A National Historic Landmark and a Chicago Landmark, the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pool is an oasis of calm and peace if not quiet in bustling Lincoln Park. It’s a little like the Secret Garden without the stone walls or English-style landscaping.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I wasn’t fond of watching TV. On summer days and evenings, I was usually outdoors, riding my bike or hanging out with a friend. During the winter, I focused on school activities, homework, and reading (was I as boring as that sounds?). I watched Star Trek reruns, Buffalo Sabres games (although I listened mostly to the Ted Darling play-by-play on the radio), and oddball shows now and then. I loved How the West Was Won (the series with James Arness). Kung Fu fascinated me (don’t ask). I disliked most sitcoms, and shows like Baretta, T.J. Hooker, Starsky & Hutch, and CHIPS, and all their endless car chases. They were interchangeable and predictable and far too urban without being gritty.
I was working from home one day when I discovered Emergency! on COZI during lunch. I don’t know why I stuck with it, but I watch it when I can.
Emergency! was shot at an actual Los Angeles County fire station, so I’ve learned a lot about the area outside the city. Most of it makes me happy I don’t live there.
The fire station is nestled between an interstate (I-405, the San Diego Expressway) and a refinery (identified on a fan’s website as Atlantic Richfield). The immediate area is flat, cemented over, and depressing as it can be. It looks like the inspiration for those memorable lines from “Big Yellow Taxi”: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” If I were a firefighter, I’d want to be out on calls—except the calls are often to places like chemical plants.
Here’s what I’ve learned since watching the efforts of Station 51, the Rampart General Hospital staff, and their supporting cast.
Station 51 and Los Angeles County
Fire station crews are tiny. We have our firefighter paramedics, Roy DeSoto and Johnny Gage, plus Mike (driver and actual Los Angeles County firefighter with a SAG card), Marco and Chet (sporting awesome 1970s-style mustaches), and Cap (Hank Stanley). KMG-365. Note: I discovered that in earlier episodes, Chet’s upper lip is buck naked. Chet without a mustache is like the 1970s without the Village People.
You can save a guy’s life over and over, and he can save yours over and over, but back at the station you can return effortlessly to being mortal enemies (Gage and Chet).
There’s one police officer for a goodly section of Los Angeles County—Vince. He wears a helmet, which made me think he’s a motorcycle cop—until I noticed he drives off in a cruiser. He has no partner. Isn’t that unusual?
Rampart General Hospital relies heavily on one pair of ambulance attendants. No wonder it takes them so long to arrive at the scene. They rarely show up before the squad. I don’t think they’ve ever spoken, but they do take orders from the firefighters.
Once I did see a different ambulance pair, but realized that they were responding to a night incident with the night shift paramedics and that this was one of the two-hour Emergency! movies.
Speaking of Vince-without-a-partner and the ambulance attendants (all two of them), Los Angeles County seems to have one speaking dispatcher. During his rare appearances, he’s usually seen from the side, occasionally with others in the background. Just as Mike Stoker was a working firefighter, he was a working dispatcher for the county (and uncredited on the show).
In the pilot, some of the ambulances appear to be your typical ambulance type, but one that carts an electrocution victim to the hospital looks like a hearse. This may be foreshadowing because without on-scene defibrillation, the victim dies soon after arrival. At least the hearses, er, ambulances shown in the early seasons are white or a cheery color like yellow. I’m also glad that style was discontinued in later seasons.
Whenever Squad 51 leaves the station, there’s not much traffic. You’d think there’d be more traffic on a major four-lane street in an industrial area. They must not have gotten calls during shift changes.
If I didn’t know better, I’d think Gage can’t drive. DeSoto always drives the squad. (In real life the crew did a limited number of shots of the squad leaving the station, and Kevin Tighe happened to be driving—not unlike the Cartwrights, wealthy as they are, having only one set of working clothes so stock footage could be recycled many, many times.) In a rare exception, we see Gage move the squad at the scene to a spot closer to the victim, and later in the same episode he hops into the driver’s seat and takes off. I guess he can drive after all.
Given the freeway behind and the refinery in front, I don’t want to see what their lungs look like. That’s before taking into account work hazards like smoke inhalation and chemical exposure.
Speaking of chemicals, firefighters have to be well educated about them. They have to know how volatile, toxic, etc., they are, and how to neutralize them. Not only do they deal with house fires, but also factory and lab fires, plane and helicopter crashes, train derailments, and truck accidents. And, of course, explosions.
In Los Angeles County, simple rope is a must. Lots and lots of rope. You can’t have enough rope. Rope comes in handy because many accidents happen in canyons. As flat as the area around the station is, the county itself isn’t. People drive off roads into canyons, fall off motorcycles and bicycles into canyons, and otherwise find themselves in canyons.
If the canyons don’t claim you, the cliffs of the seashore will.
And if the seashore doesn’t get you, a high-rise or a high area in an industrial plant will.
In at least one episode, the station is called to an area where the houses are right off the road—no front yards and no room for error if a driver isn’t sharp. As we accompany our heroes, we learn that these houses are on stilts holding them up over a canyon behind them. Take up sleepwalking and plunge to your death—right from the comfort of your own home.
It’s critical for the Los Angeles County dispatcher to tell Station 51 whether to approach from the top or bottom (see “canyons”). We don’t have that issue in Cook County, Illinois.
When you lose something in the grass, look very carefully because you could startle a venomous snake like a rattler. Gage finds that out the hard way. In a canyon, of course.
Wildfires look terrifying. When you’re told to get out, you get out. They can spread and surround you fast—especially if you’re in a canyon. How do firefighters contain such large-scale conflagrations and put them out?
Los Angeles County has a lot of dirt roads.
I learn about rescue equipment I’ve never heard of. My favorites are the Porta Power, a super jack that helps our heroes lift cars and other weights off victims, or open doors, and the Stokes, a rigid basket that’s perfect for getting seriously injured people out of precarious situations (see “canyons”).
We also see how various hoses, nozzles, pressures, and so forth are used. This is a TV program that’s not afraid to use jargon, with viewers who are not afraid to hear it.
D5W and Ringer’s lactate treat almost everything. One or the other is prescribed by the ER doctors on most calls. When an IV is inserted, a paramedic has to ride along in the ambulance. (The ambulance attendees are mostly there for muscle to move the victims from the scene to the vehicle and from the vehicle to the ER treatment room.) That takes the paramedic out of circulation for the next call, which frustrates DeSoto and Gage, especially in one episode where some of the conditions don’t seem serious enough to warrant an IV.
Depending on your condition (bisecting aneurysm), you can have normal blood pressure in one arm and very high blood pressure in the other.
I’ve finally gotten my head wrapped around atrial fibrillation vs. ventricular fibrillation. (And I’ve had CPR training.) Unlike some other shows, Emergency! gets ventricular fibrillation right. Once you flatline, there’s no coming back.
Station 51 has a mascot, and he’s not a Dalmatian. No, he’s a basset hound named Henry. While Cap is studying to become a battalion chief, he finds Chet polishing equipment with Henry’s ears. He’s pretty sure that’s not by the book. Better Henry’s ears than Chet’s mustache, I say.
Rampart General Hospital
People in the 1970s were polite. They usually ask the Rampart doctor or nurse if it’s okay to smoke in the hospital. The answer is usually “yes.” Do not try this today.
Rampart nurses were still wearing the traditional nurse cap in addition to white dresses and clunky white shoes. (I went shoe shopping with a nurse once. The choices were clunky white, clunkier white, and chunkiest white.) The nurse cap had disappeared in the United States some time in the 1980s with the switch to scrubs.
I wonder why a county hospital in a highly populated area wouldn’t have more than one ER nurse? Yet Dixie often seems to be it. To be fair, others occasionally turn up in the treatment rooms, but more often than not DeSoto, Gage, or one of the ambulance guys is left to hold the IV bag.
Between car accidents, heart attacks, suicide attempts, poisonings, overdoses, fires, industrial mishaps, etc., the ER doctors and Dixie consume a lot of coffee. When they aren’t drinking coffee, DeSoto and Gage are stealing from the pot. Who makes the coffee and washes the cups with all those emergencies?
A lot of 1960s and 1970s TV shows featured actors wearing spectacularly bad wigs, and Emergency! is one of them. False hair abounds, and not only on men with little or no hair. It’s like all the time was devoted to makeup, and there wasn’t enough time to style hair properly.
In the pilot, a propeller severs a teenager’s arm. Our heroes, not yet paramedics because the paramedic program at that time is still one legislator’s dream, go to the scenes calculate the direction based on rotation, and find the missing arm, which remains out of our sight. You can only imagine how gruesome this work is without convenient camera angles and stage props to shield us.
In another incident, an epileptic boy climbs up very high expressway pillars and can’t get down. Cap and the paramedics ask the Rampart doctors if the stress of being up there and being rescued could trigger a grand mal seizure. The doctors have to look it up. I’m screaming, “OF COURSE IT COULD!” I don’t even play a doctor on TV.
The people DeSoto and Gage rescue and the doctors save (or not) bleed very little and have the courtesy to suffer burns on covered parts of the body. Not that there aren’t hints of worse. A worker, his leg firmly trapped, has to choose between being crushed by a building wall or having his leg amputated so he can be freed in time. (Spoiler: He chooses amputation, but just as our heroes are swallowing their hesitation and getting ready to carve, his leg is freed. Of course, the walls topples almost immediately.)
On occasion, the paramedics are called on to rescue animals. Fortunately for them, in one episode the missing Grover turns up in a pen along with other dogs displaced by a wildfire. In another, it’s animal control officers who search for a baby goat among the flames and smoke and Dr. Brackett who’s bullied by his team into operating on it and its heart issues, guided over the phone by a congenial veterinarian.
One of the show’s most impressive conflagrations occurs when a worker flips a lit cigarette into a Dumpster during a propane transfer at a massive research complex (think lots of chemicals). Explosion after explosion. My first thought was, shouldn’t smoking materials of any kind be prohibited in such an area? And why would a smoker choose to work day in and day out around propane?
I haven’t seen every episode, but perhaps my favorite among those I have seen is one in which a man manages to embed an unexploded grenade in his abdomen. This is one case where the ER doctors must make a house call. It appeals to me because the sometimes high-and-mighty Dr. Brackett gets a taste of the risks DeSoto and Gage and their peers face every day—sometimes several times a day. DeSoto and Gage become surgical nurses by necessity and earn Dr. Brackett’s praise and respect for their performance. I liked that. A lot.
Final words about Emergency!
It’s hard for me to say why I like Emergency! Part of it is the focus on medicine—I see health care as related to detective work. Sometimes the case is obvious. Sometimes you have to find more clues and put them together. I’m happy when I make the right diagnosis—Type 1 diabetes, tick bite, subdural hematoma—and when I learn about unfamiliar symptoms and conditions. When a Vietnam veteran uncharacteristically turns violent toward his wife, I don’t assume he suffers from PTSD—I wonder if he has a brain ailment (he does—a tumor).
While there are references to civilian life (DeSoto’s wife and children, Gage’s search for dates and the amateurish scheming he drags DeSoto into), there’s little emphasis on the personal. Early on, Dr. Brackett and Dixie are shown dating, but other than that we spend most of our time focused on the job—the mundane day-to-day life at the station of eating, gabbing, playing cards, and killing time punctuated at random intervals by emergency calls, and the ER at Rampart General (where they keep the coffee). We may not see our heroes at home, but we know enough about them to imagine what life is like outside the station and hospital.
Many episodes are not wrapped up neatly at the end. We see the paramedics work hard, but sometimes we don’t find out if the victims survive after they arrive at Rampart. There’s something satisfying about that—it’s more like life than TV.
Emergency! tackled some issues that weren’t talked about much at the time, including middle-class child abuse and attempted suicide by a child, with the abuser portrayed by an attractive, chain-smoking Mariette Hartley. Dr. Brackett is not distracted, however, in his quest to confront mom, enlighten dad, and end the abuse.
Throughout their successes and occasional failures, our heroes remain passionate about saving lives in the field when seconds count (see “ventricular fibrillation” above). Except for the occasional shenanigans (see “Gage” and “scheming” above), DeSoto and Gage remain regular, down-to-earth guys, frustrated more by their limitations than by the lack of accolades. They just do their job—and an interesting one it is to watch.
On Saturday, I witnessed a murder.
The Hemaris moths are gone (presumed dead), and all that seemed to be left are the skippers and an occasional monarch. On Saturday, though, a hungry painted lady appeared. I spent an hour or more trying to take photos of this favorite of mine, but I’ve noticed they tend to turn their wide rumps toward me. I try not to take this personally, nor the apparent glare of the skipper that landed on my finger as I raised the phone.
At some point after the painted lady landed on an upper branch, I noticed that it began to beat its wings furiously. I looked and could see only a bit of yellow-green against the purple flowers, but the painted lady seemed stuck. I broke the sprig off with the butterfly still attached. The poor thing went still, its poor legs curled up. I discovered the yellow-green thing had legs. I later decided it was a kind of well-named “ambush bug”—a formidable garden predator that doesn’t discriminate between pests and pollinators.
This was one of the few times I’ve interfered with nature—something I’d normally not do and would not recommend. I can only plead that I was distraught over being deprived of my colorful little friend. I was reminded that the butterfly bush, so full of life in August, when dozens of moths, butterflies, and bees flitted about, can also be full of death. I have complicated feelings about the murder (anthropomorphism) of my new painted lady friend, but I won’t go into them here.
Now, on this last full day of summer, the one creature I saw, a painted lady, flew off when I approached and didn’t return. Another plant down the path that was crawling with a variety of bees only a couple of weeks ago is nearly motionless, with only a few stragglers lethargically tapping into its flowers. There wasn’t even the chatter of birds to relieve the loneliness of the garden past its seasonal prime.
And so summer ends and autumn begins.
During the first half of August last year, I was thrilled to discover not only butterflies at Perennial Garden, but also the little fairy moths known as snowberry clearwings (Hemaris diffinis). I’d seen one of their cousins, the hummingbird clearwing (Hemaris thysbe) in Ann Arbor a few years ago, but never expected to see anything like them here.
I found that great, Eastern tiger, and black swallowtails; red-spotted purples; painted ladies; silver-spotted and fiery skippers; bees; clearwings; and even a hummingbird or two love a particular butterfly bush at the garden. This bush, which had been cut down to the ground after last summer, didn’t bloom fully until early to mid-August—I started checking as early as May! On my brief visits, I never saw clearwings, so I braced myself for disappointment.
I started seeing a few a couple of weeks ago Thursday. When I pedaled over the Saturday before last at 3 p.m., the bush was swarming with life. I noticed that among the snowberry clearwings a few hummingbird clearwings, with their fuzzy green upper backs, were making an appearance. I was in heaven. I love these guys—even after I noticed they were buzzing one another and throwing each other off choice branches of blossoms.
By Saturday there were fewer of the hummingbird moths under the increasingly cloudy skies. I was happy to have seen so many the day before.
I’d made one of the photos I’d taken the background image on my iPhone screen. I’ve changed phones since then, but I haven’t changed the image. I took a closer look at it—and realized that particular photo from last year is of a hummingbird moth (Hemaris thysbe). How did I never notice that? It had the species’ distinctive fuzzy green upper back and lacks the light band near the skirt. While bemoaning that I hadn’t seen any Hemaris thysbe at this butterfly bush, I’d been staring at a photo of one I’d taken a year ago. Brilliant.
Last Tuesday I left work early for a doctor’s appointment and managed to get to the garden by 5 p.m. I was happy to have this unexpected opportunity to visit my little fairy moths—especially since they live only a few weeks.
The bush wasn’t buzzing like it’d been on Saturday, and there weren’t any large butterflies around—but there were enough moths for me to get a few photos and videos, including one in slow motion. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that sooner, except I am still trying to get a sharp closeup photo.
While I was standing watching a handful of moths flitting around, I heard a “bzzzzzzzzt” behind my head. I turned to find myself face to face with a hummingbird, separated by only a foot and a half or two feet of space.
As I was trying to get myself together (“Where’s the phone? Where’s the camera app?”), she buzzed around me to take a couple of quick sips at the bush. I have only these mid-distance shots and a memory now.
Now there’s only about an hour between the time I get home, change, get my bike out, and ride over, and sunset. By that hour, the Hemaris moths are few if any. The other day I was watching a hummingbird clearwing when a snowberry clearwing attacked it and carried it away.
I wish I could tell them there are plenty of blossoms to go around for the little time they have left.
In the United States you don’t have to go far to see a sign. Signs are everywhere. We have directional signs. Commercial signs. Warning signs. Not permitted signs. Educational signs. Monument signs. Signs tacked onto other signs. Confusing signs. Signs meant to clarify other signs. We even have doors, walls, and sides of buildings transformed into signs. If Saturnian neighbors were to descend upon Earth, they might note that Americans seem to be as inordinately fond of signs as God is of beetles (J.B.S Haldane: “The Creator would appear as endowed with a passion for stars, on the one hand, and for beetles on the other . . .”).
When my aunt and I returned to Washington, D.C., from a pilgrimage to Monticello, Michie Tavern, and Ash Lawn in the early 1990s, she pointed out that the highway was unspoiled by billboards, per Virginia law. Drive through northwest Indiana on I-90 and as your eyes are assaulted by the bleakness of the ubiquitous power towers planted in the industrial landscape, they’ll find no relief in the onslaught of billboards—giant signs touting cheap fireworks (legal in Indiana but not neighboring Illinois), attorneys whose faces are blown up to epic proportions (Personal injury? Car accident? Custody issues? Mesothelioma?), “gentlemen’s clubs,” and other local businesses. (The biblical Daniel could have no idea how “Lion’s Den” would come to be used.)
All of these are in addition to the usual interstate signs—exits, speed limits, land endings and closings, construction (always construction), and other miscellaneous information a driver needs to know while navigating defensively among fellow drivers passing and weaving in and out of narrow lanes at 80 miles per hour.
Signs abound even in nature sanctuaries such as parks and wildlife areas. In addition to entrance monuments, maps, and trail signs, these may include rules, warnings, pleas not to feed the wildlife, and fishing and hunting restrictions. If you’re near a nuclear power plant, you’ll want to check out the signs telling you what to do if something goes terribly, terribly wrong. (Hint: Your burning flesh should tune into one of these radio stations.)
If you’re in the United States and you’re outside your home, chances are good you’re not too far from a sign. (It may be no more than the scrawled one taped to the office printer, “OUT OF ORDER. SERVICE CALLED.”)
Signs even lurk under your feet.
As we begin this journey at some point, remember:
During the summer, neighborhood residents can pay a fee to use the swimming pool at my apartment building. It’s a win-win, at least for those who can afford it. Families get access to an outdoor pool during the hot months. The building owners make a little extra money, or have more to pay for the pool’s upkeep. (Residents don’t pay extra.)
For the most part, the families are well-behaved. The children can be loud and rowdy, but that’s normal. I expect that.
Over the years, though, some families haven’t been so well-behaved. I noticed that when one woman with four boys arrived, they would take over the pool from west shallow end to east deep end, from north side to south side. Some of the other families, crowded out by five people, would collect their children and leave. It’s hard to have fun when you find yourself in the middle of someone else’s game (boys) or laps (woman). The woman, whose personality resembled Lucy van Pelt’s, never seemed to notice the disruption they brought. That obliviousness bothered me most. (To be fair, some families greeted her, so she was known in the neighborhood.)
Other parents bring younger children, then don’t supervise them. The area is full of hazards, including sprinklers that are easy for running kids to trip over, but they’re let loose anyway, come what may. Some run around screaming. A few who spot the local wildlife—often rabbits, sometimes baby rabbits—chase and terrorize it. My favorite was the trio who jumped up to grab the lowest branches of one of the struggling crab apples, then stripped all the leaves off. Bored with that, and with no parents in sight, they broke off the lower branches they could reach. I said something to them, but they stopped only a moment, then ignored me. (Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.) When I came out the next day, the devastation under the tree made it look like a major storm had blown through.
The other thing I notice is how much stuff people leave behind. Pool toys and noodles. Floats. Towels. Action figures. Bottles. Shoes and articles of clothing. Pool users leave something behind almost every day. When I was a kid millennia ago, my brother and I didn’t lose anything or leave it behind. We didn’t have much, and if you lost something you weren’t going to get a replacement or something else to console you.
This brings me to a different topic—the building’s bike room. For a long time it was full of bikes. I noticed many, probably most, of them had flat tires and other signs of neglect, like dust, cobwebs, and cocoons. Some remained untouched for years, presumably abandoned since tenant turnover rate is substantial. Except for the rust and grime of neglect, most appear to be in okay shape. That’s especially true of some of the abandoned children’s bikes. They’ve been there so long that the former owners must be in middle school (or higher) by now.
Every now and then management purges some bikes they can’t account for, but not all. Every time I see these still useful bikes hanging or lying there, getting dirtier and more banged up, I wonder if the former owners realized how many people would appreciate having one of those rusting conveyances. There’s even a bike shop in the area where teenage workers learn how to repair bikes while earning a refurbished bike for themselves. I’m floored by the waste, which was a luxury that only a few could indulge in not so many generations ago.
Bother the bunnies, trash the trees, waste what you have—there’s more where that came from.
Abandoned children’s bikes. Some still had some use left in them. Someone even left training wheels behind.
Abandoned by the pool. People leave stuff like this behind all the time. This disappeared after a week, probably picked up by the maintenance folks when they realized it wasn’t going to be claimed.
And, for good measure, three of the dozens of bikes abandoned on the University of Chicago campus. When I was a student, every day I wished for a bike. These folks? Apparently not.
These are a few of my favorite new things—rustic wood pencil holders from Got Wood? Workshop in Spring Hill, Kansas, via Etsy. You pick your wood. He makes the holder, sends you a photo for approval, and voilà—you’ve got mail. The one on your right, ordered first, is elm and sits in the living room. The one on your left is Osage orange and handles desk duty.
Check out Matt Plumlee’s bio and the Got Wood? Workshop logo.
(The flaming marshmallow ornament commemorates a 2016 stay in a forest preserve cabin, complete with two campfires and s’mores.)
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. New York, NY: HaperCollins Children’s Books. 2003. 176 pages. If there was one thing I loved about school, it was the Scholastic Book Club. I’m not exaggerating when I say getting the Scholastic catalog … Continue reading →
Thirty Indian Legends of Canada by Margaret Bemister. Illustrations by Douglas Tait. Vancouver, British Columbia: Douglas & McIntyre. 1997. 160 pages. In her preface to Thirty Indian Legends of Canada, dated September 15, 1912, from Winnipeg, Margaret Bemister notes that … Continue reading →