From Chicken Soup for the Soul of America

Given the Choice

I will never look at a firefighter the same way again. What is in someone, hundreds of them, to compel them to run into a burning building while everyone else is running out, just to save people they don’t even know? Their bravery has become part of our collective national legacy. Their bravery dignifies us all.

Reverend Bill Hybels

Somewhere in the darkness between Two Falls and Ogden, I eased my Ford F-250 off the freeway. I’d been driving nonstop since leaving Seattle, and I was tired. In the waning hours of September 12, I laid my head on the steering wheel for a few minutes rest.

When I closed my eyes I could see it clearly, jutting into the cobalt-blue Rocky Mountain sky. I’d known of the I.A.F.F. Fallen Firefighter monument for years but had never visited Colorado Springs until September 1995. My first visit to the national memorial had come as the result of a fiery warehouse collapse that took the life of my friend Jim and three other Seattle firefighters eight months earlier.

Every September thereafter, I’d trek back to “the springs” for the annual memorial observance. I’d always find a quiet moment to stand below the monument and gaze up in awe at the bronze image of a firefighter descending a ladder, cradling an infant in one arm. I’d run my fingers across the new crop of names etched on the smooth, black granite wall fronting the monument. Behind the wall, an American flag flew proudly, often at half-mast. Memorial staff members would lower Old Glory to the position of tribute each time a firefighter gave his life. A new flag would be hoisted and flown for each fallen firefighter and presented to the public servant’s family in a triangular oak case at the September observance.

I lifted my head off the steering wheel and put my truck into gear. The diesel growled as I accelerated back onto the freeway toward Colorado.

Several hours later I was south of Ogden, finishing yet another cup of lukewarm coffee. In a moment of fatigue, a wave of selfish frustration passed over me. I seethed that terrorists on the other side of my continent could carry out such cruelty and simultaneously toss my life into such chaos. I had planned to make this year’s trip with my wife, Kate, but our flight had been canceled along with everyone else’s.

In the softly breaking light, my eye caught a solitary American flag fastened to a lonely fence post by some defiant patriot, hanging loosely in the predawn stillness. From Seattle southward I’d seen stars and stripes everywhere—stapled to car antennas, hanging from farmhouse rooftops and slung from office windows. As I considered the thousands now dead, their shattered families and the hundreds of sacrifices made by fellow firefighters, my frustration evaporated, and in its place I felt shame for my selfishness.

In his dying, Jimmy had given me a wonderful gift. For years I’d guarded a secret. I was a closet poet. After a particularly tragic accident or difficult shift, I would write, for hours on end sometimes, to soothe the pain and restlessness in my own soul. Ironically, it was at Jimmy’s funeral, while reciting one of my poems that his mother had requested, that I discovered my fireground songs resonating in the hearts of many other firefighters.

Word traveled quickly, and soon I was wearing the nickname “firehouse poet” with a combined sense of embarrassment and awkward pride. In the years that followed, the I.A.F.F. Memorial had used several of my poems during their annual observances. They’d even published several on plaques. I was honored, but never more so than after the 2000 observance. The memorial’s director had approached me with a special request. With the existing wall of honor nearly full of the names of fallen firefighters, a new wall was to be constructed. Would I, he asked, consider writing a poem to be etched on the new wall?

It hadn’t been an easy project. For months I’d struggled to find the words, only to come up empty again and again. The question kept haunting me, What can I possibly say to make this memorial any more meaningful?

I had discovered the answer in early April on a family weekend getaway. As I leaned against a piece of driftwood and watched seagulls ride the ocean winds, a revelation struck me: the memorial wasn’t complete. It contained monuments, memorial walls and names of our fallen, but there was no parting thought, no final message. The memorial lacked a statement from fallen firefighters. As I visualized the thousands of children yet to learn they would never see Daddy again, the mothers and fathers yet to bury a child, and spouses yet to become widows and widowers, the poem I’d been looking for was born. I scratched out the two dozen lines on a wrinkled scrap of paper, tucked it in my pocket and joined A. J. and Annie, my son and daughter, as they played near the surf.

By early mid afternoon on September 13, I was an hour north of Denver. Pulling into a gas station in Fort Collins, I nearly collided with a red, four-wheel Toyota pickup. Flapping proudly above the truck’s cab were two massive American flags. Instead of an obscene gesture or a glowering scowl, the driver gave me a thumbs-up. I smiled and returned the gesture. How the world had changed in forty-eight hours! I’d never witnessed such patriotism, such camaraderie between strangers. Out of unspeakable evil, good was already emerging.

Arriving in Colorado Springs, I checked into my room and tossed my two suitcases on the floor. After nearly twenty-four hours on the road, the king-size bed looked inviting, but I had one final stop to make. I jumped into my pickup once again and turned the key.

From my parking space two hundred yards from the monument I could see the bouquets. Rainbows of flowers covered the memorial grounds, some carefully lining the top of the black granite wall, others strewn at random like toys abandoned by a toddler. Dozens of hardened wax puddles littered the cobblestone walkway encircling the site, each spent candle a token of a grateful citizen’s respect and remembrance. Amongst the flowers were cards and hand-written notes: “We love you,” “Thank you for your sacrifice” and “God bless your families.” Another bore a meticulously colored picture of a Dalmatian and a stick figure crying. “I’m sad you died,” it said simply.

Barely a whisper of wind moved the half-mast American flag. It hung like a sentinel over the original black granite wall with its new crop of freshly etched names, each a symbol of a firefighter’s family sacrifice. I turned my attention to the newly constructed wall behind it.

Stretching out seventy feet, its rich ebony surface was blank except for a lonely poem. As I ran my hand over the stone plates, I realized the first names to be inscribed here would not be those of sixty, seventy, or even one hundred firefighters from a year’s worth of tragedies, but those of more than three hundred of New York’s bravest who died in a single, terrible ordeal. I leaned against the cold, smooth granite and cried.

As expected, firefighter turnout to the Saturday memorial service was sparse. On September 15, thousands of firefighters were mobilizing nationwide for rescue and support operations, and with air service 10 percent of normal, hundreds more had been unable to find a flight. But in the void created by absent firefighters, citizens streamed to the memorial from Colorado Springs and beyond. From Denver to the north and Pueblo to the south, from Cascade and Fort Carson, they came by the thousands, bringing with them their tears, their flowers, their hugs, their whispers of support. In our time of grief and remembrance, they had not forgotten us.

As l looked out over the thousands who had come to grieve firefighters they’d never known, I realized that, maybe for the first time, America truly understood. They understood that, for firefighters, the only difference between the unspeakable tragedy in New York and those that occur each week on our continent lies in the number of lives lost—never in the depth of commitment or price-lessness of the sacrifice. As I stood at the microphone and prepared to share my poem, I realized America did understand. We had been there for them. Now, they were here for us.

Battling tears and a rising lump in my throat, I shared the words etched on the new memorial wall—the words I’d jotted that early spring day on a coastal inlet as the surf had pounded the shoreline. Simple words, but powerful words, I hoped. Simple and powerful, like the breed of American they were intended to honor.

Given the Choice

If I’d been given the choice,

you know I would’ve stayed.

Grown a little more gray,

a lot more wise,

fought a few more fires,

saved a few more lives.

If I were given the choice,

I’d come back one more time

to see and touch

the ones I miss

I’d dry one tear,

steal one kiss.

And if I were to choose

where you’d etch my name,

I’d ask, this field

beneath the Rockies,

where mountains tower

above the plains.

Carve my memory

in this granite,

here with these

who teach the world

what lion-hearted bravery is,

each time another flag’s unfurled.

Captain Aaron Espy

Reprinted with permission of Michael De Adder.

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