More and more of my firemen friends are retiring, this is the result of hiring large recruit academies in the early 80’s. I have gone to a few retirement parties to wish my friends well in retirement land and to see other retirees, it's the only place we see each other.
Retirement parties serve many different purposes outside of the larger event the retirement itself. I wasn’t going to allow my crew to have a party on my behalf for a few reasons. First because of how I came to retire, retirement wasn’t actually in my plans, in fact I left 5 years ahead of my schedule due to my alcoholism.
I won’t retell that whole story but suffice it to say that I showed up to work hung over smelling of alcohol and was asked to retire rather than be fired. Because of that I didn’t have a lot of pride left in at the end of my career. In fact I suffered massive guilt and shame in the end.
So why would anyone want to come say good bye to me? I was a drunk and got caught at work, no honor in that I told myself. I didn’t want to suffer what I had seen others go through simply because of what others thought of them. I worked with one fireman that had put in his 25 years and was going. He didn’t want a party and so we honored his request and on his last day after all that time passed quietly.
So quietly that the only person that did show for the non-party was a Deputy Chief and he was the operations Chief as that. The Chief rolled in on his motorcycle on a hot summer day, we were all in the kitchen having just finished lunch when he walked in. He was in street clothes and very nonchalant about his visit.
I offered the Chief a drink of water and after a few minutes of light banter he reached in his pocket and carelessly pulled out a small leather billfold and flipped it across the table to “Blue” the fireman that was serving his last day after 25 years and said.
“There you go Blue, congratulations.”
Blue picked up the small billfold and opened it, it held a small gold badge and that was that. The Chief finished his water and was gone. I thought to myself is that it? After all those years, all that hard work, that is how he was shown the door.
The other style of party required a facility bigger than a firehouse, it required a hotel sometimes or maybe the Elks Club. Oh and it was a big deal, dignitaries of all sort showed for these, there was much speechifying, gift giving and drinking. This type of party was usually reserved for the gold badges. You would have to of been one hell of a lowly fireman to rank a party like that.
So I wasn’t going to expose myself to that kind of public ridicule. I wasn’t going to let anyone kick me on the way out the door, because I knew how many people I had let down and how many people were going to be glad to see me go. I felt so worthless at the end of my career that my actions had canceled out every bit of good I had ever done.
I was so selfish and full of self loathing at that point I just wanted to fade away like old Blue did. What a terrible feeling that was and I remember speaking about it in an AA meeting. Following the meeting I was pulled aside by a former Army Ranger.
“Tim can I tell you something?” He asked.
“Sure Dave, what?” I answered.
“Well I heard what you had to say today about your retirement party and I felt compelled to say something about that. That party isn’t for you Tim. It’s for them, it’s for the people you worked with to be able to come say good bye and to honor your service.” He said.
“It will be to embarrassing Dave, nobody will come.” I said.
“That is where you are wrong Tim. The ones that love you and respect you, they will come because they remember what you have done over the years. This thing is for them and if you don’t do it you will always regret it my friend. Just my two cents worth, but if I were you, I’d do it, for them not you.” He shook my hand, winked and walked away.
I respect Dave immensely and so I took his advice and had a party, not for me, for them. The day of my party came and my guys at station 7 “The Hero House” were really kind and had arranged an amazing celebration for me. I sat around nervously waiting for it, to happen.
At the appointed time the first guest to arrive was my very first Lieutenant, he walked in the kitchen and I wondered why this guy was there, I hadn’t seen him for probably 20 years and I was just a probie for him. Why would he be there?
“Hicks Bob what are you doing here?” I asked. We had always said his name backwards Hicks Bob, instead of Bob Hicks.
“Aren’t you retiring today TimO? He asked.
“Well ya I am.” I said.
“Well that’s why I’m here for your retirement.” He said.
He came over and shook my hand and we visited for a few moments, until more and more firemen began to fill the kitchen and the whole firehouse. There were too many of them to spend a great deal of time with each one.
I was stunned, I really was. In my head I had expected to endure a small gathering that would have to eat too much cake and ice cream to prevent it from going to waste.
As I moved around and visited with so many old faces I felt like I was in a Museum of Firefighting History. There were so many greats in the crowd, the men that had “boot strapped” me through my very difficult early years. The men that had given me so much and taught me enough to stay alive.
I was absolutely blown away, why would these guys come for me? Then I had to think, if the best I had ever known came to wish me well maybe I wasn’t the piece of shit I viewed myself to be. Maybe I had done some good, maybe I had made a contribution to the job I loved so well.
I was also reminded that we only rent the firehouses we occupy during our career. We are temporary inhabitants and we will soon be forgotten it is our destiny to make room for the next batch of heroes to come and take our place. To save the next life and fight the next fire.
I am so glad I did it.