Population: 485

Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at a Time

Michael Perry

Population: 485

“We make some saves. At a barn fire two years ago, we arrived quickly enough to contain the fire in one corner of the haymow. If we get a good jump on a chimney fire, we can usually shut it down before it spreads to the walls. But usually we are fighting to preserve as much of the structure as we can and protect everything surrounding it. Preservation enhances any subsequent investigation; it often also yields invaluable artifacts. After all, a house fire is a destruction of the past. The people here are losing their history. I have walked out of burning buildings carrying a charred photo album and watched a teary grandmother clutch it to her breast. I have handed over deer rifles, a child's snow boots, a soggy “Baby's First Year” calendar. These things are touchstones to the past. They have come through fire; their survival renders them totemic.”

The paragraph above is taken from Population: 485. It's subtitled “Meeting Your Neighbors One Siren at at Time,” and in it, the author, Michael Perry, tells of his experiences as a member of the volunteer fire department in New Auburn, WI, the small rural town where he grew up. Perry, according to the book jacket, put himself through nursing school working as a cowboy in Wyoming, and is the only member of the New Auburn Area Fire Department to have missed a monthly meeting because of a poetry reading.

“Someone hands up the thermal imager, and when I swing it around, I see I might have spared myself the woo-hoos. There are flames above me. There are flames to the right of me. The black-and-white screen reveals the outline of the bedroom door – behind us, it turns out, our access blocked by the porch door – and it frames a dancing shock of flames. None of this was visible without the imager. The smoke and steam obscure everything. I scan as much of the bedroom as I can, looking for a body, which should show on the screen as a glowing white lump. Nothing. We have to retreat again. This time, while we're kneeling on the porch steps, regrouping, someone hollers into my mask. They've located the family. Someone has them on the phone, they're out of town. The battle plan is redrawn. The vinyl siding on the adjacent trailer has begun to ruffle in the heat. We go from saving lives to saving property. I'm glad we went in, though. It's good to look at Lisa or Matt or Jack, or any of the others who took their turns, and know they've proven themselves. If they had made it in, and pulled someone out, they would be heroes. I don't care to think of myself in terms of heroism – it's distasteful and presumptuous (previous performance does not guarantee future results), and frankly, you do a lot of this stuff without thinking and against training and better judgment – but I am intrigued by the idea that the recognition of heroism requires your being caught at it. Under the supposition that someone is trapped in the bedroom, fighting your way into what turns out to be an empty house is no more or less heroic than fighting your way into one harboring a victim. The difference is one of result, not intent. But until courage meets circumstance, there are no heroes.”

Michael Perry is a writer of rare ability, bringing the reader immediately into the life of the small town he loves. Against a backdrop of fires and tangled wrecks (the fire fighters are also EMTs), bar fights and smelt feeds, he tells a tale that is frequently comic, but one that is also leavened with moments of heartbreaking delicacy and searing tragedy. Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright © 2004, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.