I'm watching a 64-year-old man have a heart attack in Cully.

He's slumped in a chair, clutching his chest, struggling to breathe. "On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the worst pain ever, how badly does it hurt?" asks firefighter Chris Bernard.

"Ten, hUhHHHHhhhh," the man gasps, trying desperately to suck in oxygen from a mask freshly applied by Bernard.

I feel a little faint, and start to wonder whether I might also be experiencing chest pain. It's at this point I realize the truth: I could never be a firefighter, because I am terrified of death.

Earlier, all was roses. When I arrived at City of Portland Fire Station 28, at NE 56th and Sandy, I was treated to a Russian kettlebell workout courtesy of firefighter Brian Springberg. A former Army wrestler, Springberg lifts and runs around with the 40-pound weights daily. I could barely get mine above my shoulder, let alone run around with it, but I figured hey, that's what these firefighters' 24-hour shifts are for. Working out, right?

Or, perhaps, dinner. Bernard had cooked rib-eye steak with buttered corn and baked potatoes—for which he would not accept even the smallest donation—and I was eating better than I do at home. When station boss Lieutenant Don Howland introduced himself, I felt none of the "Hey, nancy boy" suspicion I normally feel from hard-working American fathers. He even asked me to pass the Heinz 57. How's that for camaraderie? I was practically one of the boys....

Then, Leo Call, a former pro golfer, gave me a swing lesson downstairs. "Bring a golf club," Call had told me before the ride-along. "I'll show you a thing or two." And he did: the "nine to three" drill, a way of swinging my seven iron between nine and three on the clock face, for more power and accuracy.

By now, I was sincerely contemplating joining the 1,800 people who test to be a firefighter when the department does its summer recruiting every two years or so. Of those 1,800, the bureau usually recruits around 100, and there's a grueling 10-month training to go through. But this gamble was starting to seem worthwhile.

Then the call came in. In 20 seconds we were all in the truck and rolling, with no time to think. Before long, the poor old guy having a heart attack was facing death right in front of me. I felt powerless and intrusive, standing there with my notepad while the firefighters snapped into action and had the man hooked up to an electrocardiogram in the back of an ambulance within minutes.

The contrast of this tight unit to the relaxed atmosphere at the station house could not have been starker. Sure, I enjoyed the steak and golf lessons, but I couldn't handle a heart attack—so how would I handle extricating bodies from a fatal car crash? Or worse?

On the way back to the station, we stopped in at the Villa de Clara Vista apartments on NE Killingsworth, where the previous week this crew had fought a two-alarm fire. In the process, Springberg and Call had both fallen through the floor, in their 100-pound suits. It was hard to visualize the burned-out apartments on fire, let alone being inside the building with a hose.

"I've seen some things on this job that make me wish I could bleach out the inside of my head," Springberg admits, when we get back to the station.