My brother Ben is a FOOL. He won’t mind me saying that because FOOL stands for Fraternal Order of Leatherheads. This is an organization of firefighters who find a common identity in excellence. They emphasize training and safety, finding and insisting on the right way to do things as opposed to doing things the way things have always been done for the sake of not rocking boats. Their trademarks are bushy moustaches (firemen can’t wear beards because beards catch fire) and traditional leather helmets, which are heavy, rather than the lighter plastic modern ones. They are rowdy, and they are mawkishly emotional about each other and about their brotherhood.
They are a brotherhood in the true sense. Almost a cult. These are not the firefighters, my brother says, who fight fires to collect a paycheck, and are really working on some other career on the side more interesting to them. They are not even the very good professional firefighters who are competent in every way and reliable at all times but who leave the job behind them when they go home. The Fools are men (and women, I think, technically, if not actually) who eat, sleep and breathe fire. Ben says that for Fools, firefighting is not their job, it’s their life.
My brother, who is president of the Alaska chapter, admits the Fools are a controversial organization within the firefighting community. Not everyone appreciates being forced to be either a firefighting maniac or looked down upon as not really a firefighter’s firefighter. Also, the Fools tend to cause trouble because they question the way things are done. An example, Ben tells me, is the issue of “pushing air”. It used to be that getting on the roof and chopping a hole in it was one of the first things you did in attacking a fire, but this practice has been supplanted in recent years by pushing air and using foam. In this method, firefighters put huge fans at the door of a building to pressurize the space, then pop a window in the back, and the flames get pushed out the window. Then you go in and put the fire out with foam. At least that’s the theory. But the Fools here in Washington State started pushing back that the problem with pushing air is that it doesn’t let the heat out of the building, and you can’t successfully or safely fight a fire without getting the heat out of the building. Firefighters were getting burned because they went into a space that may have temporarily had the flames blown out of it but was still a deadly oven. Ben tells me that his colleagues here in Washington have successfully turned things around to where they are now “getting back on the roof” in every situation that allows it and they are back to using good old water instead of foam. I don’t know if this is true — you could look it up — but that’s an example my brother gave.
Ben was here Monday with his buddy Brent, who is also an Alaska Fool and also a large, jolly, mustachioed firefighter. They were on a layover on their way home from Portland, Maine, where they’d just had their annual convention. They ate a lot of lobster, held training competitions, speechified about the need to reduce firefighter deaths through training and discipline, and many got drunk and pillaged the town (“pillage” may be a strong term, but they’re mainly there to meet each other and party). Firefighters are beloved everywhere, and I think a lot of it has to do with their temperament. They generally have good energy. I would think a man as large as Brent with a horseshoe moustache cascading down both sides of his mouth would scare a little kid quite into the coat closet, but he got down on the floor, asked Mara about her princess dolls, and they were soon playing together.
I love my brother, and I admire him as I admire all firefighters and soldiers and others who don’t seem to be adversely affected by the knowledge that once you’re dead, that’s it. Game. They seem to be able to “spend” their lives in the service of an ideal, truly spend their lives — even if it means crossing that threshhold and spending all of it, forever — as opposed to “hoarding” their lives.
I have a lot of ideals, drawers full of them. I don’t know any that I would die for. I think sometimes that I’ve been hoarding my life all my life, that I have yet to find the thing for which I would spend it. I believe — hope — that if someone I love was threatened with danger, and risking my life could ensure their safety, or even provide a chance for their safety, I would be able to lay it down, spend it. I hope so. At least I FEEL that way about my family, my friends.
But at that point it’s not even an ideal anymore. That’s just love. These Fools run into burning buildings because they see it as their moral duty to protect not only people’s lives but their property, too. It seems crazy to me. Crazy in a way I really look up to. Not because I believe someone’s car or piano is worth my brother’s life, but because our lives are all being spent, right now, all the time, and it might as well be FOR something. The one who hoards his life, as the master said, really loses it, because he doesn’t see that ultimately there is no hoard. The coin can’t be kept. So the question becomes, what am I trading it for?