BROWNWOOD, Texas – On the back bumper of fire truck E1-61, a beautiful white vehicle with low mileage and a 400-gallon tank, is a dinky Band-Aid. The firemen change it when bad weather rots it or if it falls off in the middle of a call. They try to keep it fresh as best they can.
The first time the truck went out on call, dispatch radioed about a roadside fire near Merkel. Some old railroad ties were burning. A strike team with a handful of trucks arrived. The blaze was ornery. Wind cut across the Texas plains. It shot flames back toward the truck, so the driver of E1-61 jammed it into reverse and backed it right into a bridge pillar.
The dent eventually rusted into a scar, the sort every fire truck needs to explain where it's been and what it's seen. Often those stories are too much for the firemen themselves to repeat. Their job is to live horror. No sense in waking the past.
Except this story – this one is too good to keep to themselves. Because, damn, was it funny when Shannon Stone smashed that new truck. And as much as they try not to tell stories about him, sometimes the men from the Brownwood Professional Fire Fighters Association just can't help themselves.
Shannon Stone, whose death at Rangers Ballpark in a freak accident 3½ months ago saddened the country, would have spent Saturday night at a haunted house. Most of the Brownwood firefighters, even the off-duty ones, did. Game 3 of the World Series was going on in Arlington, about 150 miles away, and Stone would have been standing outside, refreshing his phone to see the score, lamenting the St. Louis Cardinals' early lead against the Texas Rangers, getting increasingly frustrated as the night went on, cursing Albert Pujols(notes) to anyone who would listen, retiring back to the station to watch the 16-7 loss conclude and moping around until his shift ended at 6:30 a.m. He loved the Rangers.
Stone went to the World Series last year. The Rangers' website offered a ticket lottery. He lucked into four seats to Game 5, the series clincher for the San Francisco Giants. That didn't matter. He was in the upper deck along the first-base line with his young son, Cooper, his mother-in-law and his captain from the station, Greg Woodcox, who took a picture of the field on his phone. It's still there.
The week before, Stone had delighted in tweaking New York Yankees fans as the Rangers ran roughshod over them in the American League Championship Series. Finally, they gave him something to brag about. The Rangers' futility had lasted decades. He relished this, even as he helped fill the 10,000-square-foot building at the Brown County Fairgrounds with severed heads and bones and skulls and chains.
Stone was one of the department's handymen. The Brownwood firemen put hours of sweat into the house and spared no detail. They fashioned four wooden coffins this year. The bogeymen wielded real chainsaws – minus the chain – and one fireman leapt from atop a box and swung overhead on a jury-rigged pulley. In the back of the building, wrenches dotted the floor and drills stood atop tables and unused black lights remained in boxes and a who-knows-how-many-days-old slice of petrified pizza. The firemen's kids chose which masks look scariest and grown men reveled in the smearing of black and yellow and green and red face paint.
They redesigned the house this year to keep up with the bigger cities' bigger-budget productions. Brownwood may be the county seat, but it's still home to just 20,000 people, a central Texas town with simple ideas. Like raising money for a scholarship in the name of B.J. Carnes, a Brownwood fireman who died in a plane crash July 5, 2008, and was the impetus behind the haunted-house idea. It would cost $7 for adults and $5 for kids – none younger than 8, please – and half the money would go to the department to help fund things the city won't pay for, like Internet access at the station, while the other half would fund aspiring firemen's schooling.
Outside there was a Sno Cone stand with 46 flavors, like tiger's blood and dreamsicle and fireball and blue coconut. And yellow crime-scene tape spooled near a red strobe light that illuminated a sign advertising HAUNTED HOUSE in drippy red paint. And, best of all, all the kids could come and play dress up Thursday, Friday and Saturday two weeks before Halloween. One boy lifted his arms, caked with gelatinous red goo, and stuck it near another's mouth.
"Taste my blood," the boy said. "Taste it!"
All of this would have made Stone grin, even if he preferred building the maze's walls over turning into a ghoul.
"He didn't scare people," Woodcox said.
The house opened at 7 p.m. Saturday and sent groups of teenage girls screaming out the exit. Woodcox paced the premises with a radio on his shoulder just in case of an emergency. At 9:34 p.m., he speed-walked toward the ladder engine parked on the gravel lot.
One of the firefighters' wives shook her head.
"There go my babysitters," she said.
If you laid a dartboard over Texas, Brownwood would be the bull's-eye. It's ranching and oil country, proud of natives Bob Denver (Gilligan from "Gilligan's Island") and Gordon Wood, the old high school football coach about whom Bear Bryant, when asked why he went to Alabama from Texas A&M, supposedly said: "I had to leave Texas. As long as Gordon Wood was there, I could never be the best coach in the state."
Brownwood is proud, too, of its fire department, now in its 122nd year. The 32 full-time firemen and 11 volunteer departments cover nearly 1,000 square miles in Brown County. They tackle house fires, brush fires and the occasional domestic fire. And if a car accident necessitates a cleanup, that's their bailiwick as well.
So Woodcox and driver David Reiger hopped into the ladder engine Saturday night, and another truck onsite at the fairgrounds trailed them for four miles until they came upon the scene: A Domino's delivery car had hopped a curb and T-boned a four-door pickup twice its size. The man in the truck stood to the side, still stunned. The driver, a tall, lanky young man, slumped over his steering wheel. The EMTs thought he might have suffered a seizure.
"I think I can get free pizzas for a year," said the man whose truck was hit.
Woodcox directed his crew to clean up the motor-oil leak from a punctured engine block. Reiger shoveled quick-dry powder onto the area once the tow truck yanked both cars from the road. He has been a fireman for 28 years. Reiger's mother encouraged him to apply. He tested fifth out of nine applicants. Brownwood hired seven.
Through the years, Reiger has worked his way up to driver. Never, he said, has he been in an accident, even when he pushed the ladder engine to its peak speed of 76 mph. He's got 15 months of firefighting left in him before he plans to retire, get his pilot's license and open a business in which he finds runaway livestock or shoots pests via a fan-powered parachute.
Reiger wanted a lieutenant's position. He said Stone beat him by two points on a civil-service exam. Soon thereafter, in 2009, Brownwood named Stone its fire officer of the year. His friends at the station regarded him well. Even though his promotion meant he spent most of his time at the substation off Indian Creek Road, they still saw him at least once a week, maybe more if there was real action on either of the two 24-hour shifts that comprise firemen's work weeks.
This accident was on the wrong side of town for Stone to have joined, though he might have begged on anyway. He was eager from the start. Stone went to a firefighting academy and thought he knew everything and wanted to run right into house fires, still too green to understand that they're beasts without conscience or reason.
Stone's elders would drill in him: Trust your ears. While the rest of a firefighter's body is covered with layers of flame-retardant material, the ears get little protection. They're like a thermometer, Baby, they'd say to him, sassing him about his cherubic face. He warmed to the nickname and the lesson much like he warmed to everything at the department, where he served almost 18 years, until July 7.
Shannon Stone died that day. He was 39. It was almost exactly three years after the Brownwood firemen lost B.J. Carnes. Death confronts them in 1,000-degree blasts, and yet the onrush of adrenaline compels them to come back for the next shift, and another, and then it's 30 years' worth. Men who run into fires must feel invincible to ensure the fear doesn't overwhelm them, and to see two of their own die before their 40th birthdays preyed on their vulnerabilities. .
How Stone died still angers them, the stupid misfortune of it: leaning over a railing at Rangers Ballpark to catch a ball tossed to him by the Rangers' outfielder star Josh Hamilton(notes), only to lose his balance and flop face first into a crevice with no room to wiggle and a 20-foot drop. Cooper, 6, was there with him. He watched his dad fall to his death.
And damn if it still doesn't hurt, and so bad, months later. It's always going to – not just because Shannon was one of them but because there is a brotherhood among all firefighters, Rangers fans and Cardinals fans, Democrats and Republicans, black and white, forged by walking into pits of hell for a living. It's why a group from Brownwood's department flew to New York to attend the 10th-anniversary memorial of 9/11. Just to be there with other firemen.
"Sometimes it's difficult, sometimes it's stressful," Woodcox said. "We miss a lot of family time. Birthdays, holidays, special events with your family. We live down here a third of our lives. We're together a third of our lives."
Which means he's now absent an important part of that third. Woodcox and Stone worked on the A unit together for years, the captain and his diligent liege. They shared triumph and heartbreak, laughs in the falling-apart kitchen at the station and joy at that World Series game. Surely Stone would have put in for the lottery again. And who knows? Maybe he would've drawn Game 5 two years in a row.
All of this was uncomfortable for Woodcox. He's just, as he said, "nothing more than a country bumpkin." And he's wildly protective of Jenny Stone, Shannon's widow, who wants more than anything to find a way to cope with this new life. It's all too overwhelming, and so rather than tell stories about Shannon, Woodcox demurred out of respect to Jenny.
Perhaps he's comfortable doing so because he knows his friend lives on. Cooper threw out the first pitch of the Rangers' first postseason game this year. The team is commissioning a statue of Shannon and Cooper to unveil next season. The working title: "Rangers Fans."
Still, it hurts on nights like this, nights that Stone would have loved. Seeing the faces of kids bounding out of the haunted house and helping marshal an accident victim to safety and even recalling the story of the busted-up E1-61. It's still all jacked up: yellow paint chipped off in a three-leaf-clover shape, red paint taken out in chunks and the bitty Band-Aid doing its best to cover a wound that won't heal.
Send contributions to the Shannon Stone Memorial fund to:
Brownwood Fire Department
c/o Shannon Stone Memorial Fund
809 Main St.
Brownwood, TX 76801
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