BRÁITHEREACHAS THAR GACH NÍ
Key Note for October 10th 2009 – Interior Firefighters, Alaska State Firefighter's Association "Fireman’s Ball"
When people ask me about the “Brotherhood”, I often find myself at a loss for words to define it for them. Because for me, the “Brotherhood” we are speaking of is something felt very deeply, something that has taken years to mature and show itself, but which once exposed ran to full throttle, without reservation. I find that it is something that resides in my very core, makes me the fireman that I am, guides my steps, my actions and reactions. So what is it we are speaking of? How do we define it?
In this age of freedom from TRUTH, isn’t everything we believe open to conjecture and diverse opinion? In a world where we now argue whether there is actually a right and wrong, whether a life is worth saving, whether one has the right to believe what his father believed before him, how can we define something as vague a concept as Brotherhood? After all, how can anything so intangible, so undefined, so hard to grasp hold of, so rare, be defined with any certainty? But it begins to beg for an answer, doesn’t it.
What if we could define it with some measure of clarity? What if I said I know exactly what I believe Brotherhood to be, when I see it and when I don’t? I warn you, my wife describes me as “DEEP”. I try not to be, but that is my nature.
In the past year, I have continually been asked via the Internet, through speeches like this one and face to face, “Tell me about the Brotherhood”. Notice it’s not “brotherhood”, but specifically “the Brotherhood”. This is usually asked by young firefighters who have not received a satisfactory answer yet, but would really like to hear one. In this modern world we are living in with technology bounding forward and changing our lives on a monthly if not daily basis, it is hard to believe in intangible things. Things that are present, but not visibly there, and heaven forbid that you might rely on something so quaint and old fashioned as “Faith”. But essentially, that is what “the” Brotherhood is. It is a manner of behavior, a moral and ethical code, a form of unspoken belief. It is our belief that we are appointed to be our brother’s keeper, on behalf of the society which employs us. That seems relatively simple and straightforward. But it doesn’t stop there. Our “Brotherhood” goes much, much deeper than that.
Not so long ago someone sent me the link to a blog they thought I might find interesting. It was a discussion of the Brotherhood, with special emphasis on “Where is it? I’m not seeing it”. It went for about two pages then died off and the reason I believe it died off was because within the heart of the blog post there was the attitude that “I’m not getting what’s due to me, in respect, in membership, in loyalty or whatever the case may be, I DON’T SEE BROTHERHOOD HERE!” The overall rant was very negative. Another Brother related to me frustration as he had observed several times as young firefighters speak of Brotherhood and behave without any trace of understanding it. And let me just say that if you are possessing a mighty three years of experience and you think highly of yourself, you need to meet someone who has over forty years ON THE LINE, …THEN YOU MIGHT HAVE A BETTER UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT WE MEAN BY EXPERIENCE. In spite of my regard for our own firefighters here, I try to keep things in perspective. I knew an old truckie who laughed at my probie attitude and said when you’ve got ten years in, then you can speak to me about experience. Ten years later, I still didn't feel experienced enough. Listen to me young man, ..you won’t find the Brotherhood in your inexperience and arrogance. CERTIFICATIONS DO NOT, ..A FIREMAN MAKE!!!
And this is why: I steadfastly believe that the only way to truly unearth the Brotherhood within your fire service career, in a way that you can really understand it is to start giving yourself away. Brotherhood is formed through service and long suffering, ..together. It is more than going to a beer fest every couple of months. Anything you say in the throes of alcohol is invalid because although you may truly believe it, you will not live up to it when sober unless you are an exceptional man. Brotherhood is formed through enduring a struggle together, either short lived and very intense or long term and drawn out. Both conditions provide an environment for the Brotherhood to foster. In warfare, a very similar thing takes place. Men are bonded together as a band of brothers, because they need each other intensely and their experiences are uniquely common to that group. Ours is much the same, but what makes our Brotherhood stand out so differently, is that our battle is a different one. Theirs is to survive the mission, to defeat the enemy, to take life. So their bond is unique, strong and defined by their common predicament. But by and large the overall purpose of what they are doing wears away at their humanness. There are truly moments of God like self sacrifice among them as they strive to help each other survive. I do not wish to take away from that. Someone has to fight for our nation in these battles, and they have been the ones to step forward and we owe them so much. But at its core, their purpose is to cause death or submission. It is relatively short term, and very intense.
Our mission, our purpose is to preserve life and property; therefore our efforts are always bent towards sacrifice on the behalf of society, not tearing away at it. Our struggle is often very intense and short lived, but in the life of a single fireman or group of firemen, it is long-term and very drawn out. Over the years there begins to be an accumulation of experiences that define the importance of human life. One begins to see that there is an obvious right and wrong and consequences of both actions. As we do our job, we are confronted by the results of society’s choices and at times it takes an incredible toll on us. But we cannot deny that there is obviously a “Natural Law”, which causes us to aspire to greater good. We know this as firemen because we are endlessly encouraged to be “the heroes” that the public citizen imagines us to be. We are encouraged to live up to their best expectations and we have seen with our own eyes the wreckage of their mistakes and the results of their greed. But they want us to be above that, they believe that we can be above that. So even in the midst of this age of “relative truth”, we are asked to meet a standard that as Chief Croker points out, God Himself is engaged in. If there wasn’t a “Natural Law” written out there for us, then people wouldn’t be trying so hard to find someone that lives up to it. Society has become desperate for that. Society is losing hope that the Nature Law, which in itself defines our actions, our efforts for good actually exists.
Now without trying to convince you that you should believe in God, the Creator, I have to be honest with you, I believe that Law exists and I know who wrote it. Everything that firemen aspire to be was defined by it, a long time ago. To give your life on behalf of a child you do not know, an old woman you have never met and who 9 times out of 10 isn’t even really in danger….but just might be, or a man who if you knew personally you wouldn’t give a plugged nickel for, is something the world no longer understands. It will never understand.
And standing next to you, is another fireman who says simply, and with all his or her heart, “I will not leave you to perish alone, ….ever”. THAT IS THE BROTHERHOOD. “I will sacrifice myself,…… on your behalf.” One is duty, the other is Love.
There is no greater act a man can perform than to give his life for another. Christ said that. He should know I suppose. But the finer point in that statement is that He DIDN’T HAVE TO DO IT. HE CHOSE TO DO IT. Whether you do or do not believe in God isn’t my point. My point is that there is no greater act among men than to give of yourself for the fireman standing next to you. If it wasn’t, then people would not grieve so, they wouldn’t plead for us to come running, they wouldn’t cling to hope the way they do. That fireman is a servant of the society in which we live, dedicated to their well being. He or she is dedicated to that effort. That is why the public admires us so. That is why during the Iraq War, when polled as to who their heroes were, those U.S. Marines who answered the poll, unanimously chose Firemen. Men entrusted with destroying thousands of lives consider us their heroes.
This summer this was defined for me very adequately as I was present at a short talk given by a Vietnam Veteran and former Marine known simply as “Old Clarke”. A retired fireman, he had been asked to give our Society of Leatherheads a dose of wisdom as he saw it. One of the things he said and did that really impacted me was that in a room full of firefighters, some young, some old, some big city, some small, he asked us “How many of you have crawled down that dark hallway, and fought a fire for real?” Many hands went up, ..But not all. He then said, “Those of you that have, have seen combat, in many ways as intense as I did, you are combat veterans, you are my Brothers”. He treated every firefighter in the room with great respect. Veteran or not, young or old, big city, small city, firefighter or captain. The Brotherhood.
This spring, as I came out of the city power plant fire with my company, I sat down on the tail board of our engine, my eyes had become choked with sooty mud and as I sat down I found that I couldn’t see anymore. It was a hot day, and Ft. Wainwright’s crew was standing outside, sweating to death, standing by as our RIT. They had been there for hours, suffering in their gear in the sun. Most of you I’m sure remember how hot it was that day. So I’m sitting there trying to clear my eyes with dirty fingers and suddenly I feel my head tipped back by some really big hands, and cool water began to poor into my eyes. It really felt good. Then I felt a thumb in each eye, wiping away the soot, very carefully. I was then able to open my eyes, and standing there was a Ft. Wainwright Firefighter whom I call my brother and he cleaned my eyes so that I could see again. He didn’t have to do that. He could have just let me deal with it, but he didn’t. A small thing, but a great thing. That is the Brotherhood.
A while back I was sitting next to the wife of one of my very best friends and we were both watching him spouting off as he does, being a typical fireman. I sat there watching him and began to think how privileged we are to spend our time among such men of character and integrity. I thought about how my wife feels, she said she often feels guilty that I get to come home after my shift, since many firemen have never come home from that last shift. So I turned to his wife and I said what was in my heart, “I would give my life for him”. And I really meant it; I guess I was telling her that there are other men around her husband that would not let anything get in the way of him going home. She looked me in the eye and quietly said, “I know”. Something that will likely never happen. But I know, and she knows that I would do that. And there are many others like me. That is the Brotherhood.
If you want to find this Brotherhood we speak of, you must be willing to give of yourself. Stop asking yourself why you don’t see any Brotherhood, and start building it by giving yourself away. How? By doing what you are naturally good at. Serving. Serve your brother. Put your brother, your sister first, above your own interests. Need a ride? Need help with the dishes in the firehouse? Need help getting that rig washed? Need help studying for a promotion? Feel like attacking your superior officer over something stupid? DON’T! The Brotherhood is not served by you attacking other firefighters over things that just don’t matter. Devote yourself to building up, not tearing down.
What? He got the job you felt you should get? Get over it! Pledge your support to him. He needs to re-roof his house, go and spend your time. He’s sick at home, make sure his wood gets stacked. His wife is out of town? Help him with the kids. He made a mistake? Forgive him. He is being an absolute ass, confront him and be there to help him correct his wrongs. He’s dead? Then watch over his family. Give of yourself.
Risk yourself for them, fight for what is right ..FOR THEM. Stand up for what is good, moral, and ethical for the men you lead, the men you follow and the good of the department for which you serve and no less the department next to you. Pull down barriers and cross boundaries to show other brothers that you hold no grudge, bare no ill will, and are devoted to their well being. Throw away your envy, you pride, your ego and put other firemen first. Understand that the Brotherhood is not for you to “get your due”, or to have perks or benefits. Its not there to get between you and “management” , shove it to the chief or to strong arm overtaxed citizens so you can have more time off and more pay. Or so that you can have the career you feel you deserve. Nor is it there to enable you to do whatever it is you want to do. It is there to preserve the act of sacrifice for the common good. It is a natural result of our self-sacrifice.
It can be done. And then you will begin to understand why we call each other “Brother “and hug as we greet and REMEMBER THE FALLEN. Dare to be willing to accept other firemen as your equal AND EVEN YOUR BETTER. For all of us, whether good at pulling ceiling, dragging hose or starting I.V’s, volunteer, paid, or union are willing to give ourselves up for each other or we would not be on the job. We are all willing to make the long dark hallway and fight the fight.
WE ARE ALL BROTHERS HERE!
There is a Natural Law that we aspire to reach and we are measured by it whether we like it or not. Other men encourage us to reach for it because we have been willing to step forward and give of ourselves, we are honored for it. If we betray that, Society will have nothing left to hope for. Nothing left to believe in. In order not to betray that, we need each other. We must rely on each other. For by ourselves we are only a shadow of what we could be.
Now, I know many of our brothers are unwilling to feel emotion or open themselves up to this. Not every brother or sister is easy to work with or get along with. Some are downright unfriendly about it. They mock us for our passion and for our devotion and they ridicule as “foolish” our traditions. For those brothers, I am truly sorry. They are missing so much. But they are still my brothers.
As for me, you will find me among the finest, bravest men I know, as we reach across the boundaries and the miles and hold close to our bond, unashamed, unapologetic and committed to long-suffering for the fire service. For we like what we are, we love what we do, and the only apology we make for it is that we are still trying to become better at it. God Willing.
President, Farthest North FOOLS
BRÁITHEREACHAS THAR GACH NÍ “Brotherhood Above All Else”