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February 2013

The Awful Grace

An excerpt from Johnsburg and Newcomb paramedic and Bringing Out the Dead author Joe Connelly’s forthcoming novel

Sheriff’s communication officer Brian Paul was sitting alone at his terminal in the basement of County Building 3 when the first call came in about an accident off Dillon Hill Road, on the west side of Stanton. It was 10:10 p.m. and he wasn’t halfway through a mandated double shift and he hadn’t had his dinner yet and his back was killing him, the same bulging disk that took him off patrol 10 years before and landed him in communications. County protocols mandated a minimum of three officers in the bunker, yet this wasn’t the first time he’d found himself alone at the desk, hungry and tired and depressed, the hopes of 35,000 people at his fingertips.

Two months earlier, on the advice of Brian Paul, the sheriff had installed a new automated phone menu, giving all 911 callers a choice of four options: 1 for police emergencies, 2 for fire, 3 for medical, and 4 for all others. The program had become a disaster. It seemed the people of Walter County were not intelligent enough to decide for themselves what kind of emergency they were witnessing, thus forcing the three communications officers, when there were three, to keep transferring calls among them. When the fire phone rang Brian Paul slid his chair from the medical terminal down to fire and clicked in his headphones and said, “911, where’s the fire?”

“There’s no fire,” Dot Persons said, “at least I don’t think so.”

“You dialed the fire dispatcher, ma’am, not me. Now where’s the fire?”

“My husband used to be with the fire department,” she said, “and he would get called to car accidents all the time. That’s why I’m calling.”

“What you’re telling me is you need a patrolman for a car accident. Please hold.” He then slid down to the next monitor and clicked his headphones in and took down the information: Seventy-five-year-old woman heard crash noise in the woods behind house …

The closest patrol was almost 30 minutes away and Brian Paul was going to have to send him to the end of the county just to satisfy the delusions of a lonely old lady, a car crash in the middle of the forest. He could barely get out the words to dispatch, and when he was done he had to take off the headphones and lie down on the floor his back hurt so much.

THE TOWN OF STANTON was the last in the county to join the 911 system, in 1996. Before that, if you had an emergency you dialed a local number, one of three, for fire, ambulance or police. The ambulance number connected to the home of Nancy Caneary, who in 40 years had left her house only twice—for her daughter’s wedding and her daughter’s funeral. She had an electric wheelchair and landlines in all four rooms, and at any time of day she knew the whereabouts of every squad member in town, including those having affairs or hiding from their bosses or pretending they weren’t home because they didn’t want to go on a call. If Nancy’s answering machine came on it meant something was wrong, and the person calling would then dial her neighbor, Mr. Barofsky, to go next door and give her some orange juice because her sugar was too low. The last ambulance Nancy Caneary dispatched was for herself, chest pressure she’d been under for a week and a half. She waited until the three biggest squad members were available together, the only ones she felt confident could lift her. Still they had to tone out two fire districts, then chain saw her kitchen door to get her out. Doctor Sayer in Glens Falls said her heart was the size of a hatbox, the largest on record.

When the medical emergency line rang, Brian Paul climbed back into his chair and rolled it to the last monitor and clicked in. The moment he heard Ken Person’s voice he knew it was going all hands and he hit the Building 3 alarm to bring his partners in. He straightened at his chair, his back pain gone. Joe Nichols sat down next to him, smelling like potato chips. “We got two pinned,” Brian Paul said, “and it looks like maybe a kid ejected, way up in the woods in Stanton.” Then he took a deep breath and stepped on the mic and said, “Standby Stanton Fire and Emergency.” He pushed the warning tone and held it five seconds, until he could feel the sound echoing across the state. “Here we go,” he said.

The radio signal left the transmitter tower atop County Building 3 and headed north up I-87 in a freezing rain. Ten miles later it climbed Prospect Mountain, the rain turning to wet snow, the signal wearing out. It found the repeater at the top and with new energy shot into the Adirondacks, following the river through Thurman and Johnsburg before spreading out over Stanton.

Inside that radio signal was a specific tone and inside that was a number, a code, which every beeper and scanner in Stanton recognized as its own. The chief’s radio in the firehouse was always the first to receive it, immediately dividing the signal in two, one for the repeater on the roof and another for the village siren perched atop the diner, the corner of Hayman and Main.

The town siren was less than a year old, replaced when the new firehouse was built, and Chief Decker had purchased the loudest on the market. Every day at noon the siren was tested, and if you were caught underneath it, unaware of the time, the sound struck you like an attack from the Almighty. Take cover, the siren screamed, the end is coming. Cars swerved onto side streets, women released their strollers. Even the most hardened veterans of the noon siren would find themselves zigzagging down Main, desperately searching for shelter. More than a few ended in Mabe ’n’ Eddy’s diner, slamming the door behind them, pressing their backs to it. Then, too embarrassed to walk out, and with all the regulars watching, they’d make their way to a table and order whatever was the special, usually Mabe’s meatloaf.

At night and especially in the snow the siren sounded more like what it was, a cry for help. It seemed to last longer in the dark, echoing beneath the cold sky, back and forth between Black Mountain and the Garnet Chain, until it was everywhere in every thing, rolling rocks away, opening wells, reaching even those in the deepest beds, the farthest dreams, years and years away. For the few mo­ments it blasted, every person in town, awake or asleep, made the same wish, a silent prayer.

The siren found Josh Tennent in his bed, 10 minutes after falling asleep. He grunted once and threw the covers away and charged across the room to where his beeper lay, hoping to reach it before it went off and woke the dogs. The beeper was always a few seconds behind the town siren and he’d come to believe that if he got to it in time and shut off the alarm, the call would go fine. If he didn’t, then something would go wrong. He was two steps away when the beeper started to scream, and he knocked it to the floor, muffling it with his hands so his wife wouldn’t have to yell. He put on his pants and shirt as he listened to dispatch, standing on one leg trying to figure out how someone could crash their car like that on Dillon Hill Road.

He left without saying goodbye, easing the latch on the storm door even though she was awake. Tomorrow she’d tell him how she knew the alarm was going to go; how all night she had been thinking something terrible was coming. She stretched her arm out into the empty space of the bed, palm down in the warm indent, as she always did when he left, so that he couldn’t come back in without waking her.

Steve Ritchie, the emergency squad captain, couldn’t understand how the fire siren could sound before the beepers did, because in every other town in the county it was the opposite, the beepers came first, the same way it used to be in Stanton, before the new firehouse was built. He’d talked to the guy who installed the system there, and to the sheriff, and everyone else he ran into, and no one could give him a straight answer. Just another mystery to add to the list, like the fact that Brian Paul always dispatched the fire department before EMS, even when the call was medical first. Put enough of these mysteries together and the end result was a hole in his gut the size of a walnut that sent him to the ICU for a week in 2002.

He popped two antacids as he swung his legs over the bed, chewing as fast as he could as he got dressed. For three months he’d been praying for a call like this, an MVA with people pinned, the kind of major call that resets the squad, brings the members together, putting all their petty differences behind them. Every night before he went to sleep he positioned his shoes by the bed for easy access, his jacket on the desk, the keys in the pocket, everything fastened with Velcro, every move thought out ahead, all for that one-in-a-thousand call, the one where every second counts. He was halfway down the path to his truck when he realized he wasn’t wearing his pants.

William Broadway was 75 years old and had been driving the ambulance Friday nights for so long he couldn’t remember why. When his beeper went off he always popped a nitroglycerine tablet, whether he was having chest pain or not. He always said at least one Hail Mary on the drive to the squad building. He always wore the same hat, though it could take him several minutes to find it. He always brought his cat.

The radio signal from County Building 3 rang 42 beepers that evening, those who could come and those who could not. Ellen Goodman, an EMT, was sitting on her porch that night, bundled up with the flu, a temperature of 102. That’s how all the Goodmans dealt with getting sick, they went to the porch. Ray Walter had a scanner in his garage so he could listen to dispatch while inventing. His latest idea was a laser beam capable of blinding any animal from 50 yards. Ray never went to calls after nine p.m., or his sixth beer, whichever came first.

Terry Lefever had just finished his second piece of pie and was deciding whether to have a third, when his beeper made the decision for him. He found his fire coat, shoes and pants, and set them out on the bed, and while looking for his hat he remembered the last car accident he went on, the one where Travis Banker’s daughter was killed, how that call had come over the beeper just like this, how he’d been the first one to reach the scene, the last one to speak to the girl. He sat on his bed and then slowly eased himself onto his back, remembering how it went. You’re going to be all right, he kept telling her, which was a lie because she wasn’t all right, you could tell that from the color of her face and the way she was breathing so fast. And it didn’t matter what anyone else told him about that call, not the people who were there or the doctors who took care of her or the psychiatrists he had to go see after it was over. Things could have been done differently. Terry Lefever could have done things differently. He hadn’t been to a call since they buried Crissy Banker. He wasn’t going to make it to this accident tonight either.

Travis Banker joined the fire department after his daughter died and he’d gone to every car accident since, even leaving work sometimes in the middle of a shift. When the call came over for Dillon Hill, he was out the door in half a minute. For her memory he did it, and for his own, to punish himself for the things he’d done. His nephew Flip was on the squad as well. Flip and his wife had just gotten the baby to sleep when his beeper went off, waking everything. Silently he gathered his gear together, trying not to let her see how happy he was to be leaving.

One squad member was in the bathtub when the siren sounded, one was sleeping in his car. One was weeping when the call came over, brokenhearted, one just diagnosed with cancer. Together they let out a collective groan and one by one went through every reason not to go. Then each grabbed a coat and keys and blindly set off.

Young Ethan Broadway was thinking about Alicia Coulter and she about him. He was on the emergency squad, she was with fire, and they’d been waiting more than a month for a call to come over with both squads dispatched together. Alicia lived on Main Street, and went to community college in Queensbury, studying to be an X-ray technician; Ethan was five years older, a Broadway boy from Dogtown, small engine repair. Emergency calls were the only times they met. Ethan’s older brother, Nathan, was not a squad member, but he was sitting on the couch of someone who was, Rosalie Lefever. Nathan had come back from Iraq after 18 months, a medical discharge from the 101st Airborne Infantry. Rosalie’s husband had just been sent over, National Guard. They’d just finished dinner telling each other how hard it was to be alone, when her beeper let out, an accident on Dillon Hill Road. She got up and turned it off. She didn’t go on those calls anymore, the serious ones, especially with kids involved, she had a really bad experience once.

By the time she came back to the couch Nathan was putting on his jacket. He said he wanted to go see if he could help; he’d been to a few situations in the war and handled himself pretty well. He didn’t tell her that he was leaving anyway. In the past three months he’d been on half a dozen women’s couches and he always left. He hated to be alone when he was alone, but as soon as he found someone he might like to stay with, all he wanted to do was go.

Chief Decker opened his eyes a moment before the siren went off and quietly lay in bed waiting for the fire tone, then the one for EMS. Every town had its own tone and when you’d listened to that pager as long as he had you could recognize what town was being called just by the chord. Stanton Fire was C sharp, Stanton emergency was C, and when the two were called together it sounded like the opening of “Amazing Grace.” Chief Decker believed God was always speaking to people, and it was up to them if they wanted to listen.

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