When life feels grim and like all hope is lost, look around and use the tools available.
** This essay will make more sense if read in the context of my other essays about losing my father on 9/11. If you are interested, please read in reverse chronological order. **
My dad was particularly fond of a poster — nothing more than a line drawing on a piece of paper — depicting a frog being eaten by a bird. The bird had consumed the frog’s head but the frog’s arms and legs were still free, and the frog was strangling the bird. Under the picture were the words, “Never give up.” This poster hung on our refrigerator for years.
When my father first brought this picture home from the firehouse, he excitedly talked us through it.
“Never give up. Isn’t that great?” he asked. “The frog is being eaten by the bird, look where its hands are. It’s still trying to fight its way out of the bird’s mouth. I love it!”
When my sister Kim and I ran the NYC marathon together in 2000, at mile eighteen my parents waited for us on the street with a poster my father had drawn depicting the frog/bird picture and big letters, “Never Give Up!”
This was a big thing for my dad — not giving up. In July of 2001, when his cousin Ray was dying and doctors told him he only had weeks to live, he wanted to participate in an experimental treatment. Ray told my father he would try anything if it meant he might live.
“See? Never give up,” my dad told me. “There’s always hope. Even in his darkest hours when he was about to die, Ray wanted to live.”
At the time, I didn’t think much about it. Ray had been battling cancer for years and it was clearly the end. To my father, fighting for one’s life, until the bitter end — never giving up — was the most important thing. I can even hear him quote his favorite Yankee, Yogi Berra, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over,” which sums up his philosophy.
When I was around nine or ten, my dad and I sang along to the Mamas and Papas song Dedicated to the One I Love. I said I liked the line: “the darkest hour is just before dawn” and it seemed to make sense that right before sunrise would be the darkest. My father said that he thought it was referring to being depressed and how if someone feels their absolute worst — rock bottom — the dawn is near. I liked learning that. I didn’t have any sense for deeper meaning in literature, poetry or lyrics or what it felt like to be depressed but I felt like he let me in on a little secret. It seemed strange to me that my father would know what depression was like since I couldn’t picture him that way but he was full of surprises.
During the summer of 2001, my father recommended I read Flags of Our Fathers — a true story about a group of American soldiers who fought in the Pacific during World War II. During one part of the book, the author describes Japanese soldiers who lived alone on islands after the end of the war because they didn’t get word of the surrender. These Japanese soldiers scrounged for food and lived in caves for years. When they were discovered, long after the war had ended, they thought they were still fighting for their country and came out swinging. They never gave up. Even though these soldiers were on the other side of the war, my father spoke about their determination and grit. They did everything they could to survive.
My father wasn’t frugal. He just didn’t see the purpose of buying something new if he already had something that worked. As a fireman, he rarely had an occasion to wear a suit — strictly funerals and weddings. So on those infrequent occasions, he wore the same suit — for about twenty years. He also dug out a London Fog raincoat for formal events and while barely worn, not exactly in style either. He held on to what he called his “ShaBoom” suit from high school because it mostly still fit and hey, it might come back in style. Now anything referred to with slang from the 1950s would likely do well in a vintage store or on a hipster — not on the original owner. No sense in arguing about it.
My dad always found solutions in the mundane. The house I grew up in was built around 1910 and owned by the same family until we moved in, which was in 1977. The basement contained lots of junk — about a third left behind by the previous owners, a third moved from our house in the Bronx (where it had been left behind by THAT home’s previous owner,) and a third recovered from burned out buildings in Harlem. As an adult, I can’t imagine moving junk left behind in one house to another house and assume my mother was distracted trying to get everything else in order, including three young children, and didn’t notice what my father was up to.
The basement wasn’t a Collyers’ Mansion by any means — it was organized and orderly but there was a fair amount of weird stuff down there, including a small, old bathroom with a clawfoot tub, a toilet connected to the old septic system and a large hole in the wall that my father covered with an old toilet seat.
The cellar could be accessed in two ways: down a windy, treacherous staircase from the kitchen or through a door from the backyard. When I told my dad I was scared someone could sneak up on us in the kitchen by coming up through the outside door, he put a cowbell on the top of the cellar door leading outside. His theory was anytime the cellar door opened, we could hear the cowbell ring throughout the house. This way if there was an intruder, he told me, he would know and he could deal with it. What he didn’t realize was anytime the wind moved the door, even a little, the cowbell would ding. During a big storm with lots of wind, thunder and lightning to unsettle us, we also had a cowbell dinging in the basement. Helpful? Not so much.
An old house also meant other kinds of intruders — animals. Over the years, squirrels often made their way into the house. Either trapped in the fireplace or loose in the basement.
“Call an exterminator!” my mother said.
“I will take care of it,” was always my father’s response.
He’d never resort to a trap or bait as it would be silly and cruel. It was our job to get them out safely, even if it took a few days. (My mom was not happy about the timing.)
The last time a squirrel came down the chimney, I walked into the living room early one morning and as I looked at the fireplace, I saw the squirrel’s underbelly as it hung from the inside of the mesh fireplace screen. The squirrel couldn’t get out through the living room because the cover was shut tight but what a way to start my day. A squirrel dangling from the fireplace screen was enough to get me out the door that morning.
By the time I got home later that day, my father had an elaborate system in place for squirrel removal. How would one get a squirrel out of a fireplace safely and out of the house? My father used what he had around the cellar. In the old day of the New York City marathon, the fire department hung banners across First Avenue. The last year these banners were used, when his company removed the banners, my dad took one home. It sat in the cellar for about twenty years waiting for my dad to find a way to use it. Now, the time had come. Its destiny was to be a tunnel for a squirrel!
My dad formed a tube by taping the banner shut along the length and then placing various objects inside the banner to expand it. He also placed nuts along the bottom to entice the squirrel to leave the fireplace and move through the tube. Then he ran the banner the length of the living room — one end at the fireplace and the other at the open front door. All the squirrel had to do was leave the fireplace, walk through the tunnel, avoid the obstacles, maybe stop for a nut snack and he would be home free.
I helped my dad hold the banner so he could tape it around the opening of the fireplace and open the fireplace doors. Then he told me to be quiet and not move. After a few minutes, we heard small scratching sounds from the tunnel and we looked at each other in silent glee. The sounds made their way from the fireplace though the tunnel and out the front door. The little guy emerged covered in ash and soot and was on the skinny side. He hopped down the front steps and ran into the neighbor’s yard. I’d call it a classic win-win. My father — 1, Squirrel — 1.
Another time, my mother heard noises in the basement and figured the likely culprit was another squirrel. Because my dad didn’t know exactly where the squirrel was hiding, he had to find a new way to get it out. You’d think maybe he could have spent more time trying to figure out how these animals were getting into the house and solved that problem instead of spending so much time getting them out.
He scattered some nuts around the basement leading to a trail to the cellar door. Then, he left the door open and hoped the squirrel would vacate. When I heard this plan, my first reaction was, “You left a trail of nuts throughout the basement and left the door open? Won’t that entice other squirrels into the house?”
My father conceded it was a good point. Nevertheless, the noises in the basement stopped and so he shut the door. No squirrel carcass was ever found so the plan was deemed a success. My dad — 2, Squirrels — 2.
I have no doubt that other people who, when faced with a squirrel in their fireplace, would call an exterminator — or try to kill it — and that would be the end of the story. For my father, the exterminator would be the call of last resort. By the time he created the squirrel tunnel, he was a chief and no longer working a second job. He mostly worked twenty-four hour shifts at the firehouse and would then be home for two or three days at a stretch. Figuring out a way to help a squirrel get out of the fireplace was something that flexed all my father’s biggest muscles — creativity, resourcefulness, and intellect — and in his mind, a good way to spend an afternoon. I admired these traits in my dad and watching him for almost twenty-six years rubbed off on me. He showed us how to be self-sufficient and figure things out. When Kim and I owned a paint-your-own-pottery studio, we couldn’t afford to call experts to solve problems. We put together kilns, fixed broken mixers, repaired broken shelves — all using what we had around the studio.
Sometimes I was envious of my friends and their neat basements with playrooms, TVs, and wall to wall carpet but mostly I liked our weird cellar and the stuff my father kept down there. He tucked ladders up into the ceiling, kept nails and screws by the pound in old coffee cans, had paint brushes in every size imaginable, dozens of paint cans in every color, saw horses, shutters from an old house that wasn’t ours, fishing poles for kids and adults (we never went fishing,) golf clubs including a couple of sets made of wood, an assortment of glass jars and bottles, washboards, skis, a ridiculously large horseshoe shaped magnet, vices, and wheels from strollers, scooters and more. I liked it when he made me a go-cart from old wood, wheels from a baby carriage, and piece of rope. Or when he emerged from the cellar with strange bags from his days in the Army, or tools seemingly from the Revolutionary War, or an old nozzle from a firehose. Who else had an old fire hydrant in their basement?
It sounds like he was a lunatic with all the junk, or as my mother called it, crap, in his space in the cellar but all creative geniuses are a little crazy, aren’t they? It was a side of him I loved — we all did. Brainstorming solutions to problems was fun. When we needed something interesting for show and tell, the cellar was filled with possibilities. Spiders aside, the cellar was a kids’ dream. Poking around down there led to discoveries and a lot of questions. My father let us do whatever we wanted and use whatever was down there. Very few of his tools were new and everything was up for grabs. He could sit down there for hours in an old decrepit lawn chair reading the newspaper and drinking coffee but we were always welcome. His space was the definition of a man cave since it was partially underground and filled with things from the nineteenth century.
Knowing how strong and resourceful my father was gave me a lot of confidence in his survival at the World Trade Center after the Towers collapsed. He would never give up. Never. When the first tower collapsed, other firemen still had radio contact with him, another chief and a lieutenant — they said they were in a tight spot. When the second tower collapsed, radio contact was lost. All that meant to me was the radio had stopped working. Nothing more.
I thought about how much he seemed to relate to his cousin Ray not giving up even though he was told he was dying. My father admired Ray’s will to live and as he related the story, I can still see his face — admiration for Ray’s desire to try anything and my father’s unequivocal agreement with the mindset.
In the days and weeks after the World Trade Center was attacked, there was nothing I could physically do to help him, so I did other things. I prayed, I stayed positive. I had hope, even though the likelihood of my father being found alive seemed to grow grimmer with each passing day and perhaps I had put blinders to. I didn’t let any of that deter me. Friends called with encouraging stories. A friend from Indiana relayed a dream she’d had in which there were rescues. She finished her message with the words, “Hope is still alive in the heartland!” Another friend emailed me the story of survival he’d read about a woman who survived a building collapse and was buried for two weeks but lived because she was near a pipe dripping fresh water. I clung to these stories and message. Even if what he was going through seemed hopeless, I knew he wouldn’t give up.
I figured he found a way to use what was around him to stay alive. A skyscraper contained all kinds of stuff — not only ordinary office equipment. It all landed in a pile and maybe something useful trickled down to where my father was stuck and he was alive and trying to get out. I envisioned what my dad was doing to survive. Maybe he found an office refrigerator and it was stocked with food and water. Maybe he was near a pipe that was dripping clean water. Maybe he found some other people in a cavern of space and they were working together to get out.
I heard on the TV news and from firemen visiting our house that rescue workers had found huge caverns as the cranes and bulldozers pulled back debris. One fireman shared his own experience of seeing massive spaces, multiple stories high. If anyone could find a way out of a tight spot and into one of those caverns, it was my dad. He was, after all, the guy who found solutions in the ordinary.
He was also well suited, wearing his helmet and his bunker gear — fireproof coat, pants and boots. I checked with another chief about what else my dad would have had with him and felt pretty comfortable that he would have a flashlight. I figured at least he was warm and not completely in the dark. And I knew he’d never give up.
If anyone could survive having a skyscraper collapse on top of them, it was my dad. I didn’t know how exactly he’d survive but I never made a tunnel to rescue a squirrel trapped in a fireplace. I left the details to him.