When the devil comes to call

The food, the beer, the music and the rides all marked celebration of the Choctaw Firemen’s fair this weekend in northern Lafourche Parish, as they do every year.

For people who attend, the fair – along with the annual firemen’s fair in Thibodaux – is a reminder of community’s importance, and a tribute at the same time to men and women who run into places everyone runs out of.



The fairs allow us to look up close at the shiny trucks that usually sit inside the fire stations, ready to hit the road at a moment’s notice when the need arises.

Usually the responses are necessitated by mundane events. Food on a stove leaves being burned and other commonplace incidents are the usual reasons. Car wrecks and medical emergencies are way up there on the list.

But then, sometimes, there is fire that burns with a vengeance. It is the fire that is the cloak of the devil himself, the kind that breaths smoke, which snuffs out life.



This is what happened this past weekend, in a simple shotgun house on Hobson Street in Houma. Romell Welsh Jr. was 2 and Ro’Miya Welsh was 1 and the firefighters found them a half hour after they were done battling the flames.

God and District Attorney Joe Waitz Jr. will have to sort out who was responsible.

But in the end it was fire.



Years ago, as a volunteer in upstate New York, I came to know the foe well.

You don’t really know fire until you have tried to fight it, seen the orange glow that rises up from darkness through the grimy faceplate of a breathing mask, feeling the heat surround you even through protective gear. At least I didn’t.

You learn from the times you go and do battle with it that fire is a formidable foe, that it is a living, breathing thing and until the day you have seen the lump that was a sleeping human being beneath a blanket from which wisps of smoke rise up, or the charred remains that you must remove from under a bed because children, after all, hide under their beds when they are afraid, and you only hope that the smoke did its job before the fire got a crack at the victim.



It is the face of fire that only those sworn to fight it can attest to having seen, mostly, and it is every bit as fearsome as you might imagine.

As for the children who were taken this weekend, there might be some comfort that they now play with the angels, just like the other children. They join three children from a Christmas morning fire at the Whispering Oaks trailer park.

In that home, lack of smoke detectors is seen as a reason why deaths occurred. On Hobson Street there are strong indications that smoke detectors might not have done much good. The children there were unattended.



What is certain at this point is that in all cases it was the firefighters who are left with the memory of what it is to find a child fire claimed.

It is the most difficult of tasks, the stuff that causes lack of sleep, that brings on the nightmares, that makes you wonder whether it is a job you can keep on doing.

But most of them do keep on.



They respond to the car wrecks and burned food, grateful that on that one particular day on that one particular road they have not been forced to confront the worst that fire can do.

Until it happens, like it did this weekend.

And this is why we support the firemen’s fairs, why we should take every available opportunity to say thank you to those who keep us safe, or at least try to, not just because they are at risk of losing their own lives but because they are at risk of holding the memories of those who die.



And there is a potent way of honoring them, as well as the children and all the others who have died. Tonight, check the batteries in your smoke detector. If you pulled the batteries out because all it detected was your cigarette or an overdone roast, put them back in.

Keep yourself safe, and in so doing pay homage to those who stand ready when the devil comes to call.