Twenty years ago I thought I would do this job forever. I had a dream: work in Providence till I was 60 and they threw me out, and then move to somewhere where they have a volunteer fire department and put my experience to good use. The department offered a 50% pension after 20 years; we contribute 9.5% of our pay toward the fund, and the city contributes the rest. “That’s nice,” I thought, never considering that I would actually leave after 20.
Time marches on and 20 years passed in the blink of an eye. The person I was when I started is long gone; a different, more somber, at times cynical person, has taken his place. People who walked in my shoes fought for the 20-year pension deal knowing from experience that 20 years in firefighter time is a long, long time. They knew, as only one who lived the life will ever know, that for some, 20 years is enough. They knew that at 45 or 50, starting a new career is not that easy, or starting a business when everybody else has had a 20-year head start is challenging, to say the least.
I remember sitting in at a critical incident debriefing a few hours after I held two dead infants in my arms. My latex gloves had melted into their skin as their bodies were so hot as I tried unsuccessfully to revive them with my new CPR skills. I bagged the one-year-old—Savannah—while doing compressions on the other, John. It was rough, but it was what I had signed on for.
The guy who brought the babies from the fire to me was a 20-year veteran firefighter, a tough guy by all accounts. When it was his turn to speak he filled with tears and couldn’t. He hung his head and valiantly tried to express his feelings, but couldn’t. He left the room. A few months later he was gone. Retired. He told me much later that it wasn’t necessarily that call that did it; it was all the calls leading up to and including that one that finished him. He simply could not do it again.
I should have learned a lesson that day, but mired in the arrogance of youth I hadn’t lived enough to sense my own frailty. I was invincible. I thought of him the other day, as I drove home from what I thought was an unremarkable tour. As I neared my street, I thought of the little girl who claimed to have injured her knee and refused to move from the gymnasium floor. Her mother looked on from a distance, annoyed as I tried to figure out what was wrong. No bleeding or deformity, swelling or anything really. She showed me her other knee as a comparison, and I noticed bruises, weeks old on both legs, and both arms, and a haunted look on her face. I let it go. We can’t save everybody, and she probably is just an active kid who bruises easily. Or not.
I turned onto my street and had to stop the car. Where was the little girl now? Was she home in her room reading or watching TV, or was she being punished for being a cry baby like the kid a few weeks ago whose mother called us because her son “fell” from his bed—fell and had severe head trauma and curling iron burns on his legs. It took 10 minutes for me to pull myself together before I could walk in my door and not bring 20 years worth of memories with me.
I haven’t been sleeping well. It’s been going on for months now. Every night that I’m home I’ll go into a fitful slumber around midnight, only to be fully awake at 2 a.m. I toss and turn for hours, finally getting some relief from my spinning mind at sunrise, only to be back up an hour later. I grab an hour here and there as time permits, but have no idea what a full night’s sleep feels like, unless it is drug-induced, but I try to avoid that.
What runs through my mind is probably similar to every other person my age—are the kids really okay, will the bills get paid, am I truly happy or is this just an illusion, is that spot on my back the cancer that will kill me or just a mole. Then I get the ghosts...
- The baby run over by the 18-wheeler as it turned the corner on North Main and Doyle, dead in the middle of the street, the baby carriage twisted and crushed 100 feet from the body.
- The guy buried alive at sunset on Dorothy and his lifeless arm the first thing we dug up.
- The 20-year-old guy and his 20-year-old friend dead in the front seat of their Mustang at the Atwells Avenue off-ramp.
- The 55-year old guy who was new at motorcycle riding who tapped a rear view mirror, lost control on 195, flipped over the Jersey barrier and was crushed by a Toyota Camry full of kids. We found his foot later, still in his boot.
- The 18-year-old tattoo artist found hanging in his basement by his roommate.
- My friend’s brother found hanging in his bedroom closet.
- A RISD student found hanging from the wrought iron fence at Prospect Park.
- The kid found hanging off the side of his house on New Year’s Eve.
- The 55-year-old who told his wife he was going golfing, started his car, didn’t open the garage door and died next to his clubs.
- The 40-year-old who held up traffic while he considered jumping from the overpass, then did as the crowd that had formed cheered.
- The college kid who fell 80 feet to his death the week before Christmas.
- The baby who rolled himself into his blanket and suffocated while his dad was napping on the couch.
- My friend Kenny who had a heart attack at his third building fire of the day and had to be defibrillated, who came back to life but not the job.
- The 17-year-old girl who bled to death in the front seat of a car that had struck a tree while eluding police as her friends picked her pockets of the crack vials they were selling.
- The baby born dead and put into a hefty bag.
- The woman dead in her kitchen with a bullet hole in her forehead and her three children sitting on a couch in the next room.
- The two babies that broke the veteran firefighter.
- The eight-year-old deaf girl who broke my heart when I learned she had been prostituting for her foster parents.
- The 20-year-old dancer dead in her car after taking all of her pills, and the vomit-covered note on her lap.
- The family dead behind the front door as the fire burned out of control behind them.
- Delivering a baby in the back of the rescue and having the mother yell get that thing away from me when I handed it to her.
There are dozens, hundreds more, all waiting for that delicate twilight between sleep and consciousness to come uninvited into my mind. More join the parade every day that I come to work. Just the other week a 23-year-old hit and killed while walking home from a nightclub, a 30-year-old guy shot in the head, back and legs who walked to the rescue and then collapsed.
I am not a machine. I am a simple person who signed on to do a job, and have done it well. If I choose to leave this year, I will do so with my head held high and hope that the pension that didn’t matter to me 20 years ago, but has become my lifeline, is still there.
Michael Morse, EMT-C, PFD, is currently captain of Rescue 5 in Providence, RI, and has served on the city's busiest engine, ladder and rescue squads as a firefighter, rescue technician and lieutenant during his 21-year career. He is the author of the books Rescuing Providence and Responding.