Big Shoes to Fill

Thursday, October 25, 2007

In the old days, accidental fires were a much bigger problem than they are today, but there was an upside that we lack today: they provided excellent entertainment before the advent of TV. In those days, the U.S. had no publicly funded fire departments, and the public relied on loosely organized troupes of firefighters who were forced to depend on other means to keep their business afloat. Given the crowds that the spectacle of a raging fire tended to draw, simply "passing the hat" was enough to fund these bohemian bands of bravadiers - at first.

It wasn't long before the old invisible hand of the market began to put the pressure on our heroes, and as demand steadily increased for spectacular feats of extinguishment, showmanship became as big a part of the job as saving lives. An entire brigade would often emerge at the scene of a blaze from a single tiny truck, sometimes conquering the inferno exclusively by stomping it out with oversized shoes. They would pull off daring feats, performing acrobatic stunts in the midst of the fire while scattering fire-retardant powder, simultaneously wowing the crowd and dousing the flame.

The public called these hero-entertainers "clowns" - a reference to the clownfish-esque coloring of their faces due the oxidation of the white fire-retardant makeup caused by the heat of the blaze - and for a time they enjoyed almost universal admiration. Keen observers noticed, however, that although fire-prevention measures continued to improve, house fires seemed only to increase in both number and intensity. As public record keeping became more organized, it became apparent that the majority of these fires were, in fact, started by the clowns themselves.

The backlash was immediate, and Congress rushed to push through new legislation outlawing fireclowning and establishing the socialized firefighting system that we enjoy today.

The suddenly jobless clowns, who were not as frugal with money as they were cunning, desperately tried to hold onto their way of life by staging performances in old, condemned buildings, but without the heroic appeal, the public quickly lost interest. They might have died out altogether had it not been for former clown and shrewd businessman P. T. Barnum. Barnum's invention, the traveling circus, gave the clowns only a shadow of their former success, but at least it was honest work.

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