I never enlisted in the military to serve my country. That has always bugged me since I became a legal adult. Why do I sit here comfortably while so many others have done all that was asked by their country and then some? I could make the argument that being a slightly overweight asthmatic probably isn’t “soldier material” and maybe that is correct. At 28, my window is shrinking and leaving my young family here probably isn’t an option anymore.
Even so, I decided quite some time ago that I wanted to be of service to my fellow Americans in some way, so three years ago I joined my local volunteer fire fighter service. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made.
There are many firefighters across the country that do the same. Some do it for a very simple reason: they like fire (this is usually the wildland folks). Nothing wrong with that. Others join for the camaraderie. Someone they know probably recruited them. I was in a fraternity in college and will tell you in many ways it is very similar (philanthropy and so many hose/dick jokes) and in others they couldn’t be more different (you better check your arrogant attitude at the door).
Then there are guys like me. I do not like fire. Frankly, I’m a little afraid of it in the sense that I may have to rescue someone from it. Being in a simulated house fire live-burn is one the most intense things I have ever done. I knew no one that was already a firefighter, so no one sponsored me. “I’m just young and able-bodied,” I told the officers at the interview, and I wanted to be of service to my community. I now know why that raised a few eyebrows.
The volunteer firefighter is a dying breed, to use a tired cliché. It’s easy to understand why. Being a volunteer firefighter is work. I won’t tell you that it isn’t. Training takes a lot time, especially when you first start out. The stipend works out to less than minimum wage. There have been a lot of calls that were rather inconvenient for me: 3 a.m. in the morning, right as I sit down for dinner, while me and my wife were… doing other things.
I still remember my first call out very vividly. Middle of the night. A “dry” storm is rolling through and lightning is lighting up the sky every few seconds. I know what dispatch is going to say before she even starts. Lightning strike has caused a bale/grass fire, and it’s taking off in the wind.
That fire was relatively easy as far as getting it under control was concerned. The grass was short, and it couldn’t get far. No imminent danger to human life, but what mattered was we saved over half of the guy’s hay bales, something his livelihood relied on. I remember packing up tools, rolling hose and actually being a little disappointed. I didn’t feel we had actually done a whole lot. Put the wet stuff on the red stuff and boom we’re done. But then, something happened that really stuck with me. The owner went around personally thanked each and every one of us. You couldn’t miss just how grateful he was. One thing that firefighters always have to remember is that while we are having our best day, doing what we love, the person we are helping is likely having their very worst. It is a humbling thought. I knew right then that this was for me.
This column isn’t for trying to recruit to join the volunteer firefighter service (though I will be ecstatic even if just one person decides to do so based on my words) but rather to encourage you to find your own public service. I promise you, if nothing else, it is good for the soul. Some volunteer services only require a few hours of your time over the course of the entire year. You may be amazed at what those few hours can mean to a person in need. If you look, I’m sure you can find something that you thoroughly enjoy and you may even get the gratification of helping your fellow man. .
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