Friday, July 27, 2012

Cultural Notes on the World of Firefighters (or at least one)

Several people, Hubs included, have asked if I was going to blog more about the fire department. My playful posts on this topic on Facebook have piqued some interest. So here goes. 

Driving Miss Daisy by Day, Hero Work by Night

Am continuing to learn about the unusual world my husband lives in as a leading member of our local volunteer fire department. It's a very significant part of his life, and by extension, mine. One day last week he got off early from his regular job (non-emergency medical transport) to say that for the rest of the day he'd be focused on his "real" job, as if what he does 40 hours a week is not that. The fire department pays him but a small stipend for the privilege of calling him into sometimes dire situations any time of night, but that is of no barrier: it means the world to him.

Why Does He Do It?

1. The Truck. In some contexts he'll claim his motivation is the adrenaline; where else can you drive a big red truck down the wrong side of the road at high speeds and people have to get of your way?

Indeed, I thought of this when we took the antique engine out for a parade function recently. Because I wonder if having access to such machines is the difference between having a boat and having a friend with a boat. (The latter having some obvious advantages.) The privileges of his position may be what preserves our budget. Driving those rigs keeps him content with the aging but fuel-efficient Honda Civic that gets him around on milder occasions.

2. The Uniform. Other times he'll take the "joke" a different direction, asking, what other job allows you to break into people's houses, rummage through their stuff, violate their bodies, suspend their civil rights, and get a thank-you on the way out? I think the bit about violating bodies crosses the line and ought to be rephrased, but he's made this statement so many times he's got it down pat. Tucked in there is a motivation close to his heart: the thank you. Firemen are usually seen as good guys; people don't treat them the same as the policemen who also answer those 911 calls.

While my husband gets to see some darker sides of life and sometimes has to throw his weight around to take control of a chaotic situation, he's honored for it. And he doesn't have to look at the world through the jaded eyes of a cop. So, the identity matters. He wears his uniform and carries a badge with confidence, glad to be recognized as someone who's there to help.

3. The Chance to Serve. Deeper motivation? My husband feels shaped and called by God to come alongside people at their times of greatest need, to save lives. That sounds a bit lofty to throw around in a casual conversation, but that's how it is. I'm not sure how much that would describe other firefighters. But there's something that gets hold of them, gets under their skin and into their blood. Those who stick with it give more of their life to it and take more of their identity from it than I might expect.

I think many of them may find it hard to resist, knowing that when the pager goes off, someone needs them, urgently, needs them more than they need sleep. If they don't go, who will? The district is only a few miles long and a few miles wide, so the people they serve and save are our neighbors.

Hubs may not be a doctor or a counselor but he's a trained medical professional and crisis chaplain, and he's good at it. He knows he can make a difference for the people of our town. So the pager goes off and he's out the door. 

4. It's a Family. I wondered, at first, if my husband's taste for this kind of work grew out of several frustrating relationships in which he felt powerless and unappreciated. It fills an emotional gap for him. I also wondered if our marriage might be positive enough to lessen this effect. It might.

But his commitment to the people of the fire department has gone deep. They may not know each other all that well, in the conventional sense, or have all that much in common. But what they do have in common is pretty unusual. They've each made a commitment to each other and to serving their community, wherever and however needed, and they have to trust each other completely. "These guys have got my back," he explains. And by guys he means women too.

So there's a significant bond there. If he doesn't show up he'll be letting them down; if he's there, his presence helps others be more effective.

As his partner I want to understand and be supportive of the things that are most important to him. The fire department and the fire department people, they are high on that list.

My Place in His World

For me, fitting into this world comes with some different challenges, and I feel awkward about it. The fire department folks tend to be wired in ways I'm not, gifted in my areas of weakness. My husband trusts them with his life (and certainly with his wife). But, overly aware of our differences, I'm stiff and self-conscious and I clam up. I find myself dreading the social events. What can I say when it's so clear that they are handy where I am clumsy and unskilled, practical where I am theoretical, physical where I am cerebral? I don't feel comfortable enough in my own skin to join the conversation and expose the ways that I fear that am less.

So... I probably come across as stuck up, like life on the playground all over again. You may remember that my least favorite parts of school were lunch and recess; youth group was problematic, too. Only in college and ministry did I come into my own. Even in our marriage, I sometimes feel sulky and embarrassed about my weaknesses and areas of inexperience, the ways he and I are not the same - as if I must be the one who is flawed and broken. (Though of course we both are.)

With the fire department? Every now and again, when I'm struggling with my place among them, I remember the morals of all those books and movies I soaked up as a kid, the ones that say "just be yourself." (The Bible has a few things to say about walking in the ways of grace that may be relevant here, too, as well...)

My secret weapons? Well, one, I'm already "in" simply for being their chaplain's wife. I haven't yet learned to think of myself in the spouse category and cash in on that, but I could.

Also, I notice things and ask questions. I know all about how to inquire and learn about their world, their lives, their stories, even if it's not my world, my life, my story. There my work and education serve me well. It's a coping strategy, sure, but it's also how I approach and enjoy life. Knowing how to talk to strangers makes the world so much more fun and helps us find the points of connection that tell us we are not alone.

So little by little I'm able to relax and am making friends among the fire folk. The next big test/opportunity comes up in a few weeks. It's the fire department's annual chicken barbecue, a tradition of more than 50 years. But maybe I'll save my observations about that interesting institution for a later post.

See also:
Part 2: Just A Guy Thing?
Part 3: What Do Firemen Do, Anyway?

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