It would be easy to think that all of America’s heroes were born to be heroes. I wouldn’t blame you if you had that mindset. When I watch various TV shows, the stars are always attractive, smart, well-liked, and very personable. One would think that all lifeguards looked like models or were capable of gracing the pages of men’s magazines. It’s easy to get the impression that all firefighters are suave, sophisticated, and capable of leaping tall buildings with a single bound. I hate to be the first to pop that illusion, but having spent my whole life around these folks, I have to tell you something.
America’s heroes are ordinary people. The characters you see on TV are an amalgamation of some of the best qualities hundreds of men and women who serve in the trenches everyday. But held up to the microscope of public scrutiny, we all begin to look frail and pathetic. (But you already knew that, right?) Only a small percentage of our society can withstand that level of inspection – and most of them are professional celebrities – that’s what they do. It is their job to look good to and for the rest of us.
When I was first invited to be an Explorer Scout with Washington County Fire District #1, I had no clue what that meant. “Do you watch the TV show Emergency!?” they asked – “It’s just like that!” And so with that brilliant piece of salesmanship, my life’s course was chosen.
No one would have mistaken us for being the popular kids at school. Indeed, not quite real Boy Scouts, we weren’t even Eagle Scout material. We were just as nerdy as any Boy Scout you knew, but a lot more geeky. We were a pathetic lot; made up of pimple-faced, hormone-infested, skinny teenagers. One of us was in band, another had a nervous tic, one was painfully shy, and all of us misfits. But that’s OK, because our leader, Tom, was a 6’4″ gangly red-headed misfit himself. And he loved us.
From that initial group, over half of us went on to professional careers in emergency services – and most quite successfully too. The Explorer program allowed us to bootstrap our lives – and I give a lot of credit to the fire district that supported that.
Being a misfit is interesting business. One spends their whole live concerned with how to stop being a misfit, and how to better fit in with the cool kids. Most of us never succeed at this endeavor. Many will just surrender to their so-called destiny, and wallow in mediocrity forever. Others embrace their misfittedness and learn to excel at being misfits (eg; Steve Martin, Robin Williams, – the list goes on). But there are a few of us, who despite great odds, will rise out of the obscurity and go on to lead fairly normal lives.
However, if you put a bunch of geeks, nerds, and misfits into an arena, they will begin to play various “reindeer games” to establish who is the least nerdy, geeky, or misfit. Wild dogs pee on trees, mountain goats butt heads, and men seek their dominance in more sophisticated ways. For some reason, many have a need to prove that we are more-better than you! At the very least, there is this unspoken need to not be associated with those at the bottom of the pack.
When I became a professional firefighter-paramedic at WCFD#1 (now TVF&R), I became aware of a young Explorer Scout by the name of Phil. I didn’t know Phil, except by reputation. Word on the street was that Phil was a goof-ball, needy, not very bright, a geek, a little too eager, and someone to stay away from. Well, I was trying to establish my own independence as a MAN – there was no way I wanted to associate myself with Phil.
In fact, I probably went out of my way to distance myself from the whole Scout Program – much like a teenager trying to establish independence from his parents. Most likely it was unconscious, but I had launched and I was on my way to stardom, I didn’t want the geek reputation to find me again. In fact, to this day, I’m sad to report that I never really gave Phil the time of day. As I got to know him more personally, it wasn’t because he was a bad guy – it was more due to my own fears. I was afraid of being un-cool again.
Phil was hired by the Beaverton Fire Department (now TVF&R), and we began to work together. He was a likable guy – really. But that nerdy/geeky/goof-ball reputation lingered around him. I was afraid it might be contagious. I’d like to think he didn’t notice by standoffishness – but I’m certain that would be untrue. Others treated me the same way, and I always new it.
At that time I didn’t know it was more cool to be nice, than it was to be cool.
About the time I went into operations management, Phil was starting to really mature as a paramedic. He was not only one of our rising stars, but his personal life was maturing too. He was able to shrug off the sarcastic comments, teasing, and inconsiderate treatment that the pack leveled at him. He was becoming a man of his own choosing and a respected EMS professional too!
Phil was involved with the current Explorers, giving back what he had received. He was very active with the Union (Local 1660 of the IAFF) and their work with Muscular Dystrophy. In fact, I was growing quite fond of Phil and was feeling an urge to express my appreciation for all he was doing. More than that, I was looking for an opportunity to apologize to him – for treating him like a pariah. It’s because of these feelings, I’m certain, that his death hit me so hard.
Phil was returning from a weekend where he volunteered at MDA Camp. He rounded a corner on SW Stafford Rd, crossed the yellow line, and collided head-on with another car. And just like that, this young hero’s life was over.
Sudden, unexpected death can be difficult to process. Even after visiting the scene of the accident, talking to our crews who responded, and driving to Clackamas to view the crumpled car, my mind was still reeling with the news. It wasn’t until I held his cold, lifeless hand in the mortuary, that the reality of Phil’s death hit me.
I had the privilege of being a part of the most amazing hero’s funeral I’ve ever witnessed. In fact, I was the captain of the honor guard – which truly was an honor [Read the history of the TVF&R Honor Guard here]. Firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, police officers, and other emergency services professionals came from all over Oregon and Washington to honor the legacy of Phil Hall. Traveling from the mortuary to the cemetery, there was a line of emergency vehicles two miles long – with helicopters overhead. It was quite the spectacle.
As far as everyone was concerned, Phil died in the line of duty. He spent his last weekend saving the lives of children affected by muscular dystrophy. That’s who Phil was – he was a born lifesaver. In learning to save others, he saved himself.
Phil died, not as a misfit geek, but as a stand-up hero.