Keep the Smoke -- and Add Mirrors When he's not working 24-hour shifts at the firehouse, David Rudd turns to magic, performing for crowds at parties and clubs. Instead of air-tanks and hoses, his tools are playing cards.

Keep the Smoke -- and Add Mirrors

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Next, we have the latest installment of Take Two, our series on people re-inventing themselves through their work. NPR's Ketzel Levine profiles a firefighter who's pursuing a more magical career.

KETZEL LEVINE reporting:

Meet David Rudd--has game, will travel.

Mr. DAVID RUDD (Firefighter): My weapon of choice: a pack of playing cards.

LEVINE: He's lean, tall, fresh-faced and fireman friendly and he's come to entertain at a party.

Mr. RUDD: Hey, guys. I'm here to do the magic.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, good. I love that.

LEVINE: David Rudd fans out a pack of playing cards and asks one of the party guests to pick one. Just to be sure there's no confusion, he also asks the gentleman to sign it.

Mr. RUDD: I think you would now agree that if that card were to jump from this pack back into my pocket, that that would be literally impossible, right?

Unidentified Man: If I keep an eye on that deck.

Mr. RUDD: OK. Keep an eye.

LEVINE: Here comes the magic and the magician looks worried--a bead of sweat, a flicker of doubt. Then he reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out the card.

Mr. RUDD: Does it have your signature on it?

Unidentified Man: Aye-yi, yi, yi, yi.

LEVINE: David Rudd visibly glows with pleasure and with relief. The bead of sweat was no fake. Audiences still make him nervous, but the magic was never in doubt. The night's gig went so well he's still pretty pumped the next morning when he shows up for work, shoes buffed, badge sparkling, wearing fireman blue.

Mr. RUDD: This is Eastside Fire & Rescue, Station 71, and this is my fire engine.

LEVINE: Firefighter Rudd is one of a team of men at this station in Issaquah, Washington, just east of Seattle, though the only card-carrying magician. Magic and firefighting do have one thing in common. Both leave as little as possible to chance. He begins his 24-hour shift at the firehouse checking air tanks, hoses and supplies. It turns out he just short of backed into firefighting in his early 20s when he saw a fire department recruitment sign. David Rudd went to a fire academy, became an emergency medical technician and beat out thousands of applicants for a very choice job.

Mr. RUDD: That was one of the greatest days of my life, getting hired as a fireman. I was very proud. I was very happy. That was 10 years ago. So I still like this job. It's still a good job, and I love the guys I work with. But that creative outlet, it just wasn't there. I needed something else.

LEVINE: Magic caught him by surprise. It hadn't even been a childhood hobby, but David Rudd felt his world turned upside down when he saw a magician restore a torn playing card.

Mr. RUDD: I couldn't even describe the feelings I was having at the time.


Mr. RUDD: I was stunned. I mean, I was really stunned. I was thinking, `There's no way possible he just did that in front of me.' I loved it. I loved it. And I knew I wanted to show somebody that and have them feel the same way I did.

LEVINE: David Rudd also knew from his years at the firehouse that the best way to learn anything was from a mentor, so he found one. His magician of choice lived across the country in a city he'd never laid eyes on, New York, furthering his own journey into the unknown.

Did you have any skill at all when you started with him?

Mr. RUDD: I thought I did.

LEVINE: Did he?

Mr. JAMY IAN SWISS (Performer, Author, Teacher): I don't think he had a lot of technical skill. I think he had an intuitive interest in the material.

LEVINE: I asked performer, author and teacher Jamy Ian Swiss the million-dollar question: Would he advise his student, David Rudd, to leave firefighting and become a professional magician?

Mr. SWISS: Oh, boy. I mentor many different people in magic, and when they ask me about being a professional magician, I always tell them that in the end the only advice I can give them is, `Don't do it because you can. Don't do it because you like it. Only do this because you have to.' If David finds he has to make a complete commitment, he will.

Mr. RUDD: Until magic can pay the bills, it's going to--I can't leave, but the magic has really taken over my life.

LEVINE: David Rudd is an enviably young man making a very good salary, $69,000 a year. His wife is in banking. The couple have a one-year-old daughter. Their financial profile seems very secure. Now comes the magic. Pick an arbitrary turn in the road, perhaps a career change as a magician, and imagine the wonder of playing your cards just right and completely recreating yourself through your work.

Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

INSKEEP: You can find previous Take Two stories at This is Magic Edition(ph) from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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