When I was growing up, there was always a white index card taped to the refrigerator door with the following quote: “To truly understand a man, first you must walk in his shoes.” Like all kids, I didn’t give the words a second thought – at least not until I became a man…
Fog hovered over the cemetery like a thick blanket of doom to the already dismal day. Hundreds of Firefighters wearing Class-A uniforms; were lined up on the grounds with their hands in a steady salute toward the wooden casket holding the man they called a hero.
My name is John Travis Ryan … that man was my father.
I sat next to my Mom with an arm draped around her for support. Her eyes were bloodshot red with more tears threatening to spill at the sound of Taps playing in the background. We watched, stoically, as Pallbearers folded the American Flag into a triangular shape with only the blue field showing. The Honor Guard handed the flag to the Chief who then presented it to my mom, as he offered his condolences. He then gave me a firm handshake. “Your father was a good man, J.T.,” the chief said to me, using the term that everyone at the firehouse called me. “You’re the man in the house now.”
I nodded, solemnly. “Yes sir, Chief,” I responded out of respect. The chief had no idea what was going on in my mind. How could he? To the Chief, and all the firefighters who flew in to pay tribute, my father was a fellow brother. One who stood on the front line; went in when others were running out, no matter what the call. He was a man who put the uniform first, and the lives of others in front of his own.
To me, he was the man who put the job ahead of his family. Selfish of me, I know, but I was angry. From as far back as I could remember; he was never around. Between the two 24-hour shifts at the firehouse, training with the teams (Dive Team, Water Rescue, Ice Rescue, Search & Rescue – there was always a team); then being on call when the alarm sounded – birthdays, holidays, scouts, and every sporting event that mattered to me. If there was a storm, crises or catastrophe, mom and I were on our own, while he was off helping others. On the rare occasions he was home; all we did was bump heads. Mom tried to make me understand. For years, she tried explaining that some people just have a calling, like soldiers who choose to go off to war. “Being a fireman was your father’s calling” she said, “helping those in distress.”
That only angered me more. “Just face it, mom,” I snapped at her during one of our final arguments on the subject. “He chose the fire service over us. He sacrificed us; period, end of story.” Then I stormed off, and headed into the garage. That was when I noticed a box with my father’s name on it. I had never seen it before. Curious, I looked inside. My Mom had cleared out his locker at the firehouse. His bunker gear, helmet, and fire boots were inside, along with a newspaper article:
LIEUTENANT, JOHN RYAN, LOST HIS LIFE SUNDAY MORNING, AFTER SAVING A FAMILY OF FOUR; THEN RETURNING TO SAVE THE LIFE OF A FELLOW FIREFIGHTER, AS FLAMES SHOT OUT THROUGH A TWO-FAMILY HOME DURING A WINTER STORM
A loud crashing noise interrupted my concentration, and shook the house. I peered out through the garage door window, and saw the front end of a car ripped like an accordion into a tree. Electrical wires dangled, sparks shot out from underneath, and the female driver was unconscious – her head planted on the steering wheel. I was immediately worried about a fire, and knew I had to help.
At the same time I was punching 911 on my cell phone, I threw on the bunker gear, and stepped into the boots. As I charged outside, hoping to get the woman to safety, the words on the index card hit me like a ton of bricks.
“To truly understand a man, first you must walk in his shoes…”
P.S. This is a shortened version of the Kindle short story entitled IN HIS BOOTS, which will be available on Amazon, soon. I originally posted this on the blog site for #BestSellingReads. After receiving a number of DM’s on Twitter, I decided to add it to my own site.