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.