By RON YORK
Today, I returned to my fire department for the first time in almost a third of a century. The young men there looked like the firemen I worked with in the distant past, but I did not recognize their faces or find their names filed in my memory. They knew me - an abstract player in the folklore of the department's history. The main station was new and much larger than the small and minimalist station where I had spent many days. It was as if I were a George Bailey, but in reverse. They knew me, but I did not know them. They all seem to be glad to meet me. I did not know how I should feel.
Slowly, the boys I spent ten years with slipped in through the kitchen. They were no longer boys, but stark harbingers of mortality - their mortality and my mortality. One by one I struggled to identify them until hearing their voice and recognizing it as if I had never left and the years had not passed. I saw the look of shock in their faces as they scanned the damage that time had done to me. I am sure that they saw that same look on my face. First came Kaybo, then Wayne and Royce. And then James, Robert, John and Otho. J.J. came in quietly like a fog in evening. Busby was over in the corner behind a mustache. Eventually, Martin arrived and we resumed our roles of many years ago. Like a ballet company we began the dance of wits.
There was little time for retelling the stories of yesteryear, for the food awaited us and a line formed with plates and forks in hand. We made our way to the meeting room to eat the brisket and casseroles that had been prepared for us. Just then Chris arrived. Chris and I had been the great debaters of the department. The conversation suddenly became very lively, with Chris taunting me and me quipping back. The banter came naturally, just as it did when we were young.
I brought some old pictures and my helmet that I kept when I left in 1977. We all laughed at the pork chop sideburns while secretly lamenting that we would never be young again. We all quickly fell into place into the hierarchy that dictated our lives so many years ago. The union president brought out the framed charter that I accepted nearly 40 years ago. The photographs I brought with me memorialized that night. There we were accepting the charter and taking our oaths - Wayne, Chris, Roy and me. The future lay ahead of us, but today the future had become the past.
I met the Fire Chief. He was young and handsome, just like Norman Heilman , the chief when I became a fireman. He was fascinated by my helmet and suggested that it belonged in the trophy case in the lobby to the new station. I agreed and left my helmet with him. It did look good in that case. It was hard to let go. That helmet had hung on the wall of my garage, next to my car for all these years. The union president wanted to hang my pictures beside the charter. I let go of them too.
By then J.J had slipped away. Slowly the crowd thinned, until the only old timers left was Chris and me. We walked to the parking lot together, talking all the way. A departure point did not come easily. Soon, I was in my car heading back to Norman. For one brief moment, I had it back. We all had it back. Tonight, I think about the many good times that we had together. I will be thinking about them when I arise in the morning.