A firefighter died after valiant battle with cancer. He had been the Rensselaer County fire dispatcher for 31 years. He also served up and down the hierarchy of the Buskirk Volunteer Fire Company. I was asked to lead the service of worship and remembrance. When I drove to the church building fire engines and emergency vehicles from all over Washington and Rensselaer Counties lined Rt 22. I would guess there were 30 or more of them. With their lights all flashing I wondered if anyone, not knowing what was happening, would fear some horrible disaster had visited us
At the conclusion of the service, the men of his company in civilian suits (newly purchased the day before) carry his casket out of the sanctuary. They hoist the casket up first onto an emergency vehicle and from there to the top of a firetruck. I lead the procession, in my Subaru, far more comfortable than in the old days when we would have walked to the cemetery, bracing against the wind. My Bible sits on the passenger's seat so that when I reach the head of the yawing hole I can speak words of hope about empty graves..
As the procession passes along Rt. 22, the men and women come to attention. Some of the companies are in uniforms with suits and hats; others are more casual wearing fleece sweatshirts. Many look like it has been a while since they'd run into a burning building. It is a Norman Rockwell Americana moment. I see dignity in their faces, and pouches around their bellies. Some of the men are young and look like they would much rather be hunting. But they are being trained in what respect and tradition look like. So they are here, eyes forward, as still as if they have a deer in their sites.
The cemetery is about a mile or so from the church. Just before its entrance, a flag is hoisted between two hook and ladder trucks. The flag is as wide as the road and the ladders have it up high enough so that the trucks can go under. The enormous flag billows in the chill November wind. All the way at the top of the ladders the men in the buckets stand at attention. It takes my breath away. I am uncomfortable with the cozy relationship between flag and faith in this country. But this is so right. This man has served his commmunity and is being honored by brothers (and a few sisters) with whom he shares this deep bond.
Once the procession gets to the cemetary, all those firefighters that had been lining the road come and stand in a semi circle around the edge of the mourners, like a protecttive wall. They stand at attention, in their uniforms, wishing they had warmer clothes on. They are cold, uncomfortable, most of them didn't even know Gary. Those that do, knew him as a gruff s.o.b. (in the words of his wife!) Yet they stand there, having taken the day off to honor their fallen brother. This is patriotism at it's best.
After the pall flag is handed to Gary's wife with the gratitude of the nation, we wait in silence for his last call. It's delayed because another call comes in at the same moment. So we stand in silence for several minutes until, in a flury of beeps, static, and strill tones, first responder's pagers go off. The dispatcher calls out codes that none of the rest of us understand until he says something like, "This is the final call for Gary Hugh Moses." His number is now retired, never to be used again.
I have always admired those who serve as first responders. I now have a new appreciation for the fraternity of the fire house. Young men learn how to be courageous and cautious. Old men bicker and tell tales of their glory days. Service shapes identity. Making a difference matters. Today, my admiration is tinged with envy.
Kate Kotfila is Pastor of Cambridge United Presbyterian Church. She and her husband David live in Jackson. They have two adult children & a faithful (if clueless) Plott hound, Arnie.