Recently I had the opportunity to participate in what I thought was going to be a “speed recruiting” event at a local high school, unaware until I got there that the tables would be turned and I was the one who was going to be interviewed.
More than 30 high school sophomores, juniors and seniors rotated through dozens of tables occupied by a variety of employers and business people, with each student asking us, “What do you do on a daily basis?”
If you know anything about my unconventional and widely varied role in emergency services, you know that’s a difficult question to answer as my activities vary greatly from hour-to-hour, let alone day-to-day.
After enjoying several great but albeit, three-minute long conversations with some very impressive, well poised and focused high-schoolers, the last student to interview me caught me completely off-guard with his response to my line of questioning.
A nice looking and fit young man dressed in a neatly pressed shirt and tie saddled up to the narrow, cocktail-like round table with high-back chairs that I was sitting at: Table 15.
As most of the other students started by asking me what I did for a living, I thought I’d go on the “offensive” with this last student and ask him about his plans for the future.
He had obviously practiced his “elevator speech” as he was quick to reply with, “I hope to go into some form of public service, either the military, law enforcement; or [wait for it…] I’d really like to be a firefighter.” Obviously intrigued by his very direct and relatable response, I asked him what was motivating him to go into public safety?
“Well, for several reasons, but most of all because….my brother died in a fire.”
While his response caught me completely off guard, my attention peaked as he shared the story about his brother’s death. As he elaborated on the details, I felt a sense of anxiety rush over me. My eyes welled up and I had already made several obvious attempts to clear my throat when he came to the point in his story where he shared his brother’s first name. It was then that I broke in and finished his sentence by saying his brother’s last name.
Staring back at me was a look on his face much like the one that I’d been trying to hide for the past few minutes as my realization that I had a very personal connection to his brother’s story grew, exponentially. He asked, “How would you know that?”
“I don’t know how to tell you this, or even if I should be telling you this but; I was the firefighter who rescued your brother from that fire,” I squeaked out in a somewhat trembling voice.
Memories and emotions that I had apparently been suppressing for the past 15-years were reignited. I went on to tell him, â€œIt was January 17, 1999. It was 5:30 in the morning. There was four-feet of snow on the ground. It was my birthday. He died two days later. I remember your brother and recite his name every year on that day. That’s how I remember.”
Although it wasn’t the first rescue I’d performed, or my first rescue of a teenager under very similar circumstances; this particular incident left a permanent scar on my outlook as a firefighter, for reasons I can’t share here.
That was 15-years ago. His brother was 18. The now-sophomore sitting in front of me was just two years old at the time, and never had the opportunity to know his brother.
While I didn’t share any other details of that cold January morning, not much more needed to be said for either of us to realize that we had inadvertently exposed a connection, and how that event brought us together 15- years later.
Unfortunately, his connection to tragedy didn’t end there. He lost his mother and later an older sister at a time in his life when a young boy needs both of those influences more than ever.
Despite all the pain of his losses, he sat down at my table with a confident and genuine smile, full of energy and life. He displayed a healthy, bright attitude and an unwavering commitment to make something of himself while simultaneously improving his community as he transitioned from boy â€“ to young man. His shear resilience was an instant inspiration to me. How he was able to even carry a smile on his face remains a mystery to me.
As it turns out, he lives in the response area of my volunteer fire company. At the risk of overstepping my primary purpose for being there, I felt that I had both an opportunity and an obligation to invite him to explore becoming a part of our fire department.
I felt obliged to welcome him into our fire service family after he had already lost so much in his. I felt compelled to help him get a head start on creating his legacy of service. I sensed that he could be a young man in need of a mentor.
I had a mentor in my life who I’ve spoken and written about repeatedly: Bob Newell.
Bob had the unique ability to perform a quick and accurate size-up of someone’s character and potential. And, if he determined you to be someone worth investing in, there was no limitation to the scope or value of his investment.
And if you weren’t someone who displayed the right attitude, work ethic or respect for his strong value system, he didn’t waste any time in making that perfectly clear to you, either.
Most of all, he possessed the unique ability to impart grace, always leaving the door open for you to change his attitude towards you. I’d like to think that I inherited some of Bob’s finer qualities in his passing six years ago.
As this student and I got to know each other a little more and expand on the link that we’d discovered just a few moments before, I looked across the table, validating my size-up of a young man with the potential for a promising future who deserved to be invested in.
Overall, I was extremely impressed and proud of each and every student as they approached my table, extending their hand forward to offer a firm handshake and a professionally designed business card as a means of introduction and establishing rapport.
It wasn’t until this last student sat at my table that I extended my business card in return, along with the offer that if there was anything I could do to assist him in his education, employment or other endeavors, to please not hesitate to reach out to me.
The chill that came over me when I realized that his story was, at least in part, my story too â€“ is the very same reaction that everyone has had who I’ve told this story to.
Unsettling at first, that chill quickly turned to into the warmth of realizing that I had just been blessed with an opportunity to make some sense of a senseless tragedy and to bring some closure to a moment that changed my life accompanied by the unique gift I’d been offered to have a positive impact in someone else’s.
Regardless of your own personal belief in higher-beings, there is no doubt in my mind that, just as God put me in that place at that time 15-years ago, he brought us together for a reason one-and-a half decades later, too. What that reason is or whether it’s for his benefit or mine, or whether our connection will last beyond a three-minute speed interview; will just have to wait for the remainder of his story to unfold.
I guess I hadn’t realized that I’d been suppressing the memories and emotions of that fire for 15-years. And I’m ok with that.
Now, thanks to an encounter that others might dismiss as ‘by chance’, I look forward to what the future will write for him, and for me.
Will our stories be written side-by-side – or on separate pages? I don’t know.
But, I’m willing to invest another 15-years or more to find out.