I’ve written about my son in the past. Maybe it’s because he’s a conflagration of love, pride and hope for the future. Maybe it’s because children are the bright and shiny embodiment of possibility in every parent’s eyes. Or, maybe it’s because he is the thing we really want to be. Children spend their little lives looking up to those around them. They do it figuratively and literally every moment of every day. They change, adapt, revalue themselves and adjust their perspective to the world in every moment of experience they have. Children have the thing that we forgot about. They have true freedom. They have the truth of the world because they don’t have the psychological filters adulthood, or even middle childhood puts before us to take away from the glaring obtuseness of it. My son might look up to me for how to navigate this world, but I look up to him more than he knows. The boy follows his heart and listens to the world. He wants to help and do the right thing and it’s something that guides his actions. He earnestly searches for the good around him and revels in the joy it creates. It is special to be around.
So, on Tuesday July 17th 2018 we were getting ready to head out to the swimming pool of our local athletic club when the door bell rang. Two girls from down the street stood frightened and bawling when my wife answered the door. The older of the two said they were very scared because there was a big fire and they didn’t know what to do. Since they both play with my daughter quite often and know that I am a firefighter, they thought the best thing to do was to come to our home. My daughter wasn’t home at the moment, and if they knocked on the door five minutes later, nobody would have been. But, they managed to have their emergency just in time for me to be there to do something about it.
My wife yelled “Fire,” and pointed down the street at a giant column of smoke rising into the bright blue sky about two houses away from us. I ran down the street in my shorts and T-shirt to see how I could help. There was about thirty of forty feet of Arbor Vitae burning. A couple of trees and some play structure equipment had also caught fire. The grass was also burning, and the flames were getting pretty close to the home the two young girls lived in. Both of their parents were at work and the neighbors stood aghast at the tall flames and large column of smoke. We got the fire department on the way and a bunch of neighbors stretched out their garden hoses to help control the spread of the fire. We managed to get the fire knocked down to almost nothing and stopped it from spreading into the houses close by. But, this was nothing compared to what a little four-year-old boy was doing and also preparing to do. Remember, courage and purpose are one and the same in my book.
My son, my thirty-five-pound-four-year-old son, was on the move and ready to help. When I left the house and ran down the street, he stepped into motion. Immediately he ran into his room and put on the firefighter costume he treated with almost reverence. He put on his jacket, helmet, toy axe, water pack, squirt gun and little fire chief badge. He also put on a pair of galoshes because he had decided they were the closest thing to fire boots he owned. Once dressed, he came out into the living room and saw the two girls standing there and still crying. My wife had moved out into the street and told our fifteen year old to watch the kids. Ronin knew his help started with the two girls. He went up them and told them it was going to be okay.
He said “My Dad is a firefighter, he’s going to save your house. He’s a hero, it’ll be okay.”
Then, he put on the video filmed as a tribute to my fire academy. He had it on repeat and continued to explain to the girls what firefighters do and how his Dad is going to stop the fire and make it all better. He told them that he was a firefighter too and when he gets bigger, he will put fires out. He wanted to help and found a way to help. He believed in what he was doing and cared not for himself. He proved it even more when I walked back in to the house.
Having got the fire under control and also having two fire engines show up to take care of things. I figured it was time to go check on the girls and make sure they knew the fire was out. When I opened the front door, my son was standing at the top of the stairs dressed in his fire gear. I could hear the tribute video playing in the back ground and knew then and there that it was time to offer the little man an opportunity to demonstrate his sense of purpose.
“Are you ready to go fight a fire buddy? They need you out there,” I said to him.
I could see the mixture of emotions on his face. They were the same emotions I’ve felt a hundred times before stepping out into the unknown but knowing it needed to be done. The feelings I had when it was time to turn a corner and raise my rifle in defense of my brethren. There they were, as bare and as raw as any feeling could be, on his perfect little face. I almost burst in to tears standing at the bottom of the stairs watching him. I’ve felt pride well up in my belly before, but nothing like this.
He gulped, squeezed his little squirt gun tightly and nodded his head. “Yep,” was all he said.
“Let’s go. Follow me and I’ll get you out there.” I held the door open and stood aside for him to walk out.
He took a deep breath in through his nose and his little chest grew as big as a zeppelin. He knew his purpose. He believed in it and he was going to face his fears and go fight a ‘real’ fire. He walked down the stairs and into the blazing sunlight. The pleasant smell of freshly burnt lumber was laced in the air and ash was still falling from the sky. My son, Ronin, followed me down the street.
Two fire engines were parked out in front of the house that had the gross misfortune of stuff catching fire in the backyard. The bright red paint gleaned and sparkled in the sun. Water sprayed out from hoses at the couplings creating little rainbows as foreground. Some firemen operated pump panels on both engines. The loud whine of Fire engine motors bellowing to turn fire engine water pumps made it impossible to hear what another person said unless you yelled. I walked up to the first fireman I saw and greeted him. Three steps behind me, Ronin gripped his squirt gun tighter and held it up to show the fireman he was ready to go to war. The flowing mixture of fear and determination in his eyes tugged hard at my heart strings.
“Excuse me, Firefighter Ronin is available for duty,” I proclaim to the man working the pump panel. He’s a friend and we’ve known each other for years.
He gives me a smile and tilts his head to look past me at my son. His smile gets as big as I’ve ever seen it. Ronin offers a little nod and holds his squirt gun up just a tad higher.
“He looks ready to me. Send him up the line to the Captain,” my friend says while facing Ronin and offering a nod of approval.
Ronin and I continue up the line and meet up with the Captain as he’s walking away from the house. I see in the back ground that the fire is completely out, save for a few small embers floating up from a pallet and part of the grass. I look back to my son marching with dedication towards what he believes to be a raging inferno. He’s resolute, determined and focused. He’s going to put out the fire. He’s going to help, and fear will not stop him. I feel like it’s the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anyone do.
The Captain pointed us up the line to where another firefighter was using a dark brown garden hose to wet down blackened grass. We meet up with him and I try to make it as formal as I can.
“Firefighter Ronin is here to relieve you. What can he do to help?” I question as I watch water lazily get sprayed out on to smoldering grass. The fireman has his thumb over the end of the hose so the water shoots out in a flattened arc.
The fireman on the finger fashioned nozzle smiles and takes a knee. Ronin takes a step closer and leans in to my leg. It’s time for the little man to do work. He wants to, but the nervousness of the moment creeps in and he moves to touch his father for strength. I notice that he wavers, but does not back down. He stands ready even though this is probably one of the scariest moments in his life.
“Well grab it here and put your thumb over it like this.” The fireman demonstrates how to make the flow of water spray out. “This is a real fire hose and you’ve got to be careful.”
“Yep.” Ronin nods. He shucks out of his water pack and sets down the squirt gun he’s dutifully carried this far. Stepping forward, he grabs a hold of the hose and does as instructed.
“Now make sure you shoot water on all the black parts. We got to make sure they are out.” The Fireman stands close by and helps Ronin move the water back and forth over the blackened grass.
He sprayed water for ten minutes exactly how he was told. He stood there in his galoshes and bright red fire jacket holding a garden hose and believing that it was a real fire hose. It was the real deal to him and he wasn’t just putting wet stuff on black stuff. He was serving a greater good. He was a servant to his sense of purpose. He was brave and courageous and living his dream all at the same time.
It is probably the proudest moment of my life. The thought of him standing there and facing his fears brings hot tears to my eyes. He slayed the dragon. He conquered the demon. He fought the good fight and won.
If only we could find the bravery that he found that day in the simple things in life. Sometimes exposure to a situation coupled with fear of the unknown spends more time ruling us than we realize. Ronin didn’t let it rule him, he waded through it. He found the strength to do it because he believed it was the right thing and he didn’t have years of experience telling him that the possibility of failure might make a difference. He didn’t care about failure. He cared about doing it.
And isn’t that what holds us back? The possibility of failure coupled with our own lack of persistence. I would say “Go find your inner firefighter,” and hope that it would spur you to step forward and face your fears. The problem is that I don’t think it’s really what bravery really is. I’ll leave you with this.