Location: Great Bend, KS (Sleeping at the fire station)
I had set my alarm for 6:45am so that Brian and I wouldn’t be late to breakfast. I woke at 7:15, having either not heard the alarm or having turned it off in a daze when it sounded. We weren’t late for breakfast, but we rolled out of our tents and directly into the kitchen with sleepy eyes and spiky hair. Dan, the husband, joined us for breakfast. He was a small man in stature, but he was strong and muscular. His hands were hard and calloused. I have always known that I have a strong handshake, but his was a vice.
Breakfast was homemade, hot, and delicious. We had French toast made with peanut butter batter, shoestring potatoes, fried eggs, cantaloupe, and, of course, fresh white peaches from the tree in the yard. Dan and I discussed Prairie Fire, a recent farmers’ co-op in which he has invested. The local farmers in the area have contributed money to a business plan which turns low-grade feed such as hay and other grasses and grains into fuel pellets to fire boilers. The concept seemed interesting, and Dan inundated me with literature about the business when I showed interest. I will certainly look into the practicality of the fuel, but my knowledge of the subject is still limited. Not so limited, of course, to prevent me from carrying on a meaningful conversation.
Also of note about the Bazine area, oil has been discovered here in the last couple years. Wells have been dug and derricks are pumping. The discovery has brought new money to the small town, but also a lot of new people, oil company contracts, and all sorts of outside things. One new repercussion that Elaine pointed out was jealousy in the community. Some are jealous of those who are fortunate enough to have found oil beneath their land or who have been courted by oil companies for possible leases on their land. Elaine suspects that the oil money will erect a wall in the town between the haves and have-nots, erasing the traditional atmosphere of the rural community of 500 people.
After breakfast, Brian and I toiled to leave. Conversation dragged on, and Dan and Elaine didn’t seem to have anywhere to be in a hurry this Friday morning. We talked and talked, and I crept our conversation towards the door with small shuffling steps. After half an hour or so, Brian and I were on the road, having paid thirty dollars for the twenty dollar stay. The good food, cheer, and hospitality warranted more than thirty, but our budget keeps us grounded.
We had a tailwind for the first time in a long time, and we were moving quickly across the rolling plains until my back tire lost pressure. I rolled to a wobbly stop on the shoulder and found a wide area to replace my tube. I put my last tube in the tire and we started east again. After ten miles, my rear tire was flat again. Obviously a thorn or piece of debris was lodged in the tire somewhere. I couldn’t find it, but, on an even more serious level, I had no more spare tubes. I dreaded the idea of hitchhiking. Nothing could be less appealing. The last thing I want to do was leave my bike and Brian on the side of the road while I hitched anywhere, whether five miles or fifty. I simply don’t want to lose the time.
I patched my tube as diligently as I could. No patch has yet held on this trip, so I had no reason to believe that this one would hold. I simply patched the tube to buy more time to think about hitching or other options, or for a stranger to come by and bail me out. However, this time, the patch sealed the small hold and the tube held pressure. I put the patched tube in the front tire and moved the thorn resistant tube in the front tire to the rear, the one having trouble with the hidden sharp. The process took an hour and a half or so. I was frustrated but Brian had waited patiently. I started biking on the road ahead of Brian, pedaling as hard and as fast as I could. I hadn’t fully inflated the patched tube, thinking that just a bit of air might prolong the life of the tube. The twenty five miles to Great Bend, the next town with a bike shop, were tense. I pedaled fast and hard over the rolling hills. Constantly glancing down at the tire to see if it was holding pressure, my mind played tricks on me. I’d think the tire was bulging more where it met the road, and I would look and fear the worst. By luck, the patch held all the way to Great Bend, and I finally loosened my tight grip on the handlebars when I rode onto Main Street, where the bike store was.
We bought our tubes and some other disposable gear and asked the proprietor of the bike store if there was a place that we could camp in town. He pointed us towards the fire station across the street. We followed his suggestion and visited the station. The firemen there told us that the forecast had buckets of rain coming into the area, and they suggested that we not camp on their lawn. Instead, the pointed us to the west end fire station on the opposite side of town, where we could stay indoors in the unused women’s locker room.
We biked across town as the rain started to drizzle. We stayed on neighborhood roads to avoid the busy main streets of the town, which has a population around 20,000. The firemen at the west end station were exceptionally hospitable. They have put us indoors, let us shower, cook on their stove, and watch television in the basement/gym.
One fireman, Jeremy, a young man about our age who recently came to this station, offered to give us a tour of the trucks and equipment. He offered after I told him that I had never been inside a firehouse, so I quickly accepted his invitation for a tour. He walked us through all the aspects of the engine, showing us for what different hoses, extinguishers, and tools were used. He showed us the gauges, axes, and the suits they wore. He even showed us the Jaws of Life, letting us hold them and examine them. I took a lot of interest in the things he showed us, and I learned a lot about firefighting and the life of a firefighter that I had not known.
Jeremy left urgently on a call, and Brian and I left the garage for the basement. Sitting here in this fire station, on the anniversary if that catastrophic day years ago, I can’t help but wonder at the coincidence. On September 11, 2001, over 350 firefighters gave their lives in New York City. I feel privileged to be in the company of firemen on this day. The men here adorned the house with markers to remember their fallen brethren. Even on this somber day, they have welcomed us openly and with compassion. I too feel their sense of loss, not as a fireman, but an American. My sympathy goes out to those who lost loved ones that day, those firemen who survived, and all those Americans who gave their lives so that others could live. Still my praise goes out to those who continue to risk their lives for our personal and national security, including these firemen here in Kansas.