I’ve always been a rather sentimental person. Nostalgia has sucked me into a melancholy mood more times than any country-western soung could even begin to express. However, as I’ve gotten older, and embraced my impending adulthood, it has been easier to have a vision for the future, rather than a mind for the past.
Sometimes the past just sneaks up and bites you though. Today was one of those days. I was blindsided by the past in a way that just left me feeling a need to express myself.
In 1981, I was one of 14 new firefighters entering the training academy at Washington County Fire District #1 (now Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue). If I had not left the fire service in 1995, this is the year I would be eligible to retire. For this is the year I turn 50.
During the early 80s, one of the men I was hired with, Al Selberg, and I became good friends. We worked together, we played together, we partied together, we vacationed together, and we just had a good time together. To sum up our friendship, I would have to say beer and Frisbee. We were two young men, kids really, living the high life as firefighters.
As the 80s progressed, Al got married and after one of my serial relationships, I realized that I was an alcoholic and an addict. I didn’t know how to be Al’s friend, and not drink. So, I just disappeared. We saw each other at work occasionally, but our lives continued to drift apart. I got involved in management and leadership and Al remained on the line.
Tonight was Al’s retirement party. I heard about it through the grapevine, but there was no way I was going to miss this event. 27 years is a long time to fight fires, plus, I knew that I’d be able to see some old friends there too! Plus, this would have been the year I would have retired.
I did see a lot of former co-workers. There were some I recognized, but couldn’t remember their names; others I knew, but really didn’t know (If you know what I mean?). There were some who were really curious about me and my life – primarily because people don’t do what I did, which is quit. Given the success I was enjoying, and the competition to get hired (our group of 14 competed against 2000 others), it was pretty shocking when I resigned.
A couple of people recognized the risk I took in quitting and affirmed me for the success I’ve gone on to enjoy. One told me that he was impressed with the accomplishments I’ve made. Most don’t do well after leaving the fire service, but life is good for me and my family.
What left me feeling melancholy though was one blast from the past. I looked across the bar and sitting there was one of my former girlfriends. I probably haven’t seen her since the early 80s – over 25 years ago. Like me, she had been an Explorer Scout at WCFD#1. But unlike me, she was a woman when women were not hired to be firefighters.
I never thought she’d be a firefighter, and I told her so. I tried to talk her into doing the paramedic route, but she would have nothing of that. Then here she is tonight, with her husband, one of my former co-workers, and I find out she’s a battalion chief at a local fire department. Tonight, I praised and affirmed her for sticking with her dream. It is fun to see friends succeed!
“I’ve taken the roads I wanted. I have no desire to go back; nor to retrace my steps.”
As I leave the Firehouse Pub in Lake Oswego, a flood of nostalgia begins to wash over me. Firefighters are like family. It was good to see my old family. There was Al, Greg, Ed, Doug, Paul, Jack, Terry, Bill, Alan, and dozens more. Looking the same, but older. The same, but less innocent.
I think that what amazed me the most, and also was the saddest part of the evening, was the lack of growth I saw in some. In fact, some were wallowing in their dysfunction. Divorces, broken families, wayward kids, an illusive persuit of material possessions (boats, cars, motorcycles, vacation homes, and Mexican Timeshares). And looking into the yes of men who I used to trust with my life, left me fearing for theirs. I just saw hurt and confusion.
However, this wasn’t true for everyone there. My former girlfriend looked happy, she was successful, and she made it – she accomplished her dream! That made me feel good. We hugged a last time and said goodbye. But I passed her on the sidewalk out front, I turned and told her how good it was to see her. And it was.
My nostalgia isn’t caught up in a woulda-coulda-shoulda sort of way. I have no regrets about my years as a firefighter/paramedic. I have no regrets about my friendship with this woman, and I have no burning, unfulfilled fantasies for her. In fact, our relationship was a good friendship. We trusted and respected one another. I knew her when I was still young and innocent. Just 22 years old and pretty moist in the eyes. It wasn’t until later that I fell off the sanity wagon.
I believe, as I write this, that my nostalgia is a longing for who I used to be; A grief for the mistakes I made; and a realization that life has come full-circle and everything turned out all right. So, as I reflect, I realize that it isn’t Al, or the other people who I saw tonight that have brought this melencholy upon me. Rather it is a glimpse into my past and a reflection of who I really am.
In part, I still am that same moist-eyed young man. Unafraid of anything, crashing through doors without a care of what might be on the other side. Full of a desire for adventure and a longing for exploration. Part of that young man still lives inside of this nearly 50 year old body, but much of that has been stifled by the scars of broken relationships and wounded hearts.
Seeing Al, reminded me of the partier I became. Seeing Peggy reminded me of the innocent young man I once was. Telling others about my wife, my kids, my great life in the country – well, that just showed me how there can be “beauty from ashes.”