I ran into Steve at the local Gas-and-Go today. We had a long chat. I hadn't seen him in over a year.
Steve left our fire department a couple of years ago because he no longer had time to devote as a volunteer, and he was struggling to make ends meet. He needed every hour of his day to be available for work. It had been seven years since he had finally decided at the age of 37 to follow his dream to become a career firefighter, and although he poured himself into the job and every training opportunity, he never seemed to get high enough on any lists to get his career badge.
He wasn't one of those guys that just was never going to make it, he nearly always made the list where he tested, usually in the 20s or 30s at the bigger agencies, in the teens or better at the smaller ones. We all told him that he just needed to keep after it and eventually he'd get in.
When he left our agency, he hoped to get on at a smaller outfit with less activity demands so he could keep the dream alive, but today, he told me that he had finally just let it all go and let his EMT lapse as well.
He needed a shave, and he needed new shoes. He's a good-looking guy, but just not getting any breaks. He was trying to keep his eyes dry and voice steady as we talked about his family. Trouble at home with the wife, but they're keeping things together for the kids for better or worse as long as they can, trying to do the right thing. Upside down on his house equity, and just barely making ends meet with his contracting work.
I've been very fortunate to get a lot of breaks, and I wish I could share some of mine with Steve. He's just sad and far away right now. He needed a hug and I gave him one, and he was unable to stifle a single light sob for that.
Some of us are pretty heady guys, we've got our nice trucks and boats and enjoy a brew with the brothers on someone's back deck from time to time, looking sharp in our FD T-shirts and badass sunglasses. Living the dream.
There isn't much we can do for the Steves of the world to get them into the career gig, but it is worth respecting the commitment they have first to their families by not letting the FD totally consume their lives until they lose everything else. Steve saw the cliff approaching and withdrew from the race before he lost it all, and that is an amazingly honorable thing to do. You don't have to have a badge to be honorable.
Next time you're hanging around with the guys and living the dream, make sure you take a good look around and drink it in. Appreciate what you have, because it is a gift that has no substitute and should not be taken for granted.
God bless, Steve. I'll be praying for you and your family. You are missed.