Tony Baker stowed his firefighting gear safely in his locker, hoping to store away his day as a rookie with the DeKalb County Fire Rescue Department. When he couldn’t quiet his thoughts, the then-28-year-old Gainesville native pulled out a simple black-and-white composition book and searched for a quiet place to be alone.
Ultimately, Baker ended up sitting in the fire truck or on his bunk, emptying his mind onto the white-lined paper in front of him.
“I wrote down the things I knew I would never forget,” the now-60-year-old retired firefighter said.
Baker wrote about the fires he fought, the accident scenes in which he helped extricate trapped motorists, the medical calls in which he performed CPR and countless other encounters he experienced on the job.
Baker put pen to paper for two reasons: To dump the day’s activities from his mind, leaving it at the station before heading home to his two small daughters; and to entrust a written account of his life in case he did not return home safely.
“I wrote it so my children would know who their daddy was,” he said, explaining every firefighter must deal with his own mortality.
Now, all of his journal notes have been turned into a memoir of his 21-year career as a firefighter.
“The Heart of a Firefighter” was published by Yawn’s Publishing in Canton. It is online at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. A book signing was Saturday at Yawn’s Publishing in downtown Canton.
BIRTH OF A DREAM
Baker said he knew he wanted to be a firefighter from the time he was 5 years old, recalling the first time he saw a fire engine.
“I was at a shoe store and was being fitted for corrective shoes,” said Baker, who was pigeon-toed. “I heard this racket and ran to the window. I saw these guys hanging off the sides of the truck.”
The image stuck with him.
“I was so excited,” he said. “I couldn’t stop talking about it for days.”
His father remembered his son’s enthusiasm. On his sixth birthday, he bought Baker a red fire engine pedal truck.
“I wanted to be a firefighter from that day on,” he said. “And that dream never died.”
However, it took Baker the better part of a decade to achieve his goal.
After graduating from Johnson High School in 1973 — the first graduating class of the brand-new facility in South Hall — Baker applied to the Gainesville Fire Department. At that time, few openings were available, and he did not receive entrance on his first try. His second, third and fourth attempts did not fare any better.
But Baker did not relinquish his desire to strap on firefighting gear and serve the people. He kept on applying not only to the Gainesville Fire Department but the Hall County Fire Department and the Hall County Sheriff’s Office.
“I wanted to be in public service,” he said, noting several of his uncles and grandfather served in the military.
In the meantime, the young adult continued working at a Gainesville mill, where he had gotten a job as a high schooler. Eventually, he got a job at TRW in Flowery Branch. He married and started a family, but continued submitting applications.
ATTAINMENT OF A GOAL
Finally, in 1983 Baker ran into a former co-worker and friend, who was working at the DeKalb County fire department. His friend told him to apply there, because the county was opening new stations.
He did and six weeks later, Baker received a letter to come in for an interview. It was the first of five.
Nearly 18 months afterward, he received another letter with the seal of the fire department that changed his life.
“I opened it right there at the mailbox,” Baker said. “It said ‘Congratulations. You have been accepted.”
The then-Oakwood resident could barely believe his eyes.
“I didn’t think I was going to be picked,” Baker said.
But out of the thousands of applicants, he was one of 55 accepted on May 20, 1985.
While Baker was determined to see his dream come to fruition, he credits his first wife for his success during the interview process and the academy.
“She was an integral part of me making it through,” he said, explaining she helped him study the firefighter’s manual and other areas. “She was good in math and I was not. If not for her efforts, it would have been a struggle.”
REALITY OF A FIREFIGHTER
Once he became a rookie or “probie” firefighter, he was stationed at old Station 4 in Chamblee. His first few calls were medical emergencies. But then the bell rang, alerting Baker and the firefighting crew of a blaze.
Once at the scene, the young man grabbed a hose and headed toward the fire. He spotted flames rising out of the house.
“I stood there for 15 seconds and I couldn’t take my eyes off it,” he said.
One of the senior officers broke Baker out of his revery. He said “Move rookie!”
Baker turned and replied, “It’s alive.”
That singular experience stuck with him. Baker then resolved to record his memorable encounters for his children and fellow firefighters.
“That’s where it all started,” he said. “And I wrote it all down.”
The catch was Baker never revealed his plan to anybody. In fact, he hid his journaling, keeping the composition book stored in his locker at the station.
“I didn’t want my kids to find it,” Baker said. “It was a private matter for me.”
During his first year, Baker wrote a couple times a month. After that, he jotted down his thoughts three to four times a year.
Each time Baker transferred to a new station, he took his book with him. Eventually, he filled three books during his career.
A WRITTEN ACCOUNT
In January 2006, the Baker decided to retire after 21 years at age 50.
“I wanted to live to enjoy my retirement,” he said. “I was so tired and we had all of these young guys running around. It was their time and their turn.”
Baker then headed to Florida for a business opportunity of a different kind. It was there where he got the idea to turn his journals into a book.
“I was at a friend’s cookout ... and he said ‘You need to write a book,’” Baker said.
He mulled over the idea and decided to do it.
“I thought it was time for people to know,” he said. “People can know what it takes to be one of us.”
His oldest daughter, Alyson Self, was surprised by her father’s decision.
“He is so busy I didn’t think he would have time to do it,” she said, adding her father is kind of particular about the books he reads.
But after reading his book in two days, Self said it was a very “honest” account of her father, his work and life.
“That is what we lived,” she said. “It may sound extraordinary to some people, but it was normal to us.”
READY FOR RELEASE
Her father’s memoir — in which names have been changed to protect people’s privacy — did not see the eyes of an editor or publisher for several years.
His editor turned out to be his third wife’s sister-in-law. Teresia Dunn Mayne, who refers to herself as a “super amateur” editor for the past 12 years, agreed to help.
“Tony has an incredible knack for anecdotes and poetry and telling short stories,” Mayne said. “I was highly honored to read his work.”
Once she read it, she said she was amazed about how much material he fit into the small book.
“He touches all of your emotions,” she said. “You are laughing and crying. He makes you feel that you are in the fireman’s suit. I could almost smell smoke.”
Mayne believed the book would help readers see fire in a different way.
Farris Yawn, who owns and operates Yawn’s Books and its publishing company in Canton, agreed. The small, independent publisher and bookstore owner thought Baker’s story detailed a different perspective than other books.
“It gives you a lot more insight into the life of a firefighter,” he said. “We thought that was a very good story.”
Therefore, Yawn set to publishing the book. He explained his publishing company works with authors on editing, formatting and laying out the novels as well as finalizing cover designs and handling the printing and distribution.
“The Heart of a Firefighter” debuted Nov. 30 and is available on Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and in Yawn’s Books.
When Baker’s daughter saw the printed version, she said she was proud of his accomplishment.
“It was something he wanted to do and he did it,” she said, noting the lesson will be passed down to her own three children. “He proved if you want to do something, you can sit down and accomplish it.”
And Baker does not intend to stop there.
The Roswell resident, who is employed with Fulton County Schools, is penning future books. But his first book will always remain special, especially since the final chapter is his opus.
“My journey is now complete,” it reads. “I can rest knowing I have left my legacy for my family.”
To Self, though, her father is much more than that.
“I think he needs to know he is a hero to his own kids and not just everybody else,” she said.