ON GIANT SHOULDERS
Daughter of Pete Rafferty
As a writer, I’m always on the lookout for a good story. My father’s life is my idea of a great story. Born into a large family on a small farm in Ireland, Pete left home while still a teenager to make his way in the world. With no money, no connections and not much in the way of formal education, he built a good life for himself and his family in Brooklyn by working two or three jobs at a time for about thirty years. Dad fixed roofs, painted houses – he even drove a hearse. All these mini-careers were squeezed in around his real job, a job he loved.
My father was a New York City fireman for thirty years. These days, the terms, “Hero” and “Fireman” are inextricably linked in peoples’ minds. But when I was growing up in the sixties, it was just a job; one that lots of men in our blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood did without expecting much in the way of thanks or recognition. Dad’s firehouse was located in Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood of beautiful old brownstones that seemed worlds away from our end of Flatbush Avenue. My father would often take my mother, my three sisters and I downtown to collect his paycheck on Thursday night. We didn’t think there was anything unusual in this; my father wanted his family around him all the time. I think he liked showing us off.
His firehouse, Engine Co. 224, handled everything from kitchen fires to huge conflagrations at the old Brooklyn Navy Yards. Abandoned after WW II, those docks decayed and burned for years. It is only now that I realize how much danger my father faced. I remember Dad telling us about the giant wharf rats that would desperately claw their way up the firefighters’ legs and into their boots to escape the flames. The unlucky host would drop to the ground screaming as the crazed animal bit him from inside his heavy uniform. The other men could not let go of the high-pressure hoses to help him. My father said those rats could make a man who thought nothing of walking into a burning building cry.
That was one of the few scary stories my father told us about his career. I guess he didn’t want to scare us. Besides, my dad has always been happiest when he’s helping others and being a firefighter meant, first and foremost, that his job offered him the opportunity to help others. Jumping out of bed in the middle of the night, rushing toward disaster, driving a thirty foot fire truck like a madman down crowded city streets – he was just doing a job he loved with men he called Brother. We could always tell when our father was on the phone with another firefighter because it was always Brother Somebody – Brother Feliciano or Brother Sherry or Brother O’Keefe. Pete had grown up without a telephone and to this day it is not a device he uses casually. He was always chasing one of my sisters or me off the phone. The fact that he would talk to a guy from the firehouse without reminding him that the phone was “for emergencies,” expressed my father’s bond with these men more than any carefully worded testimonial ever could.
And a phone call for my father often meant someone did have an emergency. People came to my father when things went wrong. They’d get what they needed – a loan, a ride to the hospital or the airport, help with fixing their roof or their car. My father is retired now, but he is still the first to offer a helping hand to anyone who asks. And, as always, he not only accepts this role – he thrives on it. In fact, he is the happiest man I know.
As for me, I’ve ended up immersed in community projects, with friends and neighbors I care about and a family that is the chief joy of my life. The phone at my house rings and it seems only natural to say, “How can I help?” I’m no one’s idea of a hero but I try to pitch in when help is needed. It’s how I was raised to be. My father taught me that the more you give of yourself to others, the more life gives back to you.
On September 11, 2001, my father and other retired firefighters rushed to their old firehouses, determined to help in any way they could. Dad pitched right in, answering phones, hauling around donations – he even washed dishes; whatever needed to be done. Like so many times before the call for help came in and my father answered.
Peter Glancy was born and raised in County Roscommon, Ireland. He immigrated to the U.S. when he was 19, served in the US Army, then became a New York City Firefighter, a job he held for 27 years. He lives in Rockaway, NY with his wife, Rose. They have four children and 7 grandchildren.
Helen Rafferty was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Helen writes Essays and short stories and has worked as a reporter for Westchester-based newspapers. She lives in Westchester with her husband of 22 years and their 3 daughters.
On Giant Shoulders… A Daughter Can See Clearly
- Setting Clear Limits and Providing a Moral Code (submit your story here)
- Spirituality and Religion (Ingrid Peart)
- Standing Up for Your Beliefs (Dominique Sharpton)
- The Importance of Humility (Kathryn Ho)
- Lasting Values Over Materialism (Nan Nicklaus O’Leary)
- Helping Others (Helen Rafferty)
- Failure…and Learning from Mistakes (submit your story here)
- Value of Hard Work (Stephanie Staubach Phillips)
- Mindfulness (Carmela Cipriani)