I believe that when we put our best foot forward, the world rewards us in ways we could never expect.
When I was a teen-ager, I decided I wanted to be a fire fighter. Our growing Virginia town had a solid volunteer department supported by a county-paid team of professionals. Or vice-versa; I might be partial. The volunteer department by-laws read that “any male person 16 years or older” could apply to become a fire fighter. Being a cheeky 16 year old girl, I knew I met the second qualification, and thought I had chance. I filled out all the forms and petitioned the volunteers to vote me in.
Voting night came. The meeting took longer than usual. Naturally, I thought it was all about me, but in fact, the group had to consider whether or not they would re-write the by-laws stating that “any PERSON 16 years or older…”, versus any MALE person.
I was told I got in by one vote. Without any real reason, I’ve always thought it was the Captain’s vote that allowed me to make the cut.
The training was intense, physical, hot, challenging. My colleagues were certainly not going to let me slide for being a girl, not that I had any inclination of doing so. Fact told, the department was already using safe-lifting procedures based on weight, not gender, and all other matters were primarily based on good training and careful decisions. By the end of it, I felt prepared.
I learned something from each emergency call I went on, but not necessarily about fighting fire. It was about people; the burly brick of a man whose arm was slashed in half length-wise by a chain saw when he was up a tree. He wanted to cry, but he was in front of a girl for god’s sake. I suggested perhaps it would help if he did. And he did.
Or the “domestic dispute” call involving firearms. In my naiveté, I couldn’t understand why my fellow rescue crew members didn’t rush in the door when it was opened to them. The victim was the younger brother of a classmate of mine, having accidentally shot himself in the face with a shotgun while aiming at squirrels through an upstairs bathroom window. We rushed him to Emergency, me seated on his stretcher to keep his head balanced sideways so he wouldn’t choke on his blood-vomit. I thought he looked at me once, and I spoke to him, telling him he was going to be alright.
We had called ahead to have a doctor meet us in the Emergency Room. The gentleman who met us was my childhood doctor who had helped me breathe when bronchitis had affected me when I was eight. I was sitting on the stretcher holding the boy up, and, shocked to see the doctor after so long and under such pressing circumstances, I said his name. He looked at me; “Lisa!” I heard the “Why, you’re all grown up!” even though he never said it. The boy died that night.
My last call was a working house fire: arguably the greatest call to duty for a fire fighter. I was the second person in, an unprecedented honor for me. We pulled up to the driveway with the house engulfed in flames, lashing out from windows, black smoke billowing straight up into the night sky. We didn’t know it yet, but there were no people or pets inside; it was our job to find that out.
All my training came into immediate play; for the first time it was about my own survival as much as it was anyone else’s. I remember the heat prickling beneath my hat and down the back of my neck as I crawled along the wall in pitch orange-black, hauling the huge sooty white hose along in my right hand, trying to keep my breath at a reasonable level behind my mask. Blinded by smoke, breathing oxygen from a canister on my back, still seeing, and still smelling somehow.
I volunteered for two years until I went away to college. Eventually I couldn’t keep up with the mandatory training to keep my certification.
Now I am making arrangements to put the house in which I grew up on the market for sale. The movers have come, leaving two piles in an upstairs bedroom, one for Goodwill, one for the dump. In one or the other, I find my yellow fire-fighting jacket, blackened by fire battles and last worn thirty-one years ago. The room is dark; the movers have taken all the lamps. The overhead light in the hall catches the FAIRFAX COUNTY in reflective lettering on the back of the jacket. I take it into the hall and shake it out. I see bulk in the square front pockets, and know what is there. I pull out one heavy, gritty leather glove, hardened into a loose fist, and pull it on my hand. I realize I am hearing rare outside sounds in the quiet neighborhood: the slow, urgent wind-up wail of sirens as the trucks pull out of the fire house in town.
It feels like a solemn thank you, a formal acknowledgement of service, a royal salute. I believe that when we put our best foot forward, the world rewards us in ways we would never expect.
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