It was 1975, and my six-year-old self had just finished watching a rerun of the original Superman series, starring George Reeves in the starring role.
I recall how I was fascinated at this man that could run faster than a locomotive and fly to the rescue of people that were in danger. I watched in amazement as bullets bounced off him like they were made of rubber. I decided at that moment that I wanted to be just like him when I grew up.
My mother did not have any red fabric laying around, so I did the next best thing and grabbed one of the bed sheets from the linen closet and made a makeshift cape out of it. I would spend my days “flying” around the living room or up and down the stairs just like the “real” Superman. I dressed in a blue t-shirt and red shorts for the full effect, but when I attempted to draw a large ‘S’ on my shirt, my mom brought a stop to it abruptly.
I was afraid that if I used the name, “Superman” without permission, that he would get angry with me, so I chose to go with, “Super Guy” instead. I began to search the neighbourhood (within my block), for people in distress. I found a lost puppy that I returned to its rightful owners, and I helped an elderly woman with her groceries. She tried to repay me with a nickel, but I told her that superheroes do not accept money.
With all my heroic deeds, I became braver, and began to do things outside my comfort zone. One such incident was when I scaled a six-foot high wooden fence and balanced myself at the top before leaping toward the ground on the other side. Unfortunately, my cape had other ideas and hooked on the nail of a loose board. Before I knew it, I was swinging back toward the fence instead of landing on the soft grass. I collided with the hard wooden boards and felt the wind knocked out of me. I found myself dangling by the neck, unable to reach the ground with more than a couple toes.
I felt everything going dark as I struggled for breath, and it was then that I saw a man in blue appear before my blurring eyes. I thought Superman was recuing me. He lifted me up and released the cape from the fence, then carried me over to a nearby bench. People began to gather around me, and soon after, my mother appeared, startled by what had just occurred. She thanked the man in blue and walked with me back to our house. I took off the cape and my superhero uniform and put them into a box in my closet. That was the last time I tried to be a superhero during my childhood.
Fifteen years later, after finishing my third year in college, I was still undecided as to which career I wanted to pursue, but I knew that I needed to get a place of my own. I was a young adult now, and I couldn’t impress the girls if I brought them home to meet my parents, so I found myself a bachelor apartment on the far side of town. My parents helped me pay for my first month’s rent, but I needed to find a job soon if I was going to make it on my own.
I packed up all my belongings and loaded them up in a small U-Haul trailer that I hooked up to the rear of my beat-up Honda Civic. The rear bumper nearly touched the ground from the weight of the trailer as I drove down the road. I was so nervous each time I hit a bump, but I made it without incident.
Once everything was unloaded, I returned the trailer then headed back to my first apartment as a single man. I began opening the disorganized boxes and put things away. That was when I found my old superhero uniform tucked away in the bottom of a box of random items that I had forgotten about. I lifted the cape out of the mess of trophies, old pictures, and knick-knacks that I had collected as a child.
I stared at the torn sheet and remembered the incident that nearly killed me. It was such a vivid memory that it sent chills down my spine, but then I began to recall the other good things that came about because of my childhood dream, and it came apparent to me that my destiny was already decided; I needed to pursue a career where I can save lives.
At first I thought about being a police officer, but I wasn’t a huge fan of getting shot at, so I looked into firefighting. What better way to make a difference in this world? I could save lives regularly, but this time I couldn’t do it for free. If I wanted to pay rent, I needed to find something stable. In the meantime, I found work at a local department store where I would be responsible for unloading trucks and stocking shelves.
I put in my application with the fire department and a few weeks later, I was sent a letter in the mail stating what the physical requirements would entail. I was given a date that I would have to go in for the physical testing and for the IQ test.
The IQ test came first, and I felt that I did well on it, but it is difficult to tell for sure until you receive the results. I then went for the physical test. They had me hooked up to all these wires as I ran on a treadmill for five minutes. Then they had me run up and down a large set of stairs carrying all the equipment that firefighters need to carry. Smoke billowed out of the windows of the practice structure as I began my ascent. I had all the heavy and sweltering fire-retardant clothing on with a breathing apparatus that was hooked up to a heavy oxygen tank on my back, and over my shoulder, I carried a heavy rubber hose.
It was quite a struggle on the staircase, but I pushed myself and made it to the top. I then had to go into the smoke-filled room at the top of the staircase and find my way down through the blackened clouds of smoke. When I finally emerged, I could smell the smoke as it penetrated the mask that covered my face, and I began to cough. Removing the mask, I gasped for some fresh air.
My instructor directed me toward an area where paramedics were standing by. They checked me out, and other than minor smoke inhalation and slightly elevated blood pressure, I was cleared. A few of the other candidates were not so lucky. Because of their beards, their masks could not make a good seal and they failed the test. I, on the other hand, passed. It was a great feeling of accomplishment.
It wasn’t long before I found myself working at one of the three fire stations in town. The fire chief at my station was a twenty-year veteran. His name was Carter Williams, one of the bravest men I ever met. He would be the first to run into a burning building and usually the last one to leave. He became my mentor; my new superhero if you will.
Chief Williams took me under his wing and showed me the best way to approach every situation, and I soaked it all up like a sponge. If you want to be the best, you need to learn from the best, and he definitely qualified.
One day, we received a three-alarm blaze call at the refinery on the outskirts of town. Trucks from all three stations attended the fire but we were the first on scene. I helped to unravel the hose and hooked it up to the fire hydrant. I then joined the rest of the crew as we doused the entranceway with water so we could gain access. I then followed the chief inside in search of survivors.
One-by-one, we came across employees and escorted them to safety, but there were still some in the office at the back of the refinery that we had not yet reached. Following the chief’s lead, we made a path through the flames until we reached the back office. We could see two people in the window at the top of a short staircase. The fire drew closer to the office and would soon engulf it if we didn’t hurry.
The chief and I ascended the stairs as two other firefighters controlled the approaching flames. As we knocked open the door that had swollen from the heat, we spotted a woman laying on the floor of the office. The chief tended to her and told me to escort the other two out of the building. I continued to look back in search of Chief Williams, but there was no sign of him.
Once the two victims were safely outside, I returned to the back of the refinery alone in search of the chief, despite the warnings of my fellow firefighters. When I reached the office and climbed the stairs, I found the chief giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation combined with chest compressions to the woman. I ran to his side to help and asked him to let me take over while he got his mask back on. At first he refused, but realizing he was short of breath, he complied, and I took over.
After a few more minutes, the woman regained consciousness and I tod her that we were going to move her to a safer location. Working together, the chief and I carried the woman out of the refinery and to the ambulance where the paramedics took over.
The chief removed his mask and was coughing and vomiting violently onto the ground beside the ambulance. One of the paramedics asked him to get checked out at the hospital. He was later diagnosed with severe smoke inhalation and was put on a ventilator.
I went to visit the chief at the hospital later that evening and it was difficult seeing him hooked up to all the hospital equipment. They had him sedated to control his breathing. He wasn’t even aware that I was in the room. His wife sat in a chair beside his bed and thanked me for helping him out of the fire. I could tell that she was upset, but she was trying to be brave and hold back the tears.
A few days had passed, and we received some news from our Captain that Chief Williams had passed away silently in his sleep. It was a solemn moment for everyone but devastating for me. He was like a father to me, and I was having a challenging time accepting that he was gone.
The funeral was a week later, and hundreds of firefighters and loved ones were in attendance. Cars were lined up for miles in the precession, but nobody wanted to leave. Chief Williams gained the respect of a lot of people over the years, and each one was there that day.
I stood with my fellow firefighter in full dress uniforms surrounding the burial plot. I tried my best to stay strong, but as they lowered his casket into the ground, there were no longer barriers holding back the flow of tears that followed. I sat silently in my car after the funeral and recalled all the lessons I had learned from this great man. He was a true superhero, even without the cape.
Several days following the funeral, I received a call to report to our headquarters. I had an appointment with Chief Russell to discuss the refinery fire. We went over the details thoroughly and he corroborated my account with that of others on scene. What he said next, however, caught me off-guard.
Chief Russel removed a piece of paper from a folder in front of him and began to read it aloud. It was a message from Chief Williams that he had written before he died. He recommended me for the Medal of Honor for my part in the refinery fire rescue. Chief Russell agreed with the recommendation and stated that there would be a ceremony soon where I would receive the medal.
I went home that day and went into my bedroom closet, removing the cardboard box containing my superhero uniform. I tied the old sheet around my neck and stared in the mirror. I guess I fulfilled my dreams at last.
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What a moving story, Greg. I was in tears towards the end. Very well written. Good take on the prompt. Your protagonist did fulfill his dreams at last. Even though he lost his own superhero, the chief.
Thank you very much. I am glad you enjoyed it, and I appreciate your reply.