The other morning, we’re sitting around the kitchen table when I ask the Cap how much time he has left.
“End of this month,” he says.
In less than 30 days, he’ll be done. Retired.
The two boots at the table are a little slow to realize the opportunity they have sitting here in front of them: Here’s a guy who’s seen and done everything. Thirty-five years on the job. Started in the camps. Fireman, medic, engineer, and finally captain. Hundreds of thousands of calls. Campaign fires. Changes in technology, tactics, culture and policy. Experience. Insights. And I’m thinking…
Here’s a guy who’s got some war stories.
So throughout the day, I’m peppering him with questions:
Strangest call you’ve been on?
What are the calls that are going follow you into retirement—the ones that will haunt you hereafter, the faces you’ll be seeing when you lie awake at night? And as I listen to him unspool 35 years of experience, I realize a couple of things:
1. The stories have a familiar ring. I’ve heard all these before. You talk to enough old timers over the years, and you begin to realize that there is a sort of universality to firemen’s war stories. The tales are gruesome, often involving trains or car wrecks or toddlers or fatality fires. They could fit into tidy, macabre sub-categories with horrific titles like “crushed baby call,” or “guy hit by the freight train.”
2. I’ve already been on most of these calls. I’ve seen a lot of the same ghastly things. Then I realize…I still have 10-13 years left. So I’m bound to see a few more of them.
The new guys, fresh out of the tower, listen politely. But typical of “generation-whatever,” they can only muster up and feign modest interest, since it’s not about them at the moment.
Me, I’m sitting in between them at the table, the new boots and this short-timer. I miss the naïveté and idealism I had when I first came on the job, but wish I had the confidence born of experience that this captain so thoroughly possesses.
Then the tones go off…
And three generations climb up on the rig