Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On Becoming a Firefighter

My husband and I joined Stonewall Volunteer Fire Department about ten years ago. I was approaching fifty. Never, even in my fantasizing youth, did I envision myself as a firefighter. But there was a 300,000 acre wild fire burning not far from us and we were on evacuation alert. We figured we we’d feel better if we did something rather than nothing so we signed up. We didn’t get to go to that fire but there were plenty of others, luckily, none so big.
            I have never subscribed to the ‘no pain, no gain’ mantra, never pushed myself past the ‘starting to sweat, better slow down’ philosophy. When I started digging line, that all changed. Overnight I found out that even though my arms were screaming at me to stop, and my hands had cramped so tight around the handle of my combie they couldn’t let go, and my feet had blisters on every single toe and heel and I had been doing this for over an hour, I couldn’t quit. No one around me was quitting and the fire was still burning so I thought of Bambi and Thumper and dug for another hour, and another, and another.
            Our average fire is several acres and takes about six hours to get under control. I’ve built up muscle my body is now tougher than it used to be. So is the inside of me. Last Saturday I was getting ready for training, putting on my ‘pickle suit’ (yellow shirt, green pants), and I noticed that a change came over me. It wasn’t new, the same thing has been happening for a decade now, but this time I stopped to think about it. When I put on my uniform and turn into a firefighter I become - Macho.
            Me? A fifty something, 5’4”, (I’m not tell how many pounds), English professor?
            Years ago I remember explaining to my husband what it’s like to be me, how in situations like walking through a dark empty parking lot at night which he would do without much concern, I was scared.
            But when I put on my pickle suit I don’t feel so vulnerable. I am a fire fighter, I can swagger across that parking lot. My security is partly an illusion, I’m not superwoman, but partly not. Maybe the creep lurking in the shadows will decide he’d rather tackle easier prey. That toughness feels good.
            Firefighting has taught me a lot more than this but that’s another blog. Today it’s all about surprising yourself. When was the last time you did it? Do we get to surprise ourselves up into our 70s, 80s, and 90s?