“I hear it all the time: ‘Is that the best look for the fire service?’” says Melanson. “We all wear a uniform where we’re so much alike that we have a unified front. Do tattoos make you that different to where you can’t fit in? We should be a representation of everybody, and are we potentially going to rub somebody the wrong way? I understand that side of it. It’s a valid point. I get questioned very often about professionalism.”
One wonders if the questioners would continue their line of thinking if they saw the firefighter emblazoned on Melanson’s back climbing into the mouth of a raging blaze as skulls emerge from the smoke around him, or the Maltese cross on his wrist, an ancient symbol of firefighting.
“The knights from Malta were fighting against the Saracens and they wore this cross on their armor,” he says. “The Saracens used fire when they fought.”
RIDE-ALONG: THE FIREHOUSE
The next night at the firehouse, Melanson and his fellow firefighters Wayland Davis and Shon “Halvo” Halvorsen are hanging out in the kitchen—Halvo dicing steak in preparation for the firehouse’s chili cook-off, Davis nursing a sore shoulder. A mixed martial arts fight is on the TV in what serves as the fire station’s living room. It’s a slow night. Unlike the summer evenings documented on the show, November’s chill means that fewer people are outside drinking, drugging, or shooting. The conversation quickly goes to what the men have seen when the nights aren’t so kind.
“Remember the train versus taxi cab?” Halvo asks Melanson. They use the term ‘versus’ when two things collide: train versus taxi cab, vehicle versus motorcycle, vehicle versus pedestrian. There’s rarely a question as to the winner. “There’s shit where there are body parts everywhere, but that doesn’t really affect you like some other kind of things affect you,” Halvo continues. “Remember when that family got killed? That was probably the gnarliest thing I’ve ever seen. Drunk driver hit this family that was at a taco stand, the dad had just got a promotion at his job, took his whole family out for dinner. Mom and dad, four kids, killed ’em all. Babies hanging out of cars, the whole family wiped out. People who saw it were passing out. It was just carnage. They didn’t know where all the body parts were. It took ’em hours to take the people from underneath the dashboard.”
Burnout comes suddenly. “We had a captain who had gone for 30 years and he saw a kid get taken out with an AK-47,” Halvo says. “A child, 5 years old—blew his head off like a watermelon—walking with his mom in the center of town. Just random violence, shooting at someone else and a stray bullet hit him. We have a saying, ‘Everybody’s got a limit.’ Even firemen have a limit of how much they can take in terms of the job. That captain finally said, That’s it. He left that scene and retired. You wonder where your limit is.”
The horrors of the job are immediately dismissed and the talking stops on a dime when the loudspeaker beeps three times and a dispatcher announces a call. The feel is almost military as we run to the engine and pile in, a band of brothers going on a mission. Part power, part exhilaration, part pride, it’s every boy’s dream to be where Melanson is, looking down at the road ahead as the sirens blare, the driver blasts the air horn, and cars pull out of the way for a real American hero.