Are You a Real Man?
It was a horrific accident at a busy Los Angeles intersection that I drove through usually twice a day. But now, the area was like a ghost town. Rescue crews were already gone. The surrounding streets were closed off as far as the eye could see. A sideways-parked police car diverted me down an alley, only feet from where a motorcycle had laid to rest on its side, alone, quietly engulfed in its own shattered and twisted plastic.
You know how every so often you see something like that and it really stays with you? I still couldn’t shake it by the next morning. Fragility of life. Life is short. Live in the moment. We’re all mortal. Blah, blah, blah. We say those mantras to ourselves and to others, yet they’re easier to forget than where you left your keys. While still deep in thought, Andrew called. A guy we both knew was killed the previous afternoon in a motorcycle accident. That accident.
When someone dies, it can be common to revisit our last experience with them, maybe a dinner, a laugh, a cry. I hoped that in time, the vision of the motorcycle wouldn’t be the last one I had of him.
When someone dies, it can be common to revisit our last experience with them, maybe a dinner, a laugh, a cry.
My dark mood got us talking about how difficult it must be for first responders—law enforcement, firefighters, EMTs, helpful citizens, and the like—to forget what they see: the realities of life, which is often death. “What makes those people real is that they deal with our real,” Andrew said. And our real is often unreal.
A friend of mine is a veteran firefighter with the City of Los Angeles Fire Department, and I remember he once told me his wife couldn’t comprehend the horrors of his job. “It’s hard for the lay person to understand my line of work,” he’d told me at the time. Like when he first started out as a paramedic and responded to a building fire, the worst in Los Angeles history. A 5-year-old boy was handed off to him, soot on his face and not breathing. “My partner and I threw him in the ambulance and we did stuff to save that kid that we’ve never done. My partner was yelling in Spanish, ‘Don’t you die! Wake up!’ and I did mouth-to-mouth, which we don’t really do. We got a heartbeat back, but he died. At the hospital, one of the nurses told me I had a ring of black soot on my face. I cleaned it off, but for about a week, I kept wiping my face.” For some firefighters, like my friend, a coping mechanism for those types of calls is “ghoul humor.” They try to make light of it. But he also admitted it doesn’t get any easier after all these years. “As I get older, I cry a lot quicker.”
Being soft is counter to how we tend to perceive firefighters. Rather, we see them as real men in the sense we’ve been precisely trying to avoid in this “Are You a Real Man?” series: macho and manly. On Andrew’s quest to become more of a real man, we’ve been introducing him to men—and women—in various walks of life to expose him to what’s real about them in order to help him become his best, most real self, too. Our focus has always been on “real,” not “man.” But have we been remiss by avoiding true machismo? If Andrew is trying to become the ultimate man, how much more masculine can things get than when your day involves saving people?
“Well, all I know is, women seem to want firefighters, and since I want a woman, I want to learn what it takes to get them.” Andrew needed to work on his ghoul humor.
So, I called my firefighter friend from high school—not to ask him how he gets women, but about why he became a firefighter. “To help people,” he told me. He’d wanted to become a fireman ever since he was young, “because it’s a big, red fire engine that comes screaming down the street. As a kid, you get to go on a field trip to the fire station. You’re exposed at a young age to the idea that firemen are there to help people, and it’s exciting and dangerous. And it’s sort of traditional that parents preach to kids that firefighters are there to help people. Cops are portrayed in movies as both good and bad, but firefighters and paramedics are almost always seen as good guys.”
“Women like good guys, but they also like dangerous men. I think I’m a little of both: Danger Drew,” Andrew optimistically told me as we climbed into a Vehicle of Real Men, a VWerks-outfitted Jeep Wrangler (www.vvwerks.com). “Also, I know how to handle my hose.” I braced myself for the upcoming onslaught of innuendo at the Rio Hondo Truck Academy in Santa Fe Springs, California, where we were set to spend the day at the regional training center to sample an advanced 11-day course for truck company operations. “Firefighters come in and hone their skills on ventilation, forcible entry, vehicle extrication, live-fire operations, thermal imaging, and firefighter survival,” explained instructor Tyler Shook, who is also a firefighter/paramedic with the City of Vernon Fire Department. “It’s guys and gals who have been on the job for a couple of years and they come here to practice. It’s more of an advanced type of training.”