When Southold resident Phil Burns first got the bug to become a firefighter as a young man in New York in the early 1960s, firemen didn’t wear air masks, and their turnout gear consisted of just a pair of rubber boots, a rubber or canvas coat and a helmet and pair of gloves.
He’d taken an aptitude test at school, which he said told him nothing about what he should be when he grew up.
“I wanted them to say ‘you should be a neurosurgeon,'” he said in an interview with The Beacon this week.
Then one day, walking from the train to his building, he saw a loft building on fire, and walked past the scene just as the fire engines arrived.
“I said, ‘Wow. I want to do that,'” he said.
Chief Burns, who has written three books about his experience in the New York City Fire Department, was named Southold Library’s first Writer in Residence this month, and he’ll be giving a reading from his work this Sunday, April 27 at 3 p.m. at the Peconic Community Center in Peconic.
He joined the New York City Fire Department in 1963, and spent 40 years in the fire service, retiring in 2003 as the chief in charge of 1,500 firefighters and a huge swath of Brooklyn, the department’s 11th division. On September 11, 2001, 45 firefighters in his division who responded to the World Trade Center never came home.
“It was the best job in the world, in spite of the tears, and we had a lot of them,” he said. “We didn’t have much back then, but we did the job. The city was burning back then. It was a very rewarding way to make a living. Today, you have these grief counselors, but we didn’t have that back then. You just pulled up your boots and went back to work. In some ways it was better.”
Mr. Burns, a lifelong storyteller with a keen wit, whose home telephone answering machine consists of him promising to sing and then singing not one but two show tunes, had long been friends with Janet Kimmerly, the editor of WNYF Magazine, the in-house magazine of the New York City fire department.
Ms. Kimmerly convinced him to write articles for the magazine, which became the basis for three books on life in the FDNY published by DMC Firebooks, “Laughter, Tears & Muffled Drums,” which was released in 2003, followed by “Bringing Everybody Home” in 2009 and “The Last True Hero” in 2012.
“I have a very good memory, which can be blessing and a curse,” he said. “I had a knack for writing, and I just started writing them down. I realized these things were making you cry.”
Chief Burns’ first book, “Laughter, Tears & Muffled Drums,” covers the decade of the 1990s, during which he lost 24 men in the line of duty.
“I knew most of them and worked with many of them. I was in the burn center when they died,” he said. “You have to suck it up. It’s easier said than done sometimes.”
Chief Burns had worked the night shift on September 10, 2001, and was relieved by an officer and friend who never came home the following day.
“We lost so many men because once they used up the companies in Manhattan, the next place they went to was Brooklyn. We had the bridges and tunnels and easy access to lower Manhattan,” he said. “They were there right before the towers came down and didn’t come home.”
He’s also a drummer with the department’s Emerald Society Pipes & Drums Corps.
“I’ve played my drum at too many funerals to even count. That’s where the title came from.”
Though the title of his first book begins with the word laughter, Chief Burns had to look hard to find the humor in his situation. At Sunday’s reading, he also plans to tell the stories of the characters he’s worked with in the fire house.
“I have a good sense of humor, believe it or not,” he said. “I don’t want people walking out of there dabbing their eyes.”
Chief Burns’ reading will be held at 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 27 at the Peconic Community Center on Peconic Lane (which is in Peconic). Copies of his books are also available at the Southold Library and the Southold Pharmacy.
This is the first reading in the Southold Library Trustees’ Writer in Residence series. They’re looking for Southold residents who are authors of fiction, non-fiction and poetry to participate in the Writer in Residence program. For more information, call the library at 631.765.2077.