To the Editor:
With the anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy upon us, bringing back to life the incredible suffering it caused and the remarkable service our nation’s police and fire fighters provided, I am prompted to share some thoughts.
A recent news article about Jim Vercruysse, who’s taking over as chief of the Aquinnah volunteer fire department from Walter Delaney, struck a very deep emotional chord in me. It’s a vivid reminder of firefighters and the sacrifices they are willing to make for our wellbeing, and a reminder of those my father and grandfather made in particular. It’s a memory of a lifetime “around” men and women of indescribable and unfathomable bravery and sacrifice. People who fight fires, are by any definition, heroic.
My father was a lifetime firefighter. He was in charge of the Navy’s fire department operation at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport during WW II. That’s where he met my mother. He was born to a firefighting family in Warwick R.I. He, his father, and brother all served as volunteers in Greenwood R.I., and my childhood was spent less than 1,000 yards away from Station 5. I spent many hours learning to play baseball from the guys on duty — drank a lot of Tru-Ade there, tried my first Moxie, and served as the batboy for the Warwick Firefighters softball team composed of guys called Popeye, Ralphie, and Jimmy C. At 9 years of age, I got to call them by their first names, and I had the privilege of being in the fire house when the alarm rang; watched them come down the pole and hop aboard the red engines, and off they went. Because they felt the need to serve. They were awesome.
When I was in high school, dad became a captain on the Navy’s Crash Crew at Quonset Point Naval Air Station. A couple of months ago, out of the blue, a fellow who’d served under him emailed to let me know what a great guy he was and what a respected leader he had been to the crew. I already knew that. I was going through old clippings in the closets of my West Tisbury home and came across similar testimonies to his bravery and leadership, most of which I never knew existed.
In 1983, after a medical retirement, the years of service finally caught up with him. It wasn’t the burning training plane crash at Quonset that killed him, where he ran across the runway to pull two “kids” out of the cockpit just before the plane burst into flames. It wasn’t the alcohol burns on his lungs that he’d received 20 years earlier when he ran into a burning building to save the folks left inside. It was some strange hospital infection, exacerbated by the steroids he’d been taking for 30 years, and a lifetime love of cigarettes that had weakened his system and his lungs’ ability to function normally. Too much smoke is just too much smoke. We watched him suffer for many years. But he never showed anything less than courage and determination, even at the end.
To the new Chief in Aquinnah and to the retiring Chief (and make sure those titles are capitalized pleased), I know what burns inside you. I have seen it, I have lived with it all my life. And you are my heroes, just as my dad was my hero then.
To all the men and women who serve as volunteers or regulars on fire departments throughout this nation, thank you. I am proud to be one of your “sons.”