Monday, September 11, 2006

My Hero, Billy

For September 11, I will turn over the blog to my friend and co-alumnus, Mike McGinn, to talk about his brother, Billy. Read on, and imagine "what if?"....

This is a collection of memories about my brother Billy McGinn. When he died Billy was a Lieutenant with Squad 18 of the F.D.N.Y. Since these are the fond remembrances of a doting older brother they are not meant to be a factual biography, but rather a celebration of the life Billy lived and an honor to his memory.

Billy was a skinny, small kid. Not one you would look at and think, “That kid will be a hero someday.” He could be noisy to the point of annoyance, and as a kid he had no problem being a real pest. We had a paper route delivering the Staten Island Advance along a stretch of Amboy Road in New Dorp where we grew up. We grew this route to over 100 customers from the 56 it had when we got it. The local Catholic high school (Monsignor Farrell) was down the street from our house and we had regular contact with the young men who attended this school. Billy in particular did not think much of the Farrell High School students. He would block their path as he delivered the Advance, taunting them with calls of “Farrell Faggott!” until they stuck his head in a nearby snowbank. Billy would pluck himself out of the snowbank and continue taunting them until he again got stuck into the snow. This would continue until Billy was done with his half of the paper route.

Billy and I were both members of the Altar Boy Society at Our lady Queen of Peace Church. Billy looked particularly angelic when vested in his cassock and surplice. With his blue eyes and blond hair many parishioners marveled at the boy angel on the altar. Of course these people did not actually know him.

After Billy survived the altar boys without getting excommunicated, and survived the Boy Scouts without getting burned or frozen to death – not to mention the construction in the neighborhood, high school loomed in his future. I had advised him against doing well on the Stuyvesant test, as our father taught there and he saw what happened when I got caught doing something often enough. So he threw the test and went to our local high school. Billy's career at New Dorp High School was notable for the number of absences for various classes as noted on his report cards never being the same. He could also joke his way out of it with my parents, while I was mentally doing some math and realizing that I would be grounded until I was well past eighty. Needless to say, I did not look kindly on him for this.

After graduating high school, Billy found himself with a conditional acceptance to the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. The condition was he had to go through a summer program to sharpen his math skills. It was during this summer that he realized maybe he should have gone to a math class once in a while and ditched Stevens for UCLA (University on the Corner of Lexington Avenue). Much to my surprise, Billy actually took school seriously at Hunter, he studied hard and earned good grades. It was at Hunter that a certain young Anne Golden caught his eye and he began spending more time with her, and less time carousing with the boys. I first met Anne when I got on a SIRT train one day and Billy introduced us. He later asked me not to say anything to our family about her, but when she showed up at a Sunday dinner, I knew it was serious. I was nice and did not torture her, as Billy and I did with great delight when ever one of our sisters showed up with an unwitting victim. For some reason many of them never came back.

For the rest of his life, it was always Billy and Anne. Billy went on in Hunter with a major in Physics. I had started taking night courses to meet a better class of women. Of course I was taking these courses at the expense of my employer. I would drive into Manhattan from New Jersey and Billy and I would ride home together. I would always let him drive, I had put in a full day at work and was tired. It was during these rides that Billy impressed me with his grasp of physics. He demonstrated many times that we could coast home from the highest point on Staten Island, True at one point you had to rock back and forth in your seats and you had to catch the lights just right. But this was Nobel grade stuff.

It was during this time that our Uncle Kevin (a fire lieutenant FDNY) bought a burned out building because he wanted to start a business selling head stones and flowers there. As was the tradition in our family, all men over the age of five were expected to help in the renovation. When I first saw this wreck of a building, I thought Kevin was nuts. When I got inside it this was only confirmed. After working there for a few hours with Billy, our dad and Uncles Kevin and Harry – along with several other characters a few cases of beer got me thinking maybe he was on to something. Many was the weekend we spent gutting and rebuilding that old house. Since Billy was in college and needed money Kevin hired him to do work on the place after school. This proved to be a life changing moment for Billy, though none of us realized it at the time.

It was around this time that Billy was getting ready to graduate as a physics major from Hunter College. During his last semester he decided to change his major to civil engineering and started classes at CCNY, where he was in walking distance of Kevin's firehouse. Billy was a regular visitor at the firehouse and he and Kevin were quickly becoming the best of friends.

Anne was working on her doctorate. Billy would often borrow my car on a Friday night so he could take Anne for dinner. Of course he would always promise it would be back by Saturday morning. Most times he really meant Sunday night, but he had the kind of personality where you just could not stay mad at him – so he did this to me a lot. Anne later told me that Billy always said he borrowed the car for the whole weekend. During this time Billy and Anne had gotten engaged. Billy finished his studies at CCNY, and when he could not get a job as an engineer, he heeded Kevin's advice and took the Fire Department test.

Billy was appointed the department in 1984 and got married in July of that year. Billy was sent to Ladder 11 and Engine 28 on East 2nd street in lower Manhattan as a probationary firefighter. I don't know if it was the Fire Department, Anne or both that changed Billy, but the Billy who walked out of the firehouse was not the same Billy that walked in. Where as I do not care if somebody likes me or not, Billy made an effort to win over all he came to know. John Salka who was a mentor of Billy's and is now a Battalion Chief worked with Billy in that first firehouse. He hated Billy, John told me he used to call Billy “college boy”. He thought Billy would never last. But Billy won him over and they became good friends.

Two days after Billy and Anne got married my parents became grandparents for the first time. This meant my dad would be spending a lot of his time at the firehouse with his new grandson, begetting an era of many pictures of Billy and our nephew Sean on the firetruck, behind the wheel of the firetruck, etc.

This also began the “firehouse stories”. Billy never talked about the dangers of the job, and spoke only in passing about the fires he helped put out. Most of what he said about the fires he went to was confined to how much fun he had playing on the roofs of burning buildings while chopping holes in them. If this did not make our mother sufficiently nervous he would start talking about the joys of leaping from roof to roof. These were not the best stories however. The best stories were about what took place when they were not fighting fires. The best action happened while waiting for the alarm bell to go off.

One of my favorites was about the firefighter who insisted somebody was going through the stuff in his locker. All the other firefighters told him he was crazy – nobody is going through your locker. He insisted however and would not stop his whining. Fortunately the lockers were arranged in a row so they shared a common back. Billy told us how they removed the common back between the locker of the paranoid firefighter and the locker behind it. When the hapless guy opened his locker, on after another his fellow firefighters stepped out of his locker and shook his hand. They then walked back for a second or third trip through the locker. Billy never said if that firefighters' suspicions about his belongings being rifled through were allayed – but you can be sure he never complained again.

It was not all fun and games being a firefighter though. Being a firefighter does not mean that your engineering education is wasted either. Billy was often asked if a structure was safe to enter, if it was safe to hit a brick wall with water, or would the combination of cold water and hot brick cause the wall to come down. Fire not only stresses men – it stresses wood steel and brick. Sometimes it stresses these beyond their specification. Fortunately the men seem to have no specification.

As the group of the grandchildren began to grow and become toddlers and little kids, Billy would give them noisy, out of control toys at every occasion possible. Billy gave the noisiest gifts to the kids at Christmas. Billy was the uncle who showed up at family barbecues with a trunk full of super squirters. Billy was the uncle who would wrestle with all the kids at once in the middle of the living room floor. If furniture and lamps got knocked over – it did not matter. Every body jump on Uncle Billy. Billy would jump up in the middle of a Sunday dinner – and much to the delight of the squealing children, yell “Poopies!” and run from the room. All the kids loved Uncle Billy.

When I married my lovely blue eyed Bernadette it was Billy and Anne who were our witnesses. When our son Abraham was born, I began to more fully appreciate the drums and other noisy toys my son got from his favorite uncle. Often the appreciative phrases were muttered under the breath of my wife and I. But even our shy Abraham squealed with delight when Uncle Billy picked him up and sat him on top of Grandma's refrigerator. Even when the kids were beating on drums graciously supplied by Billy, who could stay angry at a man so full of life and love, a man who seemed to live to delight children.

The gifts of noise stopped mysteriously about two years after my son Abraham was born. Coincidently, Billy and Anne became parents of a son who they named Liam. Billy was a kind and remarkably gentle father, Liam also fell asleep in his arms and Billy would hold him for hours. When Billy was not at the firehouse his life revolved around Liam. He would sometimes take Liam for a drive upstate for a surprise visit with his cousin Abe and his Uncle Mike. All four boys generally enjoyed these visits. Liam was accompanied two years later by his sister Cordelia. Billy lived for his children. Billy took them to the park, Billy tended the bumps and bruises of childhood. When Liam started school, Billy has quite a reputation in the neighborhood for his way with children. Many children in Liam and Delia's elementary school had “Fireman Billy” written on their blue emergency contact card. Billy was often called out at night to tend to a sick child who insisted that “Fireman Billy” could make him better.

“Fireman Billy” was not only the comforter of sick and injured children. He was the only man on the steering committee P.S. 81 where his children went. When Liam became a cub scout, Billy became a Den Leader, which caused me to tease him about being a Den Mother. There was not a child in the neighborhood who did not know him. On career day Billy would come to P.S. 81 in full turnout gear and talk to the children about fire safety. He would show them how to “Stop, drop and roll” should their clothing catch fire. He told them how they should leave a burning building immediately without stopping to save anything, not a favored toy, nothing. He told them that they were the most precious things their parents had, and the only thing that could not be replaced.

“Fireman Billy” was assigned to Squad 1 of the FDNY Special Operations Command when the truck bomb went off in the World Trade Center in 1993. Billy told me of finding bodies bent over double – backwards. He told me that they had parked the truck where they though it would take down the tower. Billy, a trained civil engineer scoffed at this. He told me those towers could not be brought down. The Fire Department had him studying the drawings of the Twin Towers, the Fire Department knew they were a target. At least someone was paying attention.

Billy got promoted to Lieutenant, and after drifting around as new FDNY lieutenants do finally got himself assigned to Squad 18 on West 10th Street – Special Operations Command of course. Billy loved being an officer, and he loved being assigned to a firehouse in the village. He lived for the action, the runs were not all big stuff. Occasionally a lingerie model would have a kitchen fire and it would be a delight to hear the story from Billy.

By this time our oldest nephew Sean was a young man nearing the end of his high school career. Sean was old enough to take the ferry to Manhattan and often spent his free time at the Squad when Billy was working. It soon became plain that Sean was getting the firefighter bug from his Uncle Billy – just as Billy had gotten it from his Uncle Kevin.

If you walked out of the firehouse on West 10th Street and walked to the right maybe 100 feet you would be on Greenwhich Avenue. The Twin Towers stood at the end of Greenwhich Avenue while Billy continue to study them. They stood as silent sentinels in the skyline as Squad 18 drilled there. There the stood in seeming omnipotence, buildings that Billy thought could not be made to fall.

On September 11th 2001 Squad 18 was in temporary quarters on Lafayette Street while repairs were being made to the firehouse on West 10th Street. They were scheduled to go to Randalls Island for training, but we all know what happened next.

Riverdale is a lot quieter without the shouts of “Fireman Billy”. Now someone else must tend to the sick and injured children. A bronze tablet with a picture of a fireman named Billy is mounted outside the auditorium of P.S. 81 in memory of someone who cared so much and did so much for the children of that school.

Sean is a cadet in the N.Y.P.D. Academy now. He is going to join another blue line while he waits for a firefighter test to come up. The niece and nephews who delighted in the noisy toys are mostly grown now, the drums and super soakers lie forlorn and forgotten in basements and garages. Our family gatherings are much too quiet now. The picture of a beloved young firefighter hangs on the wall telling us why.

Carl here.

It takes an act of God to unite Michelle Malkin and I on the same page, but it has happened.

I type this a full week ahead of the rememberance, and I cry typing it. As I read the list of tributes and read Mike's memories, I'm struck by two things.

First, how ordinary the people doing the tributes are. None of us are anybody special, there was no symposium of college professors or political heavyweights that assigned us the task. We are all volunteers. We have all asked for some small part (1/2,996th, to be precise) of this effort. Is it penance? Guilt? Patriotism?

No. It's love.

You see, the other thing I'm struck by is the ordinariness of the people we write about. Yes, some were heroes in the ultimate sense of the word, like Billy McGinn, rushing into buildings that sane people were rushing out of or trying to escape, or realizing they had no chance to get out and trying to make peace and offer comfort to those around them, or saving one building from one more plane. Many were not heroes in anyway than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we mourn them too, as heroes because like so many on this planet, they are merely for being there. All of them, all too human, with the flaws and foibles inherent in humanity. And all the grace, as Billy's life demonstrates.

All too mortal.

For my part, Lt. McGinn was about as close as I came to actually knowing someone who died that day. When I first found out about him, it was from Mike, who I proudly call my friend. As I searched the Net looking for information on his brother, Billy, I realized how heartbreaking the loss was. And then I multiplied this loss by the three thousand others.

Suddenly, the true weight, the truth of the tragedy, unfolded. As you scan the Net today, and read this and other tributes, I hope you too are overwhelmed by the fact that all these people had plans and hopes and dreams, families and friends, jobs, hobbies. They watched TV, ate lunch, attended parties and school plays, right alongside you and I, or people just like us.

They were, in fact, us. And it is in this spirit we write. Today, we do not mark their deaths. We celebrate the lives. Their lives, but also ours, because in these stories you're about to read (or have been reading), we see ourselves, our loved ones.

Our family.

And lest we forget, there are living victims, as well. The rescue workers who risked their lives and are now deathly sick for the risking. The men and women who stood on the debris pile to keep digging up bodies and body parts, who now cough and wheeze and wonder if it's a bad cold or asthma. Or worse. I know some of these people. As I've related in other pieces on this blog, I'm even friends with a few, people who were there, helping, even rescuing. Even getting caught in the collapses and finding safety and shelter.

The people who lived or worked (or both) down there, who now sit, sick with fear and wonder if they, too, might have life cut short.

We need to remember them, too. They're heroes, living among us.

My deepest thanks to Mike for writing such a beautiful story about his brother. I can picture Billy, and would like to have known him. Maybe had a beer with him.

You know, ordinary stuff.

You're Missing
Bruce Springsteen

Shirts in the closet, shoes in the hall
Mama's in the kitchen, baby and all
Everything is everything
Everything is everything
But you're missing

Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair
Papers on the doorstep, you're not there
Everything is everything
Everything is everything
But you're missing

Pictures on the nightstand, TV's on in the den
Your house is waiting, your house is waiting
For you to walk in, for you to walk in
But you're missing, you're missing
You're missing when I shut out the lights
You're missing when I close my eyes
You're missing when I see the sun rise
You're missing

Children are asking if it's alright
Will you be in our arms tonight?

Morning is morning, the evening falls I have
Too much room in my bed, too many phone calls
How's everything, everything?
Everything, everything
You're missing, you're missing

God's drifting in heaven, devil's in the mailbox
I got dust on my shoes, nothing but teardrops

To read other tributes, click here

UPDATE: In bittersweet news, there have been so many hits to that the hosting service has pulled the site because we've exceeded bandwidth. I don't know who's hosting, but a few hundred angry emails ought to make them relent. Meanwhile, a new server is being rushed into service today, and the links should be automatically re-directed.