If you ever talk with a firefighter, you find out quickly there is a deep, yet often unspoken sense of community within their profession, and among one another. That unspoken camaraderie requires trust, communication and a sense of community. And so do nicknames.
Frankly, nicknames incubate in community. And one of the last vestiges of "true community" in our modern world resides in the local fire houses. The sharing of meals, swapping of stories, sliding down poles, strapping on the boots, and the "life on the line" work experiences have way of doing that. The implicit trust, and sense of community embedded there is second to none. And, as a result, fire houses are a great source of nicknames.
Hollywood's expression of the local fire house and nicknames came to us 20 years ago, with the movie Backdraft. Nicknames were a point of connection in that movie. There was Kurt Russell as "Bull," Scott Glenn as "Axe" and Robert De Niro as "Shadow."
Closer to home, I visited a Milwaukee fire house recently to confirm the prevalence and relevance of nicknames, on and off the ladder. The local lieutenant I spoke with confirmed that nicknames are still very much a part of the tradition of firefighting.
"There are a bunch of nicknames across all of the 36 fire houses in Milwaukee," he said. And it sounded like the more active the station, the more opportunity for nicknames to be generated. Some houses will record upwards of 2,000 calls in a single year, or roughly 10 a day.
Best known locally perhaps, is "Fireman Jim" who actually appears from time to time on local FM radio via "The Bob and Brian Show." But there is also a Milwaukee firefighter nicknamed "The Voice of the People." Seems this particular firefighter has a pretty good handle on just about everything going on across town. There is also "Shenny" and "BSJ," short-hand for his polysyllabic birth name. I also learned of "Greasy" and "Sweaty" and "Clavin" – nicknames that likely speak for themselves.
Sometimes a nickname can also be a reference for a certain stereotype. I learned that there are some firefighters who "appear to be in shape but get injured & damage easily." This type of firefighter is commonly nicknamed "Fine China" or "Chalk Bones." Very fitting indeed.
I also spoke to members of a local volunteer fire department in Ozaukee County. They were well aware of the nickname tradition in the fire-fighting community, but they were also quick to point out that nicknames are much more prevalent where the firefighters are paid and full-time.
"Something about living together in a 24 hour shift community will do that," he said.
So the next time you see a local fireman after he or she has been involved in what they call a direct attack, or "...putting the wet stuff on the red stuff," chances are, there is a nickname either being generated, or going up in flames, somewhere.
John Leaf was born in western Illinois, a mile east of the Mississippi. College in Chicago. He holds a B.A. in Political Science and Philosophy. Leaf was goalie on the soccer team and captain of the golf team in college. He cut class to ride the "L" to see Cubs games, hung out for hours at the Art Institute and bent the brain doing graduate school in Theology.
He spent three mind-blowing summers in coastal British Columbia, as a resort photographer. He worked and lived in Minneapolis. He did hard time at a bank on LaSalle Street in Chicago and learned about PR, working at big firm a block off Michigan Avenue, while living in Evanston.
Now Leaf is just living the dream, under the radar, in Cedarburg. He's passionate about nicknames and launched his website three years ago.
He dabbles in yoga and cycling. Fishtailing as always, and taking a whack at life, like everyone else.