A Symbol of Bravery
In my home office, I have a bookshelf of many of the books that I regularly use along with pieces of memorbia. Some of the items are from my travels overseas. Additionally, some of the items are from here in the States.
If you look to the bottom of the middle section, you will find an old fire hat from Merchantville, NJ where I lived with my mother and her parents during WWII. My father was stationed on several islands in the South Pacific during the war. Prior to the war, my father's father was in charge of the water department. Whenever a fire occurred in the area, he would go to the fire scene to make sure there was plenty of water to put out the fire. Often he took my dad along. After my grandfather retired, the water department gave him a dinner and a small token of appreciation for his leadership. It was that fire hat. My father got it when my grandfather died. It has been in the family for decades. When my father died, I received it.
Over the years, my three children and three grandchildren have played with it and worn the old fire hat. Additionally, over the years, it has gotten dirty. Consequently, a couple of years ago, I cleaned it up, made some repairs, and sprayed it with a clear lacquer. It actually looks quite new.
One evening while discussing some matter with China, my web administrator, via email, the fire hat interrupted me. "How long will you be busy discussing your website?" Initially, the fire hat talking to me startled me. I have gotten used to talking with objects, but I would hear them talking from other parts of the house, not six feet away from me.
Nonetheless, I responded to the fire hat by telling it that China and I were wrapping up the discussion very soon. In a couple of minutes, I emailed a thank you to China her assistance, sent her my email, and turned off the computer. I turned around in my chair and said hello to the hat.
"My first day in service as a fire hat in Merchantville, NJ occurred years before WWII. Jim had just volunteered for the fire department. He had gotten all of his equipment including me in preparation for his first day, which was uneventful. The fire fighters sat around for eight hours talking and playing cards. However, the excitement took place on the second day. Jim rescued a cat.
"Rescuing a cat does not sound like a very auspicious beginning, does it? Well, once you hear the rest of the story, it will. That cat rescue might be a fitting way for Jim's career to begin. The cat was the pet of a little six-year-old girl who cried when her Snowball was stuck high in the cherry tree behind her home. The fire truck responded to a call late in the afternoon in the hot New Jersey day in August. It had to be at least 80-years ago.
"When the fire truck rolled at 19 W. Walnut, they all rushed off the truck as if this were a real emergency. For that little girl and Snowball, it was a real emergency. The other two firefighters voted to give Jim the honor of rescuing the cat. Up one of the firetruck's ladder went Jim. His first assignment proved more dangerous than he had imagined. As Jim climbed toward Snowball, the cat started to climb further up the tree. While the cat was rapidly running out of space to escape, Jim was getting to branches that weren't going to hold him. A prudent person would have stopped climbing due to the danger wasn't worth it. However, Jim was dedicated to saving life—even that of a mere cat. Fortunately, Jim managed to save the cat, even though he got scratched several times in his rescue. As they drove back to the firehouse, I heard him say to one of the other firefighters that he had wished that his first job as a volunteer would have been at least a brush fire.
"For over a dozen years, Jim was a volunteer for the Merchantville, New Jersey fire department. During this time, he was a most effective firefighter. Also, he and his wife had a child. Jamie was their pride and joy. Jamie was to be their only child. Hence, parental love was showered down upon him. All went well for Jim, his family, and the fire department during those soft and happy years."
Then the fire hat paused. I became uneasy and asked why the hesitation.
"It was November when life took a tragic turn. Jim's family was looking forward to Thanksgiving Day. Jamie's twelfth birthday fell on Thanksgiving that year, and he was beside himself thinking of mixing his birthday with that national holiday. Jim's wife laughingly told Jamie that she planned to put twelve candles on the pumpkin pie instead of the traditional birthday cake. Jamie consented to this change if he still could have his favorite ice cream, which was strawberry, on his pumpkin pie. Everyone got into the spirit of Jamie's unique birthday celebration.
"Two days before Thanksgiving, the fire department responded to an apartment house fire. It soon became a two-alarm fire. Neighboring communities sent all the equipment they could spare. The fire spread quickly and engulfed the buildings on either side of the apartment house. Several families escaped the fire, but an old woman and her granddaughter were trapped on the third floor. There wasn't anything that could be done because of the smoke and flames. Jim knew that they both would soon perish in the flames unless someone did something.
"Then, suddenly, Jim grabbed a blanket, wetted it down, and ran into the apartment. I can remember the intensity of the heat and the smoke. How we ever made it to the grandmother's apartment, I'll never know. He wrapped the child in the wet blanket and promised that he'd be right back for the grandmother. It seemed like only a few seconds before we were safely down at the street. No sooner did Jim give the child to the people at the ambulance, he turned and was on his way back for the child's grandmother. However, the first floor gave way and Jim fell into the basement and died instantly. He didn't suffer at all.
"The funeral took place the day after Thanksgiving. It was the largest funeral that Merchantville had ever seen. Fire trucks from fifty miles around came to pay Jim their respects. After the service, the chief gave Jim's wife a flag. After saying a few words to her, he went over to the casket and took me from atop the casket and presented me to Jamie. Even the fire chief was unable to control his sobbing.
"As Jamie sat there waiting for the benediction, he touched me, trying, I think, to feel his father's presence. Then he noticed written inside, just above the headband, these words: Duty before self." I remember the day, years before, when Jim wrote those words.
"Jamie never forgot those words. When he turned twenty-one, he joined the fire department, and again I was used in the line of duty. Jamie went on hundreds of calls before he retired. Each time he would pause for a second, look inside me, and read again his father's words inside his father's hat."
When your grandfather retired, Jamie was the one who presented me to your grandfather. Now, you know the rest of the story.
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