From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Denied the Prize

Excellence is the best deterrent to racism.

Jesse Jackson

In the mid-seventies, a door of opportunity opened to those who had been asking for years to be let in. It didn’t open for the asking; it opened because it was torn down by a mighty hand. For those of us who walked through there was no welcome mat outside nor a cordial welcome from inside. We became professional firefighters, and we had to prove ourselves, just as all new firefighters, but we had an extra mile to go—up a steeper hill, with a heavier load. The heavier load made us stronger.

At the time of my hire, I was father to a seven-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. In my third year I became father to my little buddy, Enson. By then the men and I had forged a professional respect for one another. I’d say friendship, of a sort. We just understood we wouldn’t be buddies off the job.

My regular inner-city duty was Engine House Eighteen. It became necessary at times to send a firefighter to another station in our battalion to balance the manpower. Often it was Station Seven. This was one such day.

At about 2:00 A.M., we were returning from the local campus where we extinguished several Dumpsters that maladjusted college students had lit on fire for kicks. It was summer—warm with a light breeze. Head down and bobbing around, I anticipated finding my way back to my bunk. Instead, I heard the siren come on and the adrenaline rush caused me to snap to. The emergency lights spun, and we accelerated toward downtown.

The lieutenant slid the window back, “Prepare yourself. We’ve just been dispatched to an apartment fire in a high-rise downtown.”

I began the exercise of breathing control as my heart raced and I pulled the straps on my air tank harness snug.

As the building came into view I could make out black smoke escaping from second-story windows. Normally, we were the second or third engine company on the scene downtown, but since we were already on the street we were going to be first. It was a classic fire with people pouring out of the building and calling with sobbing voices for loved ones.

A frantic man stormed us with an anguished plea, “Please hurry! My daughter is up there in the apartment that’s on fire. Please . . . please get her out!”

The lieutenant radioed the situation to the command center, the driver put the pumper in operation, all eyes were on me because rescue was my job. With no time for thought or fear I entered the building against the current of people.

As I reached the second floor landing, I noticed a few tenants attempting entry into the apartment. They managed to knock one of the panels of the door out, which gave a view of the fire inside and provided an air source for the fire to breathe.

I hollered a choking command, “Get me that hose line up here now!”

It was already being hoisted. The flames were leaping through the hole with vengeance. Grabbing the line, I cracked the nozzle open and shoved it into the opening, knocking down the flames in the immediate area. Shouldering the door with a heave, I forced it open just enough to make entry.

I donned my mask and began systematically searching room to room. Ten years of experience had given me a sketchy mental picture of what my surroundings might look like. The practiced feel of furniture through my thick gloves added to my vision. I was going to have to remember in reverse every move I made, so I could get out, when I found the victim. There’s no if because I wasn’t leaving without her.

I heard moaning. I followed the sound to my left and felt a bedpost. There I found a young woman on the floor against the wall. She was stressed, full of fear and no doubt burned, but she was alive. I scooped her up as quickly and gently as possible.

“I’m gonna get you out of here,” I told her.

Going through the front room, I passed other firefighters who had arrived and were now extinguishing the fire.

“Victim, victim!” I yelled to alert them.

Not wanting to risk a slip and fall on the stairs I handed the young woman to a medic who was on the landing.

I was about to go back in when another firefighter beckoned. “Come on down. You’ve done your job. We’ll take care of the rest.”

Once outside, I tugged away the face-piece to drink in a splendid stream of refreshing night air. “Nice job,” a few of my brother firefighters slapped my shoulder. The lieutenant, a cigar in his hand, acknowledged me with just a nod.

A father had his daughter back alive. I didn’t see him, but it’s my guess that he spoke a volume of appreciation to the chief. I’m told the chief entered the building and began asking the firefighters who made the forced entry, who had knocked down the fire and effected the rescue.

“It was Newman, sir. He did it all.”

I was getting a drink of water when the chief approached. “Newman, fine job; we’re all proud of what you’ve done here. You can expect a medal citation.”

“Thank you, sir!”

My next duty day I was back at Station Eighteen. The guys had all heard about what had taken place, and I was collecting more slaps on the back.

“We heard you did us proud at Sevens. Way to go. Word is you’ll be getting a medal for that.”

I couldn’t help but think, Hmmm, a medal would be nice for my family, but it wouldn’t lift me any higher than I was feeling after having been able to save a life and soothe a father’s agonizing soul. Any firefighter who receives such recognition shares it with all firefighters, and it would bode well for the black firefighters who were being passed over for these awards while whites were getting them for lesser accomplishments. Yes, a medal would be nice.

The problem was the lieutenant didn’t believe in medals for firefighters, especially the Johnny-come-latelys. “Firefighters are sworn to do their duty and they get paid. That’s enough.” Cigar smoke carried the words from his gruff voice to the ceiling.

The captain, my supervising officer, spoke to the lieutenant and told me.

“Well, fellas, I spoke with the lieutenant. I even offered to do the write-up for him, so all he’d have to do is sign it, but he wouldn’t budge. Newman, you deserve it, but there’s nothing more I can do.”

An extra mile . . . up a steeper hill . . . carrying a heavier load. Lord, give me strength!

It is good to appreciate the inherent rewards of doing a job to the best of your ability. All else is icing on the cake. I remember the variety of faces that said, “Fine job.” There is some sweet to the bitter. I retired in 1999 with twenty-five years’ service credit. I have a good measure of health and a grandson.

In March 2002, my little buddy Enson turned twenty-one. He came to me and told me, “Dad, I’ve been thinking, and I’ve decided I want to become a firefighter. I’m going to take the civil service exam next go-round.”

Up until then I had only considered what I was protecting. I hadn’t even considered that I’d been an example for a little boy.

Life surely has its rewards, if not its awards. In that moment God Himself pinned on my Medal of Honor.

Herchel E. Newman

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