By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The first all-black crew in the country, with members culled, street by street, from South-Central L.A., was called the Panthers (renamed Highlanders in ’98). There were confrontations between rival gang members at times, and Hall had to deal with them. During one three-man face-off, he pulled the whole crew off a fire.
“But, let me tell you, this program has gotten some really good folks. Not only from South-Central, but from other community-based programs in East L.A. There’s the Aztecs and, as of last year, the Fuego Rangers. And 95 percent of them are gang members. These programs are here to stay, and the one we have here on the Angeles is a model for the rest of the country.” Hall is smiling now. “Want to clean up your gang areas? Present them with another way of life.”
“I was pretty much the only Crip among the gangbanger trainees in my group.” Red’s memories of his early days with the Highlanders are vivid. “All the others was Bloods, mostly from the Jungle. There was some civilian trainees too.” He describes his two weeks of taking classes in basic firefighting standards and living at the training center in the San Fernando Valley for two weeks as “goin’ to college and stayin’ in a dorm.” But he admits to retaining “the neighborhood attitude, which meant I was on the lookout for any sign of disrespect, any stepping over that imaginary line. The only thing I got was courtesy and respect. That taught me a lot about people. And I’ll tell you something: Being on the fire line with Crips and Bloods, having your life in their hands, sleeping next to them on that fire line for 21 days — which is how long that first fire went on — sharing food, sharing cigarettes, sharing emotional thoughts and physical thoughts of fear together, that crew becomes your family outside your family.” I notice that when Red is speaking about the job, he speaks more precisely, dropping the elaborately casual diction of the gangs.
Hunger is hitting him hard. He pulls an MRE from his backpack and rips it open: spaghetti with tomato sauce. He wolfs it, and although it takes the edge off, he knows the 15 minutes allotted for a break won’t recharge him much. This fire’s still blooming, but at some point, he and the crew are going to have to “coyote out” — find a rock and use it as a pillow to snatch a few minutes of rest. He stretches wide and scratches at the insect bites on his chest and arms. Damn stump fuckers — come at you in swarms from under the tree bark, get you right through your clothes. He glances at his watch for the first time today: 2:15 a.m. They’ve been on the line for nearly 18 hours.
After that first fire, Red knew what he wanted to do with his life. “I learned something I never knew before: I saw that more than gangbangers, even more than police officers, everybody respects firefighters. And from then on, I made a commitment to myself that I would become the best firefighter they had ever seen.”
Two years and 25 fires later, Red was promoted to crew leader, in charge of 25 men and five women. His new responsibilities allowed him to make good on the promise that he would reach out to at-risk kids in South-Central. He instituted classes three days a week in St. Andrew’s Park, a broad sweep of carefully tended lawn and shade trees where family outings and children’s birthday parties coexist with gangbangers’ picnics. About 15 kids from the hood showed up for the first class. Red showed them how to fill out applications for the program, taught them the rudiments of firefighter requirements and delivered a heads-up for the program classes. He described the physical training they would have to undergo, and he told them how hard they would have to work. Most important, he suggested to them an alternative to life on the street.
One of the kids, David Hasting, was with the Eight-Tray Gangstas; they called him Tiny Squally. He was the nephew of Red’s old road dog and fellow enforcer, O.G. Squally. Red decided to give back some of the “Tray Love” that had gotten him through the hard times at CYA by mentoring Tiny Squally. He can still recall how much of himself he recognized in the young homeboy: “Mostly the determination that he was gonna get himself out the neighborhood.”
Hasting signed up as a trainee for Red’s crew on Highlanders, and he went at it with everything he had. Red remembers one training session vividly: “It was a Saturday and we was all on our way to Griffith Park. I had my crew there in the parking lot, getting set to begin a hike at 8 a.m. David was the only one wasn’t there yet, but we decided to cut him some slack. We had waited about 10 minutes when here he comes. I ask why he’s late, and he tells me he got pulled over by the cops and that his car was taken in on Los Feliz Boulevard at the bottom of the hill — maybe two miles down from where we was. He had ran up those two miles to meet us. Then he P.T.’d with us [did a Pack Test] for a three-mile hike carrying a 45-pound load of equipment.” Red considered Hasting’s behavior that day as the final proof of the kid’s determination to be part of the crew. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry about yo’ car. We gonna get you three or four cars.’ ”