Tomorrow marks the last fire department shift of Scott Routh. After twenty years of time given to the City of Springfield, Mr. Routh will calmly attend his punch-and-cake send off party at the firehouse, walk out of the station for the last time, get in his car, start it and, in all likelihood, leave out with a middle finger extended to all his work colleagues. And, just like that, someone else in a blue shirt will fill his slot, the square-toothed cogs of bureaucratic service set in perpetual motion. But in its own way, his departure will be significant; Scott stands for all the old-salts in the department, grouchy, mean and just plain cantankerous. AND THAT’S EXACTLY AS IT SHOULD BE.
The fire service is filled with young bucks trying to mark hydrants with acts of derring-do and swagger; false senses of invincibility are the norm, and there’s only one thing keeping these boys & girls in line: the Irritated Veteran. As easy as it would be to write these old hands off as bitter and jaded, I think we’re better served by taking the time to glean from them what a career in firefighting has taught them. Scott hired on when firemen were still riding the tailboards of the engines. He arrived before there were women on the department, before people wore breathing apparatus into every fire, back when firemen still smoked at the kitchen table. He’s seen some things, and he deserves respect for putting in his time.
But what I’ll miss most about Scott is not his short fuse, nor his fondness for being left alone, no. One icy night on the northwest side we had a house fire that was stubbornly refusing to be extinguished in a reasonable amount of time. At this point in his career, Routh had transitioned to driving the Air Van, a support rig that provides lighting, works on breathing air systems and general scene support. It was a perfect move for a man who sweats details, and he filled the role admirably. Meanwhile, at 2am on a crappy house fire on a crappy night, I was standing by to stand by, waiting for the next orders from the Decision Makers and muttering to myself about the whole scenario. Out of nowhere, Scott ambled up with a cup of hot coffee, knowing that I need the joe as much as I need oxygen to survive. This gesture, small in it’s act, was enormous in it’s meaning. You’re not gonna get an “atta boy” out of him; he’ll never offer up useless words of false praise aka “blowing sunshine up your ass”, because that’s not his style. He has no problem cussing you for idiocy, but that’s modus operandi for the fire service.
After a decade on the department, I finally earned a cup of coffee.
This means more than any letters in a file, more than anything a local politician, who’s support is dictated by election cycles, could offer. This is Scott’s way of saying “hey, Smartass, you’re all right.”
And, as firefighters, the grudging acceptance and respect from a co-worker is a currency unto itself, one we value highly.
So, as you leave our company, Mr. Routh, I’d like to wish you the best of luck out there in the real world. I hear it’s an odd thing, sleeping through the night all the time, not wearing blue every third day and finally having permission to grow out some facial hair. Make sure you stop by Station 2 at some point and let us know what it’s like.
We’ll have a cup of coffee ready for you.