The little boy lived on an average street with average friends. They all lived in an average small town. He had average parents who had an average number of children for the time. In fact, if asked to describe his life in a single word, the little boy would surely have replied, “Average.”
Soon fate would take an interest in the little boy. His average life would start down a path toward becoming anything but.
At 8 he was rescued by firefighters and knew what he wanted to be. By 10, he witnessed the first spacewalk on a black and white television and knew what he wanted to be.
As months folded into years, all thoughts of becoming a firefighter or an astronaut faded. They were replaced by other thoughts – learning math, science, and English skills. After all, he was now in high school. It was time to put away the childish dreams.
Fate had a different plan for the now young man.
After graduation, not knowing what he wanted to do with his life, he followed his childhood best friend to college. For three years they were roommates. For three years the young man struggled with grades. Now, not even being average, he questioned why he was even there. Should he leave or should he stay?
Fate answered later that very same year.
The phone call came late on a snowy Christmas Eve. A drunk driver had crashed into his roommate’s small car head-on. When the young man arrived at the emergency site, firefighters were still trying to cut the mangled car from around his longtime friend. The looks on their faces didn’t reflect much chance for his survival. But survive he did.
After three months and many operations, his roommate left the hospital for a year of rehab back home. The now not-so-little boy also left.
Finally, he had his answer and more. His path was now clear; he would become one of those who helped to save his friend’s life. He joined the fire department.
Fate still wasn’t finished.
Six months into his rookie year, his company answered the call every firefighter dreads. A child hit by an auto.
As paramedics worked, the rookie firefighter held the small child in his hands. He helped backboard the child, then held his tiny hand as he was loaded into the ambulance. The doors closed.
Shaken by what he had just experienced, the rookie firefighter took a step back and turned around. Suddenly, he was face to face with the mother. She cried, “Is there anything you can do to save my child?”
That night he searched for an answer. He cried for the child. He cried for the mother. He cried all night. Sleep never came, but morning eventually did. So did the answer. No, there was nothing anyone could do to save her son.
With the answer, tears no longer came. They had been replaced by a steel resolve. He promised himself if he were to stay in the fire service, then his career would be spent educating others about safety. Such a senseless tragedy should never happen to anyone again.
His roommate finally went back to college where his career took off. Overcoming his many injures, he became an Air Force pilot, eventually retiring a lieutenant colonel after 20 years. And what of the young firefighter?
His rookie year ended with a call that almost ended his life. Separated from his crew, he ran out of air while fighting a fire in the sub-basement of the FAA building. If not for his promise, to educate others about safety, he would’ve quit that night.
Since then, he’s fought a two-story cotton mill fire that burned for over three weeks, a gasoline tanker that spilled fiery liquid death onto the streets of his downtown, and a 30-foot-tall pile of burning stumps covering more than an acre.
The firefighter drove through raging storms of two tornadoes and one hurricane, blinding snow, and sheets of rain at all hours of the night.
He helped carry trapped families across raging rivers, untangle countless patients from crushed cars, and even recued a cat out of a tree for a little girl.
Along with his fellow firefighters, he watched in horror as two airplanes crashed into twin towers. Through it all he received many awards, survived many injuries, and underwent six operations. He thought his career would go on forever.
Fate, once again, had a different plan.
Early in June the firefighter was at the scene of another accident – another one that would forever change the rest of his life.
Only this time the accident was his, and it would end his career.
Today is his last day. His best memories are from the many friends he’s made along the way, and from helping three souls come into the world. His worst are holding the hands of far too many as they have left it.
Especially the hand of one little boy who left this world 27 years ago.
[Rick Ryckeley, who lives in Senoia, is in his third decade as a firefighter and has been a weekly columnist since 2001. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org. His books are available at www.RickRyckeley.com.]