Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Please Don’t Forget Them

I have been away from the blogging and self-promoting scene to handle mistakes made as a rookie indie writer and to get married.  I’ve been working very hard behind the scenes trying to prep for my “triumphant return” to the writing scene.  I had a blog post semi-plotted in my head and was ready to start working on that this week with my new “writer’s office hours” schedule I’m implementing. 

Instead, I find myself troubled by events far from home.  Nineteen firefighters were killed battling a wildfire in Arizona.  I struggled with posting something about the good work and sacrifice performed by first responders all around the country during the horrible week of the Boston Marathon Bombing and explosion in West, Texas. 

I wanted to talk about firefighters, police officers and EMS providers.  I wanted to take the time to honor those who’ve so publicly and, in recent weeks, all too tragically, served their community.  I wanted to, but I didn’t.

Many of you reading this post know that I am a firefighter by trade.  So, I’ve begged off, as a conflict-of-interest, any attempt to put into words what it means to serve.  Furthermore, I have trouble writing a post about the real sacrifice of those who’ve fallen in a blog created as a tool for self-promotion.

But, I have a chance to give these people a voice to the precious few who read this blog, and I feel obligated to take a moment to honor them for what they’ve done and why they do it, so here goes:

It has been said that a person who loves his job, doesn’t work a day in his life. It is a very select few who can say that they get more satisfaction from the work, itself, than the paycheck received for doing it.  Thousands of rescue workers can be found among the ranks of these lucky few.

I assure you that no matter the pay scale or the compensation offered, the overwhelming majority of those who wake up every day to protect and serve do it for so much more than the couple of hundred or thousand dollars they bring home in their paycheck. Who grows up wanting to be a cop or firefighter for the money?

How many kids have you heard say: “I want to me a firefighter so I can have good healthcare benefits, stable job and a good retirement” or “I can’t wait to be a cop, so I can make lots of money”? Who does that?  The fact is, no one does. 

They do it because the work is exciting, challenging and rewarding unto itself.  They do it because they want to make a real difference, because they want more out of life than a paycheck.  They do it so they can point to a life of service and say, “I did that”.

It’s a good thing, too.  Communities could never pay these men and women their true worth. How much would it take to get you to crawl into an environment so dangerous and toxic that a simple equipment failure could be fatal?  What would be your price to kneel in some dying stranger’s living room, trying to cheat Death with the patient’s family looking on and pleading for you to save him? What’s a fair rate to walk up to a suspicious stranger in a dark alley with nothing but a vest, a badge and your street sense to protect you?

Yes, there is a price for leading this fulfilling life. It is an unforgiving and often cruel mistress.  Just look at the headlines from Boston, Houston, West, and, now from Yarnell Hill, Arizona.  Not many can say they go to a job where even a colossal mistake will lead to anything more severe than termination.

But “we lucky band of brothers” know that in the chaotic environment of America’s streets, the slightest mistake can prove to be the one that kills you.  Working a motor vehicle accident?  You’d better watch that traffic.  Pulling someone over?  Is this car stolen?  Do the occupants have weapons? If you get into a tussle with the driver, is the passenger going to jump on your back? Crawling into a burning building?  Don’t let go of that wall, that hose, or, most of all, your partner, or you may never find your way out.

Worst of all, you can do it just as you’re supposed to do it—and get killed anyway.  It’s part of the deal.  So are PTSD, a skyrocketing divorce rate, and heart and respiratory disease. 

Cancer is not recognized in my state as a “presumed illness” but how can you crawl into rooms filled with cyanides and carcinogens for thirty years and expect anything different?  Ask your average firefighter how many days it takes to wash the odor of smoke from his skin and hair, or how long after a working fire can he still smell the smoke in the cab of his fire truck.

Sleepless nights, missed meals and behavior disorders are also the price of a career of service.  There will be times you work so hard you’ll want to (or will) vomit.  You’ll see horrific scenes that you’ll still be able to recall with perfect clarity decades later.  You’ll come home so tired from a night of back-to-back calls that you can barely sit up.

Sometimes you’ll go straight to the second job that supplements your modest income. Other times you’ll be expected go from a scene of unmitigated horror to Family Guy in the course of an hour. Only a special few will truly understand you and almost all of them will wear the uniform.

Which brings me to the last part of this fulfilling life: every time you get up and go, it’s to work with the greatest bunch of guys and gals in the world.  These are brothers and sisters who’ve shared your pain and joy, people who know what it’s like to place the comfort and safety of those you’ve sworn to protect above your own.

These are people who have been and will be there for you when it matters most: marriage, births, divorce, illness and death.  They’re extended family who will be there for your family at home when you can’t.

Whether it’s climbing into a fire truck, a police car or an ambulance, there’s no job like it.  And I like to think that those who lay down their lives doing this great job have lived richer, fuller lives for it.  I like to think they knew what they were doing when they woke up for work that fateful morning: living The Dream and loving The Job.  I hope they were as excited to go to work that day as they were their very first day.  And, I hope they enjoyed every moment in between.