Some things are hard to explain. Sometimes questions like ‘What were you thinking?’ are better left unanswered. Sometimes you should just keep your mouth shut and see what happens.
Back in my sophomore year at The Citadel I knew a Jordanian whose alarm clock played the Muslim call to prayer. On a hot afternoon I snuck into the guard tower, activated the campus-wide PA system and turned on my friend’s clock. Know what happens when several thousand young men looking for an excuse to rebel are suddenly blasted with a recording of an Arab singing his praises to Allah? I do.
Twenty minutes later, following a brief but memorable riot, I found myself face-to-face with a general whose three tours in Vietnam had left him slightly unhinged. I learned two things that day. The first being ‘Because I thought it’d be funny’ is not a good answer to ‘What in hell were you thinking?’ The second of course is that some things, in hindsight, are hard to explain.
And so it was that nearly ten years later I found myself staring at the Director of EMS Operations (that’d be the boss of my boss’ boss) being asked a now-familiar question. And really, what had I been thinking? I still wasn't sure so I said nothing. This silence, awkward as it was, lasted a long time which was kinda funny when you consider how much had been said to or about me over the last twenty four hours. Words like practical joker, dumbass, punishment and suspension. Hell even reckless endangerment and termination had been making the rounds.
But of all the things that had been said one word stuck out. Sure, if you wanna be technical, the offending phrase consisted of exactly eighteen words but really only one mattered. The word that had roused an unsuspecting if overzealous neighborhood association president from his bed. The word that led to the awkward silence presently making me squirm. The very same word, in fact, from which my entire career presently hung.
That word was jailbreak.
EMS, as you’ve probably surmised, is not like your job. For lots of reasons. Sure, we get sent out to car wrecks and shootings and over-heated joggers. And yes you could say our odd habit of roaming the streets hoping not only for carnage but an opportunity to fix it makes us appear, among other things, like the product of an unnatural liaison between Mother Theresa and Geraldo Rivera.
But it’s different in other, more subtle, ways as well. We work strange hours. In fact we work all hours. And we are truly a feast or famine occupation, sometimes hip deep in bloody messes and trivial complaints and other times not so much. And when it’s slow you wait.
They say idle hands are the devil’s workshop. What they don’t say is when it comes time to explain yourself the devil’s never around to help.
If the devil had been there that afternoon, this is probably what he would’ve said.
See, I had picked up an overtime shift. An easy one. An eight-hour Sunday shift that started at 7 a.m. They don’t get much easier than that. Sundays are usually quiet but that day was quieter than most and so when we put ourselves in-service we were sent to the very edge of the city…to a post not far from the Federal Penitentiary.
Working in Atlanta for an EMS service that runs over a hundred thousand calls a year doesn’t allow all that much downtime. But, as I’ve said, that day was particularly quiet. My partner and I talked for a while but how long can you really talk to one person before you get bored? We turned on the radio but it wasn’t working. I tried to buy a newspaper but the gas station had none.
What we did have, in perfect working order, was a PA. Ambulances have all kinds of gadgets. Suction units, cardiac monitors, drugs, sirens, flashing lights. But the thing that always catches my attention is the PA. Now, you might say this fascination suggests I didn’t learn my lesson all those years ago but I like to think it’s because they’re the only thing we never use. I’m not sure why we even have them. But we do.
And so there we were on a quiet Sunday morning, on a quiet side street and, well, I keyed up the PA.
‘Helllloooooo. Can you hear me? This is your toilet talking.’
My partner also keyed up the mic, introduced himself as the third cousin of Bob Marley and then we set it down. But you know how it goes. There’s always a voice in the back of you head whispering that no harm could possibly come from pushing it one step farther.
And so I grabbed the mic again. Did I mention we were two blocks away from the Federal Penitentiary, a massive prison with a maximum security block?
‘May I have your attention please. There has been a jailbreak. I repeat there has been a jailbreak.’
For a few seconds it seemed I was right in thinking we were too far from the houses for anyone to have heard us. Well, that all changed pretty fast.
Suddenly a door flew open and a skinny little hipster bolted out onto his porch. At first I didn’t pay him any mind. It was eight in the morning, we were in a bad neighborhood and this guy had a pirate flag hanging from his house. Did he really expect to be taken seriously?
I can tell you now the answer to that question is yes.
He darted down the steps and started stomping his way across the street.
‘He coming over here?’
Trying not to make eye contact with him, my partner said, ‘Looks like it.’
‘Well this should be fun.’
The guy stomped right up to the driver’s side window and started yelling. My partner, God bless him, smiled through the glass. ‘I can’t hear you.’
This infuriated the little guy so much that, I swear on my life, his feet came off the ground.
‘Unroll it, then!’
My partner reached up and tapped the window button, slowly lowering the window with a loud, rubbery squuuueeeeaaaaakkkk.
He smiled. ‘What’s up?’
For the next five minutes the little guy railed on, mostly about us waking him up at eight on a Sunday morning but with a heavy emphasis on ‘people live here, you know. People live here.’ And so, when he finally ran out of breath, we apologized and he stomped back into his house, turning to glare at us every few steps.
You know how some people get more worked up the more they think about something? The little guy fits into that category. Two hours later we got a call from one of our supervisors. We needed to get back to Grady. Now.
What followed was a long and surreal series of conversations (every few minutes the little guy would call back and up his demands) in which we were progressively warned. Turns out what started as ‘They woke me up’ turned into ‘They were rude as hell,’ then later morphed into ‘I want them fired’ and finally came to rest on ‘I want them arrested.’
‘Arrested for what?’
Our supervisor shook his head. According to this guy our close proximity to the federal pen made saying the word ‘jailbreak’ akin to shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theatre. He wanted us arrested on reckless endangerment charges.
Which is what brought me, first thing the next morning, into the Director of Operations’ office. She clearly had better things to do, as did I, but she dutifully looked over the complaint and then settled into the awkward silence we presently occupied.
Just as I was sure something bad was going to happen to me I noticed, the bottom corner of her mouth twitch. That was followed by another twitch, then another and soon her entire mouth broke out into a huge grin. She closed her eyes and tried to look serious the way parents do when their child gets into trouble but looks cute doing it.
‘Did you really say that?’
Another smile. ‘You know you’re an idiot, right?’
‘That’s what my wife says.’
‘Get back to work. I’ll take care of this guy.’
Then, as I was leaving, ‘Mr. Hazzard?’
‘No more PA. Okay?’
I’m not sure what she did to calm the little guy down but it worked because I never heard another word about it until…
Two weeks later I’m at a bar and who do I see across the room, watching soccer and screaming at the TV? The little guy. I looked at my friends, my wife.
‘He wanted me arrested. I’m sure.’ Pause to think. ‘Should I buy him a drink?’
Seconds later I find myself at the bar ordering a shot. And it all comes back to me. The quiet morning, the broken radio, the allure of the PA, the federal pen, the pirate flag, a jailbreak, the long, loud squeak of the window as it unrolled. I think about his tirade, our (evidently) inadequate apology, the escalating threats to my livelihood – did he really want to have us arrested? And, of course, I think of my boss’ boss’ boss smiling at my non-explanation.
I take the shot, walk over, clear my throat.
You might wonder why I would provoke a guy I’d once pissed off so badly he tried not only to get me fired but tossed in the clink. You might even wonder what I was thinking.
Well, some things are hard to explain.