Young fireman Gary Danley paces the length of the firehouse in the exclusive Foxhall section of Washington. He passes one of the two fire engines, trailing a finger absently along the polished red surface, and rounds the Ping-Pong table which sits conspicuously in the center of the garage. He looks down at this left shoe, its sole worn through.
He finally comes to rest at the front window, shoves his hands deep into his pockets and hunches his shoulders. For the 26-year-old son and grandson of fire chiefs, life at the slowest firehouse in Washington is utter boredom.
Danley and his fellow crewmen at Engine Company 29 went on 481 runs last year. That is one-third of the average calls handled by the other 31 stations in the District fire department and one-fifth the calls handled by Engine 25 in Congress Heights, the busiest house in the city. Danley, in his 14th months at this far Northwest station, has yet to go on what he terms a big fire, something more than the usual brush fires in the area.
The D.C. Fire Department has threatened to close down two other more active fire stations because of proposed buget cuts, but Engine 29 won't be touched since this is the only fire department outpost in the affluent and politically potent Northwest Washington neighborhood bordering the Potomac River.
"Gary, you've got to learn to gear down, to relax," says Ron Blackwell, a four-year veteran of Engine 29's leisurely rhythm. "You have to learn to wait. You won't last . . . if you keep that up."
In an occupation people enter for the adrenalin-pumping thrill of danger and where careers and reputations are built on action, courage, and feats of strength and endurance, life in D.C's quietest fire company is turned upside down. Instead of having to deal with the tension of hard, fast-paced work, the men of Company 29 have to deal with the tension of waiting endlessly for something to happen.
"It's hard to be a good fireman out here without practice," said Lt. Lee Butler, who was transferred from a more active company when he was promoted six months ago. "It's hard to come off the bench and play good ball. Most companies run three-fourths of the time. We spend three-fourths of the time waiting to run."
For young Danley, Engine 29 means banishment. For Blackwell, who also would like to transfer to a more active company, his four-year stay at Engine 29 has been tempered with the more relaxed attitude he has learned here. For another man, it is a place to prepare for an upcoming divorce. For the fourth of the regular five-man shift working from Friday afternoon until Saturday morning, Engine 29 is a career promotion. For the fifth, it is a short stint before retirement.
Last Friday, the crew arrived early, as they usually do, to allow the earlier dplatoon to beat the rush-hour traffic home.
A soon-to-be-divorced Mark West, the volunteer cook for his platoon, stirs a red cabbage and apple mixture in a large, iron skillet. In the backyard, near the soon-to-be-installed basketball hoop, Blackwell and Danley light the charcoal grill for the twice monthly, payday steaks. Inside, platoon chief Butler and Joe Guiliani, two years from retirement, set the table.
Butler spreads the worn white bedsheet over the table and carefully adjusts the edges. "The problem here is we have more time to cook, more time to eat and more weight to gain," he says.
West, the only one of the five who is at Engine 29 by choice, cheerfully ticks off the advantages of work at this languid company, as he serves his vegetable dish.
"The people in the neighborhood treat us decent. They're thankful we're here," West says. "And we all get along well together. And you get to sleep a whole night, just like a normal job in suburbia."
During dinner, the talk turns to the annual Fire Company of the Year Award, given for courageous rescue work in fires.
Engine 29 has never won it.
"We'd get it if we just had a fire," says Danley.
"Sometimes we haven't had a fire to write up," adds West. "It's embarrassing. All we've done is brush fires. Did you ever try to write a creative account of a lead pile fire?"
The rest of the evening pases with TV news, TV basketball, the TV Dukes of Hazzard, an enthusiastic game of Ping-Pong won handily by the Butler-Danley team and a round of butter-almong-and chocolate ice cream.
Overhead, the dispatcher's voice crisply announces fire company runs in other parts of town.
Butler hears a run for Engine 9 near 16th and U streets N.W. "That's my old company," he says. "I'd rather be back there. We had actual, hard fires. Real challenges. It's the difference between driving a Mercedes or driving a Honda."
He gets up and starts for his room. "Back at No. 9, I would half-sleep listening for the calls for 9. Here I can't sleep at all. I keep waiting to hear No. 29 and it never comes.
Danley, taking the first watch of the night, sits astride a wooden chair before the TV. The first of the three late movies begins, and Danley turns his attention to himself and his career.
"They keep telling me to be patient, but it's hard," he says. "I sit here late at night and listen to the radio and hear them all out there fighting fires and here we sit. When you hit the street, you never know exactly what you'll get. You have to think fast and act fast." He jabs his clinched fist at the air.
"I'm here by chance," he says. "It's so frustrating."
Actually, neither Danley nor his fellow fireman Blackwell are at Engine 29 by chance. Danley is white; Blackwell is black. And since D.C. fire companies are supposed to be integrated -- even tiny Engine 29 -- both men believe they were shunted to Foxhall to fill a quota. With that, neither is happy.
The dispatcher's voice suddenly interrupts Danley's thoughts: "Box 20, 28, 5 . . ." That is the awaited sequence, and before the voice reaches "29," Danley flies from his chair, runs for the watch desk, throws on the house lights and hits the horn.
By the time the dispatcher routinely repeats the message, Danley is into his boots and climbing aboard the lead truck. The other four men are pulling on their "running" gear as they leap aboard. The time is 2:06 a.m.
Four minutes later, they reach the gates of American University. The dispatcher's voice booms over the speaker, still barely audible over the roar of the motor: "Engine 29, return to quarters."
Engine 20 has reached the burning mattress first.
"Running is better than nothing," says Blackwell.
Back at the fire house, Butler goes to bed, but Blackwell, Guiliani, West and Danley gather around the table for a cup of coffee. "We're going to stay up and talk about the big fire," jokes Blackwell. "You've got to talk about what you've got." Before "Caravan to Vaccares," starring Charlotte Rampling and David Birney, ends, all but West are in bed again.
He sips his coffee and explains how life is organized at Engine 29.
"It's a lot like a marriage," says the man about to become divorced. "You notice the little things." It's not like a "running house," he says, where fire fighters are too busy to get on each other's nerves.
"You're exposed to each other so much that you anticipate words and actions," West explains. "And so you're careful not to rock the boat. Like, I'm always careful to make sure the dishes are put away at the end of our shift. The guy on the next shift always wants the dishes put away."
West strolls past the Ping-Pong table to the windows at the front of the firehouse. It is drawn and a bird screeches and rustles about in a hidden nest somewhere beneath the roof.
"Imagine that," says West, "a bird actually nesting in a firehouse."
Then, West puts away the dishes.