The drive home just isn’t long enough.

In a row, our legs move fast, pushing, yearning and striving they sling  copious amounts of sweat. Some in unison, others to the beat of another distraction. All of us moving, dripping, staring, and for myself, wondering why.

It is a mental game working a machine to nowhere. The windows before us showering our sight with images of a life outside. Yet here we are, trapped in the concrete confines of metal, muscle and weights.

I am trying to keep in shape, it is important for not just my physical ability but my mental muscles as well. So much trapped upstairs, so many thoughts, painful thoughts that emerge then disappear.

One hour in the gym. One hour to myself. Ok really only to myself mentally as I am surrounded by others in search of their own mental nirvana as they too work through their own physical pain. Yet even though it is for my benefit, and even though I almost always feel better after, I wonder if it is enough.

Shaking off the urge to once again over think something I have made a very astute observation. Legs burning, climbing, pressing against an artificial resistance I cant help but notice the man next me has become, well lets just say a tad bit competitive. Yes, it seems that us men cannot help ourselves. Even though this man and I haven’t spoken nary a word, have made no eye contact or even signaled a nod or shoulder shrug it appears as though when I speed up, he speeds up. Curious.

I try a little teaser to fortify my observation. For fun I decide to alternate speeds. Moving from fast to slow within one minute intervals I am sure this will dispel what I believe to be a subconscious race. I am wrong, with each interval change my face forward, without so much as a glance my neighbor matches me step for step! I am trying my hardest not to chuckle as for fun, I turn it up a notch! Without fail he continues to matching me step for step! Like an old school drag race, or two kids racing without actually breaking stride to run it doesn’t matter what I do, my workout neighbor never misses a beat!

Just when things couldn’t get any weirder a new piece of meat jumps on the elliptical to my left!

Ha! Now I have one on either side!! There is no way they both will keep pace! Again I am wrong! Without fail both men instantly keep pace with what ever I throw at them! It is as if us men have a racing gene that we are born with! That one thing inside that says to us: Did that guy just call us chicken??? Oh I could so beat that loser! You’re going down!! Yep a real bonafide, inbred, racing gene, and us men have no control over it.

I step off the elliptical leaving my unintended racing partners behind. Smile on my face as I roll over to start some resistance training before hitting a few well needed free weights. Then just like that, as I sit on a bench, sweat pouring from my face I am back. Back into my reality. One filled with things I cant discuss, pressures I cannot relieve and images I cannot erase.

I have so much to say, but no one to listen. There are plenty who want to talk, or talk at me, but that’s not what I need. Recommendations for professional help are always the first thing offered, but the problem is, these people, these professionals, they may have education, but they haven’t lived my life, walked in my shoes, understood or even tried to accept the culture for which I thrive. You cannot help me if you don’t understand me, and you cannot understand me unless you’ve stood alongside me, in the shit or next to me as I m surrounded by my brothers and sisters as we joke and laugh about things you would never understand. I cant take it home, but I cant leave it here, it follows me everywhere.

I used to complain that I needed a longer ride home. Time to brush off a bad shift or horrific experience. Decompress, listen to good music or my favorite morning show. Just me, the truck, some distracting sounds and time to think, letting it all go before I walked in the door to a wife that hadn’t seen me in days.

I once had a semi-truck on the freeway lock up his tires because he came upon heavy smoke covering the roadway. We couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see us, the wind was blowing 60-65mph, the fire was vegetation and it was running hard. I’ll never forget that sound. I was on the pump panel, engaging two wildland lines so our guys could fight fire. The smoke shifted quickly and we screamed for everyone to get off the freeway as that sound got louder and closer. I could barley see the engine, and as I cleared the tailboard jumping down the embankment, that truck slid right on by! If I had still been standing at the pump panel well, either my life would have ended in a full bagpipe salute and some nice speeches or at the least I’d have been scared to death, left with some soiled undies.

Another time at a vehicle accident in the middle of the night, while walking towards our truck to retrieve extrication equipment, I stepped on a 50K line. Now the car had taken out several poles including a series of high voltage lines. We worked our way into the scene and as we did all lines on the ground were identified. So on the way back for more equipment I kept telling myself; self, look for the power lines. And look I did with the exception of one thing, I completely missed my line of travel. Stepping on that line was an awful moment filled with terror. I knew what it was the minute my boot made contact, and it took me a second to realize that if in fact it had still been charged I would already be long gone. Electricity through my foot and out through my head as I hit the ground. Charred deeper than a forgotten shrimp on the barbeque. But again, I was lucky, the line was dead and I was not.

There just isn’t a drive home long enough for that. There is no amount of time behind the wheel that erases those instances, and those were only two! There are ones I’ll never, and I mean ever talk about! Because if I did my family would never let me out the door to work again! Now on top of all that imagine adding death, destruction, despair and the simple added pressures of a regular life along with it. Kids, spouses, ex spouses, bills etc…

How do we turn all of that stress off before walking in the door to our families?

I don’t know, I wish I had the answer.

But what I do know is the guy across from me on the squat rack is a mean asshole when he’s drunk! It’s been a while so I don’t think he recognizes me which in a way is to bad. Maybe he’d apologize for the shitty things he said and did while we tried to help him. Or maybe he would cuss us out for ruining his evening. Oh well maybe Ill head back to the elliptical machines and find some others guys to subconsciously race taking my mind back off the darkness within.

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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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