Native Writes: Life on the line

On this page Wednesday was a wonderful tribute to the “Thin Red Line,” firefighters whose kinship and camaraderie often are the difference between life and death during a disastrous fire such as the one that burned more than 107,627 acres in Costilla and Huerfano counties.

Fortunately, there were no deaths, but 148 homes were lost and countless others damaged. My dad was a firefighter and the first time I saw him cry was when he returned from a fire in which several children burned.

I grew up in a family tethered to the “fire phone.” When it rang, whatever was happening at home stopped for a second, then we all assumed our assigned roles.

I wasn’t born into it. When I was born, the folks lived at the cemetery where my dad was sexton, then he got another city job, along with becoming the night fire engine driver. We lived at the fire station.

When a call came in, my dad donned his fire gear and headed to the fire engine, mom stood ready to answer the phone, should it ring again and I made every effort to stay out of the way. I was eventually allowed to brew coffee.

Back then, my dad could run. I have noticed today’s crop of firefighters seem to be in prime physical shape and can move rapidly along with tanks, gear and tools attached to their heavy fireproof suits.

Dad’s first gear was a war surplus bunker suit, left over from World War I. The firefighters all dressed like warriors. By the time I was born at the end of World War II, the gear was nicer, but not the high- tech equipment of today.

Just as the thin blue line encompasses law enforcement officers and their families, the thin red line does the same with firefighters.

That was so evident in Channel 11 TV film footage showing Zach Cerny’s daughters running to him after he had been away from home fighting the Spring Fire. Just as the editorial brought tears to my eyes, so did the short film clip.

I thought of the last time I saw my dad answer a call. Aged and in a wheelchair, he had been diagnosed with dementia – Alzheimers wasn’t a term until later – and a fire engine went by, lights and siren activated. The man who normally couldn’t stand without help stood, eyes bright. “Where the H--- are my pants and boots?”

The flash was as short as the Channel 11 footage, but Daddy was back, if even for a moment or two.

“So call and ask where the fire is. We’ll drive him there,” my oldest son offered.

I refused, knowing private citizens really have no place at a fire site.

Dad was back in his own haze, picking at the fraying plastic on his chair arm and reaching for a cookie.

Still, that Thin Red Line was there.

Watching the young firefighters work with their comrades in uniform, I know the lines are a symbol of those who work and sacrifice to keep others safe and secure as they live their lives.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow, they deserve our heartfelt thanks and utmost respect.


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