This started as a story I wrote for my son. I felt he needed to understand the importance of staying true to yourself. That people spend their whole lives wasting time on phony images. I also felt if he understood who I had become, he would understand we have all been in that awkward position at some point in our lives. Sometimes the things we try to live up to only bring failure. Sometimes, remarkably they bring success, but in the end I wanted him to know he will become a wonderful person by using all the tools he has been given by his mother and I. How he uses them will help him to define who he is and who he wants to become…
IT’S MORE THAN A SHIRT
It started when I was in high school. I came from a small rural community and at my high school wrestling, football and basketball were the followed sports of choice. I had friends that were on the wrestling team and during the school week they always wore their wrestling shirts or Letterman jackets. I would marvel at the way people treated them when we were out in public getting something to eat or just hanging out. (Joe citizen) So you’re on the wrestling team Huh? How’s the season going? (Followed up with) You boys need something to eat? And; don’t let us down at the next match ok! The questions and admiration from adults never ended. I used to think; if I could wear a team shirt or Letterman Jacket, people would respect me as well..
I went to all the wrestling matches and during one of those matches a friend of mine who wrestled varsity, asked me to hold his Letterman jacket. I ended up putting it on and instantly I could feel other kids and parents alike staring at me as I walked by! It was strange, like I had been instantly transformed into someone special. I could hear them talking in my head too. Saying things like; oh that poor boy must be injured, or look at all the markings on that jacket that kid must be some kind of athlete. As I strolled around the high school gym I also noticed something else. It didn’t feel right, it felt fake, a sham, this wasn’t my jacket, I hadn’t earned the right to wear it, and I was a complete fraud. The feeling I had that day stuck with me as I went into adult hood. I always remembered the feeling of shame whenever I had an opportunities to portray myself as something I wasn’t to gain acceptance and admiration.
There’s more to this than wearing the shirt.
As I became an adult, I applied and was accepted to a firefighter academy. After several long weeks of intense training, I had the opportunity to become a firefighter upon completion of the class. I succeeded and so started my probationary period with the department. One of the proudest moments of my life was finally being able to discard my red fire academy t- shirt for an official fire department t- shirt. I wore the navy blue t-shirt around with confidence and pride. I always felt when people looked at me they were thinking to themselves; “there goes a fireman “with a smile upon their faces. I had finally arrived. I was now wearing the equivalent of that Letterman jacket from so many years ago. The only difference was this fire department t-shirt was mine, I had earned it! All the long academy hours, training at night and in the rain, I had earned it! It was mine to wear when I wanted, where I wanted and everyone was going to see me as someone special! Just look at the large, block letters printed on the back “FIRE DEPARTMENT”. I mean that alone must mean I’m someone special!
The truth; I was still a fraud, still a poser, still a fake. You see it’s not the t-shirt or Letterman jacket you wear that makes you special. It’s what you do with the responsibility bestowed upon you the minute you wear that t-shirt. The Letterman jacket from so many years ago was earned with dedication, honor, integrity and sheer will. Matches were won and matches were lost, my friend had numerous injuries along with a few broken bones. There were skirmishes that went outside the ring and friendships inside the ring that were forged for life. He honored the sport by always giving one hundred percent and never letting himself come before his team. The reason people admired him and the others were because they knew or at least hoped they were upholding the honors and traditions of the great wrestlers who walked the matt before them. They did…
The fire service is no different. I thought I was on top of the world the day I donned a fresh new navy blue t-shirt emblazoned with our departments name upon the back. I felt I had arrived to a place of instant respect. Like so many other young misled lads and lasses I was wrong. You see my journey had only just begun. For the only thing I had truly earned that day was the right to purchase my uniform shirt. I was very quickly going to learn that being a fireman was much more than wearing a cool navy blue t-shirt.
Oh sure I had passed the academy, yes I had been assigned a shift, I now had a Captain an Engineer and a firefighter to work for and alongside. What I didn’t have, what I didn’t realize after all those years of watching others and thinking “I could do that”, was experience. I needed to put in the time. Time to prove that I really deserved to wear a department t-shirt, time to honor those that came before me with actions not words, time to show my crew and the department that I could give one hundred percent of myself and always put the team first. I needed to place my co-workers and my community first, ensuring that I would perform flawlessly each and every time an alarm went off. Earning my stripes meant, staying calm during emergencies and thinking clearly, it meant not getting angry as a citizen is yelling at you for taking too long to arrive on scene of their emergency. Keeping a straight face as a drunk driver tells you why he parked his car in the living room of someone else’s residence. Telling a patient its ok they vomited on you for the third time, then afterwards calmly letting them know it happens to you all the time. It means holding a little kid and comforting them while CPR is being performed on mommy. Telling that child it’s going to be ok, even though you know mommy is never coming home again. Picking up a homeless man and letting him know that you appreciate the warning he gave you in regards to him contracting AIDS. Knowing the law states he isn’t required to tell you a thing as he is bleeding all over you. Carefully picking up body parts off the freeway at 2 in the morning or unlocking a car on a 104 degree day with an infant in the backseat. It means coming to work even though you don’t feel good or you hurt because you know someone today is going to hurt much worse than you do now. Spending holidays and birthdays, family occasions and children’s sporting events away from your family. Sometimes 48 hours turns into 96 hours and there is nothing you can do about it. During the summer or “wildland’ season you may end up spending weeks in other parts of the state as part of the Office of Emergency Services response matrix. Its knowing and I mean knowing, that at any moment in time it could all be over! That we dont live forever and this job at times seems to take additional seconds away from that clock.
After 17 years there are things I have done and seen that are too unbelievable to even mention. Events more gruesome than any person should have to endure. Pictures lodged in your mind that sometimes rear their ugly head for no good reason at all. Yet there they are and before long you have transposed other people’s tragedies upon your own families’ day to day operations! I have had the misfortune of burying former colleagues, friends and family members. I have tried my hardest to pay homage to those that have come before me and instill the simple qualities of honor, dedication, and respect into the “new ones” that arrive every couple of years.
You can always spot the “new ones” too. I see them; they are in every city, in every firehouse, in every town across our nation. They have “the look” it gives them away every time. They stand tall and proud, their shirts are shiny and blue, they walk with a certain step that right away identifies them as a “young firefighter”, they’ll try telling you stories even though you haven’t asked. They end up walking away frustrated with you if you seem indifferent. They want your respect, they are yearning for your respect, and the problem is they have to work for that respect. They have a long way to go and many experiences to endure. Obtaining knowledge from actual hands on work in conjunction with countless hours of training, before they even get a hint that there’s more to being a firefighter than wearing the t-shirt.
When that happens, when they have reached the tipping point of knowledge and experience, something else happens. They calm down, their shirts aren’t quite so neatly pressed, they talk a little quieter, and they brag a little less, they understand the people they serve are not just faceless images erased with time. It’s then and only then they obtain a different demeanor. One of confidence mixed with a hint of exhaustion and humility. When they go home they will stare at their duty shirt as they put it in the wash with pride. And they will spend the rest of their careers trying to keep the “new ones” on track by passing down all the same lessons and wisdom they were exposed too. Then and only then the shirt wont define them and it won’t seem so important after all.
I still wear an occasional retired job shirt from time to time when I am off duty. Usually they have been relegated to “work shirt” status because they are too destroyed to be used on duty. But for the most part it’s only around my property. I hardly ever wear one into town. It’s not because I am embarrassed or ashamed of what I do, I love being a firefighter! Being a firefighter to this day is still hands down the greatest job in the world! I don’t wear them because I have finally earned the respect I was looking for, the funny thing is, the respect I was looking for didn’t come from co-workers or the citizens in our town. It didn’t come from family members who are always interested in my job when I see them, or even the wonderful and not so wonderful people I have helped over the years.
The respect came from me. I have respect for myself and for that there is no t-shirt.