When I was in college, I had an opportunity to go rock climbing. A few guys from my dorm invited me to go to the mountains and climb rock walls with them. These were not the man made walls with strategically engineered hand and foot holds. These were the rock walls that were created by Mother Nature- the kind where you use pitons, harnesses and ropes. I was afraid of heights. I was afraid that I wasn’t strong enough. I was afraid of looking like a fool. I declined.
This has been one of my greatest regrets, not because I thought I would end up being a diehard rock climber, but because I passed up an adventure in order to save face. Since I was a child, I hated the idea of being laughable or ridiculous. I avoided situations in which I wasn’t comfortable, even walking away from college chorus auditions for fear I would not make the cut. I got stomach aches during relay races. I would no-show parties I had agreed to attend. I feared anything that might risk failure, and I developed a pattern of avoidance as a form of self protection.
Now, at fifty-something, I have come to conclusion that refusing to do things outside one’s comfort zone is a recipe for a lifetime of regrets, and regrets are far worse than failure. And that is why last week, I went to fire school.
I was introduced to the concept by the Massachusetts State Fire Marshal, whom I had interviewed on a rainy day in April. He suggested I visit the Academy while a class was in session. I could interview some fresh-faced recruits and observe some of their training.
“And,” he added, “We’ll dress you up and throw you in the smokehouse.”
The smokehouse is the towering gray structure found on most firefighting training sites. Appearing to be nothing but a big cement box on the outside, the inside consists of intricate rooms, hallways and staircases. Fires are set in multiple areas, and trainees sent in to put out the fires. It is all very controlled. What could happen?
“Sure,” I agreed, and several weeks later, the arrangements were made. But the day before my appointment, I wondered what I had done. By the time most firefighters are my age, they are chiefs, or retired. I am a middle-aged woman with more sags and bulges than muscles. My workouts consist of a leisurely walk on the Gazelle, a few crunches and lifting five pound weights. The old fears rose again. I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I have arthritis in my back. I’m not young and strong anymore. And mostly, I would look ridiculous.
But the decision had been made. To back out now would be more humiliating than going forward. I would have to admit failure to myself and my friends, and most importantly, to my younger brother Eric, who has been my support and confidant on this writing project journey. So, quivering courage in hand, on Thursday morning I drove to the academy where I was introduced to Bruce, a grinning bald giant who would be my guide for the day. He cheerfully got me fitted with gear- bunker pants, coat, boots, gloves, hood, mask, Scott pack and helmet. Then he introduced me to Mike, who would be my guide inside the smokehouse.
“Make sure the seal of your mask is tight. Wiggle your butt every 30 seconds or your alarm will go off. Slide your boots along the floor so you don’t trip. Ready?”
As I stepped inside the door, I had the same sensation that I experienced when I was a four-year-old waiting to start a quarter-midget race. My older sister had been a great racer. They called her Lead Foot. I, on the other hand, was a Pee Wee, and had to be propped with pillows in order to reach the pedals. I would clutch the steering wheel while my father gave me last minute instructions that I didn’t understand. The next thing I knew, I would be whirling around a track, the faces of spectators spinning like the colors in a kaleidoscope. I usually lost focus and spun into the hay bales. I can’t really say that I liked racing, but to refuse- to sit out- would be the ultimate embarrassment.
Mike closed the door behind us. Inside was the darkest dark I had ever experienced. The walls and floors were invisible, and the only things I could identify were the massive brown billows of smoke and the orange flames that leapt from burning piles of straw. I lifted a hand in front of my mask but all I could see was black. The crackle of fire and the banging of hoses against metal steps were punctuated by the cadence of my air regulator.
Mike tried twice to take me down the stairs, but the fire was too strong and we had to back off. As we waited in a corner, I realized that I wasn’t at all scared. This was actually fun. I began to relax and trust him as he led me around the building. We waited for the recruits to get closer to the fire, and I could feel the increasing heat creep up my back. The clicking and hissing of my air regulator quickened, and Mike told me to get down on my knees where the temperature was cooler.
“God,” I thought, as I crouched down. “I won’t be able to get up. How embarrassing!” Immediately I began to feel a shroud of self devaluation that was darker and thicker than the air around me. I tried to rise, but the bulk of the bunker pants and the weight of my gear made it impossible. I repositioned, tried again, and failed again. “Crap!” I realized. “I’m going to have to ask for help.”
I leaned over to Mike and yelled, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” He chuckled a bit, reached out his hand and pulled me up. That was it. There was no humiliation. No embarrassment. No sense of failure. Instead, I emerged from the smokehouse with a sense of accomplishment and exhilaration.
No, I am not young and strong like the recruits who actually put out fires. I will never pull hoses through the stairwells and open windows that belch smoke so acrid that you taste it for days. I won’t save people or property. I won’t climb ladders and pour gallons of water on flames that light the sky and eat everything in their paths.
But last Thursday I looked a life-long enemy in the face and beat it. It feels good, and though I’ll never be a hero, I’m okay. Bring on the next challenge.