Rest Easy, Friend

There’s a magnetic white board in the radio room at our station. I noticed it on my first day, back when everything was so interesting and scary and new. Stuck to the board were multiple rectangular magnets. Each magnet had a member’s name, rank, and training level typed on it in utilitarian, unassuming font. Your magnet remained on the board when you were in town or available. If you were out of town, your magnet was to be removed until you came back. I read through the unfamiliar names, with standard titles after them such as “paramedic,” “firefighter,” or “driver.” But one in particular caught my eye.

George
Photographer
Chick Magnet

I smiled to myself, furrowed my brows in disbelief, and made a mental note to find this George.

One day, a classy champagne colored Lincoln cruised into the fire department parking lot. On the side, in traditional fire service gold leafing, was printed “COMMISSIONER.” An 80-something year old man stepped out, and walked into the department. Everyone greeted him, “George! Commissioner! How are you?” He smiled and made his way over to one of the chairs in the radio room. From this chair, he would share stories, give guidance, and raise hell.

George had served on the fire department for over 20 years, helping fight some of the worst blazes in the region’s history. He went on to serve as deputy chief. After his retirement, he stayed with the department for an additional 30 years, serving as our photographer. His heart was truly in the fire service, doing some incredible things for both individuals and the town. Be it running into a burning building and surviving a flashover in order to rescue a woman, or donating his childhood home to become a fire museum, he always put others before himself.

In his retirement, he came by the department just about every day to stir up trouble. He would tell you that’s exactly what he was doing too, laughing all the while. “Look what I started here!” He would say when a commotion got going. If you ever good naturedly back-sassed the man, he would take mock offense and say, “You know, ever since we gave you women the right to vote, you think you can just do whatever you want. We used to not even allow women in the station until some years ago.” And if a man challenged him? “What’s that? Oh, I’ll have you runnin’ down the street, cryin, ‘I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it!’”

He befriended all of the members, regardless of their age. He was always encouraging. He let me know how proud he was of me when I won my trip to Vegas, and when I’d passed my EMT-B. It didn’t matter if you’d been on the department for 20 years or 20 minutes; he was there with a devilish smile and a quick comment to make you feel right at home. We’d sat down and talked on a number of occasions, sharing tales of bravery and stories of stupidity. We discussed successes and failures, past and future, happiness and sorrow, life and death, and just about everything in between.

One summer morning, we learned that we had lost our dear friend. We lost a wealth of humor and knowledge. He was so much to so many: Firefighter. Navyman. World War II veteran. Museum curator. Comedian. Lady’s man. Friend. Third grandfather. Mentor. That day, the station was flooded with members from the community, officers from other fire departments, and members not on duty: all people that loved “The Commish,” as we’d come to call him, so much.

I kept all of this in mind as I pinned my gleaming silver badge to my uniform, very mindful of the thick, black elastic wrapped around it. A firefighter once described the functions of Class A uniforms as things to wear, “For marryin’ and buryin’.” The black and purple bunting over the bay doors fluttered in a breeze. A strong gust ultimately flipped the bunting over onto the roof of the station, and we all chuckled to ourselves and said that was George’s doing. We stood about 70 strong, made up of members both past and present, as well as firefighters from departments all over the region. We were identical in our Class A’s, with mourning banded badges over our heavy hearts. We led a slow, somber parade to the church. We stood together and saluted him as he was carried past us. We laughed and teared up during the beautiful service and the heartfelt eulogies. We cried together as the fire whistle blew 10 times for his last call: 8 for his forever-retired badge number, and twice more for “All Out.”

His ashes are out to sea now with his wife’s. Now he can make the trip twice a day to Europe with her, just like he always told us he had wanted. The bunting has since been removed from our station, which I know would be a relief to him; he never liked having a big fuss made over him. Although the mourning bands have since been removed from our badges, we will all carry a mourning band around our hearts for quite some time.

Dear friend, I wish I’d hugged you one last time. I wish I’d written down more of your stories. I wish I’d made it abundantly clear how much you meant to me and everyone else. Above all, I love and miss you very much. Rest easy, Commissioner.

Comments

  1. That’s a hard post to write. The loss of a mentor, colleague, friend and so much more is difficult, more difficult than a lot of people can ever imagine. I lost two of my mentors suddenly in 2010. I can’t say it ever gets easier because that hole in your heart never really goes away, but slowly it starts to sting less. I’m glad you got to honour (oops, my Canadian is showing there) your friend. Thank you for sharing.

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