From Chicken Soup for the Volunteer's Soul

One Whale of a Volunteer

My oldest son Perry was different from other kids. He was bigger and got that way early. He was six feet, four inches tall and 230 pounds by the time he was fifteen.

His brother Mike, two years younger, was considered tall at six feet but almost one hundred pounds lighter. Mike was an easygoing kid, but Perry was troubled and in trouble for most of his teen years.

Perry had what you might call an “attitude.” It eventually got him expelled from high school—permanently. However, he had this longing within him to do good and slowly realized that this was a part of his being.

When we were on a family trip, he always wanted us to pull over when someone needed help on the side of the road. He wanted to rush to someone’s aid when there was an accident. He was attracted to the Wharton, Texas Volunteer Fire Department, and a better lot of people we could not have asked for.

As parents, we were concerned when Perry didn’t come home one night. We imagined all sorts of scenarios. When the phone rang about two in the morning, I just knew it was bad news, that our son was involved in some tragedy. Instead it was a volunteer firefighter who knew me. He identified himself and said, “Doc, I know you’re worried about your son, but I wanted you to know where he is and that he is okay. We’re all working with him. He’s staying here at the fire station and learning the ropes as a volunteer. He has a place to sleep and plenty to eat. He’s a good kid at heart.” I slept well that night knowing that my son was in good hands.

In the days that followed, Perry gradually found something meaningful to do with his muscle and brawn. As a volunteer, he answered emergency calls, dragged hoses and freed trapped victims in automobile wrecks.

Perry even got a job and earned the equivalent of a high school diploma by studying for and taking the GED exam. But it was his role as a volunteer that breathed life into his soul. He took the next step and studied for the EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) designation. More than once, he was credited with saving a life through EMT techniques.

Once at a local football game for the very school that had expelled him (with good reason, I might add), a man in the stands had a heart attack and appeared to be dead. Perry, dressed in his usual cowboy hat and boots, rushed into the stands to give the necessary compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that brought the man back from the depths of darkness. Every time I saw that man thereafter, he would always point at me and say, “Your son saved my life. He’s one whale of a volunteer.”

One day Perry startled all of us when he announced that he had just volunteered again—for the Marine Corps. Frankly, given his inability to take orders in the past, I feared that this might result in the first court martial in the Blakely family history.

The Marine Corps turned him down because he was twenty pounds overweight. Perry calmly said, “I’ll lose twenty pounds and be back in a couple of months.”

He did exactly that. In boot camp at San Diego, he quickly became a leader and graduated number two in his platoon. I asked how he felt about losing the top spot. He smiled and said, “I gave him a run for his money. We battled for that position every week. About half the time I was number one and half the time he was, but in the end he beat me fair and square. He deserves the honor.”

Perry was then 190 pounds and stood tall with an inner peace that I had never seen before. I asked, “What did the Marine Corps do for you to bring about this transformation?”

He replied with startling quickness, “They taught me how to make a decision. And once it’s made, to never look back.”

I secretly wished I had volunteered for the Marines instead of getting drafted by the Army. I still have splinters under my fingernails where they dragged me off the back porch.

After boot camp, Perry was sent to the Naval Air Station, Whidbey Island, Washington, where he continued volunteering as a firefighter and EMT.

His most glorious moment in our eyes was when he was honored as the most outstanding person of the year among the thirty thousand sailors and marines.

One fine spring day in April, Perry and several other sailors and marines, all of them EMTs, were practicing rappelling off a sheer-faced cliff on the beach at Deception Pass. They were all off-duty, but as volunteers they were spending their own time to practice a skill sometimes needed to rescue people from burning buildings. It was a lot of fun and good practice as well. They had been jumping all day, using two ropes in the rappelling rings—the prescribed and safest method, I understand.

Later in the day they decided to switch to single ropes so they could jump two at a time. But first, the new system had to be tested. One of the others was supposed to have his turn, but Perry volunteered to check out the new system since he had the most experience. This is logging country, and a large log had washed up under the cliff and had been left high and dry by the tide—too large to move. It was in the jump area, but the guys merely joked about the hazard.

Something happened. Nobody is sure just what, but about twenty feet from the ground, the system failed and Perry, still in the harness, fell. The back of his head struck the log. He never cried out or moved. On the beach and in the ambulance, his buddies, the best EMTs one could ask for, worked frantically over him. His heart stopped twice, and twice they revived him.

He was airlifted to Seattle but to no avail. Perry was twenty-two years old and destined never to become older. But what a life he lived, and what a spirit he left behind. In our eyes, he was the ultimate volunteer.

Perry’s brother, Mike, and I perform a musical-comedy program with fiddle and guitar, the Swing Riders Show. Mike wears his brother’s cowboy hat on those occasions when we perform—and only then—to honor his memory. Only a few people know this, but it’s symbolically important and comforting to us.

And back where his real development started, at the Wharton Texas Volunteer Fire Department, there is a solitary plaque dedicated to his memory. On it is a photo of Perry wearing his favorite cowboy hat. Fittingly, under the photo are names of other volunteers who have served and passed on. The inscription is appropriate for all volunteers. It reads: “Taking the first step in good thought, the second in good word and the third in good deed, I enter paradise.”

Doc Blakely

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