City firefighter Lance Messner recalls the Thanksgiving dinner in Mar Vista four years ago.
"No sooner had everybody settled down at the table than we got a call on a brush fire and had to leave. It was around midnight before we got back. Everything had been cleaned up by the wives, and the food was in covered dishes in the refrigerator. On the table was a note: 'Thank you for the meal. We all had a good time.' "
Few Rockwell Touches
The life of a firefighter. At the Los Angeles city and county stations, as at the others throughout Southern California, there will be holiday feasts much like you will have today. What foods these morsels be. Except that this method of observance won't have quite all the Norman Rockwell touches. His paintings never showed grandma doing the serving with a fire truck in the background. Or half the people at the table rushing off in the middle of the meal.
Firefighters work 24 hours on duty, 24 hours off. Thus, except before reporting for work in the morning, no part of their Thanksgiving will be spent at home with the family.
"For this reason, at most stations everywhere, the wives and children are invited so that it can be a true family dinner," said Capt. Gordon S. Pearson, community relations director with the county fire department. "The catch is that fires and other emergencies are no respecter of holidays."
Because of their unique schedules, firefighters of necessity find themselves stuck with some holidays, and rare indeed is one who can't summon the ghost of a Thanksgiving past.
"Last year everyone had just seated themselves," remembered Capt. Tom Robertson of County Station No. 3 in East Los Angeles. "A structural blaze broke out, the men all had to leave, and the families were left alone at the table. When we returned two hours later, they had finished eating, and we warmed everything up and began."
A typical Thanksgiving is one such as will be observed today at City Station No. 3 downtown.
"Technically, our day begins at 8 a.m., but nearly everybody is in the habit of getting in at 6:30 a.m. to avoid the traffic," Capt. Al Ramirez explained.
The holiday meal will be at 3 p.m., but before that will come a routine followed at just about every firehouse. The condition of the equipment will be checked (there are 16 pieces of apparatus at City Station No. 3), the equipment and the station itself will be cleaned, and the firefighters will participate in physical fitness.
County Capt. Pearson, however, pointed out that such postponable activities as fire prevention and drills are dispensed with on this day.
Which brings us to the big meal itself. For Ramirez' unit, the trucks will be moved into the yard, and the apparatus floor will become the dining room. Folding tables and chairs have been borrowed from the city to supplement the two sets already in the kitchen. Tablecloths have been rented.
The dinner will be buffet style. Everyone will fill a plate in the kitchen and take it out to the tables where the trucks were.
"The food is all paid for or brought in by the firefighters," Ramirez pointed out. "Normally our dues for lunch and dinner are $6 a day, but for this special meal everyone was charged $12 apiece, which includes that person's entire party.
"We will have 14 people on duty, as on any other day, and our total for the Thanksgiving dinner will be about 40."
Each of the three platoons at all of the County Fire Department's 130 stations and at each of the City Fire Department's 104 stations has a cook--not always a volunteer. Sometimes there is someone who likes to cook (which means an exemption from the cleaning details, although not from going out on calls). The cook also does the marketing. At some stations the cooking job is rotated via a roster.
"One of the first things any firefighter is told is to master the cooking of at least a couple dishes for a large group, in case he winds up having to take his turn," Ramirez said.
A Permanent Cook
At the downtown city station, each platoon is lucky enough to have a more or less permanent cook. One of them, Bruce Beal, said two 20-pound turkeys have been in the freezer all week. "The shift on duty the night before Thanksgiving had instructions to pull them out for thawing," Beal said.
No one will face a greater challenge today, however, than Kerry Gallacher, the permanent cook at City Station No. 60 in North Hollywood.
"It happens that our captain, Louis Chatin, has been raising a turkey for the past year," Gallacher said. "Now he has butchered it, and that will be our bird.
"The problem is that it weighs 25 pounds, and I'm not sure how I'm going to get it into the oven."
The county station in East Los Angeles has, according to Capt. Robertson, more than 6,000 runs a year. So the probability of their crew getting through today's repast without an interruption isn't a good bet.