Unpaid. Professional.

When volunteering is more than not being paid…

Last night, I spent about 90 minutes in a crowded town council meeting room, sitting next to my husband and his volunteer fire department. I was there for defense. (Or offense, depending on your perspective.)

Over the course of the past few months, the town’s all-volunteer fire department has been experiencing increasing tension with their town. The tension seems to be traceable to a 20-something town manager who does not appear to understand the difference between a town employee and a volunteer. He does not seem to grasp that the relationship rural communities have with their fire departments (and many police officers if they rely on reserves) is not contractual.

It is relational.

For reasons known but to him, the town manager escalated the situation by taking the matter to the local paper and involving the council after the fact. His statements cast doubt on their character (they have done nothing wrong) and it made a bad situation painful.

It was humbling to sit among these men and a few women, many with tears in their eyes as they spoke of the work they did, as well as the profound cost of that work which cannot be measured in tax dollars or hours.

In fairness to the child town official, I did not understand the difference between the contractual and the relational in public safety until I moved out here, in the middle of nowhere. I understood it even more when I too decided to don a uniform and carry a pager.

There are volunteer opportunities: delivering Meals on Wheels, tutoring children at a school a few hours a week, answering the phones at a social service agency. Those are valuable and those are necessary. They are, as all services, the rent we pay for life on this earth, to quote Muhammad Ali.

The VFD, EMS and SAR service is something entirely different. The level of training it requires is different. The level of commitment it requires is different. And the motivation is often much more complicated. It has to be to sustain it through the constant inconvenience and threat of injury; to get you to respond every time regardless of the weather, the time of day or what you are doing. The hours of training and studying and physical work put it in a different class: unpaid professional.

Much of America, geographically, is protected by volunteer fire departments, or hybrids of volunteer and professional departments. It is a red state thing, to use political language. When I lived in the city, we had fire stations all over the place and I largely viewed it as a service, the price paid by my tax dollars. I respected them for their work and training, but they were “civil servants.”

That is not why these men and women do what they do. (It’s not why the paid professionals do it either, but that is for a different time.)

By the time the meeting ended Thursday, many of the firefighters were struggling to contain their emotions, so fed up with the unnecessary and the ridiculous.

The work emergency services personnel perform, paid or unpaid, is wearing physically and emotionally. Tearing apart a piece of farm equipment to remove an injured man, tromping through cornfields for hours in the heat to look for the body of the missing, or performing chest compressions on an infant: these are not the typical volunteer opportunities of Americans. But they are the experiences of my loved ones and myself.

We were exhausted by the end of this week. I picked up a pizza on the way home and as we slid slices on our plates, his pager went off.

Twenty-four hours after the fight before the council, he found himself in the dark on a country road, cutting a driver out of a vehicle while his chief prepared a landing zone for the helicopter.

He spent over an hour in the cold alongside his crew and members of another department.

When he got home, and reheated his pizza, he had a smile on his face.

He said the timing of the run was perfect. It reminded him of why he did what he did: serving and helping others.

2016-12-02-18-37-38
A’s chair and dinner awaited his return.

Capturing the moments, and living there

 

There’s a very common saying in working dogs: Train the dog in front of you. Not the one you wish you had.

Everyone knows it. Every new handler hear it constantly from their training directors, from their fellow handlers.

It’s a real temptation, this “next dog.” The mystery K9 you will pluck from the pound, or drop $2,000 on from a well-known working line breeder, the dog that will achieve certification in like two months, never have a bad day, never take a dump in the middle of a search problem, and probably won’t even shed.

We dream of this dog. We see this dog elsewhere on our teams, handled by those who clearly don’t appreciate these magnificent animals as well as we would if we had them. We know that the next dog will be amazing.

Meanwhile, our hardworking K9 sits dutifully at our side, waiting for whatever command we are going to give them, hoping we get the timing better on this next reward and that we don’t miss their cues and leave them out there too long by our misdirection.

There’s another problem new handlers face, and that is that they are new handlers. This is also news to us, er, them. So as new handlers, our timing is always off. We don’t understand enough to really get the training done we need. We know this, deep down inside. And it makes us grumpy. We are anxious. We are angry. We misplace our frustration and put it where it doesn’t belong: our partners.

The only thing harder than taking a pet dog and turning it into a working K9 is taking an inexperienced pet dog owner and turning her into a working K9 handler, a person with confidence, patience, wisdom, strength and humility.

It’s hard to be that inexperienced pet dog owner. It’s harder to make the journey.

My first few years as a SAR K9 handler have been unbelievably difficult, a Sisyphean exercise on the hill of my own ego. We have failed more than we’ve succeeded, and much of our struggle has been because I am very, very slow on the uptake. Did you know that you have to let go of control to work a SAR dog? Yes. It’s true.

Ugh.

SAR and training a dog for SAR works for my salvation. I say this a lot, because it is true. All those things that make good handlers good handlers are good traits for humans, godly traits even.

I’m hopeful that we are getting there. I think the photos below are proof.

_DSC0258
We’re not quite sure…

The above photograph was taken on a cold day in March. I was really distracted and angry at where we found ourselves, progress-wise. Helo knew it. Even though he found what we were looking for, the look on his face tells me that he does not trust me, he does not know how I will react and he’s really not sure he wants to be there right now.

When I first saw this photograph, I was embarrassed. There it was, in living color, for me to see: my strained relationship with my partner, my ego in the way of our work, my desire to work another dog, any other dog, was clearly felt by him on this day.

It broke my heart.

So for the past couple months, I stopped worrying about Helo and nagging him about the work he was doing. All of our training sessions were spent working on me, my attitude, my focus, putting my heart in the right place. I needed to control my emotions, my passions, in order to give him the space to succeed.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. Same place in the search problem, right before the final indication.

_DSC0487.jpg
I’ve got it!

Different dog. Different team. This picture brought tears to my eyes for completely different reasons.

For the past two years, I’ve been looking past the dog I had, and yet at the same time depending on his performance to validate me as a handler. How unfair is that to such a loyal, attentive and gifted creature!?

It has taken a lot of work. And like all journeys and trips worth taking, it’s going to take a lot more to get to where we need to be.

I share this tonight, a departure from my usual musings on the human condition, to share this bit of my condition. I ask for your continued prayers, your support as I work to be the handler Helo needs me to be, the wife my husband needs me to be, the human being that the world needs me to be.

For just like you shouldn’t look past your dog to the next one, we can’t look past the life we have right now to live the one we don’t have. This is our day. These are our choices, our moments. Live in them, fully.

Peering into the depths

We’re in an odd spot.

I saw the sunrise this morning.

That rarely happens on Tuesdays, when I get home around 11:45 p.m. from the late night police-reporter shift I work on Mondays.

But the big gray pickup truck picked me up at 05:45 so we could go back out on the water and try to find a guy.

We spent yesterday out there too, before I went to TJTP. I spent the midday with my hand marking waypoints on GPS screens so we could better triangulate the position of the missing man, hidden from us under more than 100 feet of water. Each time the dog barked, I marked.

Our job was made trickier Monday by the presence of other people on the lake, a big, heavily-populated recreation haven. As we tried to get our K9s in the best position to work, we had to dodge water skiers and inner-tubers, fishermen and pontoon boaters. They seemed oblivious to our presence, or couldn’t really care.

They knew, though, why we were there. Conservation officers, sheriff’s deputies and firefighters had been patrolling, diving, pinging with SONAR for days in an attempt to find the man. One game warden told me that it had been nearly impossible on Saturday and Sunday to get any work done with all the boats and the wakes and the people.

They couldn’t close the lake, though, because the people would be too mad.

Too mad.

Too concerned about what they wanted to do to let the family do what they needed to do: find their loved one and mourn.

This is where we are: pulling your kids across a grave site in a tube behind a speedboat on a sunny Monday is more important than a body recovery.

Our connections are so frayed anymore, I really don’t know how we hold together at all. We shoot police officers guarding protesters, we assume the worst about our neighbor, we are impatient, unkind, and concerned only with pleasure.

We play Pokemon Go in the Holocaust Museum.

I’d like to pretend I don’t know what’s wrong with us, but I do.

We have no framework anymore for our connection to each other. The individual has been all that mattered for so long, we don’t see anyone anymore.

We’re all invisible.

It’s time we wake up and take a look.

 

Remembering

Some Saturday mornings, you really should be packing for your SAR overnight training, but you find yourself at your husband’s volunteer fire department, wiping wax off the rescue truck.

And when a 9/11 Memorial truck pulls into the bay, you stop what you’re doing and you struggle to hold back tears, right alongside the husband-who wouldn’t cry if you dropped a Halligan bar on his toe.

So you stand there, surprised by all the emotions you feel as you read the names on the doors, the men who knew they could die that day, as they knew everyday, but probably didn’t think they would. The FDNY baseball hat the lieutenant tossed onto the seat as he geared up and left the cab is now encased in glass, a monument to a moment long ago.

You back up and watch the guys, and girls, of the Albion Fire Department, all volunteers, wash and wax that dented truck with greater care than you could imagine. You watch a young guy, who was probably about 5 when the towers came down, climb underneath it with a brush, and hand-scrub the road grime from the mudflaps, covering himself with it. You swallow the lump in your throat as you watch your husband, who spent last Sunday on a roof at a house fire, go over the chrome and the steel with a soft cloth. You can’t imagine what is inside his head.

But you know what’s inside yours, as your search dog lays obediently in an empty bay next to the truck. You know that this rescue truck, FDNY Rescue 4, was put back together with pieces and parts from other trucks, like Rescue 3 from Harlem, which also didn’t make it back that day.  You know that this is not just your legacy as an American, as a human, but as a search professional.

And you know that you are on holy ground, so you pray the Orthodox prayer for the departed, you make the sign of the cross and you venerate the shield on the door.

You pray too, that we could one day understand that we are all the same, we bleed when we die, we cry for our dead and our souls live forever.

When you go home to pack for your overnight, gathering your SAR ready pack and your kits, your ropes and your PFDs, you take a little more care than normal.

Because everything matters.

2016-06-11 09.14.09

The limits of observation, part II

There are cases that I can’t forget, stories I’ve written that I wish for all the world I could unwrite, erase from my memory, look into that pen held by the Men In Black, or shake out of my head like the drawings on an Etch-a-Sketch. To be honest, most of the dead children, those I remember. (what is wrong with me, though, that I say “most” and not “all”? yikes)

Michael Plumadore is one of those stories. And when it snows, like it’s been snowing, and there are Christmas lights on the trees and bushes outside, and little girls are wearing Christmas dresses, I can’t forget him. I can’t forget what he did, what we couldn’t do as a community, and the limits of what I could do as a journalist. Hell, the limits of what is available to you as a fellow human being is the most maddening of all the particularly maddening things about life here, no?

Anyway, a little girl went missing at Christmas. I blogged about it then, as best I could, but packed it back up, buried it in the back of all the other homicide stories, the robberies, and the daily debris of my life as a crime reporter. But now, two Christmases later, I still remember her. I remember how I left work on a Friday night, mentioning to our police reporter that there was something weird about a “missing child” at that time of day, at this time of year. I remember coming back into the office at 6 a.m. the next morning, and hearing the county police continuing their search. I remember my heart sinking into the pit of my stomach. I remember calling a police source, and asking if we could help, if it was time to say something to the public about this way-too-small-for-her-age girl and how she was not where she should be.I remember her little face, in the picture the police sent us, wearing her Christmas dress at the funeral of her grandfather. I remember posting those stories that day to the newspaper’s website. I remember listening all day to the scanner, my face buried in the soft fluff that was my old Golden Retriever who always accompanied me to the newsroom on those lonely Saturday mornings. I remember praying, praying, praying. I remember hearing them organizing volunteers. I remember them calling in the search dogs.

When I left that night, I went to church. It was Christmas Eve. By this time, the whole city knew. By this hour, this snowy evening, everyone was praying or begging or hoping. I lit a candle in the narthex. I prayed for her, by name. Someone asked me, she’s going to be found, right? She’ll be fine. I remember deciding right then to lie, at least partly. Yes, I said. They’ll find her. I sat in the pew, in the candlelight, thinking of so much that had nothing to do with Christmas, tears absolutely pouring down my face. Of course, I knew how this ended.

They found her alright. Cops cried on my shoulder the next day, at the press conference, where they told the city what we feared. As the story moved from the trailer park into the courthouse, becoming words on paper, hearings in cavernous rooms, drawing vultures like Nancy Grace into my world (she’s nuts by the way),  I remember just being stunned at this creature who did this. I was never in my life so grateful for a guilty plea. Only worthwhile thing that man ever did, I am damn sure. 

Saturday morning, I sat in a cold-ish barn, drinking too much coffee while I looked at excel spreadsheets and phone trees, planning out my goal for search training for the  year.  The people to the right and left of me, these really interesting and generous and smart people, and their amazing dogs — their names are all over the witness list in that horrible case. They did try. They did something.

I’d be dishonest if I didn’t say that the case of  that sad little girl didn’t push me a bit into wanting to try to help. I told one of my judges at the time I felt like a carnival barker in hell, doing nothing more than publicizing the sad freak show.  I know, at some level, that my work as a journalist did help a bit that day. We got the pictures out, we pushed the community to want to  help, if just for one day or so, to look out for things larger than the sales at Macy’s. At least I have told myself that for a couple years now.

I just want to do a bit more. And to my very core, I am so very grateful for this weird opportunity to try. I am still a little disoriented by the way in which I found myself here, and the rightness of how it seems to me. Tonight, when I got home after an hour-long commute, I put on my boots and Helo and I went out into the snowstorm, working on our stuff in the driveway. We have a long way to go, but I promise the one missing a year or two from now: We will absolutely be ready.

The limits of observation

This post has been rolling around in my head for a week now, sometimes more put together than others. It woke me up this morning, along with a sunrise showing itself on the field behind our bedroom. It was a pretty solid thought right then, but after I let the dog out, got my computer up and running, then went outside to take a picture of the sunrise, and was greeted by a big wide canine grin asking for play time, I lost it again. This is my attempt to get it back. I think it’s a good one.

I think I’m nearing the end of my abilities to just stand by and watch. In 20 years as a journalist I have stood by and watched the ridiculous, the mundane, the terrifying, and the sorrowful. I have wiped many tears from my eyes in a quiet darkened car before I’ve called the story in to my editors (shhh, don’t tell them). It’s my job. I watch, and I try very hard with some success to put what I have seen, heard, smelled and touched into words safe enough for a family newspaper written to about an eighth grade reading level. I argue and cajole, badger, coax, ease and tease the stories out of those who think it’s too much to share, too little to be of value, or that which they are trying to hide. I work with amazing and talented people who do the same thing in words or in pictures, providing to our communities information they need to know, should be aware of or what they are entitled to understand. I know, absolutely, that what I do is important, in spite of what people often tell me in emails, phone calls, and face to face. It is my chosen profession and I do an alright job at it most of the time.

It fits completely with my nature, my inclination to stick my nose in where it absolutely doesn’t belong. (Have I mentioned how alike my cattle dog I am? Kinda spooky). But I am growing emotionally weary of being unable to do more, to stop it, to ease it, to smooth its rough edges, to make it better. Along with that ridiculous need to nose, I also very much want to fix it or help it.

And there is not usually a damn thing I can do about any of it. I couldn’t put the little girl back together when Michael Plumadore chopped her up. I couldn’t make it easier for the cops who cried on my shoulder the day after they found her. I can’t bring the families and friends and loved ones back for those who have lost. I light a candle. I pray. I don’t ask why, though, anymore, because there isn’t a why. Reason is not for this place. This is place is for survival and courage. But I am at a place where I want to do more, to do something, to do anything.

That desire intersects right now for me at a very strange and odd place –the aforementioned Australian Cattle Dog, this energetic, fuzzy-headed bundle of fur and brains and way too much boldness for his small size. An effort earlier this fall to find a new place to provide him with intellectual and physical stimulation of obedience/agility work escalated a wee bit and now I have my new thing, a way to do something, even in a small-ish way, a way that may not show any fruit for years.

I am training Helo for Search and Rescue work. He seems to have the easy part, for he is a  young dog and as we know, new tricks are the easiest for them. This old dog, though, I have to learn all kinds of stuff–scent theory, how the wind works, how not to ruin crime scenes, how lost people behave, and become a first responder. It is going to eat up time and energy, and more time. I spend my Saturday mornings now buried in rubble piles, hiding in woods, wrestling with much larger German Shepherds to help them learn and love their work, and getting my little guy acclimated to heights and holes, and trying to turn him into a barking machine.

The husband spent a lifetime chasing radio calls as a professional and volunteer in all kinds of emergency services and is becoming content to let the younger guys run into the burning buildings. I am quite sure he is a tad concerned I’ll lose my balance in this new thing and wear myself (or him out). It’s possible. But I married him in part for his ability to ground me, to keep me from floating off into dangerous orbits. I know with absolute certainty he has my back in this, in every way that’s appropriate and real.

Helo and I may never find anything, but by golly we’re going to try. I owe it to him to give him a job, and I owe it to myself, after all these years of watching and standing by, to make an effort to do something.

 

helo on the pile