I will never forget the look on my father’s face. He was not an overly emotional man—usually quick with a pithy remark or a roll of the eyes, but he seldom openly revealed when something was eating at him from the inside out. He grew up during the Great Depression. It was how they handled hard times: Mouth shut, nose to the grindstone.
But on this particular morning, he looked 10 years older than he did the night before. He was stoic, eyes a bit glassy. I was going to say something at the breakfast table but a cautioning glance from my mom indicated that might be the worst idea in the world.
When he left for work, I said to Mom, “What’s going on? What’s up with Dad?”
My father had spent close to 50 years as a volunteer for the Pawling Fire Department—much of that with the ambulance corps, of which he was captain for more than a decade. My mother explained to me that he had gone out on a call in the middle of the night—car accident. The car, packed with four teenagers from a neighboring town, had rolled over. It had been traveling too fast to negotiate a sweeping turn that took you from Route 55 east to Route 22 north. Two of the teens had died; the other two were seriously injured. The first responders had to use the Jaws of Life to cut the car open and get them all out.
It had shaken my father to the core. He never spoke about it until years later when he was in his late 60s and I was in my 30s and I finally found the guts to ask him about it.
“Worst night of my life,” he said.
But he never resigned from the fire department. He kept going out on calls—fires, heart attacks, home accidents, car crashes, you name it. Many of those calls were in the middle of the night. The “tones” would go out from his Plectron (a single-channel emergency alerting radio receiver used to activate emergency response personnel back in the day) and cut through the dark night like a scalpel. He would spring from his warm bed, hop into his all-white jumpsuit, and like Batman heeding the call of the bat signal in the sky, off he went. When he got back, it was usually time to go to work. He’d swig down a cup of coffee, gulp a piece of buttered toast and was back out the door. And except for moments like that car crash, he loved every moment. He was a trained emergency medical technician and he updated his training every year. He was so proud of that.
As I got older, my appreciation grew for what he—and others like him—did. These people don’t get paid. Yet, they spend so much time training and then responding (sometimes, as I said, at ungodly hours) to the endless emergencies that eventually befall us all, sometimes putting their own lives in jeopardy.
I have the utmost respect for volunteer firefighters and rescue workers. I confess, I don’t think I could do it. I didn’t inherit that gene from Dad—just the one with the pithy comments and the eye rolls.
When the news came to light two years ago that the treasurer of the Mahopac Volunteer Fire Department—Michael Klein— had somehow managed to embezzle nearly $6 million from its treasury over the course of more than a decade I was flabbergasted just like everyone else. How was this not detected sooner? Weren’t there audits? Surely there must be more people involved; one man couldn’t do it alone!
Well, as it turned out, one man did do it alone. And yes, there were audits, but the thief’s ruse was clever enough that he remained undetected.
Here’s the thing about volunteer firefighters. There is a camaraderie there, a steely bond the creates a brotherhood, not unlike that which is found in the military. They trust each other implicitly with their lives. It never occurred to a single one of these volunteers that there was a monster walking among them and they were being more lax than they probably should have been. So, when the truth was dragged kicking and screaming out into the light, many of them still had a hard time accepting it. They felt betrayed beyond words. They gave tearful, emotional testimony as Klein’s sentencing. They were embarrassed and humiliated that such an infidelity was played out on the public stage—a public they had sworn to aid and protect.
Now, the department is scrambling, desperately trying to regain a cynical public’s trust. They’ve seen their contract with the town cut and have had to resort to leasing fire trucks rather than buying them outright as they’ve done in the past. There have been other restrictions laid upon them. When they write checks that go beyond a designed amount, they must be cleared by an independent third party.
Since taking over this job and moving to Mahopac, I’ve met many of the men and women in the MVFD. They are proud and dedicated and unwavering in the job that lies before them. Last week, they had to go before the Town Board, hat in hand, and ask for more money—for a bump in their contract. They need to buy two new tanker trucks and a bunch of other equipment that’s mandated by state law. They’re asking for money but it’s still a lot less than they were getting before this all hit the fan.
I wrote a story about their need for more funding. It appeared on the front page of our paper and on our website, which we linked to our Facebook page. And, of course, on Facebook, people can comment on our stories. This one, as you might image, garnered a lot of remarks. Most of them were snarky, cruel and uninformed. While anger over the matter is understandable, ignorance is not. Many of these witless internet pundits just assume these volunteer firefighters are using taxpayer money to throw lavish parties and buy pretty things.
No. They are like my dad—getting out of bed in the middle of cold winter’s night to render CPR to your grandfather, or cut your teenage son out of the car he slammed into the trunk of a tree. They deserve your respect, not your jaded derision.
Yes, more fiscal oversight is needed but not as a punishment, but rather as a way to help them get back on their feet. So instead of cursing the dark, light a candle. Don’t worry if something catches on fire. These guys will be there to help you put it out. No charge.