What Does Not Kill You Will Make You Stronger

Have you ever thought about how boring life would be if you got everything for which you wished?  There have been times when things were not going my way, and I wished something good would happen.  There were times when it seemed as though my wish was granted. And other times, it seemed that they were not.  And as you might imagine, the law of percentages was usually working against me.  There was, I believe, a certain degree of randomness to all of this.

It is my desire that you know I have learned an important lesson from this.  Through the years I learned to enjoy the things I received because of the things I did not receive. Things that appeared to be bad, at the time, came to be seen as good, in the long run.  At other times I have ended up in a far better place because of the things that I did not receive, or the failures I have endured.  If it seems that I am seeking to confuse you, please stay with me.

It has been my distinct privilege to serve in the fire service for more than 47 years.  I have had the distinct honor and privilege of being a small part of one of the greatest elements of American Civilization.  I have been an active member of the American Fire Service.  I have seen it up close and personal in many different settings.  In each case we were there to protect and service the citizens of our community.

Let me take you back in time a bit.  Back in 2002, in the immediate wake of 9/11, President Bush stated at the Fire Service Caucus Dinner, on April18, 2002, “… the fire service has become the face of America to many in the world today.”  So it has been for many years now, with the Boston bombing being the latest example of seeing the fire service in the forefront of that city's response to the bombing attack.

I have met a number or really great people, more than I could ever recall. My personal successes have been many, and the number of people I have helped is beyond my ability to recall.  In addition, it is my belief that I have met people from just about every state in the union, as well as a number of foreign countries.  The experience has been truly amazing.

I have been blessed with the opportunity command brave firefighters in pitched battle against the Red Devil of Fire.  It has also been my good fortunate to share knowledge with people in the training and educational arenas.  It has been my good fortune to be allowed to help and support some of the finest, bravest people in the whole, wide world. 

However, I want to share with you an important fact.  All of this success has occurred because of a failure earlier in my life: a failure I have worked hard to overcome.

During the course of the last 47 years, I have been fortunate enough to rise from the position of handlineman, riding backwards on a U.S. Air Force crash-fire-rescue vehicle, to that of serving as the chief of a fire department.  There have been a great many stops in between, some good, some not so good.  The road has not always been smooth, but the trip has been exciting.  And there was always the fun of the next challenge.  Oh how boring life could have been if I had not experienced the challenge of failure early in my life. 

Let me tell you that the genesis of this commentary came about many years ago during a train trip to Washington, DC.  As our Metroliner passed by the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the memories began to flow into my mind's eye.  As we moved slowly past the classic lines of Franklin Field, I turned to my dear friend Jack Peltier and remarked that it had actually been my good fortune to have played football in that hallowed shrine of Ivy League football.

In addition it had also been my great good luck to have also walked the hallowed halls of that ancient institution founded by Benjamin Franklin more than 270 years ago.  During my time at Penn, I had experienced the joy of athletic success, and the agony of academic defeat.

As we passed Bowers Field (the River Field of my youth), I began to recall the day when I experienced the triumph of winning three field events (shot put, discus, and hammer throw), during a dual freshman track meet with Princeton University.  What a great day for a kid from suburban Southern Freehold Regional High School.  Success in the rarefied atmosphere of the Ivy League, was a real high point in my life.

As our train rolled south, I began to shift mental gears.  The emotional highs of the athletic world, and the alcohol-clouded comradely of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house were slowly replaced with memories of the struggles I experienced in the classroom.  I was so busy living the good life that I failed to buckle down and do the necessary studying to maintain my standing at the university. I was so busy dressing like an Ivy Leaguer that I failed to study like one. 

Trust me when I tell you that I was not a very good student.  I skipped class a lot.  I drank far too much with my fraternity brothers.  I lifted weights, when I should have been hefting textbooks.  Finally the time came when the piper had to be paid for all of the dancing that I had done.

A number of us spent the two weeks before our final exams pulling what seemed like an endless series of all-nighters.  I can recall drinking endless cups of coffee, and lived on those fabulous large, soft chocolate chip cookies that were popular in Philadelphia at the time.

However, as the exams came and went, my feelings and emotions began to sink, like the proverbial ocean liner, The Titanic, after it hit the iceberg out in the North Atlantic many miles off the coast of Nova Scotia.  My football coach assured me that he would have a word with my professors.  I had been invited to varsity camp for my sophomore year, and he stated that he did not want to lose me.

On that note, I left school in May of 1966 to spend a summer hefting soda cases for a local beverage distributor.  I had no idea that my life was going to change in just a few short weeks.  The next few weeks were spent working as a loader on a soda truck.  The work was tough, but it was just the ticket for keeping me in shape for the football season that I saw just out ahead of me.  Not to mention the fact that I was jogging around the track at my old high school.

I knew that I would have to hit the ground running when I went to football camp.  I did not want a repeat of the injuries I received when I arrived at Penn in something less than good shape.  I had learned one lesson from my failure to prepare my body for the rigors of college football.

One afternoon in June of 1966, I returned home from work to find my mother crying and my father yelling at me from the instant I entered the back door.  What could be the cause of this?  Then I noticed that my father was waving a letter in the air and uttering a series of profane oaths about me being a failure and a dumb ass.

When I could finally snag the letter from his grasp, and take a look, the reason for the anger and sorrow became instantly clear.  I was informed in no uncertain terms that I had been kicked out of Penn for being a dumb ass.  My academic efforts had allow me to achieve the lofty academic level of a .8 academic average, on a scale of 1 to 4, 4 being an A I had achieved a very low D. 

The university suggested that I take a year off to think about the folly of my student activities at their institution.  The suggested that they might even look favorably upon my attempt to return after a years’ worth of learning the lessons taught by immaturity.  During any other time in history, this might not have been as bad as it seemed.  But in 1966, guys like me were either in college, in the armed forces, on a student deferral, or branded as 4-F, unfit for military service.

As you might imagine being in shape for three different athletic teams meant that I was in pretty fair physical condition.  So the chance of being branded as unfit was probably not in the cards.  Given the need for young men to carry rifles in Vietnam, it only took three weeks for the folks at the draft board to decide that my student deferral (1-D for Reserve Officers Training Corps service) should become 1-A, ready to be drafted into the U.S. Army. 

By the stroke of a typewriter key (there were no easily-useable computers back then), I had been rendered available for service as a rifleman for the U.S. Army.  Having been an astute reader of the Philadelphia Bulletin, I knew that a lot of riflemen were being killed during the summer of 1966.  I felt that if I were going to serve my country, I would rather not be carrying a rifle through a muddy rice paddy in that Asiatic paradise.  And besides, I was going to make a really huge target.

My personal options were somewhat limited.  I had seen the 1957 movie about the U.S. Marines that starred Jack Webb.  It was entitled The DI, and portrayed the harsh training of our U.S. Marines at Parris Island.  Although I looked upon myself as a fairly tough jock, that movie portrayed an environment that seemed to require a level of toughness and dedication beyond that which I felt capable of providing.  Given what I had seen, and heard from veterans of World War II and the Korean Conflict, I felt that the USMC was not for me. 

That left the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Air Force.  Quite frankly, I could not see me wearing the Dixie cup hat and 13-button pants of a Navy guy.  The same basic arguments could be made for the Coast Guard.  I also felt that I was not a good enough swimmer to make it back from any kind of a sinking ship. 

That left the U.S. Air Force as the probable best choice for me. 

Off I went to the recruiter’s office, hell bent on joining Uncle Sam Airlines.  Then as now, I occasionally left certain critical elements of the decision-making process.  This fact was brought to my attention by the recruiter, when he said,

“ … What do you want to do Son?” 

There was a question I had not stopped to ponder, brilliant Ivy League flunky that I was.  What did I want to do?  I was well aware of what I did not want to do, which was to carry a rifle in Vietnam, but what could I do to serve my country?

The recruiter was kind enough to spread a wide array of recruiting pamphlets on the table in front of me.  As I leafed through one particularly weighty volume I suddenly came across a picture that would change my life forever.  I saw a crash/rescue firefighting vehicle spraying foam onto an aircraft mock up.  I said to the recruiter, “ … that’s it.  That’s what I want to be: a fireman.”  And so it went.

Little did I know that this particular moment in time would define the manner in which I would live my entire life?  Little did I realize that my many great successes in life would come about as a result of a failure?

I spent the next four years serving as a fire protection specialist in the U.S. Air Force.  I served in Fairbanks, Alaska, Clark Air Base in the Philippine Islands, Nah Trang Air Base in the Republic of Vietnam, and Blytheville Air Force Base in Arkansas.  I was also privileged to visit Australia on my R&R tour in 1969. 

It was my privilege to learn the business of being a firefighter from some of the best and most knowledgeable, people in the firefighting world at that time.  A great deal of the information and lessons that I share with you can be traced back to from my years in the Air Force.  As a matter of fact I still correspond on a weekly basis with one of my roommates from Alaska, John Harris of Tennessee.

What I really find to be an interesting part of my life is that I have been allowed to enjoy so many years of service as a firefighter and officer, in a variety of fire departments.  I have served as a military firefighter, a volunteer firefighter, and a career firefighter.  I consider each and every moment of my career, both the good and the bad, to be a blessing from above.

Sometimes I pause to ponder the life I might have led had I not flunked out of Penn.  I have little doubt that I would have enjoyed my lot in life a great deal less had I become a part of any other aspect of the world. 

As I sit here, thinking about what the future holds for me, I must pause and thank God for his guidance.  He has shepherded me through an extremely enjoyable career in the fire service.  It is my hope that you too are going to get the most from this life that you possibly can.  You will not find joy at every turn in the road.  The events of the past year have taught us that.  What you will find is a great deal of satisfaction in serving your fellow citizens. 

Most amazing of all is that my life of achievement and satisfaction came as a result of a moment that, at the time, seemed to be so cruel and devastating.  It is my guess that the lesson for each of us is that someone else is out there working on our behalf.  That is how it has been for me over the decades.  And in a number of situations, it was me working on behalf of someone else who needed a bit of help at a given time in their life.

Maybe we will meet that person, and maybe we will not.  What we must do is quite simple.  We must do the best we can every day.  We must be on the lookout for those failures that can point the way to our future successes.  We me keep a weather eye out for those folks who need our help.  We should always be as willing to give as to receive a kindness in this life. 

It is life’s greatest opportunities that are so often missed in the midst of living life. That is what I felt as I sat out on the porch yesterday smoking a cigar, dreaming of the past, pondering the present, and aiming toward the future.  My friends let me urge you to keep your eyes and ears open. Be ready when the time is right.