When the mood strikes, there is little more appealing to me than a basket full of garlic chicken wings; it’s a decision once made that I regret well into the next day, when vampires and humans alike keep a minimum six foot radius away, the thrill of the parmesan long gone and replaced by hair curling halitosis. A tall cold beer and the company of a good friend are the perfect side dishes to this culinary delight, and once my curiosity is piqued, nothing will do until I start a savage gastro-affair with these drumsticks.
So it was that I got ahold of the Outlaw Trucker and we convened upon one of our towns more renowned wingeries, which happens to be located between a health food store and a “classy” strip club housed in a giant pink building. Such is the urban planning here in a mid-size, midwestern town; what we lack in form, we celebrate in function. I’ve never seen strippers in the wing place, and I’ve never been into the health food store, so clearly the players are respecting the boundaries of class and station.
Because I’m friends with people who clearly have impeccable taste, it came as no surprise that upon entering said establishment, I found another fireman and his wife, a nurse, sharing a large table with other nursing staff getting off duty and all with a hankering for wings while wearing scrubs. An impromptu gathering got going, and as is my habit, I began an inquisition of my newfound friends: who are you? how do you feel about bagpipe music? do you have any stickers in the back window of your vehicle, and what are they representing? what’s your name? As a small puddle of anticipatory drool hit the table after placing my order of a dozen delights in whiskey sauce and honey mustard, I hid the inner Pavlov’s dog and sipped a tall frosty glass of mental relaxant, and turned my gaze across the table. The poor soul occupying that seat was, apparently, the husband of one of this band of nurses, and I say “poor” because he had the misfortune of crossing my radar. He had a large bushy beard, a trucker-style ball cap and was relatively quiet. I played a little game in my mind, “what does THAT guy do for a living?” The usual stereotypes came to bear: a delivery driver for a lumber yard; an IT guy for a local coffee & bike store/hipster repository; night manager of the frozen foods section at Sam’s Club; heir to a tire and wheel shop legacy; fly fishing gear vendor or floatation device sales rep at Bass Pro. The list goes on and on, and it’s a favorite game of mine to play at airports. I devise entire intricate and complicated backstories for people I’ll never meet, trying to parse out what it is they’re running to and from, and in all likelihood I’m probably never even close to accurate. That’s not the point. The point is that everyone has a story, and if I’m too shy to ask them about it, I’ll just make it up in my mind.
Like many people are wont to do, I tend to pigeonhole people based on appearance and first impressions. Years ago, while working at a quarry, I was convinced the furious mechanic couldn’t speak a lick of English since his name was Len Bjornson and his preferred method of communication was flying the middle finger at everyone he met. He went on to become one of my closest friends, with amazing insight into the human condition and a capacity for thoughtful conversation about a wide range of topics; he also just happened to have a zen-like mechanical aptitude and a low tolerance for ignorant co-workers.
SO I asked my bearded dinner companion, who was answering to the name “Buddy”, what his story was, what HE did for a living, eager to prove my assumptions wrong. And wrong I was. Turns out, the guy is a helicopter pilot, and when he told me this, my first instinct was to say “yeah, and I’m just an astronaut with an affinity for delicious wings.” I’m glad I didn’t. Although he looked too young to be flying medical patients from field to hospital, and he certainly didn’t have the military look I usually associate with Med-Evac pilots, it turns out he wasn’t bullshitting me in the least. He had approached the long and taxing path towards this career as one might a college degree, building hours and working off the Gulf to eventually return close to home, doing what it was he loves. I’ve always harbored a fantasy of becoming a pilot, having taken ground school and logging some hours after pissing away any chances of flying in the military in my younger years. He had my attention. He had also triggered my rarely-employed laser beam of focus that I reserve for subjects of great interest.
By the time my wings were mere bones piling up on the plate, I’d peppered this poor bastard with every sort of question relating to his field I could think of; he claimed to be glad to talk about it. As he put it: “you know how you can tell if a pilot is in the room? He’ll tell you.” He was gracious and informative and he set my mind reeling with possibilities for life after the fire service. He ignited the curious, wandering spirit in me that has too long been dormant as a career and fatherhood have taken priority. And take priority they should, but we can all fixate a little on life’s next chapters, for that is what keeps us curious, wonderful people. I can’t fathom a life post-fire service that hinges on sitting still any longer. There are places to explore, people to meet and adventures to experience, both with my boys and on my own. Buddy had unwittingly kicked over my pail of complacence with this life, and got me to wonder about spending time in the skies in a later segment of this crazy go-round. Maybe I could do it. Why not? The boys will be grown, there are no ties to this town at that point, so why not explore new avenues? Flight school in mid-life. I can’t stop thinking about it. When I first decided to become a career firefighter, I was told by everyone that the obstacles to achieving that kind of job were such that I should forget it. I refused to listen. I wanted to be a full time fireman and I’ve never been able to stare at life’s hurdles and just quit the race. Too dumb to take the advice of the masses, I forged a path into the greatest career I could have imagined, and I’m grateful for the opportunity. The only one who says with any authority that you can’t is you. Maybe I should say I can, again. I can live another dream. I can eat garlic parmesan wings if I want to, dammit.
All that, unfurled over a dinner with a relative stranger.
You never know when or where your own personal well of excitement can be stirred again, like kids on the playground. Some of us never grow up and we decide to drive fire trucks or become unemployed bluegrass musicians or anti-social bulldozer mechanics, tinkering with human souls. I’m not really sure what happened back there; all that I’m sure of is that something made me cast my eyes beyond the horizon again and smile like that for the first time in such a very long time. I’d like to think that the wings had something to do with it. In fact, I’m almost sure of it.