By Michael Morse
There’s a shelf in my garage next to the 2-cycle oil container and the extension cords where all that is left of my career sits. It ain’t much, just an old helmet, five helmet shields, and the books I wrote when I was in the fight. Those were great times, but all good things come to an end eventually, and a career in the fire service is no different.
The things on my shelf are symbols of a time in my life when I walked through the city of Providence like a king: ripped doors from hinges, cut holes in roofs, squeezed hundreds of gallons of water out of an old pump, manned the tiller on Ladder 7 one day and operated the pipe the next, carried people from their homes, and made a difference in countless lives.
It was a giant part of who I was, but it was far from the only part. I was a husband, father, and friend too. Those parts always came back when my shift was done. It took me a few years to get over my firefighter self and come down to earth long enough to let the equally important parts come through. Thankfully, my family waited. They were a big part of my firefighter persona as well and loved to hear the stories I told about the people who needed us, the firefights, the antics in the station, and everything else that goes with being part of a firefighter’s family. Keeping things in perspective is essential for every firefighter. The job does not define who we are, but it certainly takes up a large part of our personalities while we’re doing it. Letting that part go when the time is right has everything to do with keeping the rest of us intact.
I look at the relics from my past now and then, not with regret but with a lot of pride and a little bit of envy. I hear sirens in the distance and wonder if the crew on the truck realizes that it will all come to an end for them, too. The smell of smoke never escapes me, even in the dead of winter when I know that fireplaces and woodstoves are the source. I can’t help but do a scene size-up of my neighborhood and won’t completely rest until I have a visual with a neighbor’s chimney and confirm that the fire that caused the smoke condition is contained. The time I spent in real buildings really on fire helps considerably when I critique the TV fires that have taken the place of the ones where the heat is unbearable and the smoke as black as death itself. “Ya can’t see nuthin” just sounds better when it comes from a person who has actually been there.
I truly believe that I am one of a fortunate few–people who have worn the turnout gear, donned SCBA, and fought some fire. There is something timeless about doing that, something that connects the past, the present, and the future. I see that old helmet not as an inanimate object decorating a dusty wall but as a fluid monument to every person who has ever worn one, wears one now, and will wear one in the future. We are firefighters; it matters not if we have done it, are doing it, or someday will be. I think most of us are born this way, and we don’t just find the fire service by accident. It has us from the moment we are born and waits until the time is right for us to become part of it.