That weekend started the week before, when it snowed almost two feet on Thursday and Friday morning. I spent a lot of time getting the stuff off my driveway, steps, and walk, and a lot of time with the volunteer ambulance. The town I live in has mountainous terrain (at a modest elevation) on the very outer suburban fringe of northern New Jersey, 27 square miles of forests, lakes, and housing developments— so a big storm is a big deal. Come Friday night, I was pretty tired.
Saturday, my wife and I were going down to Jersey City to visit our son and his girlfriend, who live in a small apartment in a luxury high-rise by the river. That was why, when the alert tones started coming through the emergency radio by my bed early in the morning, I didn’t get up and start dressing. The dispatch was for a house fire a little less than a mile from me, and they wanted the whole fire department and the ambulance duty crew. Not me. So I turned the radio off and tried to go back to sleep. Not a chance—and my wife was awake for the day. Curious, I turned the radio back on.
As it turned out, the fire was "a worker," the real deal. Fire Command was positioning engines and lines, sending a rescue company into the house to search, and arranging for mutual aid companies from two neighboring towns. The ambulance duty crew had set up a rehab station for the firefighters, established Emergency Medical Service command, and was looking for a second rig (ambulance) to stand by. No one had answered the call, so dispatch was calling neighboring towns for a mutual aid rig. I got out of bed and picked up the phone.
"Ringwood Police. Is this an emergency?"
"Kim, it’s Paul Hamell, I’m getting dressed and going to the ambulance building."
A moment later, the alert tones came through the radio, then Kim’s voice, talking fast to leave the channel for Fire Command. "Ringwood Police to all ambulance corps members, I need a second rig for a working house fire, I have one EMT [Emergency Medical Technician], I need one EMT or a driver; if you’re available, please call."
At the ambulance building, I loaded the extra equipment that we take to fire scenes on a rig and started the engine. Rick, a 30-year member who has let his EMT certification lapse and is now a "driver-only," trotted into the bay.
"Sorry I’m late; I couldn’t get out of my driveway."
As we pulled out of the bay, the radio said, "EMS Command to 232."
I picked up the microphone and answered. EMS Command (my frequent partner, Rob) said, "232, we have a patient for you, a female who. . . . Ringwood, we need another standby rig.
"232 received. Ringwood, 232 is in service to the fire scene."
Five minutes later, we parked at the edge of the staging area on the street where the fire was, next to the first ambulance and the paramedic truck from the nearest hospital. We found the EMS triage area in the garage of the house next door to the fire scene, and were told that our patient, who was being transported as a precaution, was inside, dressing in clothes borrowed from a neighbor. We went back to the ambulance to wait.
A firefighter was waiting for us when we got to the rig. "The chief ordered me to go to the hospital to get checked, but I’m sure it’s just exhaustion. I’m just too tired to do anything." Our volunteer fire department had been working around the clock for two days with downed electric lines, alarm activations, and other storm-related emergencies.
We loaded our two patients and started for the nearest hospital, 25 minutes away. A mutual aid rig from the neighboring town of West Milford was coming to take our place at the fire scene. Within a few minutes, EMS Command was on the air again. "Ringwood, let the West Milford rig know we have a patient for them, a firefighter."
At about this time, I got a text message from an ambulance corps member who wrote, "I would have loved to take the call but my car is trapped between downed trees and power lines." Another member called and said she had just turned her radio on—she has medical limitations that require her to get uninterrupted sleep—and she wanted to help.
As we approached Chilton Memorial Hospital, more alert tones came through the radio. We made the fastest turnaround we could while delivering two patients, and got back in the rig. "232 to Ringwood, clear from Chilton."
"232, can you take another call?" Kim sent us to a house across town from the fire, where a multiply-disabled three-year- old’s oxygen equipment had failed. Then she called the police shift commander and told him, "Our second rig is taking the pediatric, a mutual aid rig from Oakland is coming for the patient with back pain, and our third rig is in service to stand by at the fire."
I’ve been in public safety almost my entire adult life, first as a cop, and now that I am retired, as a volunteer EMT. When public safety people hang around telling stories, usually of the can-you-top-this? variety, we call it telling war stories, but that’s not what this is about. I’m not writing to tell war stories. I’m writing to tell you about the vision I had during meeting for worship on First Day.
When Saturday morning was over, I went home, had breakfast, and changed my clothes. My wife and I got in my car and headed for Jersey City, for our planned visit with our son and his girlfriend. We weren’t too surprised to find that Jersey City’s snow removal is about as bad as any city’s, and the sides of the streets were piled with snow, too much of it to think of parking even my little four-wheel drive in it.
The area is fairly unusual. The two blocks adjacent to the Hudson River, which used to be abandoned rail yards, are now upscale housing, offices, restaurants, and hotels. The next block or two going west is mostly abandoned warehouses, then rehabilitated former slums.
There was a big, busy shopping center nearby in the warehouse zone, so we drove there. It was crowded and active, but there was still plenty of parking at a distance from the stores, so I picked out a nice, safe place to park on the edge of the active part of the lot, and we walked the few blocks to our visit.
We got back to the parking lot a little after six, as darkness and cold settled in for the night. As we walked toward our parking spot, we both slowed—the car wasn’t there. I looked left and then right, but didn’t see it. I walked to where the car had been and looked on the ground for broken glass. Then, having another thought, I looked around for signs. About 100 feet away, there was a sign on a lamppost. I walked to it. "Parking for shopping center only. All others towed by E-Z Towing or Danny’s Towing." It gave two phone numbers.
EZ-Towing told me that Danny’s had my car. Danny’s voicemail gave me another number to call. The guy who answered that number said that they had towed my car, they had closed at six, would reopen at nine the next morning, and it would cost $186 to get the car back.
I looked around at the urban wilderness and tried to think. Just outside the parking lot was a light rail station. The light rail—more a big trolley than a train—would take us into the next city to Hoboken Terminal, where we could get a suburban train to Suffern, New York, about 20 minutes from home. Undoubtedly, we could get someone to pick us up.
My wife called our son, and got him just as he and his girlfriend were leaving to meet friends. As it turned out, they were going to Hoboken, so we got a lift to the railroad terminal, a partially restored turn-of-the-20th-century building on the waterfront—dilapidated and ugly on the outside, restored and beautiful on the inside. We had just missed an hourly train, so we had plenty of time to get our tickets and then wander around the neighborhood collecting takeout coffee—Dunkin Donuts for my wife, Starbucks for me.
It was still early, but the train was at the platform on Track 14 when we got back to the terminal. We walked up the platform to the middle of the train, climbed aboard, and selected a seat halfway up the car. We chatted with the conductor, and eventually the train started moving, rocking gently through the darkness.
A lot of young people, coming from Manhattan’s Penn Station, got on at the Secaucus Transfer. After settling in, a young man at the front of the car opened a guitar case and began playing softly, just for himself. He was good. Not far behind me, a young woman was talking on a cell phone. She said, "My car got towed. . . . I was really hammered. . . . I must have left it someplace wrong, I think I parked in someone’s driveway."
I whispered to my wife, "Did you hear that?" then repeated it for her, and she smiled.
The train rocked gently through the darkness. The wheels clicked on the occasional joints in the ribbon rail, and the guitarist played softly. The train car felt like a gathered meeting for worship, held in God’s love and shared experience. I gave thanks that I am blessed with sufficiency such that the exorbitant towing fee wouldn’t really hurt me. At that moment, my wife said, "I was just thinking how lucky we are, that we can afford this whole thing without missing a meal or a mortgage payment. That girl who got hammered probably isn’t that lucky."
Later that evening at home, I located Danny’s Towing on Google Maps. Google offered me the opportunity to read reviews of Danny’s Towing, and, intrigued by their zero star rating, I accepted. I read a chronicle of shady dealing, rude treatment, damaged cars, and stolen property.
On Sunday morning, we got up early and headed to Jersey City in my wife’s car. The sun was bright on the snow and traffic was light. We quickly left the country, traversed the suburbs, and entered the north Jersey urban sprawl. As I drove, I prayed. "Father, help me to walk cheerfully over the Earth, answering that of God in everyone. Help me to love my neighbor. Help me to be at peace. Help me to keep my temper."
Danny’s Towing is located in the shadow of Interstate 78, in a recently gentrified residential neighborhood. The compact old building was surrounded by a razor-wirefenced storage yard. The garage door was open, and I could see my car inside.
We approached the window in the wall just inside the garage door, where a gray-haired man of about 70, wearing a gray sweatshirt, sat watching us blankly. My wife gave him her smile— the big, dazzling one—and a cheery good morning. I smiled and said, "Good morning, we’re here for the blue CRV."
He asked for my driver’s license, and—as if to prevent an argument—said that security had watched us on their cameras. He showed me a note that said, "Blue CRV. Man and woman walked toward Washington St." I said, "That sounds like us. I can’t believe they put so much effort into this; it seems so unnecessary."
"Well, thanks for being professional about this," he said.
"I’ve got no argument to make," I said. "It’s their property. But I bet the place isn’t run by any of the chain stores there, but by a management company someplace that doesn’t care about making enemies for their tenants."
He told me I was right. As he did the paperwork, I noticed that his hands were tattooed. The knuckles of his right fist said "HATE."
On an impulse, I said, "Do you mind if I ask a personal question?" He looked at me. I asked, "Now that you’re older and wiser, do you ever regret your tattoos?"
"Do I ever! When I go out someplace nice with people, I’m always embarrassed, I sit like this." He showed me how he hides his knuckles.
I nodded and said, "Things that seem like a good idea when you’re a young hell-raiser kind of lose their appeal when you’re a grandpa."
"Yeah," he said, "it’s not easy trying to explain this to my grandkids."
He told me that he had started the towing business, but had now passed the business on to his son, and would soon be retiring to Florida. The three of us chatted about Florida, warm places in general, and the discomfort of air travel. Before we left, Danny thanked us again for being "professional."
I was on time for meeting for worship. I settled onto one of our antique benches in the bright, sunny meeting room. Centering down was not a problem; Spirit rose up to meet me, to embrace me, and I rode through the hour in silent, joyful gratitude. Thank you, Lord, for the opportunity to live in community— to experience unity—to feel as one with You and each other, to know You in each other. Thank you for love, which knits us together in the Oneness of God. And I saw a rosebud, tightly closed. Inside the rosebud were people, all the people, all that is, held tightly together by the petals. And I was inside the rosebud too, and the all-embracing petals felt like strong, gentle, divine arms around my shoulders.
As I drove home, I turned on the ambulance pager and set it so I could hear any transmissions on our frequency. That’s how I knew that the duty crew was tied up on a call. A few blocks from home, I passed the Erskine Lake firehouse, and saw that the volunteers were at the firehouse on a work detail, putting their equipment right after a busy week.
As I parked in my driveway, tones started coming from the pager. "Ringwood Police to all Erskine Lake firefighters, report of a rollover with entrapment, Route 511 between Skylands Road and Sloatsburg Road." I ran for the house. The tones were coming again as I came through the door and ran past my wife. "Ringwood Police to all Erskine firefighters and all ambulance corps members, we need a full crew for a second rig, report of a rollover with entrapment. . . ." I grabbed my ambulance corps jacket and radio.
"EMT Hamell to Ringwood, going to the building." I was out the door again.
As I started my car and turned the blue emergency light on, the fire chief was already pulling up to the scene. His words came faster and louder with each new thought. "240 to Ringwood, on scene, command established. . . . Ringwood, we have an overturned SUV off the road with an ejected occupant under it. . . . Rescue 242, where are you? When you get here, grab a stokes and get your whole crew down the embankment."
I spoke into my radio. "EMT Hamell to Ringwood, we’re going to need paramedics and a helicopter."
"10-4. Ambulance corps members, Jack is going to the scene, Paul and Torrence are going to the building."
We lost that patient. When the rocking and bouncing ambulance pulled into the helicopter landing zone that the fire department had set up in a schoolyard, Jack and I were doing CPR in a puddle of blood. A few of the firefighters joined us in the rig and helped. When the paramedics got there, they did a quick assessment and then called the emergency room doctor for a death pronouncement.
We went back to the ambulance building to wait for the medical examiner’s office to come get the body. The duty crew and all of the corps officers were there, waiting for us. They helped with the paperwork. They helped clean and sterilize the ambulance. They helped restock the equipment.
I don’t know what I looked like, but I started hearing something I hear from time to time since my battle with cancer depleted my stamina a couple of years ago.
"Paul, go home."
"Paul, go home."
"In a few minutes."
"Paul, go home."
I am slowly learning to trust others’ judgment about that; I left before the work was quite finished.
But we never leave; none of us do, not in any meaningful way. We cannot. Because the petals of the rosebud, the embrace of God, the all-pervading presence of God, holds us in community, unity, Oneness.