The Art of Doing

The Fireman: How Walter Henning Found His Road

Photography Josh Gosfield

“My first day on the job as an apprentice, making $7.25 an hour, an old guy Vito tells me, ‘Kid, get outta this business as soon as you can.’ He was right. I got into the electrician’s union straight out of high school. I was on a lot of bad jobs, outdoor jobs, high rises going up. Summers were hot, winters, brutal. Electrical work, that’s what my father did. I hated it. The thing is, I was a young parent, living in my grandparents’ basement and I had to support my family. And then the letter came. There it was on the kitchen table. I checked the mailbox everyday. It was 6 years to the day since I’d passed the physical endurance test for the fire department. I was ecstatic. Tears in my eyes. I was assigned to the North Bronx, Engine 63. When you’re a probie the guys try to break you, ‘Sweep, mop, wash the dishes.’ I’m like, ‘You kidding me? My previous job was so bad, this is nothing.’ I remember my first fire. A house in the Bronx. You gotta get close to the fire. It was so pitch black inside I couldn’t see the guy in front of me. He had the nozzle. I was 2nd guy on the line. The hose has tremendous back pressure. I was fighting it like crazy to let the nozzle guy do his job. After we put out the fire, I see the kids’ school pictures on the wall. Blackened with smoke. I still remember the girl’s face. It hit me, the destruction. Smoke destroys everything. The family was out in the street, devastated. I realized this isn’t some movie. This isn’t glory boy stuff. You’ve got a job to do. Protect people’s property. Protect their lives. Every other job people are saying no all the time. But as firemen, we never get to say ‘No.’ 26 years later I still love it. I’m 52. I’m going to transfer back to the neighborhood I grew up in, City Island. Full circle. My pregnant daughter lives a block away. One son’s in #FDNY too, the other’s about to start. My youngest daughter is a cosmetologist. It’s bittersweet. My career’s almost over, but this job saved my life.”

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