“True Grit”

Ok, pull yer cup over and fill it, I’m in a talkin’ mood.  I’ve been thinking about who we are or rather, who we should strive to be.  What kind of firemen?  What does it mean to be a part of the Brotherhood?  What does honor and integrity have to do with modern life?  How does fortitude factor into the pristine firehouse, with marble floors, flat screen TVs’ and personal “dorm” rooms?  We should talk about all these things, but first lets start with what kind of firemen we should be..

Have you ever walked into an old firehouse and felt the presence of the past?  Our history, our heritage as the guardians of each and every community is woven into these places.  Perhaps your boots echo on the floor as you walk in, and you notice the solemn quiet of the resting workhorse, the old engine in its honored place.  The shiny chrome knobs and levers tell of a simpler time, when operating a pump was a matter of finesse. 

Portland Fire. As old as they come. Photo by author. 2009

A set of rickety stairs rises to the bunkroom on the right, the stalls that held the horses might no longer be there in the back of the bay,  but you can sense that they have not been long forgotten.   The striker on the bell at the watch desk seems as if poised to ring and if you have an active imagination, maybe you can smell the aroma of the beanery, an afternoon meal on the stove and coffee. 

Hooking up the team. From the Gordon Archive, used by permission.

The paint on the old rig is a beautiful bright red that seems to be the color of the purist valor and courage.  Its deep hue seems to speak of old things, men long gone.  These men were different.  They lived hard lives, these old smoke eaters.  They worked hard at making a living from childhood and then, became firemen.  And the thing I admire most about them was their willingness to sacrifice themselves.  Not that they wanted to lay down their lives, but that in so many ways, they gave of their lives daily.  Theirs was a hard lot and their wives and children paid the heaviest price.  Even until my uncle’s generation.  Its only been recently that wages have gotten better and the gear has been provided.   Are we soft in comparison?  Do we lack the “sand” to really be the men and women of character that are needed today?

We do live better lives, but if we are well versed in our heritage, we can find our way.  We can go the “Last Full Measure”.

As you walk through the engine bay through the old house, you come across reminders of these men.  Old leather helmets and fronts, brass nozzles and iron axes, perhaps a parade item or two and you see things that they took great pride in and cherished as emblems of their chosen profession.  For many, it was a second profession, one that they did not get any pay for, but loved more.

Ladder Co. 5, Portland Fire. Detail from a photo display. Portland Fire Museum.

You can find some of these same men on the battlefields of our nation.  Their “grit” and sense of duty compelled them to be in the fore, laying down their lives for our nation.   On the battlefield of Gettysburg is a humble monument in a grassy field.  As proud and noble a monument as any, a soldier and a firemen, the same.  So many walk by that monument without giving it much thought, but it speaks volumes.  Do you, brother, know how many firemen have died in the recent wars of our nation? 

RFB. Remember Fallen Brothers. Especially those who answered our country's call. Photo by author.

In one of our houses, a picture hangs.   It is the photo of Capt. Dugan, FDNY, as he makes fast “Old Glory” on a street light at Ground Zero.  He is on a straight ladder, held in place by a strapping big New Yorker.  That man holding the ladder, has fallen in the line of duty for his country since that photo, or so I’m told.  How much can you give?  Will you give all you have?  What kind of men are these?   Men and women who give everything they have for others. 

This past week my daughter and I went to see the remake of the famous Western, “True Grit”. Being a bona-fide, dyed in the wool American of genuine pioneer stock, I do of course proscribe to the belief that all good American firemen should raise their daughters to believe in John Wayne for President. Having abided by this philosophy of mine, my eldest and I took in the latest Western offering. I went into the theatre with some cause for concern, as I do believe John Wayne cannot be reproduced by anyone. In this concern, I was only somewhat justified, for Jeff Bridges did the position honor enough. But what I had not counted on was the character of Mattie Ross, who in the first movie version, was an annoying nun-like character with a bad boy’s haircut. This second version of Mattie, played by Hailee Steinfeld, was something all together different.  In the opening scene, as Mattie Ross is looking out of the train car window, I knew immediately that this kid defines the meaning of “True Grit” and felt that admiration for something that feels uniquely American in origin.  Perhaps she reminded me of the ruggedness I find in my own daughters.  With her simple braids and her father’s cap, his Colt’s Dragoon under her coat, she reminds me of the kind of people we used to be in this country and also the pride I feel in being a father when I realize my children do have what it takes to find their way in this ugly world.  They too, have “true grit”.  I’ve raised them that way and God has blessed me.

This, I believe is what we must be.  Men and women of “True Grit”.  Our lives are not full of the flint edged hardness that was once America, but we need that flint like toughness about us nonetheless.  Our job it would seem, is a straightforward one.   We are to  hold the lives of the public dearly and ….

“We are the defenders from fire of the art which has beautified the world, the product of the genius of men and the means of the refinement of mankind.”  –E. Croker, Fire Chief, FDNY

Brother Gillan's leather. A man of "True Grit". I stole the pic, I "dunna" think he'll mind.

AS this world around us steadily advances “the art of refinement”, the character traits of old are still needed.  For under the weight of progress, the flotsam of life is cast aside, the defenseless are left alone.  What am I talking about?  I’m talking about the homeless, the children who can’t defend themselves, the family that doesn’t see it coming or the immigrant family that is sleeping in a cubical, one of five families in an apartment built for one family.  The squatter that starts a fire in an abandoned building to keep warm.  The “missing occupant” that everyone is sure is still inside the burning building until a fireman is dead and the missing “occupant” shows up on the street watching the fire.  As society’s “art” is advanced, these people are viewed by almost everyone (even the pious enlightened) as a necessary cost.  But we are to view them differently, we are to place a high premium on their survivability and make every rational and sometimes irrational effort to pursue it. 

But if we are going to take such a stance, if we are to value life so dearly, brother, let us also value each other’s lives so much more.  We should not “sell” our own lives cheaply.  For in our own homes we are needed.  They wait for us, they need us to come home after each tour, alive and well.  So do everything within your power to work aggressively, train hard and fight smart.  Educate yourself, improve yourself, practice your profession so that at the moment of calling you will not falter and strive to prevent loss of life, then ..when all else fails, devote your last full measure.  “True Grit”.  Talk with you again soon, brother.

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