“Double Crossed by a Dummy” by Risa Nye

This story appears in the anthology “Not Your Mother’s Book…On Working for a Living.” 

The notice in the paper said, “Recruiting for the Albany/El Cerrito Fire Department.” There followed information about a series of qualifying physical tests to be given at a nearby school. The tests were, among other things, the dummy lift, the ladder climb and the hose pull.

Golden GateI asked myself, Why not try out? This was the mid-1970s and even in the enlightened San Francisco Bay area, there were no women firefighters anywhere. Perhaps I could be the first. I talked it over with my husband, and he agreed that it wouldn’t hurt to try out. To celebrate my decision, I lifted him off the ground in a firefighter-like bear hug. This was going to be fun.

While it didn’t occur to me to seriously train for this, I did try lifting friends and acquaintances . . . with their permission, of course. This was surprisingly easy to do, especially when the person being thrown over my shoulder was a good sport. I figured that the ladder-climbing test would be easy, so I didn’t practice that part at all. While I was in reasonably good shape at the time, I did no weight training, squats or stamina building, but I still believed I had the ability to pass at least the first hurdle, which was the dummy lift.

As the day of the test grew closer, I wondered what it would be like to be the only woman in a firehouse. Will I get a space to myself for changing into my firefighting attire? How will it be to spend all day with the guys? And most firemen I had seen were in great shape and not bad looking, either. Will my husband of just a year be jealous when I go off to work every day? Will our relationship survive this potential new living arrangement? He’d be home alone several nights a week, and I’d be surrounded by buff, hunky and probably single men. It was something to think about. I had some reservations, but I figured that there was no point in going over the pros and cons until I had passed the tests.

Finally, test day arrived. The air was cool and clear on a fog-free early spring morning. I took the bus to the test site, which had been prepared to allow for dummy lifting, ladder climbing and hose pulling. It was laid out like a series of track and field events, but in a large parking lot instead, with various stations set up here and there.

pansiesI looked around. There were no other women. The men waiting to try out gave each other sidelong glances and smirked as I signed up. I was not yet 25, stood about 5-feet 3-inches tall and was probably wearing earrings. Who wouldn’t have laughed at me? I looked them in the eyes and smiled, thinking there was a remote chance that I wouldn’t totally humiliate myself. And there was a moment when I could have feigned confusion—“Oh, this isn’t the garden show? My mistake!”—and could have made my exit right then, but I let it pass. I wanted to see, just see, if I could make it past the first test.

The way things were organized, each event was a direct elimination—if you failed the first test, you went home. End of story. If you successfully lifted the dummy and carried it the required distance in the time allotted, you moved on to the next test. So picking up that dummy was make or break for me. I felt ready. After all, at a recent party I had carried my sister’s 6-foot 4-inch boyfriend several feet across the patio in his backyard.

When they called my name, I stepped over to a sturdy cotton-covered dummy that was sprawled on the ground. He looked like a cousin to the dress dummies I used to drape fabric over in my junior high sewing class. This one did not have as nice a figure—it was devoid of any anatomically-correct features—but it looked like a member of the same family. I remembered how we used to try our A-line dresses with the Peter Pan collars on the class dummy to admire our work. Unlike the dress dummy, however, this one had a head, neck, legs and arms. These appendages would prove to be a critical and fateful difference. I glanced again at this figure that was waiting for me to approach, lift and carry it to the marker on the ground several yards away.

Each testing station had a fireman with a stopwatch, and three of us would lift in the same round. At the signal, we ran to our dummies and bent or squatted down to begin the lift. My dummy’s head and torso easily weighed half a ton and the weight distributed evenly, unlike a real human body. The head was as heavy as the upper body, each arm was full of lead and I could not get enough of a purchase on the dummy to get it to sit up, let alone to lift it off the ground. I moved around to the other side, but could not get a grip there, either. I bent over and tried to wrap my arms around the torso, but the uncooperative dummy did not respond.

By now, the other guys had flung their cotton-covered carcasses over their wide shoulders and were striding toward the finish line. My adrenaline pumped hard, and my body shook at each new attempt to pick up that lifeless hunk of dead weight. Ultimately, I ran out of time. Breathless and frustrated, I pulled away and stood up. I was devastated that I got knocked out of the competition on the first test, but there it was.

The man with the stopwatch mumbled something that sounded like, “Too bad,” but by then I was just ready to dust off my knees and head for the exit. I managed to get half a block away before hot tears began to fall.


Risa recently got to be a firefighter for a day, a dream come true!

Since I had arrived on the bus, I now needed to walk several blocks back to the bus stop. But a funny thing happened on my way there. I let my tears run their course, and then I thought about what had just occurred. I had failed in a monumental way in front of a group of men who knew I didn’t have a chance. I had gone into the test woefully unprepared, but buoyant with belief in myself. And now, defeated, I faced a long, lonesome bus ride home. Am I still the same person? Do I still have faith in myself? Could I maybe have picked something a little less public to try and to fail at? What is the lesson here?

I had a long time to think, and by the time I got home, I had figured out a few things. If I couldn’t be a firefighter, I still had plenty of options.

Overall, I had never been a big risk-taker. I usually did what was safe and expected. Whenever I began something new, I took baby steps. Except this one time, when I tried to lift the dummy and run with it—a task I was stupendously unequipped to do. But in fact, it felt quite liberating. I had taken a big chance and tried something different. I discovered that I was terrible at it, and I was OK with that. All I could think about was I could tell this story about myself for the rest of my life and people would always be amazed. “You did that?” they would say. “Wow.”

Work4Living450RGBRisa Nye is a native Californian. She co-edited Writin’ on Empty (available through Amazon and Kindle), and published an e-book: Zero to Sixty in One Year. She writes essays about creative nonfiction for Hippocampus Magazine. Her “Ms. Barstool” cocktail column appears online at http://www.Berkeleyside.com. Websites: http://www.EatDrinkFilms.com and www.RisaNye.com

Again, this story appears in “Not Your Mother’s Book…On Working for a Living.” The book is filled with 59 very funny stories by working stiff. Purchase this book today from your favorite retailer, Amazon (http://amzn.to/1yNYujU) or Barnes & Noble (http://bit.ly/1xXyrVR).

To submit your stories for consideration in future NYMB titles, go to http://www.PublishingSyndicate.com and click on the “Not Your Mother’s Book” tab.