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Reynold Junker

The Last Fireman

My grandfather emigrated from Italy to the United States around the turn of the century. He moved his wife, four sons and one daughter, my mother, from a small village in the hills near Acri to a small village in the hills near Lyndhurst, New Jersey. According to family legend, unexplained, as most family legends are, my grandfather had been the proud and respected fire chief and honorary mayor of his village in Italy.

After achieving modest success in Lyndhurst as a grocer and beer and wine “bootlegger” and later, after Prohibition, as a recognized and legal beer, wine, grocery and newspaper distributor, my grandfather turned his attention to what he considered his civic responsibility to his adopted country. He became a volunteer fireman and later "chief" of what must have been a fairly small and loosely organized group of Lyndhurst, New Jersey fire fighters. By the time he decided to relocate his family from Lyndhurst to Brooklyn, New York in order to take advantage of an opportunity to enter the waste paper and salvage business, my grandfather was considered by many to be the honorary mayor of Lyndhurst, New Jersey.

Fortunately for my grandfather and his four sons the waste paper and salvage business, largely driven by the metal and paper demands of World War II, prospered into great success. Unfortunately, for my grandfather, fire fighting in Brooklyn, New York was far more highly organized than it had been in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. As their business grew and prospered and my grandfather aged and faltered, three of his four sons married, left home and started families of their own in homes of their own generally well removed from Brooklyn. Only my Uncle Joe and my mother, stayed behind to care for their aging and now failing parents. After my grandmother died, my Uncle Joe married and moved his new wife into the Brooklyn house and began having children of his own. My mother married several years later and moved with her new husband into a small apartment my Uncle Joe had had built for them over the garage of the house. My brother and I were born and the race for space in the house in Brooklyn was on. My grandfather was moved into a small but comfortable and well lighted space in the attic of the house.

As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, I was given the job of keeping my grandfather supplied with pipe tobacco - Ivanhoe pipe tobacco. The package cover design, I remember, was of a knight on horseback carrying a lance. The knight looked as if he would have made a great fireman. I liked delivering my grandfather's tobacco to him in the attic. I liked it there. He seemed to like it there too.

I don't remember my grandfather ever saying very much to me whenever I delivered his tobacco. Mostly he shook his head and grunted. Of course he might have been saying something in Italian. He might have been saying "Thank you." or "Nice to see you." How was I supposed to know? I was just carrying out orders like the knight on horseback. My grandfather called me "Little Sneak." He said it more like "Liddla Sneak," only louder like "LIDDLA SNEAK." That much of what he said I did understand. Maybe he called me that because, enjoying his surprise, I was so quiet climbing up into the attic to deliver his tobacco.

My grandfather was moved from the attic into the basement because it had been decided that my Uncle Joe's daughter and her husband, Jack, should move into the attic apartment. Jack drank a bit and had been having trouble lately finding his way home after dark. His wife didn't drive a car. My Uncle Joe concluded it might be best to be able to dispatch transportation to Jack's assistance from a central location rather than having to rely on his wife to try to alert help at random from around the neighborhood. I don't think my grandfather was very sympathetic toward any of that. I don't know that anybody even checked with my grandfather. I don't think my grandfather was very happy about his move. It was light and airy in the attic. The attic was a place where he could dream and remember. There were no shadows or dark spaces in the attic to hold the musty odor of his age and the lonely chemistry of his decay. In the attic at night the stars could look in on him and brush away any shadows and dark spaces and fill them with memories of the people and things he had loved.

After his move from the attic, all of the basement's shadows and dark spaces seemed to be filled with the musty sweet-sour odor of his age and the chemistry of his inevitable decay. The basement was soon full of my grandfather's dark silence. My mother had told me it was his eyes and his heart which, she explained, were "failing him."

"Here's your pipe tobacco, Grandpa," I announced stumbling down the steps into the darkened basement. My grandfather grunted into the darkness, shaking his head.

"Take care of yourself, Grandpa," I said, scurrying to leave. "Do you need anything else?" He grunted again. I don't know whether or not he shook his head.

"Ouch," I cried, sneaking, stumbling up the stairs from the dark basement.

"Hey, Little Sneak," he called after me softly.

Except for the "softly," nothing was unusual so far.

"Little Sneak," he called out a little louder. "Come over here."

"Yeah, Grandpa, what do you want?" I asked, surprised. My eyes adjusting to his darkness, I walked carefully over to where he was sitting on his small daybed. He was dressed in a freshly laundered and pressed pair of bib overalls. The shoulder straps were fastened over what looked to be a new denim shirt. His gray white hair was parted in the middle and slicked back from his forehead. A faint odor I figured had to be hair tonic or talcum powder filled the space between us. He was dressed to go somewhere. So far as I knew my grandfather never left the basement. So far as I knew my grandfather never went anywhere.

"Come here - closer so I can see you - closer so we can hear," he said, coaxing. "You know about fires?"

I could smell and feel the warmth of his coarse bitter tobacco breath - Ivanhoe pipe tobacco.

"Yeah, sure," I responded. "What do you want to know?"

My grandfather had been a New Jersey fireman - a chief. I knew that. He already knew all about fires. At my age, I hadn't yet grasped the concept of the rhetorical question.

"I don't want to know anything," he continued. "I want you to start a fire for me. Not a big fire. A little fire." He pronounced the words "biga fire" and "liddla fire."

"Why? You cold? I could get somebody to turn up the heat down here," I asked, trying to understand.

"No. No. Just go upstairs and get some newspapers."

I went upstairs into the kitchen - turning an idea in my mind. The morning's Daily News was there on the table. My mother was preparing lunch.

"Mom, is it O.K. if I take these newspapers down to Grandpa?"

"What does he want with the newspaper?" she asked, without looking at me, occupied with what she was doing. "You know he can't read them."

"I think he's cold," I paused. "Maybe he wants me to read them to him."

Still occupied, she answered, "Go ahead. Take them."

I carried the newspapers down the stairs into the basement. My grandfather had pulled a metal trash can over next to his bed. He began stuffing the newspapers into it as I handed them to him.

"Can I light the match?" I asked, still uncertain about exactly what it was we were doing - exactly what he wanted me to do.

"You know how to start a fire?" he asked.

"Sure...I guess."

"Here," he said, pushing the trash can toward me and pointing. "Take it over there. Put it on top of the table. Light the match and drop it in. That's all you have to do. Be careful, Little Sneak. We can watch the fire from here," he explained. "After it gets going you can call the firemen down the street. You can run over there and get them. Tell them we have a little fire. We don't want to burn the whole house down. We just want to start a little fire."

I started dragging the trash can across the floor. I may have been the grandson of a New Jersey fire chief but I was just a kid. I stumbled in the darkness and knocked over the trash can.

"What's going on down there?" my mother called from the kitchen.

Not a rhetorical question.

"Nothing," I tried. "I'm just helping Grandpa."

I righted the trash can and began stuffing the newspaper back into it. I started to lift it up onto the table. The trash can was heavy. I slipped and stumbled again. I knocked over the table and fell and dropped the trash can. It went rolling tin and hollow across the linoleum floor.

"What's all that racket? What are you doing down there?" my mother called again, now turning on the basement light and coming down the stairs - moving faster than I could ever have imagined any mother - let alone mine - could ever move.

I tried to slip the matches into my pocket. My mother saw me.

"What are you doing with matches? Why are you taking your grandfather's matches? What do you want to do? Do you want to burn this house down? Are you trying to burn this house down?"

I couldn't say anything. I turned away to look at my grandfather. He had turned on his bed to face the wall. I couldn't see the expression on his face. He didn't say anything. His body was shaking softly. Some fireman. Some knight - Sir Little Sneak...

My final memory of my grandfather is of the day he died.That day, as I stumbled down into the basement to deliver his pipe tobacco. I heard a soft sigh and then a thump. I looked over and saw he had fallen out of his cot and onto the floor. I walked over to where he lay. There was something liquid puddling around him.

"Grandpa. You okay?" I whispered. If he were sleeping then I didn't want to wake him.

There was no grunt . There was no "HEY, LITTLE SNEAK."

"GRANDPA. you okay?" I tried again, a bit louder this time, working at it - trying to get past the deafness.



"What are you doing down there? Just give him his tobacco and get back up here. I don't want the two of you causing any trouble again. Remember what happened the last time," my mother, from upstairs in the kitchen. I could hear her slamming something. I was glad it wasn't me.

I shrugged. I was silent. I was confused. I climbed back upstairs to the kitchen where my mother was busily getting dinner together.

"Mom, I think there's something wrong with Grandpa," I said, reaching for one of the homemade bread sticks she was putting together.

She responded by slapping my hand away from the bread stick. "What's wrong with him now? Are you two making trouble again? Can't you learn to stay out of trouble?"

"He didn't yell at me like he always does. I think there's something wrong with him."

"He's probably just sleeping."

"I never saw him sleep on the floor before - and he's not snoring like he does when he's sleeping. There's something dripping around him. I think he wet himself."

My mother turned from me and started for the basement stairs. I grabbed the forgotten bread stick from the kitchen counter and followed.

"Dio Mio," she shouted, switching on the basement lights.

"I told you," I tried reminding her. "We weren't doing anything. He was just lying there. He smells funny."

"Dio Mio. Dio Mio", my mother said softly, crossing herself this time. In times of crisis, sadness or anger, Italian always became the language of choice for the adults in our house.

"Figlio mio. Figlio mio," she repeated, grabbing me to her, crushing the still warm bread stick between us.

"What happened?" I asked

"He's gone. He's gone."

"Where? When is he coming back?"

"He's gone. He's dead. He's not coming back."



"I didn't do anything."

"Figlio Mio," my mother whispered softly into the silence of the basement. "Figlio mio."

"Figlio mio" is Italian for "my son." Figlio mio is what Italian mothers call their male children in times of crisis or sadness but never anger. Figlio mio is a term of endearment – like Little Sneak.