It’s not just the smoke in my eyes this morning

image When you’re driving an axe into the door of a home on fire, a lot of things run through your mind. Is there anyone inside? Will the introduction of oxygen cause the fire to flash? Do these turnouts make me look fat? But when my pager went off this morning at 2:30 a.m., jettisoning me out of bed after a kiss for my wife and then out the door to the station, I had no reason to believe that I would experience something I had only experienced once before as a firefighter, early in my volunteer career. As we stood at the door in our three-man team prepared to enter the burning, single-level structure, I suddenly felt claustrophobic. My gear, strapped tightly over my turnouts and sealing me into my Nomex fire-proof hood and oxygen mask β€” things meant to protect me from the dangers I was about to expose myself to β€” felt more like a straight jacket. I felt my heart begin to race. My breathing rate increased. Inside my mask, the three green indicator lights displaying a full air supply dropped to two.

As the door popped and the first licks of flame appeared, I took a deep breath and remembered what a captain told me all those years ago: What we do goes against our normal instincts. The rational part of the mind, which a firefighter has to override in order to do what needs to be done, occasionally surfaces and asks, “What the hell are you DOING? There’s fire in there!” My mask briefly fogged as I chuckled to myself, then pulled the hose line for our initial attack and knockdown of the fire. Ironically, it was while inside surrounded by smoke and almost zero visibility, that I had a moment of clarity.

The true test of character isn’t measured by our ability to avoid moments of panic or fear in our lives; it’s about how we respond in those moments. As we went through the home, dousing flames and searching for occupants, my panic left and I couldn’t help but notice the photographs occasionally illuminated by my headlamp. Smiling faces of children and family captured during a different kind of moment, now peering out from the smoke. As we made our way from room to room, searching closets and under beds, the voice of our duty chief came over the radio informing us the sole occupant was not on the premises. As we found out later, the owner, age 90, had lost his wife just a few months ago and was with family in Arizona.

And now, on this particular morning, he had lost his home as well.

It’s the kind of character test I hope never to face, nor am I sure I could pass. I felt for him. Deeply.

Most of the time, a firefighter’s red, glossy eyes are a result of the smoke and heat. But sometimes… the smoke lingers long after the engine has returned to the station. For me, thoughts of panic and character suddenly seemed unimportant compared to the test that man will be facing long after I return home for my second kiss of the morning.

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available in paperback or eBook from, Barnes & Noble or request your signed copy from Port Hole Publications.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

92 thoughts on “It’s not just the smoke in my eyes this morning”

  1. Okay, Mr. Humor Writer…sometimes you do a sudden about face, and I find myself reading your words with my eyes full of tears. Today was such a moment. You make us remember what really matters in life when you make us laugh at ourselves, and even more so when you make us take stock of who we are and what’s really important. Good job, Ned.

  2. OK, so you’re not just a thoughtful, funny writer and family guy? You’re also a volunteer firefighter? You’re making the rest of us look bad. Very sweet story.

  3. None of it compares to losing life, of course, but how very sad families must feel when a fire destroys their family treasures. Just heartbreaking. You have left me glossy eyed with this post, & no, I am not smoking nor I am sitting in a room filled with smoke!

    Thanks for the reminder today of what truly matters.

    1. Much appreciated, Julie. I think I speak for a lot of FFs when I say forgotten or not, we are reminded of why we do it every day when we get home to our families πŸ˜‰

  4. Dear Ned,
    Sad that the gentleman lost his home and has a few damaged, but likely treasured, photographs left. Happy that he had someone like you to help fight the fire, save what you could and leave caring about what’s important. I hope your Friday got/gets better.

    1. Obviously, some fires/accidents hit harder than others. This one was one of the tougher ones because of what this man had already been through in the past few months. Fortunately, he still has his children to cling to. I’m happy for him for that.

      Plus, being in Arizona, he’s safe from cicada mating season right now πŸ˜‰

  5. What a well-written and raw post! (Try saying that three times fast). I’ve only recently connected with you in the blog world, and look forward to reading more of your posts.

    1. You’re right, Natalie; and after a couple of margaritas you can forget it!

      Thanks so much for reading, and for the kind words. I’m really glad our blogging paths have crossed πŸ˜‰

  6. Firefighers are special. They deserve all our respect and trust. Oddly enough, I was visiting the Firemans’ Monument in Ottawa this very morning (It’s on city hall property). There was an inscription on the exterior wall: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” -John15:13 . I thought it appropriate.

    1. What a wonderful coincidence, Paul. Thank you for sharing that passage, and for the kind words. I would love to see that monument some day. Then get together for a cold beer afterward. Or maybe just a glass of maple syrup.

  7. I can’t imagine losing all my stuff, especially when I’m 90. Beautifully and poignantly written. Took me back to my days of donning a full turnout suit and going on air. And you’re a volunteer firefighter. Wow.

      1. Definitely haven’t forgotten. Thankfully, I never had to fight a real fire on ship; just did drills every week. Eventually moved up to Second Officer where my fire station was on the bridge (navigating), so no more turnout suit. (Phew! ;-))

  8. My ex was a volunteer firefighter and I was always amazed at the courage he had to be able to face those unknown situations. You are a strong, compassionate man, Ned. I applaud you for many reasons but each of those reasons always leads back to your heart. xx

  9. You are truly an amazing man, Ned. To be able to write humour is difficult enough. Soul-piercing reality is a completely different story. If you get my drift.

    I am a pilot and we say our lives are “hours of boredom interspersed with periods of intense terror.” Hopefully not too many. But it takes a real man to confront that terror and turn a firehose on it.

    Beautifully written and nicely done. Firm handshakes all around.

      1. Well I guess we’re even, then. I hate, hate, HATE standing inside burning buildings covered in 50 lbs of “fire proof” equipment, haveing no clue what the floorplan is, and being required to find, rescue, and rescusitate people I’ve never met.

        I may even have to hug you, man. But out behind Grandma’s house. Or somewhere inconspicuous.

  10. I’ve heard small snippets of this kind of thing as my brother is also a volunteer firefighter. This is a beautiful post, thank you. Strength of character comes from the worst situations, not the best.

  11. Wonderful sentiments Ned. Your writing has a heart and soul to it that touches the souls of others. I hope your red eyes clear soon and your heart heals also. Take care.

  12. … and I rest my case about why I follow you (virtually) all over the world.

    I do understand though, how those moments of clarity come through in the midst of the storm, and thank God for them, but I know they come from prices paid long before. Good on you, again, Ned for choosing your powers for good.

  13. So glad nobody was hurt. Thank you for what you do, it takes a special kind of person to be a firefighter and taking me along to see what you went through is humbling.

      1. It’s been touch and go with priorities lately but I think I may have secured the finance just in time, mate. I will keep you in the loop cos it’d be very cool to catch up, for sure! Cheers

          1. Yes indeed, I keep telling that power that there will never be another 75th Anniversary and that should be enough…I’ll let you know how I go with that

      2. p.s. just confirming I’m talking about Sturgis 2015, the 75th Anniversary, I’d hate to have you go this year, wandering around, calling my name to no avail haa!

        1. Hahaha! I wonder how long I could get away with that before I got punched?

          Yeah, 2015 it is. If there’s suddenly a giant run on my book, I know where that money is going πŸ˜‰

          1. Haaa! And then next year I’d be like “G’day, I’m REDdog” and they’d be all like, “Oh yeah, there was some guy here looking for you last year”.

  14. Awesome post from an awesome champion! As a burns surgeon, I see the suffering that continues well after the fire has been put out. The acute loss they have to suffer, the painful injuries they have to endure then years of reconstructions they have to go through. My patients never once fail to mention their gratitude to the fire fighters even years after the event. You do good work. My full admirations Ned!

    1. People so often think of plastic surgeons as boob jobs and tummy tucks, but what you do for people who are the victims of fire or accidents is absolutely amazing. Not just the surgery itself, but the support and caring that patients need in addition to the operations. When my job ends, your is just beginning. Knowing you’re out there gives me some peace of mind for the victims long after the smoke has cleared.

      Admiration returned, Tiffany;)

  15. I saw this earlier today just before I had to leave walk out the door. At first I wanted I was troubled about not having time to reply. Now though…now I’m glad I didn’t. While I can’t think of anything profound to say, I am glad to have not left something so short it could be taken as trite.

    My heart goes out to this poor man. He hasn’t just lost his home, he’s lost the material connections to his memories. To his wife. That is cruelty beyond imagining… I hope he has strong family ties to help him through. β™₯β™₯β™₯

    And thank you, Ned. For volunteering your your time – *your life* – to help. Please, stay safe. β™₯

    1. I’m happy to say he is with his children in Arizona, far from the tragedy of his home, and close to people who can help him through these terrible losses.

      And I’m a pretty safe guy. I won’t even run with a butter knife…

  16. Ned, it takes a hell of a person to walk into a burning house like you did. We don’t appreciate firefighters enough, methinks. Sure that guy lost his home, but on the bright side he obviously has a family who loves him and he wasn’t there when it happened.

  17. No matter how great the mountain in our path is… there are travellers who are facing great peaks, right?
    You’re a good man, Ned.
    You can quote me on that.

  18. Last year I awoke to discover that a home less than 200 yards from mine had burned in the night, killing a young father and child. Thanks for what you do, Ned.

  19. First of all, I’m sure those turnouts didn’t make you look fat, just…different, perhaps a tad jolly, but definitely not in a fat way;)
    Second, I really like how you don’t shy away from tackling some serious subject matter. Whenever I visit your site I expect to be humored (that may sound demanding, but it’s not my fault you set the bar so high;)), but it’s posts like these that really stay with me for a long time, as they grab me from the onset and don’t let go until I read them. I think these are a great contribution to your other work. It makes me appreciate your humor more, as humor in my opinion works well when it’s contrasted with things in life that simply aren’t pantwettingly funny.
    Third, thanks for sharing some of your firefighting experience. I don’t think I’ve ever met a firefighter and in many ways a firefighter is much like a plumber: You know they exist, but you hope you never ever have to deal with them. No offense. However, I do appreciate you sharing what it’s like to basically ignore your survival instinct and walk into a burning house. So even if your turnouts made you look rather fat, anyone who can retain his humanity under the circumstances you described can rest assured: Firefighters are sexy, not because they’re a stereotype of manlyhood (I mean, are they?), but because they’re human when it counts the most. This post proved that in my opinion.

    1. I really and truly appreciate that, Arend. It was a tough morning and your thoughtful comment and sensitive wit are just what I needed. Thanks for that πŸ˜‰

  20. This gave me goosebumps. I work with the elderly and this reminded me of a 92 year old man I cared for who lost his wife in the first few weeks I was on the job. It was heartbreaking and I often left my shifts in tears. Thanks for sharing, and for ignoring your instincts and running into burning buildings!

  21. I suffer from panic disorder, general anxiety disorder, PTSD & social anxiety, so I am well aware of these symptoms because I have to face them every day just to get through the day. Meds help with the worst of the symptoms, but I use meditation, self-hypnosis and controlled breathing exercises to also help me cope. Sometimes it’s tough work, but it is how you handle it that makes the difference in the type of person you will be.

  22. Isn’t it interesting that we get involved with something to help others and we never can quite anticipate just what they will help us see in between the chaos. ..

No one is watching, I swear...

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