I just finished reading Firehouse, a book by David Halberstam about a New York City firehouse where 12 of the 13 men who responded to the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center died. The book is beautifully written, and manages to draw a vivid picture of the powerful bonds that unite firefighters with their comrades. It’s almost unbearably sad, especially when I stopped to think that for all the impact of the stories of these 13 men, they are but a tiny fraction of the lives that were lost that day.
I would strongly recommend Firehouse to anyone who is interested in a glimpse at the impact of that day on the NYFD. There is little detail about the scene at Ground Zero because little is known about what, exactly, the men of Engine 40/Ladder 35 experienced there. The one member of the firehouse who survived did so with severe injuries, including a concussion, and his memories of the day are incomplete. Most of the book examines both the individual lives of the firefighters who died and the culture of brotherhood that is the modern firehouse.
As good as the book is, though, one thing did trouble me. Although Halberstam tries to portray the firefighters realistically there is still an element of sanctification about their individual lives and stories. There are hints, mere wisps of suggestions, that some of the men may have been less than perfect (in the ways that all of us are less than perfect), but the tone quickly reverts to unstinted admiration. The book was published less than a year after the attacks, so it’s understandable that Halberstam did not have the luxury of distance to more objectively draw his portraits. It would be interesting to read an updated version of the book to see where the families and comrades of the firefighters are now, but that won’t ever happen given that the author Halberstam was killed a couple of years ago in a traffic accident.
So why does Halberstam’s idealization of the firefighters of Engine 35/Ladder 40 bother me? Because none of us are perfect, and by writing as if these men were, Halberstam diminishes their lives. There’s no question that it takes a special kind of person to be a firefighter anywhere, let alone New York City, but to pretend they were perfect is as if to say that what they were — strong,tough, proud, brave, sure, but also impatient, angry, intolerant — was not good enough. But all of us deserve to be remembered for who we are, warts and all. Anything less is like watching only half of a movie, or reading random chapters out of a book. We are the sum of our thoughts and actions and emotions, and it’s in the experiencing of the full spectrum of life that we are truly alive.