So? You think you know.

A smile, a laugh, a hug and some jokes, you see me as I am and you think that you know. It’s the same old ground I’m always walking, with a head held high, false face, and fading reality.

You think you know.

This shadow of mine casts a dark reflection for which carries my soul. Walking side by side, flesh, muscle and stature tells you a tale, but my shadow harbors the truth. It’s darkness and rage, horror and fear, a shadowed jail that no one sees when peering at it’s presence upon the ground but me. Yeah I see it; you only see me.

I pray for cloudy days, for rain filled with pain, pressing so very hard upon my skin like needles tearing flesh from the bone. Helping, this searing sensation creates a neural overload strengthening my resolve when ever my shadow is gone. Building up future energy and tolerance for when the sun shines around me so I may survive it’s golden rays for just one more day. I have no place to hide.

You think you know

You think you know me when we meet, my smile and kind looking eyes but it’s all an act. My laughter and tears are played for an audience, I have become a master actor at life. Doing what I can to appease my shadow, to help hold these demons within. But much like an actor I must retire into solitude, and darkness, to a place inside my head where I can safely practice my lines. It’s a moody uncomfortable place where people can and do get hurt. But regardless it must be.

What you don’t know or will never understand is the sheer context of my life. I feel like a broken glass. Shards chipped, broken, then broken again. Placed carefully inside another glass for all to see.

You think you know

You mean well and want to help, but you have no way to reach inside this jar, pick a shard to begin putting me back together without hurting yourself, without bleeding and breaking just a little each time you try. Blood mixes with pain to become rain that falls back down on me. It hurts to much to try.

It’s all there for you to see. I’m all there, confined within the very transparency of glass for all to witness, not fix. Ultimately it is my gift to you. My way of helping you to never become broken, and for those already broken to understand it is ok to accept the truth and to be seen by those who care but don’t know.

So next time you see me, please don’t act like you know.

Because you can’t……

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Wins and losses = PTSD

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It is by the numbers they say, we live our lives in columns of wins and losses. Every day we, the human beings walking this gigantic greenhouse we call earth walk out the door and in the blink of an eye easily break down our existence to nothing more than wins and losses.

From the time we can understand the gibberish coming from our parent’s lips we are told to pick our battles, get along with others, speak only when spoken too, judge not lest ye be judged, and we can be anything we choose to become yet be prepared for the struggle that may lay ahead.

Every one of those tidbits of wisdom revolve around wins and losses.

It further convolutes our mental wellbeing as we grow older. For we no longer look to our parents for sage advice. These challenges be it work, relationships, sports, after hours activities, projects and dreams of our own that must be chased can all be boiled down to wins and losses! We take them on; lumps to the head, body and mind be dammed! We are adults now and can handle our own business.

We hear it all the time! WINNNING!!! Or man you are such a loser. An assumption made upon a moment, movement or emotional situation resulting in an action, deed or punishment.

Therefore our societal needs dictate we win! Nothing brings fame, fortune, happiness or simple satisfaction more than winning! When we are younger and we win at a team sport, that moment of exhilaration is breath taking, amazing, a real high produced by natural endorphins leaving us exhausted upon its retreat from our system.

But when we lose if we are truly driven individuals we strive harder for success, fighting, clawing, learning, adapting, becoming one who grows and develops into that winner or winning individual again. Why? Because we crave that sensation, we lust for that endorphin rush, we yearn to be someone or something special, not just in our own eyes or the eyes of the ones we love but in everyone’s eyes!

So no matter what we chose to do in life, thanks to the imprinting our parents and society have placed upon us (and this not a bad thing mind you, just stay with me) we are left with wins and losses, our whole life can be simplified into easily accessible columns of wins and losses.

It is what makes us as human beings strive for the very best. It is what I believe keeps us getting up every day and moving forward, no matter how difficult life can and does become.

I read a story the other day about a fire captain in southern California who took it upon himself while out driving to stop his vehicle upon a highway overpass, place the vehicle in park, walk to the security fence, scale that fence and jump to the freeway below. He met his untimely end at the front of a semi-truck. It should never have happened.

Last year according to the National Fire Protection Agency or NFPA 132 firefighters took their own lives in this great nation. One Hundred and Thirty Two firefighters woke up one morning and could no longer bear the thought of waking up another day.

We as a firefighting family are not doing a good enough job.

Those 132 human beings who sacrificed their lives for their community on a daily basis were let down by us their firefighting family. 132 lives taken, more than by injury or illness last year. Gone forever.

WE ARE LOSING

Firefighters take the wins and losses columns we are engrained with from childhood and we amplify them, placing them under a magnifying glass within our heads. Those win and loss columns mean more to us than our sports rec league basketball team, or our children’s baseball team. Winning at a football fantasy league or winning by finishing the build on your deck. Everything in life fits into these columns of success or failure and when it comes to our chosen profession they mean so much more because lives are attached within each column.

The way I see it we are failing to recognize that although we will never feel as though it is ok to lose, we do lose and we need to talk about it. We need to talk about those losses and how they affect us emotionally when we pull off the uniform. We need to quit treating these losses as if they are the elephant in the room everyone sees but no one wishes to speak about.

Imagine everyday going to work, trying hard and though you have minor wins here and there the losses over time begin to pile up. In the beginning of your career its ok, you rebound well and pretend to not keep track. But after several years those losses begin to wear you down and after a while you can no longer pretend they don’t exist. You stop waking up each morning thinking like a winner! You begin to dread that first cup of coffee where before you would grab it on the way out the door thinking today is the day for another win!

The wins are there, don’t get me wrong, but soon stopping the spread of fire through a structure quickly or rescuing a family from an overturned vehicle doesn’t equate to the loss of life you have been party too. You feel remorse for not having done the job better, or quicker because in the end people are still injured and some things just can’t be unseen! The feeling of success slowly becomes fewer and father between.

Someone once told me that each incident truly bothering me is like a rock, and I am coping by placing those rocks in an emotional back pack. The problem is no one has taught me how to unload the back pack, so I walk around with more weight than I can bear on a daily basis and someday it will be so heavy the thought of just giving up, no longer wishing to carry this backpack will enter my mind.

We wear the wins on the outside, we carry the losses in our backpack. We are no longer well balanced and what we carry around is just our work, let alone what we load onto ourselves from our personal home life. Like a rat in an unwinnable maze we become emotionally trapped.

The faces from our past begins haunting us, showing up at incidents, during our family time, holidays and worst of all in our sleep, our dreams. We transfer guilt and blame, death and loss onto those we love and we hate ourselves for every minute our psyche allows participation in this pointless mental interaction.

This Christmas when you are with family and friends look around, is there a firefighter, police officer or emergency medical worker with you? Talk with them, show them love, let them know how very grateful you are to have them in your life. They may not be reeling from stagnation within the wins and losses column, their back pack may not be full, but if they have been doing any of these glorious jobs for any amount of time they might not yet recognize its ramifications. They only need an ear, an ability to tell a story, and be allowed to feel everything is ok.

If one of these people you know shows any signs of depression, withdrawal or strange behavior, don’t be afraid to lend a hand. Don’t be afraid to tell them you love them and find the assistance they need. Be that pillar of strength they are looking for.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know this; on this Christmas Eve 2016 it is all I can think about. That somewhere out there a person such as myself is wondering if another is ok. If they need help, and is there anything that can be done to help them. We can’t keep losing, we can’t keep feeling as though we are losing and we can no longer turn a blind eye to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the emergency services field.

1 firefighter lost is one to many, 132 is simply unacceptable! I don’t have the numbers for Police or Emergency Services (ER rooms, Ambulances) but we are one large family. Let’s work hard to make 2017 the breakout year for PTSD acceptance. Build programs so our own can reach out to help our own who are struggling.

No firefighter should feel as though the only option they have is to scale a fence and jump. Leaving behind everything they ever loved, everything that fell into the win column on a daily basis.

Be thankful for what you have, for who you love and for who loves you in return. Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year..

Betty….

If you sense someone is in trouble:

Call 911

The National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255

Contact the 10-33 foundation for more information

www.1033foundation.org

Betty’s AKA:

Fire Engineer James Franceschi

22 years of service to the citizens of Dixon California

 

 

 

It’s time for all of us to start talking about P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

What is written below was born from a single sentence spoken to me one day after what was essentially a rough call. A group of us gathered with a well-known, well liked chaplain within our department to ensure no one either needed or didn’t need to discuss the day’s traumatic events. All was fine, we all spoke a little, shared our feelings the way we always do with a little sadness submerged inside of humor and yet; this one sentence has lingered in my head for months now, and like an aching back that needs to be stretched or an itch that you just can’t reach, I finally felt the overwhelming need to move or scratch, leading to this chaotic rant.

Driving to work at times is more difficult than you may think. I get up in the morning like everyone else does, make coffee and breakfast for my wife so she can take her medications. (My wife is suffering from GvHD or Graft vs Host Disease after a Bone Marrow Transplant) Without missing a beat my tired achy body rousts the rest of our clan from a good nights slumber. One heads out to feed animals, the other two work on breakfast, lunches and packing up homework. After a cup of coffee for myself, getting dressed and brushing teeth, I find myself making sure the entire snack drawer hasn’t been loaded into only one backpack while ensuring the teenage boy has gathered up his crap as well. I meet with the wife one last time, making sure she has taken her medications, she has enough food and supplies to last her until our oldest gets home from work and that she has a charged phone to call me in case of an emergency. Then we all hit the road, them to school and I am off to work.

We live out in the country and it is a ten mile drive to town. Some would say it’s far, I think it is just far enough. Some mornings I may point out the beauty in a sunrise, or a unique cloud formation during a storm coming over the mountain. Other mornings depending on the time of year it may be the Almond trees in blossom, Geese overhead (we live just west of the flyway) or the simple, still, eerie way fog lays upon the ground. But the reality is every turn, every stretch of roadway we travel, it is there; like a kick in the teeth or a punch to the stomach. It is always there reminding me of my life, the hidden lie we all live in regards to life and the fact that everything comes to an end in death.

I became a full-fledged probationary firefighter on June 7th, 1995. When we started we were young, brash and full of ourselves. We heard all the stories from the old timers and we couldn’t wait to step onto an engine. Through diligent hard work we successfully graduated our academy. We didn’t drop out when it got hard, we didn’t cringe or flounder through basic medical training, we thought we knew full well what we were getting into and we were damn proud to be doing it! Much like the majority of our academy class, all I ever wanted to do was help people. I have always known there was something more for me, and I still feel that way today.

When we started in station I followed the senior guys around. Dumb, ignorant with no experience what so ever, I made every effort to learn as much as I could! To listen and emulate those who paved this glorious road before me. I also went straight back to school, obtaining an E.M.T. or Emergency Medical Technician’s certification and started working on learning about the fire engineers job so I better understood what was happening at the other end of my hose line during a fire. I spent hundreds of hours soaking up firefighter skills and responsibilities, hoping to be good enough so one day the senior guys would trust me to carry out important tasks on any emergency scene. It was (the job) and still is, everything I hoped becoming a firefighter would be.

They (the old guys) really do try preparing you for every conceivable situation be it fire, vehicle accident, medical aid, haz-mat, flood, rescue etc… but there is one thing you can never be prepared for, one thing no one really wants to talk about, and that is the constant never ending death. It is not the fires, or the car accidents or even the medicals that wear down your body over time, it is the constant death that wears down your mind and even at times your resolve.

In their defense these seasoned veterans only knew from what had been passed down to them. They try, oh yes they try in their own weird humor filled way. A way we adopted as we got older, supposedly wiser with more runs under our belts. Our chief at the time warned us during our graduation ceremony with one sentence that went something like this; You can never prepare yourself for the things you will see.

How true he was, but as young kids we just laughed! You know that nervous, I am a tough bad ass laugh you usually hear right before the laughing idiot gets their teeth kicked in? Yeah that laugh. We were naïve, dumb and blinded to the realities of our world. Hell! We’d proclaim; we’ve seen death! We have watched enough horror films we knew exactly what death is, (insert chest thumping here) and yet we knew so very little. So shamefully little about death and our both personal and professional responsibility in regards to handling death.

Fast forward 21 years, back to that morning taking kids to school. Every turn on the roadway while talking to my kids a memory reminds me of an accident here, or a death over there. The father of three, ejected and if that wasn’t insult to injury enough the car rolled back over on top of him. The grandfather whose tractor flipped over on him out in that field over there and no one knew until later in the morning because well, grandpa is supposed to be out tractoring. The car that ran the stop sign at this intersection, running off the roadway and striking the culvert thus bursting into flames. Once we cross over the freeway into town, we pass a house where I held a child screaming and crying because no matter what we did, or how hard we tried his mommy died, right there in front of him.  I wonder where that now grown young man is today. That white house over there, we did compressions on a 24 year old drug overdose or two blocks over when the roommate came home to find his best friend had hung himself in the hallway. Drop the kids off at school and I drive by a house where we had the pleasure of searching and dragging the families’ dogs from a house fire. Those dogs were this couple’s world and although some would say they are just dogs, to some people those dogs may as well have been their children. We couldn’t save them, they sobbed on the front lawn as we carried out fire operations. Hey right here at the intersection where I sit at every morning is the site where we did CPR on an elderly man as his wife gently whimpered up against the wall. I can still see him lying there, I can still feel her grief. Those are just a few of the road signs as I call them that I look at every morning on the way into town. There are hundreds more, they are just not on this particular route. Oh well back to meeting with our well respected chaplain.

After every borderline call, or semi disturbing sounding response this one lone sentence, made in jest with no malice inferred what so ever kept nagging away at my inner self. This sentence came from a warm heart, a place of love and respect. And it’s because of this one lone sentence for which I have done nothing about that I feel I must honor its intent and finally respond.

The sentence you ask?

Our chaplain; “Don’t worry about Betty, if something is bothering him he will just write about it and we will read it the next day”

Simple, precise and so true. It is my way, my coping mechanism and beyond those who know me personally and those who follow my blog, a statement of fact. I have so many stories written, never to see the light of day. Locked away on my personal drive for only my eyes to re-read, re-live and suffer through quietly.

So with that being said; this one is for you Jim Wilson. Thank you for always being there for not only our department but our neighboring fire department as well. It is people such as you and your partners that make letting go of the evil demons we hold inside, the ones pulling back our tears, screaming in our heads to keep swallowing the pain just a little easier to handle.

I never realized how badly our job had begun to affect me. I become fairly used to the road signs around town and yes they were beginning to wear me down but it wasn’t until I realized I was terrified of my children going out to play, or my sons learning to drive that I knew I may have a problem. It wasn’t until I began having nightmares, losing sleep, or superimposing my children’s faces on those faces of death swirling around my head that I knew I may have a problem.It wasn’t until I noticed I had a migraine every day for two years and my body hurt all the time that I may have a problem. It wasn’t until I realized I was drinking every single night and even though my wife pointed this fact out to me, I brushed it off as; it’s just beer, it’s hot, we all drink beer, lots of beer, that I began to see I may have a real problem. It wasn’t until I found myself crying at stupid movies, commercials or spacing out, reliving some tragedy in my life be it personal or from the job that I knew I might have a problem. The rain, a wind, a smell, a moment in time surfacing from the unknown can bring about not happiness but disturbing morbid thoughts; yeah thats when I knew I may have a problem. It also wasn’t until my wife was diagnosed with Leukemia and the normally stoic, stiff upper lipped man I had become cried like a baby, uncontrollably, without any knowledge of the severity or options available that I knew I may have a problem.

So I started writing.

And I started talking, to anyone who would listen. I began by reaching out to friends in the business, and a few of my close personal friends. We (the fire service) have spent so many years suppressing these emotions, telling our young firefighters through actions or lack  thereof and not words that it’s NOT ok to feel. We seemingly must be strong all the time for if we fall apart we may become less then what we are and what we are is not heroic, or super hero like, which is what many would have you believe. No what we are is human. Death hurts, losing people hurts, seeing the worst in humanity hurts. Yes we are lucky enough to have those moments that are filled with elation. For four years in a row myself and three others were lucky enough to win the save a life award. The moments are there! But the gruesomeness of what one human can do to another or the after effects of sheer tragedy will always outweigh the good, because you can’t just erase those memories.

I like to tell stories (duh?)

When you see me I am more than happy to tell stories about our job. There is good, and there is just the plain old funny ass, you would never believe it if you hadn’t have lived it stories that go with our job! What good is having a long career if there wasn’t some wonderful memories mixed with humor? But no matter where I go, and as much as I love to share our experiences with anyone who is genuinely interested, there is one question you should never ask any of us. Ever. It is not fair, we know you don’t know why it isn’t fair. But it is not fair to us or the demons we hide deep down inside. So please be understanding and hear me out.

Please don’t ever ask this one question.

WHAT WAS MY WORST CALL EVER?

It happens all the time. We get off work and go home, we take time to assimilate back to a normal existence. Maybe that evening we get dressed up and take our spouses, significant others, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends of friends out for an evening of fun. We have a few drinks, the laughs are rolling, jokes are being told around the table through the sounds of others laughing and having a good time. And then it happens. Usually asked by a newcomer to the group or outsider as one of your inner circle would never cross such dreaded lines.

HEY MAN WHATS THE WORST CALL YOU HAVE EVER BEEN ON?

Or

HEY BRO SERIOUSLY WHAT’S THE MOST GRUESOME THING YOU HAVE EVER SEEN?

Followed by; C’mon tell me I can handle it!!

But here is the thing.

You can’t handle it, nor do I want you to handle it! I cannot even begin to tell you the worst things I have seen, or put into adequate words the most gruesome of images. They are forever trapped inside my head, seared into my brain and in what realm of reality do you even for a minute think you can handle what my hands have touched, the scenes my eyes have witnessed, the sounds that no matter the day or time inexplicably reverberate through my head like a sole hiker yelling across the Grand Canyon just to hear themselves over and over again. No these stories are not for you and pray, I mean get down on your knees and pray that you never, ever witness even a fraction of what I have witnessed in 21 years.

Oh I know, I have heard it all and it usually goes something like this; Hey man its cool I have seen the most gruesome movies of all, I watched SAW like ten times! Or my personal favorite; I have seen Faces of Death so it’s all right you can tell me. But see that’s where the problem really mucks it up, for it isn’t even whether or not you could handle hearing stories about the most gruesome thing I witnessed in my career, it’s about the fact that you want to know because in reality the way I see it, that one question you threw out with that little condescending smirk has in my eyes instantaneously become a dick measuring competition!

That’s right I said it’s a damn dick measuring competition! You don’t give a shit about what I have seen or the emotions that went along with that particular call! You don’t give two shits about the fact those calls haunt me and have changed my life forever, changed my family’s lives forever and changed the lives of those involved forever! You don’t give three shits’ about the nightmares, or night sweats, the fact I have held more dead and disfigured human beings in my career to date than any one person should ever need too!! And you know what? There are hundreds of thousands of firefighters out there in larger metropolitan areas and military personnel who have witnessed so many more than I! No what you give a shit about finding is your bravado, filling your ego by sitting there listening to some watered down version because I damn sure am not going to tell you the truth! You know why? BECAUSE YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!!

No sir this is all about you secretly fulfilling some need to walk away afterwards with shrugging eyebrows and rolling eyes like it was no big deal, followed with under the breath monotone grumblings like; shit that ain’t nothing, man what the hell, that didn’t sound bad at all or Heck I could do that stupid job, I don’t why they make a big deal about firefighters anyways!

Don’t think for one minute I don’t know! Don’t think for one minute I haven’t heard you as you walk away, or seen that smug ass look on your face which makes me want to grab you by the throat hoping you can visualize some of what you just heard simply by looking into my eyes, but in the end you can have that look, you can walk away thinking you can do our job better and someday hopefully you come to your senses finding the need to thank someone like me, or a police officer, highway patrol officer, game warden or every single person who has ever served in the military for ensuring every morning you get to wake up with a clear conscience. That right Mr. Dick never have you struggled through a sleepless night while subconsciously transferring all the absolutely disturbing things that can be done to a human onto the faces of your children! You may care for those around you and if you have kids may even be a great dad. But your kids don’t suffer from all of father’s freakish paranoia. Worrying endlessly every moment of the day, seeing nothing but disaster around every corner and not that Chicago Fire television bullshit either! Real disturbing, disgusting and disheartening disaster. Faces of those who haunt you.

You will never walk down a street and smell burning flesh not food as you pass by a BBQ joint, remembering the guy who intentionally wrecked his car into an overpass beam where it caught on fire and he burned to death. You’ve never had to pull a guy like that out with your crew, grimacing as he came apart one piece at a time like overdone chicken. Or cringe when you see the reflection of a burning fireplace in a window wondering if anyone is home because it looks like a room and contents fire just starting. You can drive through your town oblivious to a memory of a kid run over at one intersection or the family of four that died on the edge of a freeway off ramp! Cruising the very same freeway you don’t see the fuel truck that burned or the semi-truck that crossed four lanes killing two and permanently injuring several others. You most likely also don’t see the road sign that cut a car in half taking the life of the driver and you damn sure don’t pass over the spot in lane number two on a daily basis where I picked up a boy’s face, not his head, nor his skull because those were crushed and lying in the number three lane but his fucking face! Discarded like an old Halloween mask on the first of November!

But hey this is a cool game right? Questions are fun!!!

Never, please ever, ask any of us that one simple, self serving question.

Now in defense of these most dreaded of questions for which I am venting I will say this; I love my job, I have been privileged to participate in caring for the people of this special town. It has been my honor to hold a scared mothers hand, to speak gently to a dying grandfather, to hold and care for a woman beaten by the man who supposedly loves her most, to look into the eyes of a sick veteran and tell him not to worry it’s our turn to take care of him . My life has been blessed with assisting new life brought into this world, extricating people from cars that looked as though a bomb went off inside and then staying by a patient’s side until the ambulance takes them away. Working my way through a structure on fire while it gets hotter and hotter, not knowing for sure if we are going to be pulling someone out or finding the fire first then extinguishing it, because sometimes our job requires we do many things at once. My job has so many plusses that expose a person’s true love for another human being, any human being and even when that person is combative or dislikes us for whatever reason the very same love and compassion comes forth.

It all unfortunately comes at a cost. I have learned over time this career has taken away my ability to see life with a rainbows and unicorns attitude and that really sucks because I really like both RAINBOWS AND UNICORNS!!! The innocence of life long gone from our or my ability to cope.

To those who say; well you knew what you were getting into when you joined.

I say this; you are right, to an extent. Words are one thing, a preconceived notion is another but nothing can prepare you for the reality because no matter how prepared you think you are nothing and I mean nothing can prepare you for what you will actually see, touch, taste and hear. And we (the fire service) are just a small segment of those in public service suffering, struggling to make sense of it all. 

When I see an officer, I thank him, when I see a person in uniform no matter the military branch, I thank them. They are hurting, we are all hurting and we do so in silence. It is killing us. Quite literally and that is something to be so, so very ashamed of. We need to be better, not just for ourselves but for those who love us.

For years there was no one to talk too. If you sought help you are labeled weak, if you brood about it, the answer has always been; let’s have some drinks, you’ll feel better. Joking about it is standard fare and humor is a great thing, it really does help. But humor is a mask for the ugliness hidden beneath. At some point in time you must take the mask off. Are you ready for that? To be revealed?

Thanks to the recognition of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in not only our beloved military but our public servants as well, we have very skilled and wonderful people at our disposal, just waiting to help. These people are trained well but most of all they have been there, right where we are now. Unable to process, lacking the skill necessary to cope with both severe stressors and simple everyday life. We need to open the dialogue, to speak up and begin to heal our insides. For if our insides are dying our outsides are already gone.

From a simple sentence, came all of this, Thank you Jim.

If you know someone who needs help, please, say something, do something, they need you and just don’t know how to tell you, to share, to release their inner pain. We hold it all inside so you don’t have to see it. It is time to stop that trend. We can all share some of the burden through talking, love and understanding.

If you feel as though you have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) please reach out.

  1. Or Call: 911
  2. The National Suicide prevention line 1-800-273-8255
  3. Go to the nearest Emergency room
  4. Contact your local church
  5. Check with your employer for assistance

It is time we moved out of the shadows and into the light.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fire Service saved my life/The Fire service is slowly killing me….

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The Fire service saved my life.

The Fire service is slowly killing me…

When becoming a firefighter in 1995 it was clear to me this choice would forever change the course of my life. No longer would my family wonder when daddy would be home, no longer would stressing about paychecks, health care, retirement, and the ability to actually take a vacation fall upon my shoulders with such weight. There would always be adventure, excitement and the repeated knowledge of a job well done for me to submerge my inner ego or satisfy the adrenaline junkie long hidden deep inside.

Constant education, growth (both inner and professionally) a career tailor made for a lost soul looking for something, anything to help define who he is, what he is, while allowing his search to encompass a life with honesty and compassion. Two emotions he knew he possessed but could never quite get to emerge.

You have not truly lived until deaths hand has been held. I know that sounds hard and cruel but looking into deaths seething eyes while your team members rip away a life chosen, robbing deaths intentions, handing life back to the living, one cannot help but leave feeling a tad bit invincible. This euphoric high comes from helping someone on the “verge” and it must be ten times more potent than any other drug. There are different levels of euphoria achieved through a job well done. Whether it be a successful extrication, saving a life, any life from fire or re-starting a heart then witnessing a human being trying their hardest to breathe again; to feel the warm soft touch of an elderly persons hand in thanks for helping them back into bed after spending an unwanted night on the floor, or calming a new mother who has called 911 for nothing more than cough, or sniffle. Changing a smoke alarm battery at 2 in the morning because the occupants are scared there may be a fire somewhere in the residence, or simply smiling and waving to a kid on the street as their eyes light up watching us drive by. This job has saved me, it took a man filled with pride, and no idea how to harness an energy created by his abrasive personality and shaped me into what those who love me, hoped I would or could always become. Yes this job saved me, from no one person or anything other than myself.

This job is also killing me…

Every day I hurt, something hurts, my back, my neck, my shoulder and some days my heart. I carry with me the pain of every person I have ever comforted or held, I remember locations in town by the severity or need. I have a job that is very emotional and yet we can show no emotion while on scene, many times stepping outside for just a moment to swallow hard, retain that granite exterior the public expects, then walk back inside to do your best. I know I have spoken of this in the past and it’s no different for any other person who works hard every day, struggles with life’s ups and downs, but it seems that writing it out always makes me feel a little better. This job, this blessed job, with the ability to touch so many lives, garner respect that you often wonder is really deserved, this job is slowly killing me. I stay in shape, both physically and mentally. It is a requirement if you chose this career path. To believe it is not is pure naivety usually held by the young and brash. This entire writing came about due to a realization two days ago while driving home that in fact some days are better than others and some days it just isn’t my fault for the way I feel.

In the fire service we work very hard at creating awareness. Awareness of our surroundings, including people, places, weather, traffic, building size etc… Basically we teach what is known as ‘size up” from the moment we leave the station on a response we are constantly sizing up the situation. So imagine everyday you are at work the captain is preaching size-up, analyze the call, the updates, the appearance once on scene, your immediate surroundings. Now being a good new guy you start sizing up everything throughout your day because well practice makes perfect. Yes? So at lunch you size up the structure, pretend it’s on fire, what is the occupancy load, what time of day is it, who is or is not inside? Now since it’s my fantasy fire there is flames ripping from the A/B side of the structure and in my little fantasy world I need to determine manpower, resources, plan of attack, do we go offensive or defensive? Should I up this alarm or can we handle this fire at the current alarm status? What are my needs and the needs of my men and am I able to adequately relay those needs?

Do you get the picture? Day in and day out we do this as good firefighters sharpening our skills, keeping us ready for any contingency, setting ourselves up for the next promotion. To ultimately become the very best we can be. Then over time practice slowly becomes filled with little doses of reality.

A few days ago while driving home gazing into a perfect beautiful blue sky, a light wind is blowing, temps in the mid 60’s, tail of a slow moving front pushing through (see still sizing up) off in the distance there is a plane banking off to the left or southwest. It looks so serene pressed against such a glorious sky. A sigh of contentment as I stare at this military giant cruising through the sky. Then it happens, all my eyes see is a plane, wing separated, spiraling into the ground with smoke billowing from its fuselage. Explosion, location, the farmland and house it has leveled, people inside the plane screaming as gravity takes hold. A shake of the head, the plane is still aloft, safe as it has been a thousand times before. It is the epitome of size up combined with real life past experiences. Because during this planes imaginary corkscrew into the ground my brain instantly went from size-up mode to reality. Visualizing one of the many plane crashes I have responded to including one where I witnessed the plane fold up and plummet straight to earth! So in my brain the process continues, what would I see, what resources would I need etc..

I feel at times as though I can’t do a thing or listen to any conversation, idea or verbally expressed thought without instantly ruining it with my engrained fear. Every car crash, house fire, CPR that was unsuccessful, suicide, fall victim, shooting victim and person assaulted or raped have all left an indelible mark upon my heart, mind and soul. It has created a better firefighter, it has created a person who can share their experiences freely, openly with others in our ranks, but it has taken a toll.

My children can’t do anything without me overanalyzing, my poor wife, no matter what fantastic idea she comes up with gets shot down immediately because in seconds I see the tragedy associated with whatever her plan held if something were to go horribly wrong. Odds are something will never happen, but for me the responses are always the same and hurtful. My parents are aging and somedays I wonder if their passing will affect me? Not that I won’t be sad, but am I so callous towards the face of death that I fear I will be the one comforting others instead of allowing others to comfort me?

Driving my family anywhere is reserved solely for me; the fear of relinquishing the steering wheel is too great. While driving down the road my mind visualizes every guardrail, ditch, narrow road, blind intersection, car alongside and where we would go in a collision. It is hell, a 2-3 hour family trip feels like an eternity in my mind.

Over the years there have been many coping processes but in the end just being quiet although irritating to those who care about me, has been the best. Writing about my experiences has helped immensely as has drinking copious amounts of alcohol. (Just kidding, couldn’t write this whole piece without one smart ass comment) Humor has saved me as well, although some of my humor is not fit for the public as we need to laugh at times at the public’s expense. It is not as though we are heartless, but there are things we see as funny and if we can’t laugh at them or our own stupid responses then this job would quickly become unbearable.

The good runs, lives saved, houses saved, humans touched by our service definitely keep things in perspective. I am surrounded by a loving and incredibly forgiving family and a choice group of friends who understand to the very core what we go through. People who I can speak openly with about the real horrors of this job. It is by far still the greatest job in the world, the fire service did truly save my life and I am forever grateful for all it has afforded me. A great career, bountiful memories, wonderful friendships and a feeling of success. But I would love just once, one single solitary moment where I don’t look at something fun and see only the tragedy.

That is how the fire service is slowly killing me..

When did I become the “old guy”

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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…

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My graduating academy class 1995

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!

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I hope, no I pray I can do a good job filling those boots.

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Can you? Could you?

 

Today, if you will indulge me; I feel as though I need to take a little break from writing about the trials and tribulations that befall a family of six living on a farm.

There have been no postings from me for a few days now because; well to be honest I have been in a bit of a funk.  Then last night it hit me, after a long conversation with a dear friend, my brain flooded into neural overload and like riding a DeLorean back through time, images once again began to appear. I don’t like it when they arrive as they do so without cause or care, but it was at that moment I realized it was time to write about them.

These images are like none anyone would ever want to see.  They haunt me from time to time and ruin just about every moment of my life in some strange way or another.  They come and go as they choose, sometimes in the middle of the day, other times late at night.  When I am asleep they wreak havoc upon my subconscious awakening me to sweat, cold and fear.  Some nights they are so real I have to walk our house, stepping into every room while telling myself; “it is just a dream.”  There are other times when nighttime dreams become so bizarre it seems they should be uses as the basis for writing a novel. As though notes should be created, characters molded and then reap the rewards of a story well crafted.  But even as bizarre as they can become I am still able to recognize the truth within their core.

As many of you who follow my blog know I am a firefighter.  As a firefighter there are certain things we just don’t talk about amongst ourselves or our family.  Or when we do we try our best to find the humor in a sad or sick situation.  Laughter has always been the best medicine and if we can find just one thing humorous about any incident we then take a moment to laugh at ourselves eventually feeling better about the outcome. We (firefighters) also refuse to discuss these “things” outside of our close-knit circles. Leaving the general public in the blind, it is done out of fear for the reaction it may evoke. But truth be told we are our own worst enemies, therefore I am about to break that rule and hopefully you will understand why in the end.

Death, dismemberment, murder, burned and injured people, the stupidity of human nature, sickness, physical abuse (spousal, child, partner etc), drug dependency, alcoholism, and the myriad of sick and twisted things human beings can do to each other and themselves. Not just once in a while, not just what is perceived as truth in the news, but on a daily basis.

We see it all, and no matter how much we try, what we see never goes away and there is nothing anyone can do about that.  Oh sure we have Critical Stress Debriefings (CSD) to help us deal with our emotions.  Everyone sits through them and nods their heads like sheep (me included), each one stating we are “OK”. We have councilors at our disposal, both through our agencies and as part of our health care package, and they do a fine job of once again helping you to understand the basis for your concern, the pattern behind your thoughts and a mental picture of how to evaluate then project the positive image you desire hoping to remedy a current mental hindrance.  But the fact still remains the same. These “things” we see never go away, burned in our skulls for eternity.

When starting in the fire service 18 years ago us probationary firefighters lined up for a presentation from our Chief.  He proceeded to tell us there were incidents we would never forget and mental pictures that would stay with us for life.  Our job was not for the weak of heart and over the length of our careers would weigh on us heavily.  As young cocky cadets we laughed that nervous laugh that so many young people do when puffing out their chests to show manly superiority.  Then afterwards we all joked around with comments like; “that will never happen to me” and “what kind of wuss would ever be sickened by blood and guts”.  Then off we went into our careers to face the unknown secretly praying we WOULD see it all! Just to prove him wrong.

And over the years I have seen plenty and it hasn’t been pretty.

Now I am not complaining by any means! I LOVE my job! It really does define who I am as a person. This career has become everything I ever dreamed it would be and there a thousands of people we have helped during the very worst day of their lives. But over the last couple of years with all the budget constraints, people losing their jobs, and money becoming tight, we (firefighters) have consistently come under attack from the general public, politicians and just about anyone who has an axe to grind. I don’t mind, what I have done, what my fellow brothers and sisters have done over the years far outweighs any mealy mouthing some politician can do. But when its the public, the very people we care about, or when its people you actually know who live within your response area and have protected for many years with pride. Well I don’t care who you are it just hurts. 

So let me move forward by saying, this job has never, ever been about money, (although I found it interesting today that a sheet rockers income per hour is double mine)it has never been about the reported “days off” even though we work almost double the reported “easy 10 day schedule” we supposedly keep.  This job has never been about the retirement. Although, never will I cower and lower my head as so many do when the topic of our supposed “Golden ticket” retirement comes up.  Like we as firefighters should be ashamed of the retirement system we fought so hard for and “hold onto your hats people”; paid for out of our own pockets! Not 100% funded by the people’s money as continually reported by those willing to throw our futures away! Yes we can retire at 50! So what! Statistics show time and again the majority of us will be dead from carcinogenic cancers, blood borne pathogens, and heart attacks within 10 years of retirement! And the majority of us won’t get the luxury of retiring at 50 anyways! It’s just an option there for the lucky few who have 30 years in by 50!  The vast majority of us will work until we are 60-65!

But even after all that, even after we have been bashed for being recliner sitting, engine polishing, self-proclaimed heroes who live off the tax payers dime! I wonder if any of them understand the little mental gift we have all been given from minutes, hours, days and years of seeing the things we see? Is there a dollar amount for that? Is there? Then I wonder while their mouths are engaged and their self-absorbed brains are frozen could they do it? I don’t mean the job, but live through the after effects? Could you? Can you? Seriously, I am not trying to be malicious or indignant or even belittling, but could you?

Can you stand in your driveway watching your son drive away knowing the number one cause of teen deaths their first year behind the wheel is vehicle accidents? Then have your mind flooded with horrible images from every accident involving teenagers you have responded to over the last 18 years resulting in death, dismemberment and sorrow, transposing your sons face upon those that perished and their ghastly outcome!  Can you sleep when he isn’t home yet? Will you stay calm when you can’t get a hold of him on his cell phone, while more images pound at your brain? Could you?

Can you board a plane without starting to sweat and sit quietly during engine throttle up without a care in the world while secretly you are observing every exit, profiling people’s personalities so you will know if this plane goes down who you will have to be very direct too while helping get survivors off the plane.  Or are you able to make the flight without multiple panic attacks about it plummeting into the ground killing all aboard.  Can you sit there and not picture a fire churning its way down the center aisle, burning people while you stay low, trying to figure out how to help? Can you?

Can you hold an infant enjoying its very innocence without wondering when it will die? Seeing in its eyes the very infant you tried to save gasp its last breath of air, taking it off its dead mothers chest. Holding it, trying not to cry because you know the end is near for this precious being.  Handing the infant off to a transporting agency after doing all you can then shrugging off a feeling of helplessness and proceeding to the next victim during triage and perform your job flawlessly? Could you, would you?

Can you crawl through blazing hot temperatures in 50 pounds of gear without being able to see your hand in front of your face?  Feeling your way through a burning home, counting your time inside, monitoring how far you have gone, trusting your training and your partners skills. Hopefully finding the seat of the fire rapidly, stopping the beast from growing.  You sweat, curse and pray, sometimes it’s so hot it drives you to the floor, on your belly, but you are close so you press on. Then when it’s over you sit looking at the degraded building and its cheaply made materials that fail in half the time from a mere 20 years ago and picture the roof collapsing on you and your crew.  The Chief coming to your house, sitting your wife down and patting her hand while she cries because you are gone. Your children are fatherless, your wife is a widow and you are no more.  Can you think about that? Can you?

Can you watch your family time and again go on trips without you because you don’t work an 8-5, Mon-Fri schedule? As they turn out the driveway you are reminding them to please call if there is any trouble, to call when they arrive, to call whenever they go somewhere, anywhere.  Why? It’s not because you don’t trust them it’s because where ever they go you need to know if trouble lurks around the corner. You hate feeling this way but you do! Whether hiking, bike rides horse back or even plays dates in the park. The moment they are gone, can you let them go without seeing disaster strike at every turn? Can you?

Can you ever go to a barbecue and not smell burned flesh? Can you?

Can you perform CPR in front of an entire family sometimes successfully, sometimes to no avail and not feel moved by the crying, children sobbing, wives praying, husbands asking why, while holding the newest member of the family? Can you sit with a husband who just lost his wife of 45 years and hold his hand? Tell him you are so sorry while only having an inkling of the pain he is about to go through all while knowing it wont be too much longer now until you respond to him passing away as well? Can you hold a daughter whose mother just died in front of her from a diabetic reaction. Can you do that until the father gets home then go through it all over again? Can you turn and tell a family grandpa has gone and how sorry you are but there was nothing you could do to save him? Can you?

Can you give medical treatment to an abuser without prejudice? Could you?

Can you look a little girl, dying of cancer in the eyes time and again telling her it’s going to be ok? She knows you are lying, you know you are lying, but strangely it makes you both feel a little better. Then watch over time as she fades away, eventually succumbing to her disease and feel some remorse, somehow attached or remotely responsible? Can you do it?

Can you pull up to a random medical aid just in time to watch a man pull a hand gun out and shoot himself in the head? Then rush to his side without worrying if he is still alive and may shoot you! Then calmly do your best and try to save his life?

Can you bury a friend and honestly say he is in a better place when all your training couldn’t save his life and you know the suffering he went through before perishing?

Can you drive down the freeway without wondering what car is going to crash, what bridge is going to collapse, what semi truck is going to jackknife. Whose car is going to survive the crash, how many people are going to die? Where are you going to swerve to avoid the problem? Do you do this?

Can you lay your head down at night and not fear the sleep that comes?

Our job is one we love; we do it because believe in the power of helping those who cannot help themselves! We are a myriad of Type A personalities, we are born to be helpers, genetically it is who we are. Yes we knew what we were getting into.  But what we didn’t know or possibly could have fathomed was the lifelong effects it would have on us, our marriages, our children and our ability to look at the world through innocent eyes.  Something every one of you possess whether you realize it or not. Something (my innocence) I would give anything to have back.  But in the long run I can’t have it back! I gave it away when I took my oath and there is no getting it back.

The other night I received an honorary coin during our annual awards night dinner for saving a life.  I have been a part of a crew who has saved a life (on record) every year since 2007.  Does that one coin make up for the countless others lost? Are we supposed to live by the mantra “people die every day what are you going to do”? I just don’t know anymore.

People tout us as heroes. We aren’t, we are like any other trained profession looking to use the skills we have acquired. Everyone needs a hero and I am ok with the title if it eases someones mind, but when I think of true heroes I think of our military! Men and women who wake up everyday, put on their boots and stand up for our country at all costs. Some people bag on our job, put us down, disrespecting our failures and our accomplishments. Yes everyone does have the right to their opinion it is a cornerstone to our countries foundation.  But before they run their mouths giving a public perception that is both false and unjust, I wish once they could see life through my eyes or the eyes of the millions of brothers and sisters walking this earth everyday feeling the very same way I do, carrying the same burden, shouldering the same load and doing it with a smile on their faces.

Could they carry this burden? Even for a little while would be nice.  Can you? Could you? Would you?

Thanks everyone for letting me vent. I am no greater than the person beside me, God created me that way for a reason. Maybe someday I will be by your side as well, giving you comfort and helping you in a time of need.

To those who walked this path before me I have and always will be in awe of the leather boots I fill… 

“I have no ambition in this world but one, and that is to be a fireman. The position may, in the eyes of some, appear to be a lowly one; but we who know the work which the fireman has to do believe that his is a noble calling. Our proudest moment is to save lives. Under the impulse of such thoughts, the nobility of the occupation thrills us and stimulates us to deeds of daring, even of supreme sacrifice.”

Chief Edward F Croker FDNY (1899-1911)

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FTM*PTB* EGH* RFB

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Its more than a shirt..

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…

So here it is…..

 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.