Arthur Gasparrini, my old partner from over twenty years ago, passed away this week at the age of 80. I'd lost touch with many years ago, only occasionally hearing updates. About ten years ago, I'd heard he'd had a stroke and was living in Florida. The obituary said he was living in Indiana. He was a good partner and good man. I hope the final years of his life were good ones.
In 2000, Ballantine published my second book, Rescue 471: A Paramedic's Stories. Arthur was my partner then, and he pretty much the stole the show. All anyone who read my book wanted to know was how Arthur was doing and if I had any more stories about him. And of course, I did.
Below is an excerpt from the book, from an early chapter titled appropriately enough, Arthur.
Arthur is a nudist. "Show them your tan line," I say. He takes off his watch and reveals the white underneath that stands out against his deeply browned skin.
"I wouldn't kid you," I say. "There's the living proof. That's his only line. Tell them about it, Arthur."
Nurses don't know what to think, and they listen with interest and mild disbelief as Arthur talks about the campground where he and his wife go every weekend. He plays naked tennis and naked volleyball and drinks iced tea naked in the Bare Bottoms Bar. He says it is like skinny-dipping all the time. They have all ages, shapes, and sizes there. It is a wholesome family environment. Once when he and his wife invited me over for dinner, I saw on his refrigerator a Christmas card sent by a family he knows from the campground. The father, mother, and five children sit on a bench in descending order, bare backsides to the camera, heads turned, waving.
Before I worked with Arthur, I thought he was a nice, laid-back, type B personality, a friendly guy with a smile and warm words for everyone. He used to be Shawn Kinkade's partner, but he switched to me because I work a better schedule. Shawn works Monday through Wednesday six A.M. to six P.M. I work Tuesday through Thursday seven A.M. to seven P.M., which are the same days of the week Arthur's wife works as a hairdresser. By working with me, they get an extra day a week at the campground and he gets to sleep an hour later in the morning. When he became my partner, I joked with Shawn, handing him a Snickers bar in return for Arthur.
"He's a good partner," Shawn said as we shook on the deal. "A nice guy. Good luck." He smiled.
"Good luck?" I got a sudden queasy feeling.
I am glad to be working with Arthur. He is strong, knows the city, has a good work ethic, and likes to drive. It is the driving, however, that people have warned me about.
"He's a maniac," one says.
"After Glenn," I say, referring to my last partner, a young man who drove like a cowboy on a mustang chasing Indians, "he can't be too bad."
In the city, cars don't respect ambulances. They don't pull over. They either keep going or stop suddenly in the middle of the road. If they do pull over, they pull to the left, not the right, and usually the pullover is a sudden swerve in front of you. They don't know the traffic laws, play music too loud, talk on cellular phones, are more interested in people walking along the sidewalk than cars on the street, are zombies, think they own the road, or just don't care. And they get away with it. I have never seen a car pulled over and a driver lectured—much less ticketed—for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle. At worst, drivers get a frustrated EMT slamming the air horn at them and shaking a fist. Not only does bad driving delay our emergency response, it is a real safety threat.
Arthur, I learn on the very first day, can't stand for cars to disrespect our ambulance when we are running lights and sirens. He races up on traffic, blasting the air horn above the modulating double sirens. If the car ahead of us won't pull over, he swears and jams his finger down on the air horn button as if the sound itself will explode them off the road. When the car finally pulls over, he often slows, glares, and gestures at the driver. You idiot. Moron.
We're racing down Main Street. Arthur is right on the tail of a black sedan with tinted windows that won't pull over. He slams the horn.
"Arthur," I say.
The car doesn't yield.
"Arthur," I say.
He hits the air horn again, still close on the car's bumper.
"Arthur, our turn was back there."
I adopt the same policy I had with Glenn. I strap on my seat belt and pray we will make it to the scene alive. I say nothing about his driving. My bargain with the devil is I let my partners do most of the to-scene driving. Because I am six-eight, my legs are cramped in the driver's seat. I prefer the passenger side while we wait for a call. I fold my legs up and set them on the dashboard while I read. The passenger seat is also nice for arriving on an accident or other scene. I can jump right out and not have to worry about where to park. Also, the less I drive, the less likely I am to have an accident, which would threaten the $150 year-end bonus they give to those of us with perfect driving records, but I don't tell this to Arthur, nor will I give him a cut of my bonus. What I do tell him when we are en route to the hospital is to go on a three, no lights, no sirens. It is rare that I will ask for a two, lights and sirens, and extremely so that I ask for a one, lights and sirens in a serious hurry. I need to work in the back of the ambulance and I cannot work when I am being thrown all over and subjected to sudden stops and violent air horns. Unless the patient is gunshot or needs a surgeon immediately or has an injury or sickness I simply can't handle, the nonemergency mode works fine. It makes no sense to me to race lights and sirens to the ER, then wait in triage ten minutes or more for a room assignment, and then have the patient wait even longer in the room to be seen first by a nurse, then a doctor. Time to hospital does not equal time to treatment. If I can provide the treatment, I do it in my ambulance. The emergency is then usually over. No need to risk our lives rushing through traffic.
"Go on a three," I say.
Spending forty hours a week in an ambulance with the same person, month after month, year after year, is a lot like being married. Sometimes you get along great, other times you can't stand each other. You are fiercely loyal in the big picture, but you can often be a petty complainer about the small stuff to anyone who will listen.
There are some days I come home and I think I just can't deal with Arthur anymore. "He's a psychopath, a complete maniac," I'll say.
And I am sure he feels the same about me. I picture him at home, saying, "What an asshole my partner is. He doesn't respect me. Always yelling at me. He doesn't know how good he's got it."
It is true I yell at him when we do a hairy call, constantly telling him to do three things at once. "Get him on the monitor. I need that bag spiked. No, no, give me that thing. I need the thing. Now!"
"The thing, the thing, you know."
"Help me out."
"The thing you use to, you know, squeeze air, the … the …"
"Yeah, yeah, give it to me!"
Sometimes, probably not often enough, I go up to him afterward and say, "Arthur, I'm sorry. Like I told you when we started working together, if I am yelling at you, I am really yelling at myself, so don't take it personally. You did a great job on that call. You are a good partner."
"Thank you," he says, with a hint of understated righteousness.
I do work him hard and don't compliment him nearly as often as I should. I don't know why that is. Maybe it is because he is older, and I want to believe that I can still work at his age, that I will not complain about being tired, that I will be every bit as fit as the twenty-five-year-olds who make up the bulk of our company, that I will always be strong, a good worker. If I compliment him too much he may slow up, take it easier. I want us both to be supermen.
I know there are many things I do that irritate Arthur, particularly when I am tired from working overtime shifts. I know I should thank him more, but I find it difficult to do. What he hates most about me, I think, is when I am grumpy or don't talk to him. There are some mornings I just want to get on the road and be left alone. I don't want to hear about his weekend at the campground, whether or not he won his naked tennis match, or about the naked yard work he did on his trailer lot at the camp. Nothing against him—sometimes I just don't want to talk to anyone, I don't want to be there. The misanthrope that is close to my center becomes a big hairy ape that sits in the shotgun seat, swatting down all attempts at conversation and good humor.
I always come in early and check out my gear and the rig, so when he arrives on the dot of seven, we are ready to go. "Let me just check the oil," he says.
"But Arthur," I say, "they serviced the car last night. Let's get on the road."
"You can never be sure," he says.
If we're down a quart, I have to wait for him to go over to the garage, where he spends fifteen minutes talking about cars with the mechanics. Meanwhile, I'm impatient to get out on the road, worried I am going to miss saving a life or delivering a baby. Later when the company sends out a memo about crews being subject to suspension or firing if the oil runs out, as it has in two other rigs, I say nothing to Arthur, though I know if there were two of me in the crew we'd never check the oil, and probably end up blowing up the engine and getting fired.
I buy a paper every morning. He insists on paying for half of it, handing me a quarter. It takes me five minutes to read the paper. I just skim the headlines and the few articles that look interesting. It takes him all day to read the paper. And he is always reading the paper aloud to me when I am trying to read a book, and worse, he will read the paper in the form of a question that demands an answer. "So what, did they discover life on Mars they're saying here?"
"Yup," I'll say.
"Yes, they did."
"What was it, some kind of microscopic bacteria?"
"I don't know."
"It was. Microscopic bacteria. I'll be damned. Who would have thunk it?"
On Albany Avenue, as we race to an unknown, people hold their hands over their ears as we pass. Ahead, three large young men in baggy clothing saunter in front of the ambulance. Arthur slams the brakes and shouts "Get out of the road!" He shakes his fist.
They glare and make hand gestures at us, which I fear are gang signs for I'm going to put a cap in your ass.
"Arthur," I say, "you are going to get shot one of these days."
"They were on your side," he says.
"Oh, thanks," I say.
Arthur listens to the oldies station on the radio. I love all this music, but when you hear "Green-Eyed Lady," "Brandy," "Brown Sugar," and "In the Still of the Night," every day, twelve hours a day, three days a week, every month of every year, it all becomes elevator music. I complain, then he'll switch to a classic rock station, and then I get tired of "Layla" and "Sweet Home Alabama." Every now and then while he's inside writing his run form, I'll switch to rap or modern rock head-banging music, just to mess with him. Later he'll surreptitiously turn the volume down or change the channel. Sometimes when he gets out of the car, I'll do the same, turning the oldies music off or just putting the volume all the way down. An hour later he'll turn the radio on and inch the volume up, never saying anything about it having been turned off, turned down, or the station switched.
Every night at six-thirty, he calls up dispatch and asks if we can come in off the road. "My honey's cooking dinner tonight," he'll say. Every night his wife is cooking him something special for dinner. I want to do extra calls, I want the extra pay. But no. Six-thirty comes along, he calls up dispatch and asks if we can come in for the crew change because his honey is cooking him something special for dinner. And because he is nice, they most always let us come in, while they keep other "honeyless" crews out long past their crew change.
"You are robbing my retirement savings," I say as we head in. "When I am old and destitute, I will curse you. No six-packs of Ensure in my mini refrigerator. I'll have to recycle my Depends."
"Tough luck. My honey's got dinner on the stove."
Sometimes I don't mind going in. After a long day I'm beat and I can use the beer waiting for me at home. If I'm in a good mood I'll turn the volume up on the radio when we're heading in, and we'll sing along to the oldies. "Chantilly Lace." And a pretty face. Hot day. "Summer in the City."
For all his idiosyncrasies, Arthur is a very good partner. He is solid, reliable, strong. He never complains when I decide we need to carry a patient down a flight of stairs instead of making them walk. He does what I ask, even when I am shouting at him to do three things at once. And even though he is six-two, he always lets me take the back of the stretcher so I don't have to be bent over like Quasimodo, pulling the front. And for all our spats and silent feuding, we have a good time together.
I hate going into nursing homes, but with Arthur it can be fun. "Let's get the old folks stirred up," he says as we enter the front door. The old people are always lining the corridors in their wheelchairs. As we roll down the hall, Arthur has something to say to each of them.
"Hello, young lady!" he says to an old woman in a wheelchair, her head down.
She looks up, surprised, and breaks into a big smile. "Well, hello."
"What a lovely sweater you're wearing! I'd like to find one like that for my honey."
To a man wearing an army veteran's hat: "General!" He salutes. "Top of the morning to you. Everything shipshape?"
The man returns the salute. "That's right."
He continues this way down the hall. "What pretty white heads," he says to the assembled ladies in their wheelchairs. "It must be beauty parlor day." The smiles break out like falling dominoes as we pass
Ahead an old man in a wheelchair barrels out of a room, causing us to stop suddenly to avoid him. "Out of my way, out of my way," he grumbles at us as he motors past.
"That's going to be you in twenty years," I say.
"Maybe," Arthur says, "except I'll be naked."
Our patient is an old lady who fractured her hand in a fall. She is very anxious. "Don't worry, we won't drop you," he says, "not like that last lady."
"We never drop anyone on Wednesday."
"Whoops. I mean, we shouldn't be saying whoops, that's what we said the last time. A bad word in this business."
"You dropped someone?"
"Right on her head. I mean we're not supposed to be talking about it, advice of lawyers. But she's not feeling any pain, at least not anymore, poor dear."
By the time we leave, he has her laughing and comfortable, her mind at ease. As we head back down the corridor, the troops have their eyes raised, ready to converse as we wheel back past. Arthur smiles, laughs, and jokes with all of them.
Later in the day, we take a patient from Saint Francis Hospital back to a nursing home after a ten-day stay for congestive heart failure. He goes through the same routine with the residents in the hallway, making their day.
"A little encouragement means the world to these people," a nurse says to Arthur as we leave. "You can see it."
When we get back outside, he says, "If I ever end up in one of these places, put a bullet in my brain."
And here's a post called Old Partners I wrote in 2005 about working a shift with Arthur shortly before he left the Hartford Division, and Farewell Tour, about our last shirt together on his last day at work..
Rest in Peace, Arthur. Or better yet, if you have made it through the pearly gates, sign yourself up to be God's limo driver. I have heard Heaven is a very spacious place, and God sometimes needs helping getting around. He deserves the honor of riding next to you.