Sunday, March 15, 2015

John Goss

Today (March 15th, 2015) marks my FDNY appointment day, 29 years ago.

It’s also, I believe, the day on which John Goss, a firefighter and man I was extremely fortunate to know, died. He died on my appointment day, on the same year my Dad did (1997).

John Goss spent his entire career on the Backstep of 35 Engine in East Harlem. He never drove. When I arrived there in early May of 1986, John Goss had already been through “the War Years,” having gotten on the FDNY in 1962.

He’d been through New York City’s “firestorm” of the late 1960s and 1970s. He was already a legend in that firehouse, but John came through all that without any bluster or bravado. For him humility was more than a mere virtue, it was his personal credo. I greatly admired that in him. My own father and many of his WW II cohorts had that very same character trait and like John Goss, they never took themselves seriously.

Almost all of John’s “fire stories” were self-effacing,” like one about how he had his helmet blown off by an advancing hose line and how he had to chase after his helmet after the flames were extinguished. Often, John was the butt of his own jokes, a rare trait these days. John liked nothing more than to make others “take the pressure off.”

I only got to spend ONE year with John Goss, but it was a vital one, my very first in the FDNY, and John (in group 2) was my mentor (I was assigned to group 3), so John Goss pretty much showed me the ropes, or “broke me in,” in the FDNY parlance. I have always said that if I could be half the man John Goss was, half as humble, half as able to make others laugh under tense situations, half as willing to direct my own humor at myself, I'd be OK. Believe me, that's a pretty high bar...and I'm STILL trying (and failing) to reach it.

John has lived on inside my heart ever since 1986.

Back in 1990, when my father was retiring as Asst. Borough Commander of Manhattan, I commissioned a John Goss painting to commemorate that occasion (an image of the picture is displayed above). It captures my father’s FDNY career, starting out in Engine-201, as a Lt in Ladder-6, a Captain in Ladder-107 (their bucket is at the window), a Battalion Chief in the 44th Battalion, a brief stint in the Safety Battalion, then to the 4th Division, then to the 5th and on to the Staff. John’s painting captures it all. He said my Dad always reminded him of Jimmy Cagney...funny stuff. The 5th Division Chief off to the left is John's image of my Dad and he (John Goss) is the 4th Division Chief with his hand on his shoulder just off to the right.

John has a number of paintings hanging in various firehouses around the city and in the FDNY's Fire Museum, but one of my favorites remains a back cover he did for the WNYF that (I believe) came out in late 1986, with an older fireman with his arm around the shoulder of a Probie (1st year firefighter), with the caption, “Nice job kid.” He said he painted that with himself as the older firefighter and myself as the probie in his mind.

To this day, I don’t think I ever told him what an honor that was. When he told me that...I believe I said nothing. I was pretty much speechless. I don't think I've seen that cover in over 25 years, now.

Despite his self-effacing humor and deep humility, John Goss was a tough, “old school” firefighter. An image that is seared upon my mind is that of John Goss’s ubiquitous cigarette’s burning red tip providing the only light in the back of a rig after a job (fire). That, and John’s familiar refrain, “So long old paint.”

I've met a LOT of great people on the FDNY...far too many to mention and I know I'd leave out a ton even if I put down 1,000 names, but John Goss was my "FDNY template," a thoroughly good, easy-going, humble man who always got the job done, without any fanfare, nor even the slightest bit of self-aggrandizement. I've met quite a number of men who've lived up to that template, but in my own mind, John Goss was the original.

A day doesn't go by that I don’t think of my late Dad and whenever I think of him, the image of John Goss ALWAYS pops up, as well. I miss them both and the better days their images bring to mind.

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