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Booze for the Cause

I was sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cinnamon oatmeal. Nothing special, but that's what I was doing the morning of September 11, 2001.

That day of infamy is one of those indelible events. Like the Kennedy assassination, no one forgets what they were doing when they first heard about the attack on the World Trade Center or where they were when they saw the mayhem and tragedy unfolding. This year, I'll admit, it wasn't on my mind. Immature, maybe, but 9/11 was epic, scary, horrible, tragic stuff, and I try to push things like that out of my mind. You know, so I can sleep at night.

When a friend suggested I check out Briny Irish Pub's "Brotherhood Bash," a celebration dedicated to the lives of the firefighters who lost their lives on 9/11, I was hesitant. I'm kind of a wimp, OK? It's hard to remember details for a nightlife column when you're crying into your beer. After some gentle coaxing ("What kind of American are you?!"), I agreed to check it out. But first, I laid down the law: If I even felt my lip quivering for a second, I was out of there.

Ambiance: I expected the place to be dark and somber, but the atmosphere at Briny's (305 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale) was lively with celebration and remembrance. Off-duty firefighters threw back beers and slapped one another on the back. A TV screen at the front of the patio showed a patriotic image of the starred-and-striped 50 states with the title "We Will Never Forget."

Briny is part Irish drinking hole and part Pirates of the Caribbean theme ride. The inside of the building is dominated by a large rectangular bar that, at that moment, had a thick layer of physically imposing firefighters congregating around its edges. Seafaring paraphernalia — mounted bass and ships' steering wheels — decorate every wall. Through the sea of broad shoulders and dark T-shirts (most firefighters in attendance wore something that advertised their particular departments), I could make out the faint glow of an aquarium full of fish.

I grabbed a seat on the patio outside and took a look around. There was a canopy there of flags, ropes, shark statues, floating bobbers, rope ladders, upside-down canoes, and signs that said "Do Not Feed Birds." Bright lights placed sparsely throughout illuminated the odd combination of colors and shapes. A band — a long-haired hippie duo Donovan and Michaels — sang rousing renditions of classic songs (I ordered a drink to "Mustang Sally"). The pub is right on the sparkling riverfront, so I had to turn only slightly in my chair to watch the showoffy yachts drift by (and curse their conspicuously consuming owners with every bitter sip of my beer).

Bartender: Tabitha, our petite blond waitress, informed us that, due to the Brotherhood Bash, drafts, wells, and wines were only $2 apiece. We ordered two Bud Lights, which we got in big plastic cups. After noticing me eying the appetizer list, Tabitha said that if we could push through the crowd, we could help ourselves to a free buffet. Since it was located somewhere in the midst of a group of big, strong, intimidating individuals, I sent my companion in to procure the snacks. What are friends for, right?

Firefighters: After my buddy returned with a plate full of snacks, I popped a few roasted potatoes into my mouth, took a swig of beer, and decided to approach a female firefighter whom I mistook for Xena, the Warrior Princess. Barbara was tall and broad-shouldered, with long, dark hair. She wore a tight black top that, in glittering letters, indicated she was a firefighter from Dade County.

"So what's going on here tonight?" I asked, looking up at her. Yep, this Amazon would have no problem toting me out of a fire as if I were a Louis Vuitton handbag. Fires being one of the top 200 things I was afraid of as a child (I had some anxiety problems), I felt a little better knowing that Xena was on my side.

"The South Florida Fraternal Order of Leatherheads Society (F.O.O.L.S) — called that because firefighters used to wear leather helmets — organized this to celebrate the lives of the guys who died in 9/11," she said. "I was tired of watching 9/11 specials and crying all day, so I decided to come out to show support." Yeah, I had to avoid those. Considering the Disney channel could probably make me cry, anything 9/11-related would open the floodgate.

"What does something like this mean to you?" I asked.

"Those guys went out there and did what they had to do," she said. "And that's what we all would. You never know which calls are bullshit and which are going to be real."

"That's serious stuff to face every day," I said. My job's biggest trial is making sure the bourbon's not too strong to knock me out before I've properly scoped out the nightlife.

"We're on the front lines of anything like this that happens," Barbara said. "The bad guys are out there. But people seem to love their firefighters, and it helps us to know we've got support."

I left Barbara and made my way over to two firefighters, sipping beer on the patio and sharing a good laugh. Slim was indeed slender and wore a dark-blue shirt with "Rescue 1 FDNY" printed on the back. His buddy, Blue, had dark hair and, yeah, blue eyes.

"Are those your real names?" I asked, shooting a skeptical glance at them.

"Well, you get a code name when you join the force," Blue said. "Just ask our buddy Puddle Pirate." They indicated a tall, broad man whose back was to me.

"What do you have to do to end up with a name like that?" I asked. I had my fair share of nasty nicknames in middle school, just none that followed me out of adolescence. Not like a certain "Mustard Tits" I know.

"He's Coast Guard, but he doesn't spend any time on the open seas," Slim explained. "He hops from puddle to puddle."

"Fair enough," I said. "So tell me about this celebration. Booze and partying seem like a strange way to be remembering something tragic."

"Well, you tell firemen there's gonna be alcohol and you can get them anywhere," Slim said. We laughed, but then his face turned serious.

"I was on duty on September 11, when this was happening," he said. "I looked at the TV, and I thought, 'We're going to lose so many guys.' And we did. I knew the guys on the Rescue 1 unit who went in first."

My chatterbox rarely ceases to flow, but there's no easy comeback to a statement like that.

"We're having a good time, but you'll see tears during the toast," Slim said. "And you know what? If those guys we lost were here tonight, they'd tell you that they'd make those same sacrifices all over again."

The toast: Everyone in the bar raised a glass at 9:11:01. A firefighter on stage made the toast. He talked about the sacrifices of the 343 firefighters who had died that fateful morning in New York and of all the members of the firefighting brotherhood they've lost over the years — and how important it is to remember and honor these sacrifices.

"A saint is an ordinary person who does an extraordinary thing," he said in closing, asking us to toast to 343 saints. I drained half of my $2 beer, feeling something between a prickly sadness and melancholy inebriation. To my left, Barbara and a couple of men conducted a private, slightly glassy-eyed second toast — quietly drinking to a fallen comrade.

After a few minutes of thoughtful peace, the band resumed with a lively rendition of "Ain't That America." And I got to go home feeling like I was part of something really noble, really grand.

Let me tell you, cheap beer is nice, but nobility is nicer.

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Tara Nieuwesteeg