Hell calls hell.
I’m not a good man. As I near the 30 year mark in my life, I’ve come to this realization. Honestly, it’s not a particularly startling one. I am a dark, violent, and brutal personality in a dark, abysmal world. Many years ago I came to realize that I am comfortable with violence, with death, with hardship and loss. I am built this way, wired this way. Things that I see on a regular basis that should phase me and leave indelible marks do not. I know they should, but they don’t. I’ve always had a box that I have been able to shove those things in and push away, leaving them unopened and unexamined. I thought that I could do that and it would not affect me. The reality is that it has, however.
I am prone to episodes of inexplicable and disproportionately violent rages. Often times people will say that they can’t believe that about me. “You’re way too nice and well balanced. There’s no way!” “He’s the angriest person I have ever met in my life,” my partner is always quick to chime in. “Actually,” he usually continues, “it’s one of the things I love about him. When shit hits the fan, I know that if someone tries to take us down he’s bringing souls with him to hell.” Ever since I started the anti-depressants and have learned to at least temper that anger, keeping it simmering for longer before I finally lose the desire to control it, he often likes to tell people that “he misses the old [me].” “I miss the angry you,” he’ll tell me from time to time. “You know, I’m glad you’re getting better and all, but fuck man, watching you go Hulk is a sight to behold.” To be honest, it was one of the reasons I avoided the antidepressants for as long as I did. I liked my anger. I liked my rage. In some deluded, sick way I saw it as something integral to me. Something primal and pure. It appealed to the primitive parts of my brain that embrace the harsh realities of a world that, for as long as man has walked it, has been filled with violence. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, in his book On Combat (a masterwork on the psychology of conflict and the companion to his other masterwork On Killing) calls it the “gift of aggression.” Rather than something to shun, it is something to embrace and harness, to use when needed. To be honest, I only got on the meds because I love my wife, and while I loved my anger, I loved her more. Given the choice of righteous anger or our marriage, I chose the marriage. I’ve come to realize the anger is still there, available in times of need. The meds just help me push it down and control it better than I did before, allowing me to focus it not on her, but on things where it is useful.
Still, I won’t lie. I know what my partner means. As wrong as it is, there were times I relished at the fear in the eyes of some cracked-out asshole who pushed me over the edge. When they realized that under this unimposing, average sized, blue eyed exterior lay the propensity for violence the likes of which they had never seen, there was a sudden flash of their eyes as the primitive parts of their brain realized they had crossed a predator who was more than happy to give them all the fight they could ask for. Not the flashy, for show street fighting they liked to roll with in our district, the kind where they would swing and slap without ever actually doing any damage, but instead the bloodthirsty rage of a fucking savage. I lived for that. I loved knowing that with a flick of a switch I could intimidate the fuck out of someone, and generally had the sheer, force of will and rage to back it up, not out of skill but out of sheer anger and survival instinct. This isn’t to sound like I’m bragging, or that I think I’m the baddest motherfucker to walk around. Far from it. I realize exactly where I sit in the food chain – a little higher than most, but nowhere near the top. It’s just an example of the mindset of rage and aggression I had adopted for so long that it was hard to let it go. Something is wrong with me, I’m sure.
I think I’m broken.
I worked a major wreck the other morning. The call came in at just before 0600. By some miracle, despite being horribly understaffed, we had managed to sleep most of the night uninterrupted, a luxury I’ve long since become accustomed to going without.
“Reported two vehicle MVA on the freeway, with entrapment. Both vehicles fully involved. Multiple calls.”
Shit. That means it’s fucking legit.
I quickly pulled up the police department call notes on the mobile dispatch computer (or MCT). A quick read reveals that PD had been in pursuit of a vehicle that had ultimately struck another head-on at highway speed. Officers on scene report both vehicles on fire.
Now, the average person would most likely begin to feel a sense of dread, or at least apprehension. Sadly, that’s not what was going through mine. No, what I was thinking was how I hoped they were single occupant vehicles and that the occupants were deceased. Deceased meant less paperwork. Less hassle.
I know objectively that this is a horribly inappropriate attitude. Yet I believe you would find it a common one in the emergency fields. A popular axiom, slightly modified for EMS says that Life is pleasant, but death is less paperwork.
We pulled up and found exactly what was described. Two vehicles. Massive damage. An entire engine block thrown completely from a vehicle down the road. One car is totally engulfed. That’s a DOS, I thought to myself. FD hadn’t even started to combat that blaze, so anyone in there was a lost cause. The other vehicle, while burning, was not near as bad.
Fire extinguished, door popped. The occupant, unrestrained. Apneic. Pulseless.
Massive blunt trauma. No way in hell. DOS.
As I reached for the radio to call it, the occupant takes one last agonal respiration. A guppy breath, as we often call it. FD immediately begins scrambling.
“Hey! We got a live one! We need to get them out and work it!”
Fuck. This is going to be a fucking nightmare. I reach for the radio and call the trauma alert. As I do this, FD rolls back the rest of the door. I stop, mid-sentence. Hidden behind the shambles of the door was the mangled mass of leg tissue of the driver. One leg completely amputated, the other trapped under a tangled knot of metal and plastic. No other way into the vehicle.
“Call it man, we can’t work ’em like that. Too late anyway,” my partner opines. He’s right, and I cancel the trauma alert. Our supervisor arrives, and concurs. No sense wasting resources on a lost cause.
And so begins the long, slow process of body recovery. While one engine company struggled to knock out the fuel fire of the other vehicle, another crew works to begin extricating the body of the driver we’d just pronounced.
This is a tedious and laborious process. Because life and limb are no longer threatened, and this is in effect a crime scene, FD takes their time, ensuring their own safety around the jagged steel. My partner wanders off to PD to see if they’ve had any luck finding the driver’s information for our report.
I wander over to the other vehicle, where the flames have begun to die down.
Fuck, that was hot.
Plastic burns at an incredibly high temperature, particularly when exposed to gasoline. Inside the crumpled ball of steel is the barely-distinguishable-as-human body of what appears to be an adult male, though most of the fatty tissue had melted away, making determination of sex difficult. I walk around the vehicle, sizing it up for more occupants or, God forbid, a car seat. The roof of the small car had caved in during the collision.
I rounded the far side of the vehicle. Right under the roof was something I couldn’t identify. It was bright white and glistening, and strangely shaped.
Holy fuck. That’s a brain. That is a fucking, cooked, brain.
When the roof caved in, it had partially decapitated the driver, exposing his cranial vault to the high temperatures of car fire and steam of fire suppression.
I took this in in the space of a couple heartbeats. And then I moved on. We finished the paperwork, and cleared the call. I took this tragedy of others and put it in the box and put it away. Then I went on about my day.
Days later, as I was talking to my wife, I had an epiphany of sorts.
I’ve long been accustomed to death, and gore, and the physical and mental wreckage that surround them. As a survival mechanism, I’ve learned to compartmentalize that for my own sanity.
My epiphany, though, was that when I stood there, staring at something that no human being should have to see, I was completely and utterly fine with it. It was then I realized how far down the rabbit hole I had gone. Years and years of pushing down traumatic experience had become so natural to me that I could do it without ever thinking about it.
What does that say about me?
In part, I bury those things because I also realize a simple truth. How do you tell someone that story? How do you go home and tell your wife over dinner that you saw your first cooked human brain and how fascinating it was?
And there in part, I think, lies part of my dilemma. I can’t share these things with her. She’s not wired for that. I realize that. She is far too sweet, too empathetic and too tender for such horrific detail. And to be honest, it’s somewhat ironic, because the empathy you would expect would make someone an ideal caregiver is often the thing that tears them apart, drives them out of the field or into a bottle, a divorce, or other dark and winding roads.
It’s hard to talk about these things with coworkers. All that comes of such things is an inevitable contest of one-upmanship and war stories.
So, I bottle it up, and I bury it deep.
But here’s the thing.
I fucking live for this shit.
Hell calls hell. Remember how I said I’m not a good person?
I don’t do this job because I want to help people. I don’t do this job out of a sense of public service.
I do this job because it is utterly and terribly fucked up. I do this job because I CAN do it, and others can’t. I take pride in that. I take this darkness, the trauma, and I wrap it around me like a conquering hero would have worn ceremonial robes. I live for my own misery and my own hardship and my own suffering. I do it because I CAN. I take a sick, twisted pride in that fact.
In Neil Gaiman’s great novel American Gods, Mad Sweeney, a leprechaun, is talking to the main character about the joy he finds in fighting. As he puts it, the “sheer, unholy fucking delight of it.”
I get that.
I know that in a lot of ways, that has ruined me. It’s ruined a lot of the best parts of my life. I love my wife, but I have hurt her in so many ways through the years, because I am fucked up, and I revel in that.
I’m working on changing that. I’m tired of pushing her away because of the darkness I have consumed. I can try and put a positive spin on it, pretend I’m a sin eater swallowing up the darkness of the world in order to serve and make the world a better place. But that would be a lie. “To thine own self, be true.” Cheesy, cliched. But true.
I love Latin. I love its simple complexities. I love the history, the connection to the past. To a darker time where I think that maybe, I would have understood and would have thrived in, in my own way.
There are so many great phrases in Latin that evoke this sense of connection to the darker side of human nature.
Mors ultima ratio – death is the final accounting.
Non mortem timemus, sed cogitationem mortis – We do not fear death, but the thought of death.
Tanta stultitia mortalium est – such is the foolishness of mortals.
There is one, however, that is my favorite. I feel a deep connection to it.
I’m not a good man. I’m a dark, violent, and brutal. I am comfortable with violence, with death. Death comes to us all. I understand that not everyone can embrace that so freely, yet it is something that I understand at a basic, primal level I can’t explain.
Timor mortis conturbat me.
The fear of death confounds me.
Contrary to what people think, death is never senseless. To some extent, it really is quite the opposite. Death comes for us all, and I’m fine with that.
How fucked am I?
Literally, “action follows belief.”
In just under 4 days, I will no longer be “kindofafireguy.” At least, not professionally.
At the moment, I don’t know what I’ll be. I have some offers in the same general field, and I’ll land on my feet. Honestly, being a firefighter will always be a part of me, no matter what career path I now follow. I intend to remain in public safety, so maybe I’ll be “kindofapublicsafetyguy.” Who knows.
My wife and I have decided to uproot ourselves from our lives here in the windswept West of Texas, and return to the lands of our youth. It is a bittersweet parting. In some ways, it will be a homecoming for the both of us, as we move closer to a place we grew up in, and a place that truly was always a part of us.
Throughout these last few years, I have spent hours upon hours trying to explain to people the differences between where I lived and where I was from. Growing up in the deep south of Louisiana, things were done a bit differently than in Texas. The advent of “Swamp People” didn’t exactly help (when I was a rookie firefighter, there was many a time I was called into the day room to “translate” the deep Cajun accents for the rest of the crew). While many of them were always tempted to make fun of the way we talk, act, and are, I was always reminded of the song “A Southern Thing” by Louisiana band Better Than Ezra. The chorus has a line that states “Don’t mock what you don’t understand / It’s a southern thing.”
It’s true. It’s a southern thing. I would jokingly tell everyone at work that as far as I concerned, they were all Yankees and might as well have been from the Northeast.
In some ways, though, it was somewhat true. My wife and I would often talk about life back “home.” The people were different. The food was different. The culture was unique. My wife became interested in genealogy a while back, and the more she researched, the more we came to understand that Cajuns are all, basically, one giant extended family. From a small exiled band came a culture and group that occupy almost an entire portion of a state.
And in a way, I’m excited to get back to that, back to “me and my honey rockin’ back and forth / light it up again with my kin and friends.”
But in a way, this was our home, too. My wife moved here over 5 years ago, and I followed behind her shortly after. This is where we first lived together. It’s where we built a life with our kids. And that is something that is hard to give up.
“Action follows belief.”
My wife and I believe that we are doing the right thing. We believe that it will be better for our kids, better for our family, better for us, to return. To be closer to the rest of our family. To get a fresh start. And so we have taken action.
“Audentes fortuna iuvat.”
Fortune favors the bold, and bold we shall be.
Man, it’s been a long time since I got on here and posted.
I could give you a list of excuses, but ultimately it boils down to me just not taking the time to sit here and write something. You would think that there should always be something to write about. Honestly, I always think there’s something going on that I need to get out.
But it rarely does.
We first responders have a tendency to repress our most basic instincts and emotional responses. Is it because we think we need to be strong at all times? Is it that we just do such a great job of compartmentalizing everything until it explodes and we’re left standing there, shattered reality around us?
This omerta, this code of silence, it follows us everywhere. There are things I see and do at work that I need to get out, need to tell someone.
But who to tell? My wife? My kids? I’m reminded far too often that my gory tales are far too much for respectable dinner conversation.
Instead of turning here, though, I sit, and I wonder about all those things I should have said, but didn’t.
And it’s a silence that is deafening.
I am, first and foremost, a firefighter. That is the career I have chosen.
But I am also an EMT with advanced training, working on finishing my EMT-Paramedic.
My department required me to have a Basic certification to be eligible for hire. But that is all.
No one forced me to advance my medical certifications. I have done that of my own accord and mostly at my own expense.
That being said, I could care less whether fire runs EMS or EMS is a third agency. That’s above my paygrade and beyond my scope. The people I work with in EMS are fine, dedicated people. I am proud to work alongside them, regardless of whose name is painted on the outside of the ambulance.
But what irritates me is when people say that Fire-EMS is just the Fire Department trying to justify their existence by trying to do someone else’s job.
That’s like saying that the 343 firefighters who sacrificed everything on 9-11 were only justified because FDNY also runs medicals.
I know it’s more complicated than that (I think FDNY took over EMS in 2005, but that’s not the point), but yet it is also that simple.
“I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.”
Kurt Vonnegut was a firefighter. He is also a fire survivor rescued by firemen. At a tribute for our fallen brothers and sisters, he recited the names of all of the firefighters who were killed from the station he was saved by.
Firefighters are not heroes by default, and fire calls are down. I will give you that.
But go home. Look around. Look at the things and the people you love.
Now imagine that all burning to the ground.
I have worked in a burn center. I have seen what flame can do and I have felt its heat kiss my flesh.
George Orwell is attributed (perhaps incorrectly) with saying “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
Maybe we can sleep peacefully because someone stands ready to rush into harms way, regardless of their career (Fire, EMS, law enforcement, military, etc) and who needs their help.
They hear the call, and they answer.
That, to me, is justification.
When she put the poster in her office (which had, until the day before, been a small closet), I couldn’t help but stare. For National Poetry Month in 2009, the American Academy of Poets put out a beautiful image of these two lines written into the condensation of a piece of glass.
“Do I dare /Disturb the universe?”
T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock is a complicated poem, one whose analysis is way beyond my scope. But I love it.
“Do I dare /Disturb the universe?”
I love that thought. It haunts me.
Mainly, it’s because I find myself asking myself that question all the time. Oftentimes, first responders (regardless of what field – EMS, Fire, Law Enforcement, etc) find themselves in futile situations. Anyone who has ever worked a cardiac arrest at a nursing home will understand what I mean.
“Do I dare /Disturb the universe? / In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.”
If only it were that simple. But still, I wonder.
Do I dare?
It was a saying he seemed to like, though he couldn’t resist modifying it.
“Write.” – “For whom?” – “Write for the dead, for those in the past whom you love.” – “Will they read me?” – “Yes, for they come back as posterity.”
I’m not a Kirkegaard expert, so there won’t be any brilliant literary analysis or some moment of existential clarity. If you want that, you’d have to talk my wife, Dr. KindofAFireWife. She’s the English expert. I just love the quote.
It makes me think of Bringing Out the Dead by Joe Connelly. In his book (and in the film adaptation), a burned out paramedic in New York reflects on his role as a provider. He has stopped seeing himself as anything beyond an intruder on the end of the people he is sent to help. Indeed, as he performs CPR on an elderly man surrounded by his family, the medic decides that his purpose is now solely to bear witness to the lives of those he responds to.
It’s a great book that shows the dark side of EMS through powerful satire. And let’s be honest: there is a dark side to this job. There has to be. We witness terrible things in dark places. We often share in the worst moments of the lives of those we help. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or lying.
Maybe that’s the real reason I’m typing this. Maybe I want someone to know I was here. Maybe I want to let out the darkness so that it doesn’t follow me wherever I go. Maybe this is my 911 call.
Maybe I just want someone to bear witness to me.
Kirkegaard wasn’t satisfied with the saying the way it was.
“Write.” – “For whom?” – “Write for the dead, for those in the past whom you love.” – “Will they read me?” – “No!”
That’s a bit more damning.
Hell, maybe I’m a little damned, too.