't think of anyone who'd try to do the same with American firefighters. They're the good guys, period.

In England, fire fighters have been through a lot: cost-cutting, changes in employment law, and the fact that most of their call-outs now relate to traffic accidents. I know this because I had a very long conversation two years ago with a firefighter who was showcasing his equipment in Newcastle's Eldon Square. I felt sorry for him - no-one else seemed to want to talk to him because the next stall was giving away free food.

In Massachusetts, firefighters attend every emergency call. According to the City of Cambridge Fire Department:
The mission of the Cambridge Fire Department is to protect the lives and property of the people of Cambridge from fires, natural and man-made disasters, and hazardous materials incidents; to save lives by providing emergency medical services; to prevent fires through prevention and education programs; to provide defense against terrorist attacks.
It's possible to make that description even simpler: if something bad happens in Cambridge, you call 911, and a fire truck appears with firefighters who will make everything better. When Iola had her bicycle accident last year, a fire truck was the first thing that arrived at the scene and one of the fire fighters sorted out emergency childcare for Maya, the best hospital for Iola to attend, and a dog walker for Truff (who was a new puppy), while his colleagues cut the bike away from Iola's trapped foot with industrial metal cutters.

Every local neighborhood has its own fire station: this one is ours. It's a few hundred yards from our home - Taylor Square, Neighborhood 8. The building has been there for more than a hundred years. Nowadays, it houses two fire engines and an assortment of fire-fighting and emergency-related equipment; in the past it probably had horses and horse-drawn wagons. Children are always welcome. Iola likes to visit and climb up into the cab of the fire trucks and look at all the equipment. In the olden days, children probably stopped by to feed the horses. They give away bags of candy at Hallowe'en.

As heroes, fire fighters here aren't surrounded by discourses about cost-cutting or strikes or trade unions. The general sense seems to be that they are an incorruptible, essential public service and their level of funding reflects the value of the work that they do. Certainly, becoming a fire fighter is a popular career choice. There are annual recruitments which are advertised across the city. It's one of the most competitive job recruitment processes (and that in a city which houses Harvard, MIT and many world-leading technology and biotech companies).

A few months ago, some of the local firefighters gave a talk at Iola's taekwondo class. They showed the children the equipment they wear. It weighs more than 30lbs. Today, I had a conversation with a local firefighter who also undertook training at Boston airport. The emergency crews there have special state-of-the-art equipment which weighs virtually nothing and protects the body from almost unimaginable temperatures. 'It's amazing stuff,' he said and described how kerosene had been ignited, the flames covered him and he was unhurt except for a burn on his forehead where he hadn't secured his helmet properly. 'Not a serious burn,' he was keen to point out, 'not a third degree one. Probably just first degree.'

It was the same kind of material which the Arizona fire shelters were made from. The fire shelters which were meant to be almost fail safe in the event of a fire-fighting emergency. The material is amazing, almost fail-safe, ground-breaking... the kind of material you would expect a twenty-first century fire-fighter to wear, the kind of material you would expect a superhero to wear.

And it's easy to think the firefighters are superheroes: they turn up in any emergency and make everything better. But that's my naivete. They're not really super-heroes, are they? Super-heroes don't die.