The other day, I received what for me, was an incredible surprise.
A young man, named Eric Parker, sent me a photo of himself in full fire gear (he's a firefighter at the Waterville Fire Department in Maine) thanking...“ME,” for “inspiring” him to become a firefighter. It was surprising to me because I had no idea I’d had such an impact on Eric, who was a young child of maybe 10, when I first met him AND I just never saw myself as an “inspiring” person...still don’t.
How I came to meet Eric is a story in and of itself. Back in 2001 I worked in Ladder-44 in the South Bronx. I had just come off teaching Ladder Company Operations at the Rock (the Fire Academy) and my first two days back in the firehouse after that stint were Monday, September 10th and Tuesday, September 11th, 2001.
Tuesday’s tour didn’t end until somewhere around 11AM Thursday morning.
Everyone in the FDNY spent a lot of time down there in the wake of that horrific mass murder. At first we worked 24 hours on, 24 hours off, then switched to a convoluted rotating schedule with different starting times for each tour.
At the end of our time down there, our group, with Captain John Sullivan decided to head up to a restaurant near Canal Street that had lost a chef who’d also worked at Windows on the World. They were honoring 1st Responders with a buffet style luncheon.
When we arrived there, the street was a sea of blue police cars. The place looked packed (and it was). I shook my head and expressed uncertainty about proceeding inside, but Captain Sullivan was resolute, “We made the trip all the way up here, we’re going in.”
When we did, we were in for yet another shock, we were filthy in our Carhartts from working “the pile” and everyone inside was pristine...not a speck of dirt. One of the waitresses cried out, “Wow! You’re the first guys from Ground Zero we’ve seen in here!”
We grabbed some food and tried to blend in...as best we could, which wasn’t very well. We did wind up finding a couple tables in the back of the restaurant. At least we were together.
Shortly after we got to the tables a middle-aged woman and her father, both from Maine, came over to us and told us of how she taught Middle School in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, a town near Portland, ME. and wanted to share some of the homemade cards her pupils had made. That started an exchange of cards and “care packages” between those students from Maine and the firefighters from E-92/L-44.
When Gail Parker retired a couple years later, I made the trek up to her town of Cape Elizabeth, outside Portland to visit. Since then Gail and her family has stayed in contact with my wife Dionne and I, exchanging cards and gifts at Christmas and sometimes via Facebook.
We met her extended family, as one of her daughters was staying with her along with her children, Sasha, Shawn, Mariah and Eric. All great kids at the time.
Dionne and I were lucky to have got to know them and when we Honeymooned in Bar Harbor in 2003, we stopped in at Cape Elizabeth on the way up. It was a GREAT time!
At any rate, with Eric contacting me in that way, it had me consider how many people we all interact with on a daily basis. Good or bad, positive or negative, our words and how we respond, or don’t respond to people can make a difference, at least in how others perceive us and may have much more profound impacts on them than we could know.
Just as there's nothing better, nor more uplifting than hearing you’ve encouraged someone, or made them feel better during a hard time, there’s nothing worse than being an unintentional negative influence.
I mean we’re all dorks sometimes and occasionally get into spats and hurt someone else’s feelings, but we can apologize for that when the smoke clears, because we’re aware of those slights.
Negatively impacting someone, especially someone young and impressionable, because we were flippant, preoccupied, or in a bad mood that day, is much harder to be aware of and if we could see the impact, much tougher to live with.
So, my recent interaction with Eric has also made me think about the possibility of having hurt or been a negative influence on some others without even knowing it.
There are many things in the past that just can’t be changed, but the valuable lesson I took from Eric’s contact is that it’s a LOT easier to impact others (especially the young) than we’re often aware of and I need to consider that, ESPECIALLY whenever I'm in the presence of the young.
I’m glad that in reaching out to me, Eric also helped make me aware of that.