The heading of the ad in the local paper said “Recruiting for the Albany/El Cerrito Fire Department.” Listed below was information about a series of qualifying physical tests to be given at a nearby school. The tests included the dummy lift, the ladder climb and the hose pull. I asked myself: why not try out? This was the mid-70’s and even in the enlightened Bay Area, there were no women firefighters anywhere. Perhaps I could be the first. I talked it over with my husband and he agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to at least try out. To celebrate my decision, I lifted him off the ground in a firefighter-like bear hug.
While I did not seriously train for the test, I did try lifting friends and acquaintances – with their permission, of course. This was surprisingly easy to do, especially when the person being thrown over my shoulder was a good sport. I figured that the ladder climbing part would be easy, so I didn’t practice this at all. No weight training, no squats, and no stamina building – just an unsubstantiated belief in my ability to at least pass the first hurdle, which was the dummy lift.
As the day of the test grew closer, I wondered what it would be like to be the only woman in the firehouse. Would I get a space to myself? How would it be to spend all day with the guys? Would my husband of just a year be jealous when I went off to work every day? Could our relationship survive this new living arrangement: him home alone several nights a week and me surrounded by buff, hunky, probably single men? It was something to think about. I had some reservations, but I figured that there was no point in going over the pros and cons until I had passed the tests.
When the test day arrived, I took the bus and then walked to the site, which had been fixed up to allow for dummy lifting, ladder climbing and hose pulling. It was laid out like a series of track and field events. I looked around. There were no other women. The men sitting at the registration table gave each other amused sidelong glances as I signed up. I was not yet twenty-five, stood about five-foot three and probably had earrings on. Who wouldn’t have laughed at me? But I looked them in the eye and smiled, thinking there was a remote chance that I wouldn’t totally humiliate myself right off. There was a moment when I could have feigned confusion – “Oh, this isn’t the garden show!” and made my exit right then, but I let it go by. I wanted to see, just to see, if I could make it past the first test.
The testing would be a direct elimination. If you failed the first test, you went home. End of story. If you successfully lifted the dummy and carried it the required distance in the time allotted, you moved on to the next test. So picking up that dummy was make or break for me. I felt ready. After all, at a party recently I had carried my sister’s six-foot-four boyfriend several feet across the patio in his backyard.
When my name was called, I stepped over to a muslin-covered dummy that was sprawled out on the ground. It looked like a cousin to the dress dummies I used to drape fabric over in my junior high sewing class. Unlike the dress dummy, however, this one had a head, a neck, legs and arms. This would prove to be a critical and fateful difference.
Each testing station had a fireman with a stopwatch. Here at the dummy station, it was time to get moving. Three of us were doing the lift in the same round. We ran over to our dummies and bent or squatted down to begin the lift. My dummy’s head and torso easily weighed half a ton, and the weight was distributed evenly, unlike a real human body. The head was as heavy as the upper body, each arm was full of lead and I could not get enough of a purchase on it to get it sitting up, let alone off the ground. I moved around to the other side, but could not get a grip there either. I bent over and tried to wrap my arms around the torso, but the dummy did not cooperate. By now, the two guys had flung their muslin carcasses over their wide shoulders and were striding toward the finish line. My adrenaline was pumping hard and my body shook at each new attempt to pick up that lifeless hunk of dead weight. Ultimately, I ran out of time. Breathless and frustrated, I pulled away and stood up. I was devastated that I got knocked out of the competition on the first test, but there it was.
The man with the stopwatch mumbled “Too bad,” but by then I was ready to dust off my knees and head for the exit. Since I arrived on the bus, I now needed to walk several blocks back to the bus stop. I barely got half a block away before hot tears began to fall. I let the tears run their course, and then I thought about what had just occurred. I had failed in a monumental way in front of a group of men who knew I didn’t have a chance. I had gone into the test woefully unprepared, but buoyant with belief in myself. And now, defeated, I faced a long, lonesome bus ride home.
Could I have maybe picked something a little less public to try and fail at? What was the lesson here? I had a long time to think, and by the time I got home, I had figured a few things out. If I couldn’t be a firefighter, I still had plenty of options, right?
All I could think about was that I could tell this story on myself for the rest of my life and people would always be amazed. “You did that?” they would say. “Wow.”
|Not my type anyway
Yes, I did that. And I failed big time. It hurt, it was embarrassing, but I have never faced a challenge again without remembering the dummy who did me in.
I am so over him.
I am so over him.