we could be heroes
[All photos are AP photos from CNN. Click for bigger images]
Yesterday, Steven Rucker died in the line of duty while fighting the disastrous fires in California.
From the time I was old enough to comprehend what my father did for a living, I worshiped firemen. Once a year, my dad would come to my classroom -in full gear - and talk about fire prevention and safety. My classmates were in awe of him. A real fireman! In our classroom! Back then, every boy wanted to be a fireman or a cop when they grew up. It seemed exciting and daring and heroic.
When you're a third grade kid with a bad case of hero worship, you don't see beyond the hero himself. A little boy will just see a man in a big yellow jacket and helmet riding on the back of a fire truck, on his way to save the day, or that same fireman running out the door of a burning house, saved infant in his arms. Everyone cheers.
It's not until you are older that you realize what happens in the middle of that story. For me, that moment of realization came when I was about eight. maybe nine years old, in the car with my father. He was, at that time, a volunteer firefighter on Long Island, in addtion to his paid position in the city. One evening, a huge grocery store went up in flames. My mother and the rest of the firemen's wives had the duty of bringing coffee and other drinks to the firemen. Hey, it was the 70's. Women did that sort of thing without question.
So mom packed us up into the car and we went to watch the Big Apple grocery store burn down. I thought it would be fun and exciting. Instead, it was terrifying. I watched the roof collapse. I watched the building crumble underneath the flames. I watched as firemen kept going in, towards the flames instead of away from them. What kind of idiot goes into a burning building? A brave one, I suppose.
Shortly after that, a volunteer fireman from my father's company died in the line of duty. My father's chosen profession suddenly took on a different tone for me. I never thought about the death part. I never even considered the fact that one day he might not come home from work. I went to bed that night angry. How could my father be so selfish that he would risk his life to save strangers and their property when he had kids and a wife at home who needed him? A small voice in my head replied: That's not selfish. It's selfless.
Firefighters were all the rage after 9/11. They were the new heroes. Forget baseball players and rock stars; people wore pictures of firemen on their t-shirts instead. Everyone had an NYFD hat.
Time goes on. Other heroes come and go. People don't forget, but they don't feel that pride for firemen with the same intensity they felt following 9/11. That's ok, those brave men and women don't do this for the glory, anyhow. Most of the time there is no glory.
Have you looked at the pictures from the California fires? Have you seen the videos on televions? Do you understand what hell looks like? Now, imagine someone walking towards that. Going towards that inferno to save the trees, save your house, save whatever they can. Just like that fall day in New York City two years ago; people evacuate, the firemen move in and do their job, without question, without hesitation. Fear? Of course. Who wouldn't be afraid of that wall of fire? But they go forward because it is their duty.
People do not become firefighters for the money. They don't do it on a whim, or to get the chicks. It takes a special kind of person to choose to do this for a living, or to choose to volunteer their time in the local firehouses.
Steven Rucker was one of those people. Remember him as you watch those flames on the news. Remember every fireman who has gone towards the flames instead of away from them.
There is no one person, no group of people, who could ever replace the fireman as my personal hero.
When you are done here, go read Chuck. He knows a thing or two about how hard firefighting is.
Please note (I have been through this before, which is why I feel the need to say this) that I am not placing a higher value on the life of Steven Rucker than that of the others who have died during these fires. I am sorry for all the loss of life, all the property losses, for the tragedy of the whole thing. My heart is with everyone in the line of the fires.