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The Fireman and the Philosopher
It was the year 1990. John Sanders was 17 and at a high school dance. He was dancing with the girl of his dreams, Laura Mulcahy. They were dancing to the then hit song, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” The song ended, and they retreated to the empty hallway by the vending machine. They began to kiss. John knew in the back of his mind that Laura's lipstick would be stuck on him and he would have to sneak past his parents when he got home. That didn't matter though. Nothing mattered. The high school dance on May 17th 1990 was the greatest day of John Sanders' life. But this story doesn't start then. This story starts on March 12th 2006. This was the worst day of his life (so far).
The Fireman I
John Sanders along with his fellow fireman at Engine 29, were, for the first time in their lives, actually counting the seconds until their shifts were over. “Hey guess what,” said Salin Palmer, a fellow fireman hoping to inject some energy into the conversation.
“What?” asked John, in a monotonous voice. The conversation ended there. Salin had nothing to say. This wasn't the first time that someone called Salin's conversational bluff. Some were playing cards, some were chowing down, and some were just sitting wondering if they had made the right decisions in life. John Sanders was no doubt thinking back to that high school dance with painful nostalgia. And then the bell rang. There was a fire on Church Street. The firemen jumped up, got into their trucks and set out to fight the fire and save some lives.
The Philosopher I
Charles Kingston was 69 years old. He never married, and was alone in his life. He was happy. He had a pension, and had the rest of his life to read, analyze and think. Every week or so, Charles met with his former teaching associates to discuss issues totally irrelevant to them personally. He was currently reading on Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas on perspectivism so he would be prepared for his upcoming dinner with his friend of 37 years, Ian Greenberg. Kingston was looking forward to arguing that if God was dead and ideas about the world were simply floating around waiting for people to grab them and accept them as their own, then philosophy itself would be pointless. At the time, it was just a superficial and frankly entertaining argument for him to have.
Charles immediately picked up his pad and a pencil and began to record his thoughts. He felt that if he had an intelligent thought that he never expressed, then it would just float away and be wasted. Each thought, he felt, had the potential to solve one of the world's problems, or at least one of his own. All his thoughts were in one brown pad. Just to make sure he'd have enough room, he wrote on both sides of the paper. He used to use a tape recorder, but he thought his penmanship was better than his voice. He continued writing whatever came to his mind:
What if there's something we totally overlooked with “mirrors”? Is it possible that rather than simple reflective surfaces, these mirrors are actually parallel universes constantly crashing into each other? If that is true, then everything that lives inside those universes has us to thank for their existence simply because we rubbed some wax on some melted down sand.
He had this idea since he was about 6 years old, but Charles felt that as he got older, his mental capacity to distinguish between pointless thoughts and groundbreaking thoughts slowly diminished so he simply wrote down all of them. Charles became tired and went to his bedroom to take a nap.
The Fireman II
As they were on their way to the fire, everyone continued to give each other directions on how to get to Church Street the fastest. Nobody was listening to each other, but it was a delicate balance and somehow they always made it to the fire in time. The fifteen men (five in each truck) arrived at the house that was on fire and John said something he probably shouldn't have said to the mother and daughter waiting anxiously outside the burning house.
“So, is this the place?” he asked so callously that it probably didn't even register in the the mother's mind.
“You have to go back for her!” said the six year old girl standing alongside her mother. John, along with the others, was terrified. They were going to have to run back into that burning house and rescue some shocked toddler or a sister trapped under a bookcase.
“Who?” asked Mark, the very worried fireman standing next to John.
“My dolly! She's stuck in my room!” Boy, did John hate when objects were referred to with personal pronouns (which is one reason he failed French and Spanish in high school).
“Your dolly's gone. Live with it.” And she would. But for now, they had a fire to put out.
Rob had just come out of the house with a ruined stereo, a ruined laptop and one of his boots on fire.
“A little help here,” said Rob to the man currently holding the hose. He quickly aimed the hose at Rob's boot until the fire was out and immediately directed his attention to the fire. Suddenly, they received another call, calling everybody away to an exploded car a few miles away. Overlapping conversations continued, with nobody really in the same conversation.
“Why can't these people put out their own fires?”
“I'm gonna write a letter to the governor suggesting a backup plan in case there is more than one fire burning at once,” said the recently extinguished Rob.
John then jumped in with something actually productive to say, “Okay, so one truck will stay here and the rest--,” Suddenly, they were interrupted by a reemergence of the dying fire in the house. The conversations quickly continued.
“Okay, so two trucks will stay here and the rest will go to the car bomb we've been hearing so much about.” Eventually, the firemen coordinated and divided up the force between the two raging fires.
The Philosopher II
“Ian, you're missing the whole point. People are open-minded. They can accept ideas. I don't think people need us, 'professional philosophers' to point out to them that they make their own truths in life or whatever Nietzsche claimed. Who are we to make a living and publish papers based on our search for our own personal truth. All the ideas are just floating out there, so what, are we better at grabbing them?”
“I'm telling you, you can't beat yourself senseless over every abstract idea ever published. If you want to rack your brain over some ridiculous idea of Frederick Nietzsche's, start with 'God is dead.'”
“That's amateur philosophy. Time is a human construct and couldn't possibly apply to a supernatural being blah blah blah.” Charles took a sip of his coffee. He and Ian had finished their lunch and gotten the bill thirty minutes ago, and it was obvious from the looks they kept getting that the waiters and restaurant employees wanted them to leave and clear the table. “Why couldn't they leave and talk somewhere else? They don't need a table in a restaurant to talk,” the employees said to themselves, anxious to sit some other party at the table for a chance for another tip.
“But this is different,” Charles continued. “Perspectivism isn't some whitewash theory thrown together by one guy. It is a widely accepted theory that could completely change our outlook on life. What is philosophy, if not discovering your own truth without some deity or supreme power giving one to you. It wasn't just Nietzsche behind this. What about Richard Schacht or José Ortega y Gasset. Look, the reason I cannot dismiss perspectivism as just another far-fetched, cynical idea is that it is only within ourselves that we will be able to find the answers that we are looking for, and perspectivism allows us to do that. It seems like it could be the key to all of life's answers. We, as a species, are not going to advance until we stop looking for the answer and start looking for our answer. How do I continue philosophical works without betraying the very idea I wish to explore?”
“It seems as if you are not arguing with me,” Ian suggested. He had grabbed his jacket tightly as if he was ready to shoot out the door as soon as they finished their conversation. “You are arguing with yourself. You are having some real doubts about your profession and you're going to have to figure out the answers by yourself. I can't help you with this.”
“You know I hate it when you're right.” The two left the restaurant silently and parted ways. Charles went back to his home and silently contemplated the sudden problems that had disrupted his generally happy life. He thought about how if he had a life full of hard work, he wouldn't have time to burden himself with such insignificant thoughts as whether what he was doing was ethical. He did not write down his thoughts in his pad.
The Fireman III
“So, did I tell you that I'm quitting?” John asked his girlfriend of three weeks, Denise. It was hard to call her a girlfriend, since they hadn't done anything other than go to the movies and hold hands. What they had more constituted a third grade note-passing relationship. Needless to say, John was more willing than Denise to expand the relationship, but not so much as to tone down his callousness. “Yeah, it's time for me to get out,” he continued as they approached his firehouse after a twenty minute walk.
“But you always wanted to be a firefighter.”
“Yeah, I also wanted to go to space and have a robot to do my shopping, but two of three would be fine.”
“What's wrong with where you work? It seems like it isn't the job itself.”
“Okay, I'll admit, the work isn't exactly rolling in dandelions. But you're right, I just can't stand that place. It's gotta be the worst firehouse in the country.”
“But you said yourself, it has an excellent record.”
“By worst, I mean it doesn't have its priorities straight.”
“You've really rehearsed this speech, haven't you? She asked. He obviously didn't plan on getting interrupted.
“Quiet. Anyway, you see that guy right there? His name is Buzz. He was hired just because his father has political connections. The head of this nut house is hoping to get it just a little bit less nutty by getting some more state funding and finally getting those safety ropes we've been begging for. The old ones kept breaking during the trial run. I guess going to the governor is the easy way out.”
“That makes sense to me.”
“Okay, not enough? That guy over there, Ezra was hired because he played high school football and we have a football game coming up against the policemen.”
“You're kidding.” He'd finally broken her.
“Anyway, I digress, I'll meet you back at your place tonight okay Denise?”
“Um, yeah. I might be a little late though since, well, I just might be a little late.”
“Going out with your boyfriend Dan again?”
“You mean my cousin Dan? Yeah, I might. You know, jealousy isn't as cute as you think it is.”
“Whatever you say. I'll see you tonight dear,” he said, as he tried to sneak a kiss passed her. His attempt was futile, as she was already in a cab by the time his lips were ready.
The Philosopher III
Charles was finding no answers by himself, so he went to take a walk. He had nowhere to look but down, so he decided to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk as he tried to sort out his thoughts. He had a million things to say and no one to say them to. Then, he came across a lemonade stand. “Do you want some lemonade,” the girl asked as she held out a cheap plastic cup. She had no idea what she just got herself into.
“Lemonade? Well, that could be helpful. Who knows? Maybe that could help clear my head and get me to think about something else. That would be great if I could think about the dirt on the inside of that cup or the one part lemon thirty parts sugar that you obviously used in that lemonade. But no, my mind is stuck on the possible destruction of my career as a philosopher, to which I have devoted forty years of my life. The whole point of my being a philosopher was to benefit the world. Sure, I was searching for answers for myself, but come on. I wanted my work to benefit society. That's why I became a teacher. That's also why I stopped being a teacher once everybody started saying that I was senile. But how can I continue my work if it has led me to an answer that negates my work. It's a paradox. Now, I know what you're thinking. Hey, welcome to philosophy. Sometimes you'll run into a dead end or a paradox.” She was most certainly not thinking that. She actually was not listening. She was looking for other customers. “But wait, hear me out,” he continued. “is there some other way I could be spending my time? I mean, could it be a self-fulfilling prophecy that first, philosophy leads me to a mind-racking issue, but then it is the philosophy itself that is making me sick? That's actually pretty interesting. Maybe my mind is just not cut out for this work. You can't always get an answer in philosophy, but if one unanswerable question drives me crazy, maybe I have to reconsider my lifestyle.” He was not sorting out his problem nearly as much as that monologue suggested.
“So, um, do you want some lemonade?” And driven by guilt after verbally berating her as he did, he bought a cup of lemonade.
The Fireman IV
“So, did I tell you that I'm breaking up with Denise?” John asked Rob. Rob didn't respond. He was just staring out into space, waiting for something to happen. “So, um,” John struggled for something to say, “does anybody have a light?”
“Do you smoke?” asked a surprised Salin.
“Well, ever since I saw those um, those anti-smoking commercials, you know the ones, 'Cigarettes are eating you alive..' well, I started smoking out of spite.”
“Do you have any conscience?”
“Don't you remember? I lost it in the fire.”
“Is that a serious question?” John drank some more of his coffee, since it was the morning and he had been at the firehouse since 3 a.m. What John didn't know was that Salin had given him decaf. Why? Because he can. John was thinking back to that night at the high school dance with Laura, and decided to give Denise a call. He got the machine, so he decided to leave a message.
Hey, it's me, John. I just wanted to talk, and say that, I've had a great time these last few weeks. Okay, the ballet wasn't my favorite activity in the world, but you know, it's been great. Anyway, I just wanted to say that—I should just come out with it before I run out of time—I think that we should just be friends, except you know, not friends either. But you know, it's been great, so, I'm sure you'll find someone else. Goodbye honey. Well, I guess there's no point in calling you honey since um,--
The machine beeped, indicating that he ran out of time. It was done. They were officially broken up. John would see her again six years later, but she would not see him. John felt pretty good. He kept a rule that if they were going out for less than a month, then he didn't have to break up in person. Why would she want to see his face anyway if he was breaking up with her?
“What's wrong with you?” asked Rob. Ever since Rob left AAA because of it's environmental policies, he felt that he had earned an ethical code that he could hold over everybody else.
“Come on. It's only been three and a half weeks. I made it by six days. That call was more than enough.”
“You know, you're really starting to piss me off.”
“Oh no. Are you going to call me later and break up with me?”
“That's it. I quit. My shift is just about over and I am quitting. So long everybody. I'll see you in the next life. Have fun in this little hellhole. I am done. I'm finished. It's time for--” and then the bell rang. There was a fire on Main Street. All trucks and people active were being called to it. “But I-- This can't be-- I was just about to qui--”
“Come on. Let's go.”
“Yeah, yeah I know.”
John had some problems, but he never abandoned a fire.
The Fireman and the Philosopher
“Come on let's go. We'll make a left here and then navigate through the side roads. We'll probably be able to avoid most of the traffic of the highway,” voiced Salin.
“Good idea. We'll head towards the highway and tough it out. The exit will take us right to Main Street,” said Mark, the driver of the first truck. John was sitting silently. They arrived at the flaming house, most likely the result of a gas leak, couldn't have been helped. Charles Kingston was coming back from yet another walk he took. But this walk wasn't like his other walks. This walk saved his life.
“My house! What happened?”
“We don't know, we just responded to a smoke alarm, so, something involving smoke.” At this point, it is obvious that John made jokes to avoid any disastrous events such as actually comforting someone.
“My pad! My pad with all my thoughts! My pad with everything that's gone through my head in the last five years! You have to go back and get it!” And seeing no difference between the 69 year old respected philosopher and the hysterical six year old girl worried about her doll, John responded in kind.
“Your pad's gone. Live with it.” Charles was baffled by John's callousness, but could think of nothing but the burning pages of the only things he had left, his thoughts. He knew his thoughts weren't going to change the world, but he needed those thoughts. He rarely ever read books anymore; he just read over his thoughts at night before he went to bed. “So, um, what's your name?” John felt that small talk helped people deal with tragedy. It didn't.
“Charles. Charles Kingston.”
“Hey I'm John. So, what do you do, Charlie?”
“Okay, what did you do before you retired from it?”
“I was a teacher.”
“A teacher of what? You know this could've taken about ten seconds.” He kept pushing. Charles was hoping to avoid this answer.
“Well, I taught philosophy.”
“Like, 'Why are we here?' type of things.”
“Well, yeah pretty much.” Charlie was not enjoying this. John and his men had no trouble putting out the fire. Charles had insurance, so he didn't have to worry about money, although at the time he would've preferred to be worried about money. After all the busy work was done, and the excruciating mandatory conversations were over with, Charles had to get a hotel, and John had to go quit his job. For now, Charles went south to Staples to get a new pad, preferably brown, and John went north to the bar to get a double scotch on the rocks.