Yesterday I found out that I have been walking around with a broken back (literally) since my fall in January. I have a compression fracture at the L3/L4 level. That’s above the two levels I destroyed in 2012 which led to my retirement. It is a stable fracture, so I just have to give it time to heal and suffer quite a bit in the meantime. Though everyone talks about the “Opiod Crisis”, what they don’t tell you is that all of the restrictions on getting the medications don’t actually have an impact on illegal drug users, but those with a legitimate medical need (because their f—–g back is broken), can’t get adequate pain control. But I digress.
Since my original injuries are due to the fire service, I’ve been reflecting a little bit on my career and what it meant or means to me. When I was a young kid, new to the job, we’d make fun of the old school firemen we worked with. These were men who’d served in Vietnam and had 30 years on the job by the late 90s. They would sit around the table upstairs and bitch about the “youngsters” on the job and how much better it was “back in the day”. I would never consider myself old school now, but a conversation I had with a young firefighter the other day proved otherwise.
He was shocked when I told him how, back in the 90s, we could smoke in the fire station. These days, a lot of departments have gone to requiring all firefighters to be non-smokers, on duty AND off. Hell, I remember smoking a cigarette on the fire truck. En route to a fire. We didn’t wear our seat belts. We didn’t wear SCBA while doing salvage and overhaul. Our engines routinely went out with three person crews. In fact, my first engine was a 78 La France, which just so happens to be the year I was born. We did not hit it hard from the yard, we went in, found the fire, and put it out. Now, I’m not saying the old days were better. They were merely different. If anything, the increased awareness of things like job related cancer indicates that the job is finally starting to own up to the fact that just because putting out fires in dangerous, you can still mitigate a lot of the ancillary risks.
I had a student once ask me (during a lecture about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) if I would have preferred to work in 1911 or when I did. I had to think about it for a minute. There were pluses and minuses to both. Ultimately, the job really hasn’t changed all that much. Sure, we have more EMS calls than fires. But at the end of the day, we are still firefighters. The feeling a firefighter in 1895 had when responding to a reported building fire is no different than what I experienced in 15 years on the job. It’s a feeling like no other. Better than sex and as addictive as cocaine. And it is universal. I’ve met firefighters from different eras and different countries, but our bond transcends time and distance. Our shared pride in our jobs brings us together.
So no, I don’t really consider myself old school (despite the fact I wore a leather helmet and ate my share of smoke), but the main reason for that is because I could never manage to grow the legendary handlebar mustache required of all Old School Firemen.