Laurie wanted to talk about my truck.
“Your Suburban is a piece of crap … We should sell it.”
I shook my head. I loved that truck, so I said: “But…”
Laurie raised her hand.
“Reeeee!” My pager vibrated. “Hondo, structure fire, mutual aid for El Dorado. Flames showing.”
Me: “Gotta go!”
A difficult conversation avoided. A few minutes later, driving my beat-up but sturdy Suburban in the general direction of the fire, I heard on my Fire Department radio, “the garage is fully involved, twenty foot flames and black smoke. House is evacuated. White smoke in house.”
I parked a block away, pulled my gear bag out of the back, kicked off my shoes and bunkered up: pants, jacket and helmet. I grabbed my fire axe and a medical bag.
Mike, another Hondo veteran had parked next to me and repeated the same practiced routine. Between the two of us, Mike and I had forty years of firefighting experience. We were both in our sixties but neither of us was thinking of retiring. We still loved the problems of fire.
We moved quickly into the tight group around the Chief. In an average house fire, the fire doubles its size every minute until it runs out of fuel—the fuel being the entire house.
The Chief yelled to us over the roar of the garage fire. “The garage is gone. Gas and electric are turned off. We’re going to set up a fan and send a crew through the front door. Push any fire back towards the garage.”
“You four are the entry team. Two in, two out.” the Chief nodded at a group of El Dorado firefighters.
He looked at Mike and me, “I need you guys to stand by. Cool?”
Stand by. We were okay with that. In our world “stand by” doesn’t mean “do nothing.” I’ve done everything on standby at a fire: fight the fire, run an engine, fix tools, get pizza, hold a terrified dog.
Standing by means, to me: “be at the ready to be useful, because we’re gonna need your help.”
I love that word, “useful.” It’s not a big headline word like “success” or “purpose” or “power.” It’s simple and practical. We’re helping solve someone else’s problem. I hold a door open for a stranger, I listen to my daughter talk about school, I restock the med unit, I pick up tools on the fire ground. Simple stuff, but useful.
For the rest of that morning, we let the young guys take the front lines. Later we cut trenches on the roof to survey the inside of the house, checking for heat with a thermal imaging camera. Finally, that day, “useful” meant salvage: hauling wet, burnt, black and twisted junk out of the garage.
By the end, we were exhausted, dehydrated and hungry. But there were fist bumps all around. We’d helped save a home and we proved yet again that, though we might not be young, agile and strong, we were up to task.
Allow me to be useful.
It’s a powerful feeling to be useful, and being a firefighter has given me a simple mantra, a thought to rise with each morning: “allow me to useful one more day.”
If being happy and fulfilled is the goal, being useful is the path. Think about any day and the opportunities to be useful: to help, to fix, to explain, to walk with, to make someone smile, to solve a problem, to read to, to hold, to carry, to drive and to listen.
I drove home after the fire and pulled into the garage. I turned off the engine and the suburban shuddered a few times before it stilled. It was an old truck.
Laurie stood there, arms crossed and smiling. She laughed as I, stiff and sore, got out of the truck and limped towards the house. She was a retired firefighter so she knew why I was smiling; she knew the feeling of being useful.
She hugged me and whispered in my ear, “I guess you and that truck have a few more years left in you.”