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Back in the saddle: William Patrick.

Photo: John Whipple

Through the Eyes of Firefighters
By David King


William Patrick’s Saving Troy is a story about his city and about his guilt, but most of all it’s about his heroes

At a reading at UAlbany, author William Patrick approaches a shy young teen who has a book for him to sign. “Do you want to be a firefighter?” asks Patrick. The young man nods yes. “It’s a tough job,” replies Patrick as he walks over to his teleprompter.

Then he begins reading from his book Saving Troy, about his experiences riding around with Collar City firefighters, starting with the prologue in which an off-duty firefighter is stabbed at his second job at a liquor store. The prospective firefighter squirms in his seat, and his cheeks begin to turn red. Patrick then plays a scene from the DVD that accompanies the book, of a chaotic fire scene with firemen running back and forth in and out of the flames. Superimposed over that scene in a picture box is a group of firefighters carefully explaining to a group of schoolchildren how to react to a fire. The firefighters’ urgent but calm voices contrast with the chaos of the fire scene.

The prospective firefighter’s face flushes even brighter as he listens to a recording of a man reacting to the news that his brother has overdosed on heroin. “I’ll fucking get them. Don’t you worry. I’ll fucking make them pay. I told him not to do those nigger drugs,” screams the enraged man at his distraught mother and father.

Patrick looks around the room and says, “Well, maybe we better finish with something on a happier note.” He starts a slide show of photos he took during his time with the firefighters. Uplifting piano music fills the air as pictures of firemen at work and at rest are projected onto the wall. Slowly, the young autograph seeker seems to relax and the flush drains from his cheeks.

William Patrick’s new nonfiction book Saving Troy is the undistorted, gruesome truth of what it is like to be a firefighter in the 1st Platoon in Troy, as well as the history of the author’s struggle to come to terms with the lingering guilt of a childhood accident.

Over the course of the book, Patrick allows his personal feelings for his hometown to enhance both themes. “It can be a dark place sometimes,” says Patrick. “I thought it was a grimy, old, dirty city. It was something I just didn’t want to be a part of.”

Patrick grew up in Troy, a son of what he calls a “heavyweight Troy family.” (The family owned a prominent Troy car dealership.) He didn’t pine for his native city during his tenure in the creative writing department at Old Dominion College in Virginia or during the time he spent in Binghamton or Vermont. He was busy becoming a successful author and teacher.

However, after the creative writing department at Old Dominion was done away with in the early ’90s, an idea that had been floating in and out of his list of projects suddenly stood out. “I had thought about riding around with firefighters and I was friends with Steven Dworsky, the public safety commissioner at the time. So it was possible. I had an in.” Patrick says he also wanted to be closer to his parents, who were getting on in age.

In 1993, he decided to return to Troy. On his arrival in the place had scared and disgusted him as a child, he signed up to take a yearlong tour of parts of the city most people never see, parts most people would never want to see.

On his very first call, carrying a camera, notebooks and tape recorders, Patrick followed the firemen into a house where a man lay dead on the floor. “You’d go into a place and here is someone who is dead, and family members are crying, and if you’re not an emotional stone you get moved by that,” says Patrick. “I felt myself getting moved so much that I couldn’t do my job. I couldn’t observe properly because I was fighting to maintain composure.” After experiencing call after call, however, Patrick says he began to develop “emotional callouses.”Saving Troy is by no means an easy read. It ushers readers into broken-down apartment buildings where floors are covered with fast-food waste and diapers, houses where young children are burned alive, sidewalks where schizophrenic women rant and poor couples attack each other.

Patrick shows the reader the struggle of trying to save those who don’t want to be saved or those past saving. The book forces readers into a world most of us could not be paid enough to venture into and exalts the heroism and humanity of the men who sacrifice their time, their family lives and their lives to keep our communities safe.

Over and over in Saving Troy, Patrick describes calls where the firefighters he rode with had to show compassion in the most challenging situations, calls where obese women are stuck in toilets or drug addicts have overdosed. Patrick describes a call to a house where a man with lung cancer had coughed up a great deal of his lungs, painting himself and the couch he lay on a bright blood red. Faced with a patient they can’t save, the firefighters become distant, almost cold, as they speak to the sick man’s worried girlfriend. Later, they discuss the idea that there is a point after so much tragedy, after being needed to save so many people, where compassion can lapse, if only momentarily.

Patrick insists, however, that his time with Troy’s firefighters helped him find a new compassion for the “battered city” he once wanted nothing to do with. “It’s not that it got any less grimy or any less old, but I saw it from the inside out and I got this very grudging respect for the blue-collar nature of the town. It’s a very gritty town. I began to see how the character of Troy is so embodied in those firefighters, and I liked them so much I transferred my feelings of affection from them over to the city.”

Patrick’s time with Troy’s firefighters ended almost a decade ago. Since then he has written a screenplay and a radioplay that was aired on the BBC based on one call out of his overall experience. However, he found himself struggling to write the book he had in mind at the outset. “I originally was a main character in the story,” he says. His time with the 1st Platoon led him to face some more of his personal issues and while still putting together Saving Troy he wrote his memoir We Didn’t Come Here for This.

“I finally realized that it wasn’t about me; it was the firefighters. It was their story,” he insists. Still, he could not completely excise himself from the text. And in the book’s final chapter, Patrick reveals his motivations for spending his days and nights cataloging a never-ending cascade of rescues and tragedies. Only after all those stories of rescues, successful and failed, does he talk of the gruesome accident he witnessed years earlier on his father’s farm.

The accident occurred on Nov. 11, 1979. Patrick’s father had not taught him to properly work the tractor he and Warren, the farmhand, were using to pick rocks from a field. So, when Warren’s clothes became caught in the auger, Patrick watched helplessly as the man was ground up and spit out by the relentless gears of the machine. He was then forced to wait as the rural volunteer rescue squad bumbled its way through the rescue. He was left shouldering the guilt that he was unable to save Warren.

Patrick says he never really expected writing this book to offer any sort of redemption. “Redemption seems so spiritually advanced at this point that I don’t think I’m going to get there right now,” he explains. However, he notes that having to write about the issue and talk about it helps him get closer to resolution. “If I can resolve this issue right now, if I can feel OK about it and feel that I did what I could do. . . . I think that would go a long way toward healing the wound.”

In 1996, Patrick began actively looking for a publisher for the book, which he eventually published through his own company, Hudson Whitman Publishers (see page 25) after he was told by a number of editors, “We’ll take it if you set it in Chicago or Miami,” and “Who cares about Troy?”

What they missed, perhaps, was that the biggest character in Patrick’s book is the city itself. The Rust Belt, working-class city left sprawling down the hill till it touches the Hudson is what makes the job of these rescue workers so interesting.

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