My grandson loves fire trucks. He’s two, and he’s obsessed. When he hears a siren in the distance, he is instantly alert, and he scans his environment for the source. If he could, he would find it, follow it, and be part of whatever it is that made the noise necessary.
Kind of like his Papa.
When I left the fire service after 25 years, I decided that I was done. I had no intention of being a pest and hang around the station, drinking coffee and telling war stories. I had to leave it behind and let the next generation take over.
Or did I?
Now, I can visit the station—any station—with the little guy and nobody will know that the old guy with him is every bit as excited about the trucks, the poles, the gear, the smells, the banter, and the excitement that exists in every fire station ever constructed. I didn’t realize it when I was part of it, but inside those station walls, magic exists. The invisible bond that creates the firefighter family may be formed during the emergencies to which we respond, but it is strengthened when the crew returns to quarters and sorts things out.
“He always wanted to sit in the driver’s seat,” I’ll say to whoever it is that is kind enough to do “the tour” (probably the junior firefighter). “But he’s too little,” I’ll explain, “he’ll have to sit on my lap.”
And back in the driver’s seat I’ll be. And if I’m lucky, I might even get to show him how to operate the pump and then help him open the pipe or raise the ladder. I’ll have to hold the helmet on his head (those things are heavy) and show him how to put a pack on in 10 seconds, how to use an ax and pole to open ceilings, how to operate an extinguisher properly, how to…be a firefighter.
You never know when your last call is happening; it is impossible to predict. We do not have the luxury of savoring the experience, knowing that this is the last time we will blow the air horn; herd cars out of our way; arrive on scene and step out of the rig like the king of the world, ready to handle whatever emergency needs to be handled. We are unaware that our last ride as a responding firefighter already happened, so we finish our careers with a whisper and get on with things the best we can.
As weeks in retirement turn to months and months become years, the memories fade, the smell of smoke leaves your skin and hair for good, and what for many retired firefighters was the most memorable part of their lives is put away. But those memories always come back. We can’t help it—firefighting is in our DNA.
Leaving it all behind is not an option. We know we can never go back, but it is nice to remember, and there is no better way to do that than through the eyes of a child.
Will he follow his Papa’s path and be part of the fire service? Only time will tell, but I can always hope. That way, I can still visit the station; only then the excuse will be to see my grandson and bring him some of his grandmother’s brownies. And what’s better than brownies, the company of firefighters, and a cup of fresh brewed station coffee?
Nothing, that’s what.