The Axemen lost another brother.
A few months ago, I shared a post about the importance of maintaining some kind of balance between the rigors of being a firefighter and whatever else it takes to put a smile on your face. Such a conversation usually starts with family, extends to a few golf strokes, an annual vacation, or maybe just hanging out with a pack of buddies at the local McDonalds, telling lies about the good ‘ole days.
At the time, David (Professor) and I were fresh off of a 5,849-mile cross-country motorcycle ride. My brother (Ferg) is firefighter and member of the Axemen Motorcycle Club in Washington State. For some time, he had been trying to convince me to join, so last August we decided to embark on a trip to the mother chapter in Detroit. Each day, Axemen from other states joined our convoy– I think we rolled in tight with 25 to 30 scrappy looking bikers, before finally settling in at the Motor City Casino.
The trip spawned some amazing memories and a lot of laughs. It also provided me with a lot of time to think, particularly about what’s important in life and how I had been spending my time. This experience eventually led to 10 firefighters starting the first chapter of the Axemen in California; we were number 30 in the Nation.
Things with the club had been moving along as expected. The 48-96 work shifts continue to make large rides difficult to schedule, but several members have been able to get out to the bars and other club functions to show off their new colors. In fact, just last weekend we secured our first two prospects, bringing our number to 12. You could tell that there was a good vibe among our guys – summer was coming and the two additions made it feel that our pack would soon grow very quickly. Unfortunately, that satisfaction lasted just about 30 minutes, before it flat-lined with a single phone call.
One of our first 10 charter members was named Vince Rodgers. He had retired from the Riverside Fire Department a little over four years ago. Vince and his wife, Beth, owned a Harley and loved to ride, so when they heard about the chapter forming, the decision to join seemed easy. All members eventually earn a road name, often from some embarrassing moment or bonehead decision that they could not shake. Vince’s new handle was Malibu and Beth became Lola; the story of how their names were earned predated our friendship but, it seemed appropriate for a couple of beach drifters from California.
My cell phone rang late Sunday afternoon. It was TJ (Babu), a Battalion Chief with the Riverside Fire Department and the Treasurer of our local Axemen chapter. “Scott, I’m on my way to the emergency room at Mission Hospital. Vince has had a heart attack; they are doing CPR in the back of an ambulance, and it doesn’t look good.” My stomach dropped. Vince and Beth shared lunch with a few of us just the day before – he helped interview our new prospect. Shoot, he was just texting us just a couple of hours before the call.
“TJ, we are on our way; we’ll get the notifications started and meet you at the hospital.” After hanging up, I called Derek (Slick) and asked him to help start a phone tree. I figured that he was the perfect choice because Derek had just had knee replacement surgery; there were a couple of complications, so I did not think that there any way he could get out of bed. Wrong. He made the calls, but Slick did not let a broken knee keep him from getting a lift to the hospital from his wife, Dani (Mama D). “I’ll be there.”
Making things happen is what we do; firefighters learn quickly to bury their emotions until the job gets done, and then bury them deeper, often over a beer, in order to avoid any personal connection. That is what was happening: respond with haste, make some calls, show support, bury the pain, and repeat as often as necessary. But, that toughness lasted for about 10 minutes, until one after the other our new family of Axemen were on the road. Even Greg, a prospect who had only 48 hours earlier committed to the club, hopped on his bike and headed to Mission. That triggered something. It was short, and my wife probably did not notice, but I choked up…in fact, every time I heard those four words, “I’m on my way,” I choked up. And, I knew why.
Malibu was gone by the time we arrived at the hospital. Lola, some friends and family, and most of the California Axemen had already gathered around his hospital bed. There were plenty of hugs, condolences, and goodbyes.
At some point, after several of us had sat or propped ourselves up against a wall in the crowded waiting room, I heard someone ask one of our Axemen if he belonged to the same Wild Hogs motorcycle club that Vince had joined. My friend (Babu) just smiled and said yes, never lifting his head to fully acknowledge the question. I did not see it, but inside I could feel his eyes rolling as he whispered his response.
I’ve heard others snicker and make similar wisecracks before. It seems clear that most of the remarks were meant as a slight; what seems equally clear is that they don’t really get it. On the surface, it may appear that our riders are just a bunch of roleplaying receding hairlines that ride bikes, drink beer, smoke cigars, and stitch corny names on their vests. There is beer; there are cigars; and the Axemen do wear vests with names, some of which even make me snicker. But there is more…there is a lot more, and that is why Vince joined.
Here is the deal, and what makes the cracks about the Hogs kind of ironic. The Axemen embody a familiar brotherhood that often fills a void left by the loss of our connection with the firehouse. You see, for decades Vince Rodgers was a firefighter, golf buddy, fisherman, union board member, political action guy, and family man. But, the day after his retirement he lost three of those distinctions that help define who he was as a person.
At lunch, the day before he passed, Vince shared that he had really struggled with retirement, “It was like a switch had turned off; one day I was part of something special, and the next…I wasn’t.” His family, close friends, and belonging to the Axemen allowed Vince to feel like he was a part of something again; and, that as part of a new club, he made a difference.
That fade-to-black experience Vince described is familiar to a lot of us; even those that are still working. That point was driven home during our chapter’s patch-in party.
The Professor and I had experienced the ground swell of brotherhood during our ride to Detroit. If there were any questions about our conviction to join the Axemen, they disappeared somewhere between a Kansas salt mine and our introduction to a Wisconsin guy wearing a kilt, cut, and motorcycle boots. However, the remaining eight of our virgin chapter joined in faith that they too could capture something intangible they had been missing. My sense is that over the course of a few hours, any lingering questions were laid to rest.
We hosted our patch-in party in February of 2019. Roughly 35 Axemen and their wives and significant others from around the country showed up. Rockers were represented from as far away as Washington, Kansas, Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan. They came to welcome us in to a family of over 600-members.
At some point in our patch-in party, the National officers got up and spoke about the values of the club, including our commitment to each other, our profession and the community. National President, Brent Gilbert spoke, as did our regional VPs (Tiny and Timmy). But, it was Lookout’s comments that took me back a bit.
Vince’s sense of loss is certainly a history lesson that many of our retirees experience, but what Lookout described was something different. Consider this as I share his perspective: if we were supposed to emulate the Wild Hogs, then Lookout was a perfect character fit for the Del Fuegos (a tough guy motorcycle club featured in the movie). He has to be at least 6’3”, lean, bald, and has a long beard bound by a few rubber bands; you know, the kind of guy you would expect to see standing in the background of a Sons of Anarchy episode. Lookout’s comments were short and to the point, “…the fire service has changed; and, in many ways, the club fills in where our department brothers once did, but clearly no longer do…” Insert bad a**, menacing, but somehow thoughtful look HERE.
What I took out of it was that, even for those still on the job, the sense of brotherhood once felt in the firehouse has somehow begun to slip away. That is not to say that there is no longer any fun, or that lifelong friendships have somehow magically ceased to exist. But, even as a chief, I will acknowledge that we have legislated away some of the antics that added a little balance to the growing crap sandwich our first responders are asked to eat every time they go on a tough call. One also has to acknowledge that technology has shoved our noses into a phone or I-Pad, instead of spending time talking; and that fewer of our new hires have learned a traditional trade, so there is less off-duty time helping to pour concrete or roof our buddies’ houses.
Things have changed; and, probably for good reason. But, what Vince and all the other California guys learned that night is that being an Axemen offers the same structure and core values that the fire service does, without a feeling that if you swear or tell an off-colored story, a human resource analyst will be hiding in the shadows, waiting to write you up.
So, while it’s true that our steel-toed boots and Nomex uniforms have been traded in for torn Levis, a black t-shirt, and worn-out pair of Chucks, our patches remain as a symbol of a love of service and a love for one another.
He was only 60 years old.
Services for Vince “Malibu” Rodgers were held on May 24, 2019. The small chapel was packed full of friends and family, including a sea of faces representing the Riverside Fire Department. The setting, flowers, and ceremony was remarkable. The memories offered by Vince’s son and a good friend were compelling. And, the slides on the wall made it clear that he had a many good friends that did things with him, and that they respected and looked out for him, just as he looked out for them.
With the help of Babu and Mike (The Boss), our club was also allowed to pay its respects. On the second row of pews on the left, ten of Vince’s new brothers sat side-by-side, anchored on the end by the National President of the Axemen. Brent Gilbert had only met Vince once during the patch-in party. But, on a 24-hour turnaround, he flew in for the funeral, during which he was able to provide a nice tribute to Lola. This effort was matched by hundreds of other Axmen sharing their condolences on social media and over the phone. A chapter from New York (NY4) even sent money to Lola to help offset her expenses.
This piece is more than the eulogy of a fallen friend; it’s a testament of how important it is to find some form of balance to offset the cumulative stress that comes with being a firefighter. As in Vince’s case, it is also a plea to find something to fill the void left by retirement, and not allow the fire service to fully define who you are as a person.
So, for those that call us the Wild Hogs, we are not. What we are is a Nation of Axemen rooted in Detroit, Spokane, Philadelphia, Chicago, Hutchison, New York City, and a number of other communities across this country. We ride badass motorcycles and some drink beer and smoke cigars; we also serve our communities with dignity and respect, and have developed lifelong friendships that ensure we will never be without an out-of-town place to stay.
Vince “Malibu” Rodgers was a charter member of the first Axemen club in California; he was a friend to many and an inspiration to all that knew him well. The spirit of Vince will soon be captured on a patch that will be added to our cuts (vests) in his memory, and Lola will always remain part of our family.