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Friday, May 05, 2006

Crawling through the darkness

I learned a lesson in September of 2001, while I was experiencing "The Tower"; that is, the physical training portion of my training to become a firefighter for a midwestern city. We'd been hired after an arduous process, and after months of academics, I was fighting to overcome personal obstacles which, in the end, would lead me to my new career.

The Tower was 6 weeks at the city's training facility, focusing on the SOP's (Standard Operating Procedures) and "evolutions", which were the exercises assigned for the day. Throughout the six weeks the evolutions went from simple three-step operations to full blown firefighting--as much as possible without a real fire.

The first week was fairly easy, however. I remember one of our first evolutions...we had assigned partners and the assignment was simple: Find the fire and put it out.

At the entrance to one of the training buildings, we donned our turnout, to include the SCBA tank and accompanying facepieces, and waited, two by two, to make the trip.

I was on the nozzle. The "charged" hoseline snaked back to the Engine, which was attached to the hydrant out on the apron. My partner was a a friend, and his was probably the more difficult job.

We had done searches before, but this was different. This time, we had all our gear, we had the heavy hose to carry, we were in complete darkness with our airtanks on (containing a limited amount of air), and the building was full of "smoke".

I remember opening the door, the nozzle in hand, having felt the entrance door with the back of my gloved hand. Slowly we crawled inside and I made my way to my left to find the wall just inside the door...which lead to a corner...and up the stairs. As the light from the doorway faded, about 5 steps up, and we labored to drag the heavy hoseline with us, my job was to keep my hand on the wall. My partner had to focus on pulling the hoseline as we went, not an easy job. Slowly, we made our way, step by step, my hand never leaving the wall. This was so far the most realistic scenario in training, and I knew we were creeping along at a snail's pace. I was thankful it wasn't real...if there were any victims, they would have grown old and died before we ever got to the half-way point of that smoky cement stairwell.

Somewhere in that darkness, where the only sound was our grunts of effort in dragging the tankline and short, muffled words of encouragement to each other, I felt panic creep upon me. I was burdened with the weight of the SCBA tank and my turnout gear. My knees hurt and ramming one upon the sharp corner of a step did not help the situation. I was hot and sweaty although we hadn't gotten far...and I knew I was sucking air far faster than I should be. Would my tank last at this pace??

I wanted to stop and turn around. I wanted to stand up, get out of the bulding, remove all the confining burdens and I wanted to drink as much water as was available. I did not want to go forward and face the dragon that awaited us, and even worse...the Captain.

But somewhere, deep within me, my training thus far spoke out, and I believe to this day, the Holy Spirit. I did not hear words, but only had an understanding, and my thoughts went from jumbled panic to cool reality.

"All I have to do is keep my hand on the wall. The wall isn't going's RIGHT THERE. All I have to do is follow it and bring the water. Anthony has the harder job, and he's doing great. And if I have to leave, he will leave with me, but I'm not going to make him do that. But we can get out of here any time we long as I stay in contact with this conglomeration of rock.

The panic left me, and we both moved forward and upward with renewed vigor. The wall to my left turned a corner to the left and I followed it, turning to help advance the hoseline. We found a door...I felt along the doorway, knowing that this was it..because we were in a dead end and the only place to go was IN.

I fumbled so badly that our Captain grabbed my flailing yellow-leather-gloved hand and forced it to the doorknob with some exasperation. I shoved the door open. As we entered, the flames shot upward from the area of the far wall and corner. We could see now, and we saw the Captain, beckoning us forward.

We crawled forward, staying low, bringing in the hoseline only to find we dind't have enough...and while the dragon roared, we hauled, and got into position. The nozzle had a type of handle on the underside similar to a handgun, but longer. On top there was a lever to control the flow of water. I set my position, feeling Anthony's arm pressed against my back and shoulder to support me as the water surged forward. The pressure drove me backward as anticipated, but he did his job and together, we put the fire out. We turned it off and listened to the critique, then left, triumphant. Not a great job, overall...but we did it and we were the first to do so.

Here is my point...this was not so much a lesson in firefighting as it was a lesson in the Spirit, for it is not the physical details that have left an impression on me; it is the realization that we are all crawling in the darkness, and sometimes, the smoke is so thick and choking, and sometimes we don't think there's enough air, and sometimes we think we are lost.

Sometimes we get the urge to backtrack and get a "perspective," and maybe realize that we don't want to go through that darkness because the reward cannot possibly be worth it.

But that's the wrong approach. Had I run away as I wanted to, I would have lost my job, in all liklihood. If I could not have gotten through that, then I certainly would not have been able to get through anything else.

That's the spiritual life. God beckons us forward, knowing what is in that darkness and knowing our personal struggles...but he doesn't send us alone. And he gives us a rock to grasp as we wander, hauling whatever type of burden He requires of us, maybe some things of our own choice. But when it gets dark and smoky, and we begin to panic, that is the time to remember that we have a grasp of something special; we have Jesus Christ and the Church, which is our Rock. Even if we can't see, we can at least know that something solid is guiding us, and as long as we can keep in touch with that, we will find our way.

Sure, there are dragons and obstacles and the like, and we know that going forward. We can't run away because those dragons don't go away by themselves...we are ALL called to fight them. And somewhere, in the darkness behind us, there is someone sent by God to guard our backs, and that being does double duty when our only job is to find the way through the dark and the smoke.

Remember to thank your Guardian Angel tonight and always. Keep your hand upon that Rock which will forever guide you through the darkness, in spite of the smoke, in spite of the obstacles...that Rock will always be there.

Trust in Jesus and push forward, especially when you want only to flee. As long as you keep your hand in His, you will have no need to escape.

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