You pedaled the half-mile from Honey Creek Road fast enough that I was still at the wheel of Engine #7, shutting it down after a four-hour training when you arrived, yelling and profane.
You announced your arrival with this: “Where is that bastard who almost hit me back there!”
You went on: “I was only eighteen inches away from you. There were no cars coming. Aren’t you guys supposed to be all about safety?” Raised voice, indignant. It was quite a venting.
I remember looking down from the high seat at you, knowing enough not even to try reasoning with you. Any discussion or review of the facts was clearly not possible.
“Let me refer you to my lieutenant, sir,” I said.
You snapped, “where is he?”
He had already gotten out of the engine and was walking back from the radio room, inserting a fresh battery in the sluggish remote control door opener. He had been sitting right beside me. He saw the whole situation. Your shouting had his attention.
“He’s the man standing just in front of you, sir.”
With that, I climbed down from the cab, got the roll of 4″ hose we’d used during the morning exercise, and replaced it in the tender’s side compartment. Then I retrieved my gear from the back of Engine 7.
The lieutenant had seen me make the same split-second calculations I’ve made thousands of times: we could both see that you were on good, solid pavement, and that your useable space to the right of the white line was wide and well clear of underbrush. He saw me position the driver’s side tires of the engine onto the left centerline, which was as far over as I could safely shift considering that there were, in fact, not one but two oncoming cars. (Yes, they were there, both of them.) We could each feel the small hill just before Honey Creek intersects with Knapp Street slow the engine’s momentum, and the wave of engine noise as it downshifted. I lifted my foot from the accelerator. But given your arrival at the station house, full of angry steam, there was little he or anyone else could say to point out these things to you.
What I would have liked to say was, “Yes, I understand.” I understand that the engine felt close, felt fast, felt threatening. Fire engines are big, and tall, and long. The diesel is loud, and the engine roars when it’s gearing down. I am all too familiar with that suctioning rush of air that occurs when a large vehicle breezes by. I know this very well from my own encounters with the school bus that breezes by me everyday on my gravel road.
I would have liked to say, actually, there were two cars coming the other way. And you can’t swing a big rig out and around a bicyclist, quick-like. There wasn’t room for all that, given the on-coming vehicles’ speed, the hill, the distance. I moved aside as far as I could, given the circumstances.
I would have liked to say, yes in fact, we are all about safety—believe me. This “bastard” to whom you referred—me—has spent a lot of years attending to safety every single day, not to mention on the often-grisly aftermath of hundreds of breaches of safety. Safety conscious? You bet we are.
I would have liked to say, “I’m sorry” (for startling you).
I don’t actually know what you said to the lieutenant. When I finished putting gear away, you had pedaled away. He told me that mostly he just listened to you. But we talked over the event, and he knew the truth of the matter. I was grateful I’d had a good witness.
I told my lieutenant the things I would have liked to say to you, had you been calmer. What he would have liked to do, he said, was point out the perfectly lovely bike trail just twenty feet away, winding very safely across the township, offset from the road by a wide verge of green grass.