The thin, wrinkle-faced man, wearing yellow fire fighter’s overalls, raked his eyes up and down my similarly clad frame, then stood and looked at me in silence for a moment. Slightly nervously, I returned his look.
Then he spoke. “You’re a woman.”
I refrained from a moment of verbal sarcasm. (I was only a C-cup in those days but even C-cups are fairly obvious, even in overalls.) I just nodded. He grunted.
“You won’t last long. Women never do. Don’t cope.” He stomped off.
It was hot with the faint smell of red dirt and spinifex lending a Pilbara tint to the overtones of sweat, old smoke, and diesel. The Fire Chief smiled and held out his hand.
“Go with Bails, he’ll get you some gear and then we’ll get into it.”
A stocky older man, wearing glasses and a welcoming grin, stepped forward. “Come on.”
Ten minutes later, overalled, sweating steadily in the heat and wearing my new black boots and heavy helmet, I was back in line with the rest of the volunteers.
I learned that nozzles weren’t nozzles – they were branches. I learnt about different diameters of hose and how to run it out. I learnt how to turn a hydrant on and how to climb up into the large green firetruck.
Bails insisted on opening the door, which was slightly awkward, and I wondered what to do or say. It took months, but finally we came to an agreement.
Bails liked opening doors for women. It was how he’d been brought up and it was what he did. It was polite. Our compromise?
He opened doors for me at training only. On the fire ground, I was on my own.
It worked for both of us.
By the end of the first night’s training, I knew I liked it.
I knew I liked the camaraderie of fire fighting, the faint smell of smoke that seemed to hang over everything and I knew I liked the blokes around me.
But there was a snag. Joe.
He had come over to me after training was over and, just before the beer and soft drink bit began – a nightly ritual after training – he spoke his mind. For a moment, I just stood there.
It was my first experience of overt, in your face, sexism. Then, I shook my head and went and had a drink with the others.
Five years later, I was still there. So were Joe and Bails. But I was the deputy fire chief, not the rookie.
Bails still opened doors (appropriately) and Joe still thought women didn’t belong (and yes, some had come and some had gone, but so had some men).
But, we’d achieved mutual respect, even friendship, on the fire ground amongst the smoke and the heat and the danger.
Now, I was just another firie – just one with bumps on the front.