Silence interrupted by deafening sounds created within a brain refusing to disengage from endless chatter bleeding forth through a radio stationed not far from where my head lays motionless. A county never sleeps, fire departments responding here, rushing there, fellow brothers and sisters not even being afforded the very moment my stupid brain will not allow me to enjoy. Head filled with echo’s of each and every call they’re responding too, returning from or currently enveloped. Where is my family? Are they home yet? Which district boundary are they traveling through? Or have they nestled peacefully into bed? Whose family is wondering the very same thing without the same general knowledge my ears are so privy too at this very moment? It is my curse, my sleepless, frustrating, torturous curse.
Then it happens, as it has thousands of times during my 19 years of service, the warble tones scream, letting everyone know to cease radio traffic for another 911 call is being dispatched, you wait and wonder? Will it be our tones? Is it our turn? And then our tones ring, forceful and true, setting off a chain of events that could only be described as a technological ballet. A printer springs to life, chattering away, printing the story of our impending response; a light shines brightly inside each and every room of this glorified 6 car garage/hotel, awakening us, blinding us from darkness in conjunction with a horrifying bell whose sound is remnant of electricity coursing through your veins. Doors open, computer screens spring to life and it all crescendos with us, moving from the dead to the undead or in my case no man’s land, the neutral zone, or as some would say; a grey area of lifelessness. Yes we all begin to move, from those who actually are blessed with an ability to sleep at the drop of a hat to station zombies such as myself. We move, swagger, stagger, stumble and charge forth like an attack straight from “the living dead”.
Meet at the map board, wipe the sleep from your eyes, then identify a map page, cross street, address number, a house, business, parking lot, freeway, intersection, country residence. How do I get there, which way is fastest, what type of call is this? Is it a medical aid, structure fire, vegetation fire, vehicle accident, mutual aid, automatic aid, haz-mat, or a public assist? Is this another call we will see in our dreams for years to come, will we return home feeling accomplished as our training has once again paid forth with huge dividends or will we laugh at some absurdity only humanity or the human spirit can bring during a ride home?
Through the final door, at the rig, is everyone here, what gear are we donning, is everyone seated, are seatbelts in place, have I unplugged the shore lines, opened the bay doors, started the engine so Cap (the captain) can get on the radio? So many boxes to check off a list wedged inside my head.
Making a right turn onto the main thoroughfare, I grab a glimpse of the two seated directly behind Cap and I. They look like kids. It’s hard for me to believe this time has passed, I am no longer the fresh-faced lad; heart racing before each call, nervous to ask questions, pie eyed wondering what will await us upon arrival. They look so young, so damn young and yet even though I joke about my age on a regular basis (I am only 48), in reality I am not that old; I do not feel old in any way shape or form. Yet here we are inside this Engine, I seated in the engineers position and one of my closest friends now my boss seated to my right wearing the “red hat” or Captains helmet. WE are no longer the long-term future of this department, the up and comers buried in classes, spending thousands of hours and dollars obtaining every certification we can load into a leather binder for future uses. WE instead are now this department’s core, the steady, the constant, dare I say it? (Swallowing hard) The old guys…
In what feels like a millisecond I went from riding backwards to driving, from taking classes to teaching classes, from becoming an Engineer to an Acting Captain. Some days I am considered middle ground between Cap and crew other days I am the Captain with those around me looking for direction and advice. Are you kidding me? When did all this happen? What myriad of events led to someone handing me a red hat and saying today this crew is yours? What person ever thought of placing me behind the wheel of a 44,000 pound rig, then running it code three (lights and sirens) through the busy streets of town unabated? It is lunacy I tell you, pure lunacy!
I talk with college kids, fire academy kids, our new kids, probationary, first year and second year firefighters too. They all look so fresh-faced, innocent, not damaged by what is to come. They all retain the very same attitude we had, the same attitude those who came before us had, and the same attitude all that will ever pass through these hallowed halls after us will have. One of ignorant bravery, one of unabashed cockiness, an attitude that says I am here to help, to learn and nothing will ever hurt me. How little do they know, for no matter how much you inspire, mold, guide or lead “it” (that attitude) will be with them until one defining moment in time forces them into change.
It is the same for us “old guys” we see it in each other’s eyes, feel it through our words, and absorb it through a hug, a hand shake, a nod, a bad joke, a look. It comes with time on the job, experiences that for some may seem the same but in reality each and every experience in this line of work is dependent on the job. Each wrinkle upon our faces has been earned, each grey hair grown from the memory of something we’d rather forget. Eyes once steeled, are now softer, kinder a tad more gentle. We can’t talk about some portions of the job with anyone else but our peers. They are the only ones who understand and where a young one will sit and listen to tales with dreams of someday having stories of their own, us old guys hope they do create stories of their own, yet secretly hope in the same breath some of those stories never come true.
The young guys are loud and brash, quick to jump on a topic, any topic and beat it up with theory, formulas and standard operating procedures. Watching them from a distance I can only chuckle as they work out their problems and only through the rationale of an old guy are shown an easier, faster, less labor intensive way of completing the very same job. The young ones, smash and break things to reach their goal, the old ones walk gently, using a “try before they pry” philosophy. The young ones talk loudly, while drilling each other for knowledge, the old ones walk softly and speak only when needed. The young ones let everyone know when they are promoted things will change. The old ones let anyone who asks know; when they retire things will most certainly change.
The fire service is a young man’s game there is no doubt, but you need the wisdom of the old guys to not kill yourself participating in such a wonderful career. Creating memories of your own is important, good bad or otherwise but developing a bond with these people, this second family, well that’s what lasts a lifetime. I love these guys, would do anything for them, passing on that aspect of the fire service is every bit as important as how we do the job.
I don’t know where I am going with all this, it just seemed odd to me as another night passed, another round of service calls were answered and as I looked into the baby-faced gleaming eyes of those young firefighters surrounding me. That I in fact had transitioned from a young guy to one of the very guys we looked up to 20 years ago and now these kids are now looking up to me. WTF!
I hope, no I pray I can do a good job filling those boots.