Everything I learned about trying to live a life that doesn’t add to anyone\’s problems I learned in the firehouse. Sitting with me on Ladder 31, the then busiest truck in NYC, doing over 9000 annual runs, are Mickey Maye, an FDNY Union President to be, Charlie Rivera, an FDNY Fire Commissioner to be, and a man, Ritchie Rittmeyer, who would be one of the youngest Deputy Chiefs in FDNY history. Vinnie Bollan who was to be the Sec General of the IAFF was the chauffeur. The rest were, simply put, great firefighters in the middle of the heat.

Everyone wanted to go to La Casa Grande, the big house of Engine 82 and Ladder 31, to put a number on a collar, a patch on an arm, or to gain the experience that was respected throughout the job. Every once in a while a man was sent to us as a sort of on-the-job-punishment, maybe to shape him up. This was before women came to FDNY. You cannot expect 12,000 men to follow every rule, and you need to sometimes review, perhaps reform, their need for independence.

So here I am a probie, doing a job where I learned to listen and learn from everyone. I went to Engine 292 with Rescue 4 out in Queens, but my heart was in going to the big house even before it was called that. I learned to play the bagpipes and in the FDNY band I met a union official who talked to someone who talked to someone, and I got my wish: to sit with those men on the turntable of the big house truck (in the top row, middle).

You cannot work among decent men without learning something about decency, and I think this is the most important part of my FDNY experience I was able to contribute to the lives of my children – to tell them stories about decent men. It rubs off as every father in the fire service knows.

The third photo is of me when I worked cows for a couple of years. The lesson for me here is the rope. You cannot brand a calf on the open range of Nevada without first roping the little critter. Branding hurts, but I have branded many calves and I knew it was a way to keep them from being stolen on an open range and taken from the warm milk of its dear old mom. I extrapolate from this image the need in life to every once in a while rope someone in, especially when you see someone who is not operating in the best interest of our society. This idea led me to think more about changing people and their views than to simply cursing them. I like to think while I am writing some criticism that I am roping someone in, returning them to the warm sustenance of the truth. I am also reminded of what fun it was to gallop after a calf and stop him in the first throw of the rope. It is a little like criticism.

I can conclude, then, that being able to work alongside men who had unlimited capacity to do good, and being able to throw a rope, brought to me the skills of knowing how to be a good American. And that was always the goal.

-Dennis Smith