So I'm sittin' here cogitatin' on things, ....in particular the fact that tomorrow is once again 9-11. In our town, like many towns I imagine, we'll be having a memorial in the morning, I moment of silence, reading the names, the bells, a piper. The crowd gets smaller every year. People drive by the firehouse where it is being held and don't even notice, let alone slow down to pay respects. For many people, 9-11 has been reduced to a memory of cable T.V. re-runs.
My wife made no plans for me tomorrow, she never does on 9-11. In the seven years since, I've been a part of or attended every one of the remberences our Chapter of FOOLS has initiated. In our little town, its the FOOLS that make these things happen. Must be something of the Warrior Poet showing there.
For me, 9-11 is a moment of truth. Its the defining moment of our existence as firemen. On 9-11, every fireman that was watching or listening knew the minute that the first tower came down that many, many firemen had just died. We knew it, we felt it in the marrow of our bones. And when the second tower fell, it created a sick feeling in the stomach. An ache, that to this day is still feel, whenever I see the number "343" or see a picture or hear particular songs. I remember that feeling better than anything else about the event. That was the day, that the Brotherhood of the New Century was born. That was the moment when thousands of firemen across this nation were cemented together like the rubble at the base of the towers, melted together by the fires that burned there. For we witnessed the greatest act of love a man can show another man, ...that of giving oneself for another. No one had to ask if FDNY had people inside the towers, ..you just knew they did. You didn't doubt. So you knew you were a witness to the loss of some of the finest firemen in the world, on behalf of the public good.
What is the public good? What is this trust that Chief Croker spoke of? What did he mean when he said we do the work of God himself? 343.
Firemen see society from a broad perspective. We see all facets of society in their worst moments. So we aren't easily impressed by the guy with shoes that shine like butter anymore than we are the poor sap we dragged out of the ditch last shift. All people have chaos at some point, all people fall apart at some point, ill wind and disaster do not differentiate and firemen are there to see it. We pick up the pieces, try to limit the damage and therein we see the darkest secrets of the afflicted, rich or poor, powerful or weak, man or woman, liberal or conservative, black or white or darker than white and lighter than black. We see it. Some of us are haunted by it.
So here we are, responding to the call for help, for fires in slums, in cheaply built two story caskets, for burning wilderness, for medical aid, for flood, entrapment, earthquake, riots, for mangled vehicles and spilled chemicals and diseased, decayed rotting people. For death in tall towers. We do not ask who these people are, or what their value to humanity is, ...do we? We represent all that so many people in America feel, deep in their heart,.. is still good.
I have often thought to myself, "Would I have gone into the towers too?". I think I would have. I think I may have said to myself, "I don't know if we're going to come out of this", but I don't think I would have hesitated to go. Its not in our culture to do that. I believe there comes a moment for some firemen during some events, (as for many in the military) where you have to seperate yourself from logical argument and you just do what has to be done. It will be analyzed later on, picked apart, critiqued. But at that moment, you have to make a choice, "people are dying. Will I lay down my life for them?".
Can a fireman be a fireman without being willing to face that choice? And it is a choice. I believe you make a conscious choice to commit, whatever the outcome. I have heard it said that a hero is not the one madly rushing around, charging into the inferno, the battleground, half out of his mind with passion or rage, but the one who pauses, considers what must be done and what the cost will be, then goes anyway.
So these people that the 343 went to save were not strangers to them. They knew that they were rushing to save stained, flawed human beings, who the day before may have been the ones to cut them off in traffic or voted against the fund increase, or maybe had even darker secrets. And they went anyway. They gave of themselves. One survivor of the towers stated that he looked into a fireman's eyes as he passed by him in the stairwell and he saw in those eyes that that fireman was aware of exactly what he was doing and where he was going and what waited for him there, and yet...., and yet, he did not falter, every step measured.
So we give of ourselves for these people, and in doing so, as Chief Croker pointed out, we have been allowed to perform the very same service that Christ did for us all, ...laying our lives down for our friends. Mankind. The Chief stated, and I declare also, that one can think of no greater role in life. No greater calling. All other occupations and pasttimes pale in comparison.
Understand me, I do not long for death, I do not wish to leave my wife and children behind. I say a prayer at every black door that He will bring me back to them. I do however, believe that He has called me to be true to my profession and if He should ask it of me, ...how could I deny Him, when He has already given the same for me? I am a man of faith. I am compelled by my faith to serve my God. I believe that the Earth is God's and everything in it, and I believe that anything I do, is therefore done for Him. So as a fireman, I believe that I must give everything I have to give in doing my duty, every day, every moment.
I don't know what or who you believe in, but if you are a fireman, then you are my brother. I have seen all kinds of portrayals and imitations of what people believe is good. But I know that when I am among my brethren in the fire service I am among people who Give what is good. Their lives.
NEVER FORGET - FDNY 343
Capt. Ben Fleagle, President, Farthest North FOOLS