When I was a firefighter we had trouble agreeing on anything, particularly because of age differences. We had firefighters that went in to burning buildings in their early 20’s, the engineers that drove the truck and operated the pumps at the fire were in their late 20’s, the captains that led the crews into the fires were in the 30’s and 40’s, and we had an ancient Fire Chief in his late 50’s.
We had a lot of down time between emergencies and we could debate/argue about anything. I remember one ferocious battle started one morning during the war in Vietnam, with an off-the-cuff observation by Fire Fighter Tony Ballatore, leaning on the kitchen counter, eating cereal.
“Just because I happened to be born in America doesn’t make it the greatest country in the world, so I refuse to say, ‘My country, right or wrong!’”
That comment touched off a screaming argument that lasted all day, late into the night, and it even flared up again at 3:00 a.m. on a dark street, after we doused a car fire. When we got off duty the next morning the replacement crew listened to one minute of debate and off they went.
So while we disagreed about a lot in the firehouse, there were two things we all agreed on.
The first is that we basked in the fact that people thought we were heroes for running into burning buildings and for being willing to risk our lives to try and save strangers. In fact, we often wished we had more chances to prove ourselves.
The second thing we agreed upon was summed up by a drunk firefighter at a Christmas party at my house in 1974.
“I hope I die trying to save someone or at least doing something worthwhile, and not in some dumb-ass way like getting hit by a car walking across the street to 7-11 to buy a pack of cigarettes.”
I, too, fear a meaningless death. But after I left the fire department the odds of me being allowed to die saving someone in imminent danger were pretty much extinguished.
On the plus side, I did get to spend 44 year years doing the noble work of helping people in crisis.
But with retirement, even that work ended.
Which is why I am so grateful that I was allowed to participate in UCSD’s COVID-19 vaccine trial which was looking for old-timers as test subjects.
Intellectually I know the trial is safe, I know that the odds are miniscule of me being that one test subject crippled or killed by a here-to-fore unknown side effect.
But I thank the Universe for offering me one more chance to take even this tiny risk and to step up and bump fists with my 20-something-self who was young and dumb and foolishly bold, eager to push in to a burning building and attack the fire, looking for anyone trapped inside. I am so lucky to get one last taste of what it’s like to take a risk which might save someone else, and not just be on be stuck on the sidelines, watching, and waiting it out.