It was about 11pm on a Saturday night and I was taking this girl home from our first real date. Prior to that we’d bumped into each other at a local watering hole or connected through a mutual friend. But this was our first real date, I’m talking a fancy dinner at Ground Round and then window-shopping, which is what young couples did when they don’t have any money to actually go shopping and buy anything.
I wanted to impress her so I got up the nerve to ask my father to borrow his 1963 Mercury Comet. I loved that car either because it was born the same year I was, or because it was orange and rust colored. The orange was the paint and the rust was nature’s doing. It was a two-door with a bench seat in front. You don’t see many bench seats these days. That’s unfortunate.
Having almost two whole years of fire service experience under my belt, I carried my gear in the trunk of my Dad’s car, which amazingly still opened despite the gaping rust holes around the lock mechanism. That was probably my most daring feat of the evening.
As we passed through the Village of Angola on our way to her house in nearby Silver Creek, we came upon a house fire located just “over the tracks” that dissected the village’s social and geographic boundaries at the time.
I pulled the Comet into the old A&P Supermarket across the street so as to stay out of the way of arriving apparatus. I donned my gear and waited for the first engine to arrive.
I instructed my date to wait and watch the operation from a safe vantage point on a grassy area across the street from the house on fire.
I helped stretch a line to the back of the house and up the stairs to the second floor with a partner who’s name I no longer remember. We conducted a primary search and made our way through the smoke towards the front of the house.
I leaned down and opened the bottom sash of a window installed almost at floor level in the front bedroom. Crouching down, I first stuck my left and then my right leg out the window and on to the porch roof. Emerging from the window for unknown reasons, probably for a photo op or to wave to that pretty girl watching from across the street (LOL), I stood up — and immediately fell through the roof to the ground below. She was undoubtedly impressed at this point, I’m sure.
Dusting off my ego and literally pulling up my boot straps, I gathered myself and went back inside the house, this time with a far more experienced firefighter named Denny Allen. I’d been friends with Dennis for as long as I could remember, as I had grown up around the corner from the Evans Center Volunteer Fire Company, my fire company. I always admired Dennis for his ability to remain calm under some of the most chaotic conditions and I trusted him with my life.
We went back to the second floor, this time to conduct overhaul operations — to open up the walls and pull the ceiling in this now smoldering fire. As we began to poke and prod the ceiling with our pike poles, it seemed like the entire ceiling came down on top of us at once. The heavy plaster and lathe knocked us to the ground, jarring my mask loose on my “state-of-the-art” Scott 2A Air Pack, the kind with the elephant trunk hose pre-connected to the mask.
Crawling towards fresh air and the lights from the apparatus outside, I stuck my head out of the same window I had emerged from earlier in the fire fight. And, apparently I had ingested enough brown, acrid smoke to turn my stomach upside down and I proceeded to empty its contents over the side of the porch roof, all the while my date watched from across the street.
Operations at the fire scene dragged on for hours and I got her home from our first date very, very late. It was the next day. I don’t think her parents were too thrilled about that or if they really believed the story why.
That fire occurred 30 years ago today, and that girl, the former Laurie Brunner, has been my wife for 25 of those 30 years. We will celebrate our silver wedding anniversary the day after Christmas, later this year.
I’m confident that the fact that she has stuck with me since that very interesting end to our first date is a clear indication that at least one of us is crazy.
Speaking of crazy, thirteen years ago we took a leap of faith together when I took “early retirement” and gave up a perfectly good paying career in with a bright future to take advantage of an opportunity I’d been offered to do what I love, to serve in the fire service.
No doubt a counter-intuitive financial move, especially with two young kids at home, I forfeited a full time job with great benefits for a part time job with no benefits working for the county. My choices were to either continue doing what I made a lot of money at, or do what I love.
For me, it was a no brainer. For her, I think it was both a test of her sanity as well as a testament to her love for me and my quest for happiness and career satisfaction. Although it still hasn’t paid off financially, I’m confident that even she would agree that it has rewarded us in many ways that we enjoy more and more each day.
I owe virtually all of who I am, what I have had the opportunity to experience, and most of all, the things I have been successful at — to her. Although she’ll readily admit that she doesn’t love the fire service the way I do, through the ups and downs that come with life in the fire service, she’s always supported me in doing what I love.
To say thank you (and remind her of a date she never remembers-LOL) I arranged for roses to be delivered to her office today with a card that read: “Happy 30th Anniversary of our first date. Thanks to you, I still believe in love at first sight. — Love, Tiger.”
She called to tell me that it made the other girls in the office jealous. I feel bad for anyone who doesn’t have what Laurie and I have together.
Our first date ended in love at first fire. A fire that has flared and flickered up and down through our relationship, maybe even smoldered at times, but one that rekindles over and over again and holds the promise of burning brighter every day.
For that I thank her. I love you Laurie.