I Saw the Figure Five in Gold

I Saw the Figure Five in Gold

I Saw the Figure Five in Gold

This birthday week I like to recall the number of times my worst case scenario has ever actually happened.

Perpetual worry is the mental equivalent of moving a pile of rocks from one point to another and back.

It never ends and nothing is ever accomplished.

In my case it’s probably from a feeling of needing to take responsibility for adult things as a kid.

When I was five my father, a U.S. Merchant Marine officer, went away on a voyage and never came back.

Ironically, they say he always hated to say goodbye and it turns out he never did.

(I too, have always hated to say goodbye, finding the process excruciatingly difficult.)

A disappearing parent is an introduction to perpetual worry.

They say if you assume personal responsibility for your surroundings as a child, you create the fantasy of order and control in the world; it may work then but with consequences later on.

About that time, the fall of 1963, I was taken into a fire station in Martinsburg, W. Va., the small town where I grew up.

My recollection is a feeling-infused memory of a very shiny red fire engine with gleaming brass, parked on a polished wooden floor.

The place and the rig evoked utter calm and order however incongruous to their actual purpose.

Later, I became a firefighter, and when you do, people ask you why you did.

For the longest time I said some foolish thing about “liking the excitement” though the real reason was a mystery that didn’t seem to require an explanation at the time.

For me, fire houses, and fire engines certainly, are tangible icons of order, purpose and strength, perhaps born from an early experience and a profound loss.

Much later I would make the connection that I had perhaps sought and found order in a firehouse while also having a job which required me to create some order from chaos.

Do we spend a lifetime seeking what our souls need?

I found an island of calm and a purpose to life, besides.

I Saw the Figure Five in Gold, painted by Charles Demuth in 1928, is a “portrait” of the famous poet William Carlos Williams.

Demuth was inspired, in part, by some lines from Williams’s poem about a fire engine in the night:

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city


Fire engine as portrait, person and purpose.

I get it–totally.








  • Mike says:

    A sad but well told story!

  • Victoria Huckenpahler says:

    Gosh, Eric, I had no idea about all this. I am so, so sorry that you had to endure a life-changing loss. Such things confer greater strength (assuming one doesn’t altogether cave!), but they also leave ineffaceable scars. Your story is a reminder that we NEVER know what the person we are facing has gone through, and therefore compassion for all is a must. When we learn the back story of some folks’ lives, we have to give them a tip of the hat for even getting out of bed in the morning! Thank you for sharing this tender and poignant story, and blessed birthday with more to come!

  • Star witness says:

    Eric, first happy birthday, which I think we share. This is a beautiful piece of your heart. Sadness can make us stronger. Thank you for all of the blogs. You say what other people are afraid to say. Happy New Year. Keep pushing and maybe you will be successful in your journey to bring integrity back to your beloved IAFF.

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