The FDIC Experience: Returning Home

Alex, Laurie and Kathleen

Alex, Laurie and Kathleen

My goal is to chronicle, as best I can, some of the many great experiences I had last week at FDIC-2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana. There’s so many of them flowing through my brain, some of them are short snippets while others I remember as full-length features, and I plan to present them accordingly.

My FDIC-2010 experience ranks up there with some of the greatest memories of my career and life. Full of laughs (my stomach still hurts), meeting good people (and John and Rhett too!), going on “adventures” together and most importantly, sharing the brotherhood that few other professions enjoy.

So, with the intent of eventually sharing all of these experiences, I thought I would start with the end of the trip instead of the beginning; for in the end, in a very unexpected way, the value of my trip to FDIC and the importance of my returning home became very apparent to me.

You’ll see why in just a little bit.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

Following an adventurous ride to the airport on Saturday, April 24 — compliments of John Mitchell of www.firefighternetcast.com (one of my new BFFs!) — I boarded the plane from Indy to Baltimore. Arriving in Baltimore a few minutes early, I now faced a four-hour layover before returning home to Buffalo.

I deplaned and immediately set up shop in the Phillips Seafood Restaurant at BWI Airport. I chose a seat at the closest end of the continuous bench seat that ran around the perimeter of the restaurant, located right next to a power outlet for my laptop. Perfect.

For the next four long hours I felt like I was in a scene from “The Terminal” — the movie about an eastern immigrant stuck living in the airport with nowhere to go and unable to leave because he had no country to return to, and therefore no official citzenship anywhere.

There was a group of three women sitting at the table next to me when I sat down. After ordering a pop and a cup of crab soup I fired up my laptop and started to upload some of the photos and videos I took this week.

The women eventually finished their meal and left, assumably to catch their plane. A short while passed before another group of three sat down at the table next to me. It appeared to me from their conversations and interaction that the older couple was flying through Baltimore and was sitting with either a son or a close family friend who had met them at the airport to help pass the time away while they waited for their connecting flight.

All three of them ordered a drink and the woman, obviously in her sixties or older, was quite flattered when the waitress actually required each of them to show their IDs for proof of age. Everyone laughed. I chimed in that the waitress “just does that to get more tips.” Those folks were nice enough to watch my things so that I could take a bathroom break without having to pack up all my gear I had spread out all over the table.

I continued my photo downloading and uploading, Tweeting and Facebooking – much of it with the folks I had left behind in Indianapolis. It eventually came time for the couple at the table-next-door to board their plane and all three said goodbye to me and left the restaurant together.

Pacing my four-hour feeding foray, I ordered crab cakes simply to pass the time and satisfy my frequent craving for seafood. Growing up in a family of eight kids, our house rule was that the first one done eating had to start doing the dishes. I joke that I never did a dish in my life. Thus, I am an extremely slow eater, much to the dismay of those who dine with me — especially those I shared meals with in Indy.

Savoring every bite, I slowly ate the mini-crab cakes and washed them down with a cup of coffee in an effort to stay awake for fear of missing my plane.

A family of four sat down at the table next to me a short while later. The youngest boy walked between the tables and saddled up next to me on the cushioned bench seat. His butt was still sliding across the vinyl when he asked me: “What’s your name?”

I told him my name and he looked at me a bit strangely, a typical reaction from young children (and some adults). I asked him his name: “Ryan,” he answered loudly and clearly. His interrogation intensified from there.

We bantered back and forth and he told me that they too were returning home, although he had trouble pronouncing the name of the state he was from. Ryan, probably only five or six years old, blurted out “I’ve seen you on TV.” I answered that while that is entirely possible as I’m on TV fairly often, I said that I didn’t think that was really the case here.

His father, dressed in a plain white t-shirt, was sitting kitty-corner to me and asked where I was coming from. I told him that I was coming from FDIC in Indianapolis – a gathering of 30,000 firefighters from around the world. He responded with “Are you on the job?”

Ding-Ding-Ding!

That question, posed that way, is a tell-tale sign that you are now talking to another firefighter. We proceeded to exchange the usual “firefighter first-date” questions of what deparment are you with, how long have you been a firefighter, how big is the department, etc., etc.

It wasn’t long before his older son, perhaps nine or ten, quipped that his dad always meets other firefighters “Wherever we go” and “is always chit-chatting with them.” I felt right at home, having heard something very similar and very often from my family.

We shared that instantaneous bond, that immediate acceptance that only comes from talking with a brother firefighter, and the conversation flowed freely, albeit frequently interrupted by his young son.

He said he was a career firefighter but had no immediate intentions of becoming an officer because he would start at the bottom of the ladder in that rank, and won’t have the same scheduling flexibility he has now. “But I’m debating whether or not to take a position that would give me a regular 40-hour work week to spend more time at home,” he said.

I don’t know why, I don’t know what I sensed, but at that very moment, I asked him where they were flying from.

He told me that they had just spent a week in Disney World.

Pause…

“We are returning home from my son’s Make-a-Wish trip,” he added.

Pause…

Pause…….

Pause…………..

I tried my best not to look shocked or surprised but we had obviously just crossed another threshold of that bond that only comes with the real brotherhood of the fire service. Apparently, in that very short time together, we had established enough of a rapport that he felt comfortable in sharing something so very personal.

I know that he didn’t tell me that to make me feel sorry for them or to bring attention to themselves. He told me simply because he knew I would understand.

Without me prying, without me asking what his son’s ailment was or what his prognosis was, he knew that I would understand why a hard-working man, a firefighter, would give up the opportunity to become an officer because it would give him more time to take care of his ailing son.

He knew that I had two great, healthy kids at home because he heard me answer one of Ryan’s earlier inquiries. He knew I would understand.

I looked at Ryan and tried to re-engage him in a conversation as he was growing restless that their food wasn’t there yet.

And then, in a move that took me by complete surprise, his father turned and gave some medications to Ryan’s older brother.

I tried my best not to look shocked or startled.

I gave him my card and told him about my Run-to-the-Curb project where I’m collecting stories from firefighters just like him. I knew he would understand.

I hope he connects with me because I’d like to help in some way. Perhaps him telling his story would bring some form of comfort and healing to a father hurting for his son.

It was now time for me to go to the gate so I could catch my plane. I gathered my things and wished them the best and walked away from that young family of four.

It was in that instant that I realized the gifts I had received by being surrounded by my brothers for the past week, the gift of being a firefighter and for the opportunity to return home to three happy, healthy gifts I’ve been blessed with: Laurie, Kathleen and Alex.

That firefighter and his family had given me another gift: A reminder to surround yourself with people you love, that life is short, and to make the best of every moment we have together.

And that’s the greatest gift of all.

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Tiger Schmittendorf

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