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
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.
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
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.