This is a repub of a 2008 Norm Rooker column.
“You’re not dead?!”
Just what is the correct response when this is the initial greeting from someone who knew you from back when? The occasion was the 2008 Fire-Rescue Med Conference in Las Vegas. I was attending the national roll out for the Ambulance Strike Team Leader class. (A good program and one well worth taking by EMS supervisory and middle management types.)
It was the opening part of the class where each of us stood up and introduced ourselves, who we worked for and how long we had been involved in EMS. Because this was a roll out, there were a number of us older dog medics taking the program to evaluate it for our services or areas, so my almost 35 years of EMS experience only earned me a fifth place seniority ranking in the class.
One of those ahead of me turned out to be a coworker for a service I worked for back in the late 70’s after graduating from paramedic school and prior to being hired by the City of St. Louis EMS. After he introduced himself and I was thinking that he looked familiar he turned to me and uttered those words.
We all had a good laugh and when you’re greeted with a public comment like that from a senior medic your class reputation is well on the way to being established. The ASTL course progressed and while we ran a little long with anecdotes about EMS responses to Hurricane Katrina, various earthquakes in California from the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake to the North Ridge Earthquake and more recently, the EMS response to last October’s wildland fires in southern California and even the recent papal visit to Washington, DC, the material was all relevant for the tasks that needed to be accomplished.
Afterwards I pondered my former coworker’s statement. This was not the first time I had heard this sentiment. Fourteen years earlier at my 20 year high school reunion I ran into Mr. Petty, one of my senior year English teachers. He was walking towards me and when we got close but before I could say hello he stopped dead in his tracks.
He looked at my name badge. After all I had filled out some since graduation and was well on the way to balding, make that bald. Some of that by nature and maternal genetics and the rest enhanced by an ambulance accident where I flew head first into the front cabinets and avulsed the top of my head down to the skull.
While I had serious railroad tracks and a growing yamaka spot, I still had hair on top of my head until that moment. They had to do a skin graft to cover the wound and I was darn lucky that I hadn’t broken my neck. I still have an arthritic thoracic vertebra from that accident. But that was five years prior to the reunion and I was healed up now.
Anyway Mr. Petty looked at me, looked at my name tag again, sighed and stated something along the lines that I was one of the ones that he was sure would be listed as among the honored dead by this reunion and that he had actually been surprised to see me at the 10-year reunion.
I just snorted and said ‘Nope, I was still here and planned to be for awhile’ but at the same time I was a bit taken aback by his comments. After all, it wasn’t like I was a hood, stoner or troublemaker in school. It was more that I was not what you would call a low maintenance student or employee.
Well that and the fact that I was not afraid of confrontation.
I attribute this to the times and to my parents. And for that matter my grandparents. My maternal grandmother was an active young lady who lived in the fast lane of her times. Think of the musical CABARET. Grandma Stamat was a flapper and was living the Berlin cabaret and nightlife scene when Hitler’s Brown shirts did Krystal Nacht. Being an American citizen she was able to get out but almost my entire maternal family line for her side of the family was lost to the Holocaust.
Her second husband, my mother’s step-dad but the man I knew as my grandfather was a loud character. A merchant seaman stuck in Hong Kong during the Boxer Rebellion, a US Calvary man who was part of the American Expeditionary Forces that chased Pancho Via into Mexico and a few years later was in one of the first units to go to France in World War One. He left the Army after the war and worked a number of jobs including being a union “enforcer” in the Chicago area during the labor troubles and organizing in the post war and depression.
My father was an Iowa share cropper’s son, the third of six kids, born on my grandmother’s 20th birthday. He was an all-state athlete who battled with an abusive father, dropped out of high school at the end of the football season his senior year. And in the American tradition, after meeting and falling in love with my mother, and powering through my grandfather’s initial disapproval, pulled himself up by the bootstraps, worked his way through college and became a very successful Chemical Engineer.
I was the oldest of three kids. My brother JD and my sister Meredith were three years younger. My sister was very severely mentally retarded and had both Down’s Syndrome and Hurler’s Syndrome. So from a young age I always had to come straight home form school to help take care of my brother and sister so mom could do chores like grocery shopping and getting dinner ready, etc.
As we kids grew, my parents were moving into the middle to upper middle class. We were living in a suburb of New York City and had the benefits of their hard work. But my parents wanted us to appreciate how well we had it compared to what they had when they were growing up. So my mom came up with the Christmas letter program.
Each year she would go down to the main post office in New York City and read through the letters to Santa Claus. She and my dad would select a destitute family, contact the parent or parents and make sure it was OK, and then get my brother and I involved in providing Christmas presents and dinner for them.
Everything from going through our own toys and picking out something that was in good condition that the letter identified these kids would like, to purchasing, and gift wrapping other presents. Then as a family we would drive into some of the worst parts of New York City and make the delivery.
It was an eye opener and a tradition that Vicki and I continued for several years with our own children.
It was also a time of the early civil rights and women’s liberation movements. When I was 11 my mother and father signed up for the Fresh Air Program. This was a program where we would host two inner city kids, Larry and Marshal, for what turned out to be the next four summers.
All this BS about race and other differences mostly disappear when kids just get to be kids. I learned that not all black people are natural athletes. That they were able to get sunburned, too.
Each summer we would go down to Fenwick Island near Ocean City, Maryland. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that these weren’t really vacations for my parents, however we kids always had a great time.
Swimming, fishing, crabbing and learning how to play draw and stud poker for sea shells. (I ended up with a pretty neat shell collection which I held onto until my junior year in high school when I passed it on to a lovely young lady.)
This was during the mid to late 60’s and race relations weren’t exactly all they could be in that locale back then. One or the other of my parents had to get up early every morning and accompany us four boys to the beach or to the bay to ensure our safety.
We didn’t appreciate this sacrifice back then. We were just four boys between the ages of 8 and 12 having fun. All four of us would be at the beach playing in the ocean and sand all day. The third day we were there was a particularly bright and brilliant day and boy did we pay for it that night and the next day.
Larry and Marshal became such a part of our family that when my parents decided to divorce after my sister died, they waited until the Christmas Holidays so all four of us kids were together before they announced it.
Prior to that sad moment, my mother had also became involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement. I was 14 when she began hosting women’s self help medical exams at our house the third Sunday of every month. While I had no idea what this meant, it was pretty cool because my brother and I got to go to the movies those afternoons.
I didn’t find out what was actually going on until a few months later when my mom sent me up to her room to grab a flashlight out of her bedside drawer and I found a plastic speculum. My 14 year old mind did not have a clue what this was for but I brought it downstairs with the flashlight, holding it upside down and making quacking noises as I asked my mom what it was.
That old cliché about being careful about what you ask for comes back to mind as I was sat down and learned way more than I ever wanted to. At least at that time in my life.
My sophomore year of high school I was on the wrestling team. After a long six weeks of hard practices I had made the decision that it was time for me to bring my jock strap home and wash it. (You know it’s got to be bad when a 15-year-old boy decides this garment is to gross even for him.)
By now my brother and I had been doing our own laundry for a couple years. While I was sorting my clothing my mother was trying to come up with a poster idea for the first parade for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment by the New York State Legislature.
This is where being a creative smart butt sort of got me into trouble, again. As I was moving my crusty bit of athletic apparel to the whites pile I said something along the lines about putting a bra and a jock on a poster with something about equality.
My mom yells “Brilliant!” and snatches this stained and crusty item from my hands. My pleas to at least let me wash it first fell on deaf ears and that is why my jock strap along with one of my mother’s black brassieres and the words, “Ratify the ERA, Connecticut NOW” appeared in what turned out to be one of the most photographed posters of the rally with numerous shots of it in the New York Times and the New York Daily Post.
Needless to say, backing down or shying away from a challenge or trouble was not a family trait.
At that time in my life I was somewhat active in sports. Not a great athlete but game, if a bit on the lazy side. I was active in Boy Scouts and a cadet in the Civil Air Patrol. My squadron ran a ground SAR team.
Through these organizations I took basic and advanced first aid training as well as both the American Red Cross junior and senior lifesaving programs.
I was also in Future Teachers of America and I taught swimming Friday afternoons to the developmentally disabled class as well as wrote and worked on the student newspaper. All of these activities taught me to question what I didn’t think was right or pursue the question until I understood it.
The upside was that all of these activities led me to be selected for the second pilot EMT course they ran in the State of Connecticut in 1973 over the summer between my junior and senior years.
One of the downsides was that I sometimes clashed with or challenged authority. Never, ever in a destructive or mean spirited way. Well, I was suspended for fighting once my senior year but that was a provoked situation and testosterone rather than thinking things through got me in trouble on that one. I made the best of it and spent my entire suspension teaching PE over at Western Junior High School.
But overall I was a good kid. I accepted no for an answer, eventually. Never in trouble with the law and a decent, if underachieving student.
The fall of 1974 I reported to Ripon College, in Ripon, Wisconsin. A small enough school that it was possible to be a walk-on and actually make the football team. I had never played organized football before but I was just big enough and apparently just good enough to make the team.
I was a nose tackle. I had never thought of myself as being particularly small but I quickly learned that at 5’10” I was shortest lineman on the team. It turned out I was the shortest defensive lineman in the entire conference.
I learned very quickly, actually with the “help” of my philosophy instructor that physical size was only part of the equation when it came to battle on the line. You see, my Introduction to Philosophy professor also happened to be the offensive line coach.
If I “discussed” an opposing point of view too much in his class that morning, that afternoon he would “borrow” me from the defensive line unit to run what can be best described by Gary Shaw’s 1972 book, MEAT ON THE HOOF: The Hidden World of Texas Football, as Shit Drills.
I would go one on one with each member of the offensive line. Pass rushing as well as just your standard one on one confrontation for dominance of the line. Then there was the two-on-one, trap blocking drill. This is where the center or offensive guard in front of me would pull away and I would be hit by the offensive guard or tackle next to him.
But my absolute “favorite” was the interception drill.
I would be pass rushing against five of them protecting the coach who would toss the football just over their heads. I would have to leap up and catch it and they would have to react to my “interception” by stopping me from gaining any yardage. I crawled home from those practices.
Heck, I was the third shortest member of the team. I was lining up against guys so much taller than me that at eye level, I was looking at their neck and in two cases, the number on their chest when we both stood up straight.
For that matter only two of our cheerleaders were my height or shorter.
As a lineman I was mediocre at best. But I learned how to hold my own and think through ways to use what I had to my advantage. And I never did seem to learn the other lesson my philosophy instructor was attempting to teach me.
As a nose tackle, I was third-string on a two-string team. Ripon being a small college. But on special teams, that was an entirely different story. Man, for an AADD type, it was the best gig on the team. For me, that was where it was at! All that building excitement and noise leading up to the ball being kicked and running down field, the crowd roaring and the wind whistling through the ear holes of my helmet as I lined up on one or two members of the receiving team and just piled into them.
As with many things in my life, it was a matter of luck and opportunity coming together to help me in ultimately being named “Bomber of the Year” by the coaches. But as usual, I am getting ahead of myself.
In 1975, the NCAA, in an effort to cut down on knee injuries made it illegal to throw a cross body block below the waist on kickoffs. Guys that had been playing football since Jr. High and High School had all been taught the cross body block method or to slide feet first into the opponent.
Consequently, in this first season of the new rule, none of them really knew how to hit or block their opponent on kick offs. I learned by accident the first time. I stumbled while trying to turn to adjust to the ball carrier and in a high speed stumbling fall just happened to wipe out the guy in front of me. That’s when it occurred to me.
Most people don’t want to be hit. No matter what their size. They would rather push and shove. Fortunately I played for a pretty good team and was able to put my theory to test in the next quarter. I picked the biggest guy on the receiving team and cleaned his clock.
After that I would just sail down field, pick my target and take them out — opening up a hole in the wall for the other members of my team to take down the ball carrier. I never once directly tackled the receiver, although one time I did hit a blocker with enough force that he took out his own ball carrier.
Between the values my parents and grandparents taught me, the responsibility for taking care of those less fortunate or weaker than me from an early age, to that lessons I learned on the football field, to finally, the lessons Liz taught me (see March 16th’s column Tough Enough) I apparently was what you might call a high profile EMT and later paramedic.
Staying below the radar just wasn’t in my nature.
I never abused patients or derelicts. I never picked fights. For that matter, I never, ever punched anyone. That is an offensive tactic. My father taught me that there will always be someone bigger stronger or faster so fighting is always an option of last resort.
But if you do take that course. You don’t do it to come in second. And you never do it to showoff, or bully.
This has been my philosophy throughout my career on and off of the streets.
That included Special Operations such as rope rescue, structural collapse rescue, firefighting, Tactical Medic, etc.. Along with some of the interactions at certain fire houses after our “merger of equals” where the Paramedic Division was removed form the San Francisco Department of Public Health and inserted into the SF Fire Department in 1997.
But getting back to last week’s Fire-Rescue Med Conference, I ran into another former coworker, Jonathan Chin, who Vicki and I had worked with at Medevac in Santa Clara County, CA back in 1985/86 while we were waiting for the City of San Francisco to pick us up. Medevac had the contract to provide EMS for the southern half of the City of San Jose and Santa Clara County.
Jonathan is a handsome and articulate Chinese-American who quietly radiates leadership and charm. While neither of us were ever partnered up with Jonathan, we often ran into him and his partner, Cindy Petretto at various hospitals. They were a good solid crew. Medically dialed in and they always pulled their share of the load.
One day my partner and I had brought in a middling-serious trauma patient from a motor vehicle accident to Valley Medical Center — The Big Valley, a level one trauma center. At that time the ER was one long room with gurneys down either side, a nursing station in the center, two trauma rooms and in the back, a sort of three-bed quiet area for less acute patients and folks that needed sobering up.
While I was writing up my PCR, Jonathan and Cindy came in with a huge biker type. I mean pro-wrestler size. Multiple abrasions and reeking of alcohol. As they were wheeling him towards the “Quiet Room” he kept muttering abuse towards Jonathan.
“You Gook”, F***ing Gook”, “You slimy Gook”, ‘You..”, well, you get the picture.
Jonathan ignored him and Cindy rolled her eyes at us as they wheeled him past and into the Quiet Room. A minute later Cindy came bursting back out.
“Help! He’s going to kill Jonathan!”
Paperwork went flying as my partner and I and another crew from SCV, the company that had the EMS contract for the northern half of San Jose and Santa Clara County beat feet for the room while a nurse called security.
I was first through the door and there was Jonathan trapped in a corner between the walls and a hospital gurney. His angry patient was towering over him. But Jonathan wasn’t cowering or blustering. He was standing tall in a neutral stance looking up at the belligerent biker.
As I started to take my leap to tackle this guy high I heard Jonathan say, “Lets get one thing straight. It’s not gook, it’s Chink!”
Now that’s being calm under fire. Jonathan has since gone on to obtain his master’s degree in administration of EMS, has been the EMS Director for the State of Oregon and now runs EMS for a large county in northern Oregon.
While we were catching up on each others lives, respective families and careers I mentioned the comment in class about a coworker acting surprised that I was not dead by now.
He smiled and stated that while I was never a bully or troublemaker, per say, even with union activities, that the reason some people might get that impression is that I was always in the middle of things. That no matter what, an assault on a coworker, a working condition or a protocol or procedure controversy, I always stepped in and did what needed to be done or said what needed to be stated. And for those that sat on the sidelines, that level of risk taking was seen as either threatening or something that could lead to unfortunate or negative consequences.
I smiled back as his observations made sense to me. And yes, there have been rewards, triumphs, consequences and scars. So Mr. Petty, Professor Boweles and countless others I have known, worked with or for over the decades — I’m still here and plan to be for years to come.
Be well. Practice big medicine.