I was disabused of the idea that time-hallowed, sacrifice-based Tradition is adverse to the authentically human experience a long time ago.
Early on 24 December 2012, I found myself in a remote area. Spotty cell service. No internet. Then, out of nowhere, one text came through:
“Firefighters shot. Monroe County, NY.”
I spent the next half hour trying to establish reliable service, to confirm this news. When I did, I went right to the station.
A nineteen year-old Firefighter/EMT (who was also a 911 Dispatcher) and his mentor (a police lieutenant and past fire chief) had been shot and killed at 191 Lake Road, the scene of a working fire. In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas Eve. Two other firefighters had been shot and survived. Firefighters die in fires and at the scenes of other emergencies. They die in training accidents. Sometimes, they experience their own fatal health events as the result of work they’ve done at a call. But they don’t get shot.
FF Tomasz Kaczowka and Past Chief Michael Chiapperini were dead.
“It could have been any of us,” I thought out loud. In fact, the man “down in the street” who “hasn’t moved since being struck,” as the injured firefighter described him to the 911 Dispatcher, could have just as well been me. “Memento, homo, tu pulvis es…” My mortality hit me right between the eyes.
It took time to make arrangements and set the final roster, but three of us departed for Webster, New York at nine-thirty on Sunday, the 30th of December, 2012.
I told FF Bower I would share the long drive, but he made a hard push north and west through New York and we rolled into the Webster/West Webster Area at 14.15 hours. The massive Detail had already formed up and the ceremonies had begun for Past Chief Chiapperini, so Bower, LT Leverenz and I watched everything on TV from the lobby of the Hampton Inn. Afterwards, we went to our rooms to get ready for whatever that evening and the following day would hold in store.
When we came back downstairs, what I saw stopped me in my tracks. Brother firefighters from across the area, from the Canadian side of Lake Ontario, from New England, from Long Island and the FDNY, and from Florida. Bagpipers and drummers wandered everywhere. I found myself enjoying their company. It wasn’t that it was a party or something – as at a parade – but I still felt a little awkward. “We are in mourning,” I thought. “Mourning is more solemn than this.”
Just then, LT Mustafa, West Webster Fire Department (WWFD) showed up. All of a sudden, I didn’t feel so bad. He’d brought his children to see us because he wanted them to experience the support that is available when something bad happens to brother firefighters. We stood a little taller and assumed a bit of gravitas in the presence of the kids; they needed to see that and we needed to do that.
A short time after they left, the hotel shuttle took us to a diner and we had drinks. We talked with Canadian firefighters and brothers from Portland, ME and from North Tonawanda, NY. Somehow, I knew it would be easier to sleep, ahead of the solemn business to begin in a few hours.
When the group got back, we returned to our rooms and got ready for bed. I lay in the dark, listening to the bagpipes downstairs grow quieter, ever quieter. Their weeping trailed off, and the heartbeat of the drums – growing more faint – was the last thing I remember before finally consenting to sleep.
Well rested, everybody came down for coffee at 0700. Entering the lobby of the Hampton Inn, we may as well have stepped into the social quarters of our own fire station back home. Except for the bagpipers and drummers. Now in their ceremonial garb, it seemed like those guys hadn’t slept. I also noted that, on the lapels and arms of several men with whom I had shared drinks and stories a few hours before, many bugles, stripes, and hash marks now appeared. Others had just come down in bed clothes before getting ready. In silence. Then everyone boarded shuttles to Rochester.
We got to our place in formation at about 0900, and already the street in front of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church was filling up. Leverenz, Bower and I got a spot at the end of the block at the A-D corner of the church, third row from the front, and we were able to see down the cross street. With us stood Captain John Record of the North Tonawanda Fire District, also a guest at our hotel. News sources reported that hundreds of uniformed personnel attended the funeral, but I disagree. An hour before the Mass, there was a conservative estimate of 2,000. The lines extended at least one and a half blocks at that time, and I was able to count eleven rows deep then. No doubt, there would be a couple of hundred mourners inside the church. In spite of what could have become a logistical catastrophe involving a much smaller group, everyone got into place rather easily, and not a peep of distress was heard from anyone. There was a steady procession of emergency vehicles, and a wind to match. I am told that it was twenty-seven degrees that day.
Down the cross-street, I could see the Colors and the bearskin hats of the pipe and drum corps, and hear the mournful, resolute beat of their drums. “Shut up,” I rebuked my distracted mind. “Stand up straight! Eyes forward!”
After they had come close, columned-right and passed by, the truck finally came. Pall bearers flanking the body of the hero atop the rig, the silence of thousands of people in the freezing cold testified to the greatness of this man and what he and his sacrifice meant. To his loved ones. To the residents of Lake Road. To his Department and to his town. To all of us. To me.
“Detail! A-tten-tion!… Pre-sent arms!”
There was no way to see the casket as it was taken off the apparatus and brought into the church. We stood at, “Present Arms,” for some time, right shoulders and elbow at first tingling and then going numb, then at, “Attention” for an even longer time. I expected to stand in formation for the duration of the Mass and firematic ceremonies.
When we were finally, “At Ease,” and between brief, friendly comments exchanged with the Ontario firefighters one rank ahead of us, I started thinking about FF/EMT Kaczowka’s connection to this parish. It was named for St. Stanislaus Kostka, the young son of a 16th century Polish senator, who heard a divine call to enter the Jesuit Order. His father and his brother thought it beneath him – and them, more precisely – and mocked him mercilessly. The boy requested admission to the order and, being refused by Father Provincial Canisius, walked from Vienna to Rome (680 miles!) with a letter of recommendation from Canisius and Father General Borgia received him just outside Rome. He died a year later.
We were eventually sent to a nearby school building for the remainder of the Mass, then called to reassemble outside after the Blessed Sacrament was brought to us for Holy Communion. There were several calls for the detail to salute, but I could not see what was happening in front of the church. My best guess is that several smaller groups presented themselves at the door, and that we basically fell in behind them as they paid respects.
At Mass, there had been delegations from the Polish Government, priests from various places (including the priest who baptized Tomasz), and the Bishop-Emeritus of Rochester (Archbishop Sheen’s diocese). Outside there were, in addition to West Webster Fire Department and the Webster Police, the New York State Police and police and fire district personnel from around the country. We were told there were people there from as far away as the US Embassy-Cairo and from Germany. I knew they were there; I just couldn’t see.
As the procession moved on to Holy Sepulchre Cemetery for the internment of the hero, most of us boarded the shuttles back to the hotel. Leverenz, Bower, Record and I boarded the same transport vehicle, and I must have looked a mess; a civilian offered his seat to me and, when I politely refused, he insisted and I accepted. It turned out that the man and his family had been babysitters for Tomasz so many years ago, and he was eager to do something for the people who had traveled so far to honor him.
After changing out of our uniforms in our hotel rooms, a bunch of us decided to pay our respects at West Webster Fire Station One.
Upon arrival, I thought to myself, “This is funny… In huge crowds over the course of twenty-four hours, I recognize so many faces!” We met the Chief and his officers, who immediately invited us to eat from the platters that were still being delivered to the station by people, near and far away. We toured the hall and the apparatus floor. This was not the fifty cent tour, either; for the better part of two hours we went inside the life of the West Webster Fire District: its active membership of one hundred twenty-five; its Explorer Program with about forty teenage members (from which FF Kaczowka came and which Past Chief Chiapperini mentored); the physical plant and the plans for expansion; the high regard in which this district is held by its town and by the County; the first rate educational philosophy of the Explorer Program, from which most new active members were farmed on a regular basis. Then the fire apparatus and the ambulances in the bays, ending with a conspicuously empty space. No one had to ask, but we were told. “The apparatus hasn’t been released by the State Police yet. It was all shot to sh–.”
Against the wall to which we had now come was a mountain of flowers, store-bought and hand-made sympathy cards, police and fire department patches, votive candles, personal messages, teddy bears – and a picture of each of our brothers in the midst of it all. We paused for silent prayer. No one took notice of the mountain of flowers to our left as we approached the memorial. It seemed like a natural part of the whole display. Upon further inspection, however, we realized what it was. Tomasz’ vehicle sat in the place he parked it on the night before Christmas Eve, buried in flowers. At that moment, with the events of the entire trip in mind, at least in my case, a deep conviction fell heavily upon my shoulders: These men – our brothers – had been prepared for their final moments on earth by the manner in which they did their duty and lived their lives each day in this community and at this fire station.
“Now what?,” each man asked himself, ‘til we each had the nerve to ask one another. No one was in the least bit interested in doing the New Year’s Eve “thing.” Yet, should we do anything? Maybe we could just go to bed early and get on the road first thing in the morning. Would the hotel have anything going on?
The lobby seemed so much bigger than it had that morning, and so much quieter than when the pipes and drums had celebrated the wounded firefighters, Hofstetter and Scardino, the evening before. Now, there was no one there. No firemen. No hotel employees hustling back and forth. No drums. There was only emptiness. A void.
“I’ll put something online,” said Record, as we were on our way back upstairs to take a nap. “Maybe someone local can suggest a place to go for a midnight toast.”
Knock! Knock! Knock! I opened one eye and read the bright red digits on the clock-radio beside the bed. It had been an hour and ten minutes. Knock! Knock! Knock! Leverenz got up and opened the door.
“Facebook is blowing up!” announced Record, who was standing there in the hallway. “Apparently, we’re the only visiting firefighters left in town and the locals want to bring New Year’s Eve to us!” It had been exactly one week since this small community had seen two of its own gunned down in cold blood, with two others injured still in the hospital. How many of their people had been displaced as a result of seven houses burning to the ground in the aftermath of this ambush? No. They weren’t celebrating New Year’s Eve this year. They were, however, bringing New Year’s Eve to us. “Yeah,” Record continued, “different people are saying they’re going to bring food and drinks and things.” I didn’t like the idea of so much attention.
I had a few concerns as Record kept updating us on the number of people who planned to come by. It just didn’t feel right to me. Anyway, I somehow got talked into spending some time in the hotel’s hot tub, as the boys and I set a plan for the night. Very low key, we decided. We aren’t here on vacation. The water felt great, though, in stark contrast to the elements of nature endured that morning, and it was difficult to leave it behind.
Dressed again, down we went to the lobby. As before, hotel staff were nowhere to be found, but now the area where we’d eaten breakfast that morning was set up for a pretty big spread. Leverenz, Bower, Record, and I just sat down and waited. Soon enough, Steve, a firefighter from the Town of Ontario, showed up with a platter. Then someone came by and dropped off deviled eggs. A case of beer. Then a tray of meats. Then some desserts. Another case of beer. Then came a jug of something homemade – not beer, not wine, not whiskey exactly… shine, maybe? I was the only one brave enough (or foolish enough?) to have a cup. A local girl came from the Town of Greece to drop something off, and Record prevailed on her to stay a while. Steve stayed as well, along with another Ontario firefighter.
Our company was complete when a husky, grizzled, leathered-up biker – a past chief of a nearby fire district as it turned out – walked through the door. As we made introductions and we settled into our feast, we found out that he was part of the bikers’ group – the Red Knights, I think – who had come to Webster in order to protect the sacred from another group that had promised to come and protest the funerals of our Brothers. We watched an interview he gave earlier in the day.. There he was; our biker friend – in all his leather, except for a purple knit hat with ear flaps and a pom-pom on top. “Hey!,” he excused himself, “It was all I could find, and it was a little chilly out there!” 27°. So it was…
The following morning, with few words and even less ceremony, we handed in our room access cards and thanked the girl at the desk. At 0800 hours, the boys and I pulled out of Webster and were going home. On our way out the door, I still regretted that we hadn’t gotten to the scene at Lake Road.
When we got within a couple of miles of home, it seemed as if it had been a long time since we’d seen our own station, and our Salvage-1 apparatus. In our absence, there had been a rekindle. It was the house on Franklin Street where we fought a structure fire the night before we left for West Webster. Two members of the Department wound up having to bail out of a second floor window when they experienced a flash over in the hallway they were searching. They slipped on ice that covered the portico they stepped onto and fell a good ten or twelve feet.
Anyway, that fire rekindled the following day, and Connelly, Burke and Webster answered up with Salvage-1. It was important that Bower, Leverenz and I roll to another call. It’s hard to believe that all of this happened in one week.
As I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of the brethren outside St. Stanislaus Church in below-freezing weather, and saw Tomasz’ flag-embraced casket carried on top of the fire apparatus preceded by the pipes and drums, I was deeply convinced that great men need to be better known and their example more closely studied. Followed. Emulated. The departure of such men should be announced. Their leave-taking should be grieved deeply. On this, the occasion of their particular judgement, mercy should be most earnestly implored for them by all, and who they are and what they were should be carried from the sadness of the past into the struggle of the present time.
On that bitterly-cold city street, reviewing their memorial at the fire station, learning about the department that produced them, celebrating New Year’s Eve… almost ten years ago I went to West Webster to offer what I had to give. I went to West Webster to learn to be like them. Like them all. With Mustafa, I want to show the children, and I want them to offer what they have and want to be like these heroes, too.
If so in the natural order, how much more so in the supernatural one?
This is the essence of Tradition.