It was almost 40 years ago when I first talked to Mike. I was a young Explorer Scout with Washington County Fire District #1 and he was a veteran fire lieutenant. I remember sitting in his office listening to his stories about the life of a firefighter. It impacted me deeply and is a part of my journey to become a professional firefighter.
I always looked up to Mike, as a mentor and a role model. I find it interesting who we pick as mentors and heroes in our life. Some people just fit and Mike was one of those people. As a 15 year old, wet-behind-the-ears, punk kid, Mike seemed so much older and wiser – and yet, at only 30 years old, he was still trying to figure out life himself. At that age, 15 years is quite the spread.
“For most of us, it is difficult to leave the friendships, the lifestyle, and the brotherhood.”
When I was 30, and well seasoned as a paramedic-firefighter, Mike and I were assigned to the same shift. He was my officer, even though I worked on the rescue. It was an interesting time to be in our maturing fire district. We just merged three large fire agencies into one and fire EMS professionals were struggling to gain greater recognition in an agency locked in tradition.
At the same time, my career was beginning to take on a new life. Within a year or two, I would move off the line and into a management/leadership role. Though we never really talked about it, I sensed Mike was going through his own personal struggles. I didn’t know how to connect with him and we really never talked. This was hard for me – as it is for most accolades when their mentor falls from grace.
Our lives move forward and many things go on. Mike retired from the fire district in 1994 and I quit in 1995. I know, for most of us, it is difficult to leave. The friendships, the lifestyle, and the bonds are nearly invincible. It truly is a brotherhood.
Saturday morning I was sitting in a church listening to my wife’s uncle preaching when I watched a man and woman take a seat a few rows in front of us. Other than his long white ponytail, they were relatively unremarkable. But when he turned his head, I saw something familiar. I mentioned the familiarity to my wife as I continued to watch for more clues.
By the end of the service I was certain it was my old hero Mike. I approached him with my hand extended, “Mike Hart?” I asked. He looked up with curiosity, recognized me, and we embraced. I had tears in my eyes for at least 10 minutes as we stood and chatted. Eventually we moved outside where we talked for at least an hour and a half. He was the last person I thought I’d ever see in a church, but I know a few have thought that about me too.
We told stories, caught up on former firefighters, and shared life experiences. It was a providential encounter and both of us were blessed. To think I’d almost skipped the opportunity to attend church with my family? I’m so glad I didn’t. Mike has clearly regained his footing and will live on as an important part of my life’s journey.