Tomorrow I will don my "Class A" uniform and say farewell to a friend, brother, mentor, and fireman.
The last word seems to be the most important. Yes, I know that all those words are important—but the last one sticks out. It means more than most know, spoken by and about the right people.
Injured while at home on Thanksgiving Day, admitted to R. Adams Cowley Shock/Trauma Center in Baltimore, MD., and then passing on the 29th of November, this man will leave a lasting and irreplaceable hole within the crew of Engine Co. 15 and Rescue Co. 3 in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
Our platoon, shift #3, shall always remember him fondly. A man who showed up to work not only early, but upwards of two hours early to give the guys on the previous shift a break from the most terrible hours of watch; a man who always had a story that would leave us in stitches; a man who you could count on to always have your back if things went south on a fireground; and a man who never failed to give his advice—warranted, or unwarranted, mind you—and usually turned out to be right.
A fifteen-year veteran (and I don't use that term lightly—time served does not a veteran make, on this job) of the Washington, D.C. Fire Department, he had seen and done more than most would hope to in a lifetime of firefighting. Did something strange or unusual happen to you while on a call? Right about then, he would interject "Oh, that's nothing! This one time…" from across the apparatus bay. (Ears like a hawk, that one.)
Confused about where to go/what to do/how to handle anything? Ask Mikey. "Aw, that's easy. Here's what you do, slim…"
In my short five years on the job, I've known very few who were as jovial, as dedicated, or as enjoyable to be around as him. Detailed to three months on one of the busiest ambulances in the city? Not a single missed day of work, and only a handful of good-hearted complaints (mostly to make us laugh during the few hungry minutes he spent in quarters during a 24-hour shift).
He could tell a story with such poise, such well-crafted tempo, and with such hilarious brevity that three minutes of answering "what'd you do on your three days off?" turned into a riotous moment in the firehouse. His stories were the stuff of Fire Department legend—except that there were witnesses to back up every unbelievable bit and every ridiculous detail.
How he got into these various messes, I'll never know.
This past Sunday, my shift was working their first tour since his death. I was off work that day, but drove up to the firehouse to see the guys as soon as I was able. Expecting a somber mood in the firehouse (and having never experienced the death of a member before), I was quite intrigued to find the voices at high volume, and the spirits even higher. Yes, Mike died. Yes, it was a terrible accident. And while we were in the midst of assisting with everything we could for his wife and his four daughters, the brotherhood remained as enthusiastic and as animated as ever. I left the firehouse several hours later feeling unexpectedly rejuvenated by my coworkers and their attitudes towards recent events.
You see, these moments do not bring the brotherhood down. They do not darken our spirits as they would in other careers. Yes, we engage in a dangerous job (our firefighting gear, by NFPA standards, actually has a bit of text imprinted on the inside of each item. The paragraph begins with the sentence "Firefighting is an inherently dangerous activity." We are certainly aware of this.) However, we are firemen. We are a brotherhood of insanely tenacious, ruthlessly loyal, and unbelievably close-knit people who can weather any storm, and press on through any hardship.
I am a young fireman, edging my way into a fraternity that started in 1871. Tomorrow, I will come to terms with the fact that there will be one less advice-giver, one less infectious laugh, and one less corner seat filled by one of the finest members of the brotherhood that I will ever know in my career.
Mike: you will, of course, be missed. You will, of course, be honored in a manner befitting a fireman. And you will, God willing, never leave the hearts and minds of your family, friends, and fellow firemen of the District of Columbia Fire Department.
God bless and take care, Mikey. We'll see you on the "big one."