Fools rush in

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.

When I think I've had a rough day at work, I picture my brother. On the other hand, he doesn't consider this work.

When I think I've had a rough day at work, I picture my brother. On the other hand, he doesn't consider this work.

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.

I find this photo alluring in a lot of ways. The man on the left was Ben's

The light unites them as the darkness surely envelopes them. The man on the left was Ben's battalion chief, who died of cancer some months ago. This image takes my breath away because it registers absolutely no barrier between the two men. It has to be that way when you trust someone with your one and only life. (Photo by Jerry Carpenter.)

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?


4 Responses to “Fools rush in”

  1. 1 Ben July 1, 2009 at 18:48

    The story? I was coming back from a run (call) and the Chief hailed us on the radio and ordered me to stop by one of the University Campus buildings. This was late on a Saturday in the summer several years back. I get there and he asks me to bring in my helmet and bunker coat and then we meet up with our department photographer, Jerry Carpenter. Jerry was a photography student at the University and she needed our help for a portrait project. It was just like Phil to do something like that, he really was devoted to all of us and helping anyone of us achieve our goals. So we took several portraits some with just him, some with just me, then together, never knowing of course that in a frenzied search for the perfect photo for his funeral, I would find one of those taken that night. When I printed it off, (an 8×10), I posted it on the duty board, where all concerned would see it. For weeks, as people came in, they would stop and gasp, “That captures him!” It was the perfect photo. So it turned out that the photo of him, over the casket was full of memory for me, and I will always remember him putting his arm around me and saying, “Well Watash, are we getting things done?” Watash was his name for me. It meant “best buddy” and is thought to come from the Japanese, via the Marines. “Watashi” meaning “favored one”. He never told me what it meant. I found out after the funeral, ..and wept. Thats the story to those photo’s.

  2. 2 Kip July 2, 2009 at 15:40

    Over the past 20 years, I have come to know many firefighters. Some work for cities, some for the BLM and Forest Service. Some jump out of airplanes, some drive the engines. All are amazing men and women, not a little crazy, doing things that normal people would never think to do, as Matt has suggested. NOw I know another one, even though it’s been DECADES since I’ve last seen Ben. Ben, I was not really surprised to learn of your profession. Good on ya, you’re swingin’ some big brass ones there!

  3. 3 Ben F July 3, 2009 at 01:57


    I have thought of you often! My children are deeply enthralled with “Kipper” (the English Cartoon dog) and his friends. My children say odd things to the other kids at the park “Come on, give us a go!” You come to mind often. Thanks for the props, I don’t feel “brass heeled”, but I am addicted to what I do!

  1. 1 The Big Noise and other flying things « Just Wondering Trackback on August 10, 2010 at 19:50

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