Sirens in the Night

Through these doors pass away some of the nicest people in the world. 

There are voices in the siren. They drift back and forth from each other, an atonal choir trading off harmonies. There is the familiar droning voice that planes upward but at some imperceptible point sub­sides and starts over again, like a labora­tory wave that never crests. Then, over­laid on that, is a high pervasive wail that penetrates every hollow where sound can reach. Inside the ambulance there is an empty place, like the eye of a hurricane, where the sound does not penetrate. It is, in a sense, quiet there.

Captain D. E. Gunnels and I are casually swaying from our seatbelts, which are firmly anchored in the mod­ule section of an ambulance which at the moment has its siren turned up full blast. The module, a removable camper-like shell mounted on a one-ton Ford pickup chassis, is a treasure-trove of severe-looking gadgets, each severely in place: stretchers, respirators, spine boards, defibrillators, cabinets full of drugs and bandages, a bank of tele­phones and radios, and a very sophisti­cated machine about the size of a cheap fold-up stereo called (affectionately, since it saves 25 lives a month) a Tele-Care—a “complete heart-attack kit.”

Gunnels had been showing me around back at the fire station, explaining some of these gadgets, when a call came through for this very vehicle. So we fastened our seat belts and pulled out in mid-lecture.

Now, with the siren loose and the shadows jerking in through the windows every time we take a corner, Gunnels picks up where he left off, pointing out the components of the Tele-Care: os­cilloscope, EKG and blood-pressure measuring devices, oxygen masks, and devices for sending all this information instantly to the Ben Taub emergency room to be monitored and recorded.

Gunnels has the kind of tight-skinned good looks and wavy hair that seem at home in the comfortable-looking, well-tailored uniform of the Houston Fire Department. On his left sleeve is a patch with some quasi-medical symbol slither­ing over an outline of Texas that identi­fies him as an EMT, an Emergency Medical Technician.

The two men in the cab are also wear­ing that patch on their sleeves, though all I can see of them through the slit in the cab’s rear window are the backs of their heads, one blond and one dark, yinnish and yangish enough to bring to mind an observation of Faulkner’s I’ve recently happened across: “Apparently all the stretchers in the world must be propelled not by two physical bodies in accord but rather by two matched desires to be present and see what was going on.”

What is going on is this: the ambu­lance is very near now to the city jail where an inmate is reported sick. Gun­nels is still pointing out equipment as we pull up to the jail. The two men in front come out and reveal their faces, the blond one’s taut, the dark one’s a little slacker; both of them calm and pleasant.

Gunnels arranges me so that I am sandwiched behind the team and in front of him as we walk inside under the eyes of a series of especially beefy-looking guards. “He’s with us, he’s with us.” Gunnels smiles, sensing immediately what it takes me a moment to fix on: that it has been a long time since I’ve been clean-cut enough to be above sus­picion in a city jail.

“He does look like one of our custo­mers,” a heavily armed elevator operator says, with what I will write down here as joviality, though at the time there is not much humor in the air.

The stricken man is lying on the floor of a corrosion-tinted common cell, writhing in pain and surrounded by a semicircle of fellow inmates who stare at him listlessly.

A guard yells at them, shoves them back down a corridor to make room for the

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