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Monday, July 12, 2010

Faded Glory: On Being an Ex-Firefighter, Part 3

Faded Glory: On Being an Ex-Firefighter, Part 1

Faded Glory: On Being an Ex-Firefighter, Part 2

Faded Glory: On Being an Ex-Firefighter, Part 3

I connected with the local Fire Corps. They support the fire department with rehabilitation, fundraising, and behind-the-scenes assistance that does not require exposure to smoke or fire. Firefighters at structure fires or incidents that last more than a few hours require fresh water and food and places to rest, protected from temperature extremes. The Fire Corps meets these needs.

I still cannot participate regularly, but special events can be scheduled ahead of time. I can fit my calendar to some of the opportunities to serve. My first experience with helping the Fire Corps occurred this past week, and it slammed home the startling realization that I am a has-been, a no-name, an ex-firefighter, experiencing faded glory.

I knew no one in the Fire Corps, and they knew little about me. I served food and water to firefighters attending a three-day training conference. They saw me only as a helper, a nameless service-worker. No one asked my advice...no one checked with me first...no one asked me to help them drag a hose or operate a pumper.

It was a bit disconcerting.

I had been a firefighter since 1982. I served with three different fire departments until I resigned in 2007. That's 25 years of experience as a firefighter! In that time I worked as a rookie, a firefighter, a lieutenant, a captain, a training officer, a president (of the volunteer's association), and even as a chief. I experienced thousands of hours of training and thousands of hours of emergency incident response.

I drove brush rigs, pumpers, rescue rigs, tenders, aerial trucks, hazmat trucks, ambulances, and water rescue craft.

I entered burning buildings, poisonous environments, burning forests, and burning rangeland.

In each of the three departments, firefighters relied upon me as a leader, a trainer, a mentor. I helped decide standards and policy. I represented our department at state and regional conferences.

I knew how to tie a bowline knot, for crying out loud!

I once had been a volunteer firefighter. Now, I was a water boy.

I didn't blame the firefighters. I purposely didn't broadcast my credentials. I've never admired people who promote themselves, especially when in the place of being the newcomer or stranger. I believe strongly that we must earn the right to be respected or heard. A new member of any organization should not boast of, nor even describe at length, their previous status or experience. It's far better to let your abilities gradually become apparent, like the subtle fragrance of perfume worn by a confident woman. (Not sure that's an appropriate analogy, given the theme of this treatise, but I'm thinking of my wife right now, and it's hard to ignore her influence upon me!)

Still, I was surprised by my inner feeling of dismay and disappointment. I felt disconnected, like a man looking from the outside into a house he once called home, before it had been sold to strangers.

I carried chests of ice. I packed cases of water and Gatorade. I lifted and pushed and pulled. Sometimes I sat. For three days I was small. I was a helper...I was a supporter. I was surrounded by firefighters and firefighting gear...and I was not a firefighter.

So now, the week is over. I actually did have a chance late on the final day to sit with a few of the firefighters and rehearse some of my past glory. I was invited into the "inner sanctum", the career firefighter's day room, and I ate some crackers and sausage with them. They seemed surprised, and impressed, with my tale. I had thought myself to be a modest, quietly humble person, but I discovered that I was thirsty for recognition, hungry for stature, longing for camaraderie.

I miss being a volunteer firefighter.

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