Thanking the People Who Molded and Shaped Us

It has been my joy and privilege to work as a writer and author for more than 35 years. Sometimes it seems as though the ideas just flow freely while at other times I feel like I am beating my head against a rock to force ideas to come shooting out. Actually, there has been one real constant throughout all of these years. I never know where I will be when the idea for a commentary or teaching program will strike me.

My dear friends, you are familiar with two of my favorites. These would be the cigar-smoke-laden parameters of the front porch of my lovely, little house here in Adelphia as supplemented by the quiet environs of my local house of worship. In the 1980's, 1990's, and early 2000's it was the Hope Lutheran Church in Freehold Township. Since 2003 is has been the Colts Neck Reformed Church here in Colts Neck, NJ.

Let me now add a new place to the list of thinking places. On Friday June 8, 2012 I was enjoying lunch at my favorite local restaurant. Yes, I was seated in a back booth at Connie's Restaurant in beautiful, downtown Farmingdale, New Jersey. I have been eating there since the Mandica family took over in 1972. However, I had been a regular at the old Connie's since I was a student in high school back in the 1960's. My waitress was Alison Hoffman, friend and fellow hockey aficionado of my daughter and son-in-law.

As is my way, I was reading the Newark Star Ledger newspaper while enjoying my lunch. I was reading the commentary on the op-ed page when I was suddenly struck dumb by the excellent prose of Stephan Whitty. He is a member of the Ledger's staff of writers. Many are the times when I enjoy his coverage of the entertainment community. Anyway, his commentary struck me right between the eyes and I felt compelled to pull out my notebook and start jotting down my thoughts on his thoughts.

Alison immediately knew that something different was going on, as I was scribbling a mile-a-minute and ignoring my salad. When she came over and asked what was going on, I shared my thoughts and my inspiration with her. Connie's is really a family sort of place for us regulars.

For those of you who may not follow the ways of the writer, the world recently lost one of the foremost practitioners of the art of writing. Science fiction icon Ray Bradbury had died out in California. Here was a man who spent the better part of seven-plus decades creating a wide variety of marvelous stories from that special world known as science fiction.

While it is not a genre that I personally follow closely, I am familiar with his work. My favorite is probably Fahrenheit 451. It is the premise of this novel that piqued my interest. In this book Bradbury spoke of a future world where firemen spent all of their time burning books rather than fighting fires. I read the book an also saw the movie. It was a challenging read indeed, but one that I liked a lot. Being a fireman, I found the concept challenging.

In his commentary, Mr. Whitty spoke of the tremendous impact that Ray Bradbury had on his life. He developed his love of writing through the reading of Mr. Bradbury's novels. He compared the normal reading bill of fare in his life (the Hardy Boys and Albert Payson Terhune's dog stories) with the special feeling he got when he read the Bradbury novels like this; "…Next to their practical prose, Bradbury's was like a pretty girl, flashy and flirty begging to be admired. It was writing with a capital W, and I liked it just fine."

Over the course of many years, Mr. Whitty gathered and read a wide variety of Mr. Bradbury's works. His reading and enjoyment of those fine literary works led him to decide that he too wished to be a writer. Unlike many of us, he got to form a relationship with his mentor. As a budding young writer for a newspaper in California he got to meet his role model when he reached out to call him at his home. That phone call started a relationship which bridged the decades.

Mr. Bradbury would help out from time to time by reviewing and commenting on Mr. Whitty's literary labors. Mr. Bradbury helped the budding, young writer to understand how his writing career developed over the decades. It seems to me that his love of writing was shared in a manner which instilled a love of writing into the life of Stephan Whitty.

Perhaps it was the closing phrase of this well-crafted piece which jumped off the page at me. Mr. Whitty closed his thoughts about the impact of Ray Bradbury's on his with these simple words; "…He changed my life. I am a writer because of him. God bless him." People must have thought me to be somewhat nuts as they passed by the booth which held an aging, grey-haired fireman who had tears coming down his cheeks. But that is just how I am.

The meaning of the words which I had just read seemed to be burning a hole in the center point of the writer's section of my brain. There was something here which cried out to be said. Then it dawned on me. Each of us can tell a similar story. Each of us needs to sit down and think about the people who helped us to be the person we are today.

As I sat there, I began writing down names of people from each stage of my life that had left an imprint on my. As you might imagine, the list of people I wanted write about grew by leaps and bounds. Rather than bore you with an endless litany of names I set some criteria for making it to my special list. There are two primary criteria:

  • I had to be able to define their impact in a succinct set of descriptive phrases.
  • They had to have gone on to their reward,

I made the first decision in the interests of brevity. However, there is a much more important reason for the addition of the second criteria. If the person you wish to thank for their influence in your life is still alive, let me urge you to take the time, get in your car and go say thank you to them. If they are not local, call them on the phone and tell them how you feel. I cannot tell you how many times I have attended a wake or funeral and bemoaned the fact that I had never told the deceased what their impact on my life had really meant to me.

The purpose of this article is to get you to thinking about the folks that you believe helped to make you the person you are today. In my case, there really was no hesitation when it came to choosing the first person to share with you. Woodrow 'Chubby' Lykes was a long-time member and past-Captain of the Freehold First Aid Squad. More than that, he was my first advisor when I joined the Freehold First Aid Cadet organization in the spring of 1964.

He had also worked for many years at the rug mill in Freehold which has been made famous the world over by Bruce Springsteen. Chubby was the classic character with the gruff exterior which hid a truly amazing heart of gold. He and Jim Sweetman, the other cadet advisor, rode herd on us unruly young pups. He laid down the law and then enforced when one of us would break the rules.

It was my lot in life to be one of Chubby's disciplinary targets. As a fledgling smart-ass, I often ran afoul of the rules. Additionally, I had the habit of simply doing stupid things. It has long been said that I still hold the record for time suspended from duty. However, he must have seen something in me.

As I have grown and matured, I now see that what Chubby saw in me something in me that I did not yet even know or understand. He saw that I had a quick temper. When you combine a quick temper with a propensity to be a smart ass, you have a combination destined to land a lad into trouble. Fortunately for me, and a lot of other guys from Freehold, Chubby was patient with our frequent youthful sins. He invested a lot of time into rounding the rough edges off us guys. I sure wish he was here so that I could share these thoughts with him.

My old high school football coach falls into the same category as Chubby. Only I am not as certain about the warm heart under the gruff exterior. However, he did help me to receive a number of football scholarship offers when I graduated in 1965. He too recognized that I had a bad temper and in his own way, he worked to help me calm down a bit more. I can still recall the time when he came into the lunch room at Freehold Regional High School to conduct a special award ceremony for a party of one: me. He presented me with the most God-awful looking little plastic statue. It was of a man lifting weights. That ugly little rascal with bulging eyes and veins was presented to me in front of all my buddies.

Of course, my response to his gesture was totally inappropriate. As a matter of fact it typified the type of behavior he was trying to extinguish. Just after he left the room, I went racing out of the backdoor of the lunch room, ran across the parking lot and tossed that statue as far as I could. I then marched back into the lunch room and finished my lunch. Just before football practice that afternoon, he called me into his office and read me the riot act. He told me why he had done what he did and sent me out into the street looking for that statue. The fact that I can recall this story nearly 50 years later speaks to the depth of my admiration for that feisty, little man who retired to Florida not long after I left.

With these thoughts in mind, I made sure that I attended his funeral a number of years ago. It was like a trip down memory lane. Generations of coaches and players gathered to pay our respects. Guess what? I still have that ugly, little rascal perched on the chest of drawers in my bedroom. When I am tempted to blow up, I fondle that little piece of history and say thank you to a good man.

Let me close this visit with you by sharing the story of the late Frank Reheis, my first Battalion Chief when I joined the Newark Fire Department (NFD). He was hired off the 1943 entrance list, but had entered the U.S. Army to serve in Europe during World War Two. It was my good fortune to first meet Chief Reheis when I was an auxiliary fireman with the good, old NFD. I served as an auxiliary with Truck Company #11, which shared quarters with Engine Company #11.

He was an extremely popular and supportive individual. The men all admired and respected him for his fair and even-handed treatment of the troops. During the time I served as an auxiliary fireman in Newark, I also served as a paid fireman with the Rahway Fire Department. As you might expect, auxiliary firemen had a very limited role according to the departmental regulations. However, once the guys found out I was a paid guy in Rahway, things changed and got much better. I sometimes think that Chief Reheis counted me as one of the guys when I rode on the truck.

It is important to note that he considered all of the members of the First Battalion to be his guys. He did not let people screw with his guys. He tried very hard to keep the powers-that-be away from us. Many were the times when he took a blast from the higher ups and then stopped by to share a cup of coffee with us. I can still remember him setting his white hat on the table mopping his brow with a handkerchief as he bemoaned the fact that the people in headquarters simply did not understand what it was like out there in the field. That was a lesson I learned and used during my time as a chief in the city.

It is also my fervent belief that it was Chief Reheis who gave me my shot at getting on the job in Newark. I can recall one morning in the spring of 1973. I was riding with Engine 11 by now and was spending time in Newark between my night shifts in Rahway. The man on house watch duty saw the chief's rig arrive in front of quarters and as was the case in those days, he hit the house bell to call us all to the watch room.

When the chief was finishing signing the company journals and speaking with us as a group, he called me aside and said that it was fortunate indeed that I was in Newark on that particular day. He told me he had something for me and then pulled out an employment application for the fire department. He told me that he had just picked up the applications at fire headquarters and told me to fill mine out right away. Once I did, he said something I will never forget; "…this is one competition where the earliest postmark counts."

With that he and his driver took me over to the Roseville branch of the U.S. Post Office and made sure that I sent out the application certified with return-receipt requested. Perhaps it was he who planted the seeds about not trusting government, but that is a story for another day. My application went in the same day the applications were sent out.

When I was on the verge of graduating from the fire training center, It was Chief Reheis who went to the fire chief, Joe Redden, and asked for him to assign me to Engine Company #11. One of the guys had put in for a transfer and the chief wanted me to replace the outgoing guy. Chief Reheis did the exact same thing about three months later when my brother Bob, who had also been an auxiliary, graduated from the training center. Both Bob and I benefited from the lessons taught to us by Chief Reheis. I am firmly convinced that both of us brought elements of his style to our efforts as battalion commanders. Let me now share some of the important lessons I learned from Chief Reheis:

  • Take care of the troops.
  • It's not the boss who puts out there fires, it's the guys.
  • There is no need to yell. An expression of disappointment is a much stronger message than a screaming, ranting, tirade.
  • You can be a boss and a buddy if the guys understand that you are the boss and not to try to get over on you. 
  • Do not ask people to do something you had not done or would not do.

Like Mr. Whitty, we all should focus some time on the people who made us what we are. Let me urge you to say 'thank you' a lot as you pass through this life. Let me also suggest that as you age, life moves a lot faster. Heck, it was on June first that I began my 14th year of retired bliss from the Newark Fire pastures.

The key to this article is simple. No man is an island. You need to consider this and act accordingly. Help others as others helped you.