While writing this month’s column, I reminisced about how lucky I was to grow up in a public safety family. Whether you’re raised in an EMS, fire, law enforcement or communications environment, you become a part of that family.
That environment presented a lot of wonderful experiences and benefits throughout my life and career. I can’t remember a time in my early years when my dad, captain of the Scranton (Pa.) Fire Department Ambulance Division, wasn’t around on Christmas. The reality is, at various stages of my life, he made adjustments in his work schedule to be around, if only for an hour or less, on that special day.
As a young and impressionable kid, my belief in Santa Claus was solidified each year when he appeared at our front door on Christmas Eve. My dad’s best friend in the fire department, Luther Bender—an extremely large man with a heart just as big—dressed up as Santa every year and made the rounds to the homes of every firefighter who had small children.
Luther would arrive and retrieve a special present that was discreetly placed on the front porch by our parents early in the evening. He would then knock loudly on the door and jingle the bells on his wide black belt.
When Santa ho-ho-hoed into our living room, I was amazed he knew my first name, and then even more amazed when I opened the present he handed to me with his bright red velvet gloves and found it to be the No. 1 item I requested on the list my mom mailed to him at the North Pole.
My dad didn’t make a lot of money back then, so as I look back on those days, I really appreciate that top present I received each Christmas. But there were many other presents he and my mother gave to me that weren’t material, like the gift of his presence on Christmas morning.
I found out later in life that my dad would get some of his “ambulance men” to switch shifts with him so he could be home when my sister and I woke up on Christmas morning.
One of his “aces in the hole” was Lt. Sammy Weinberg, a jovial Jewish ambulance officer who didn’t celebrate Christmas. Sammy and many others who didn’t have small children always volunteered to switch shifts with those who had kids.
As I got older, I had a better appreciation of my dad’s work and readily accepted the fact some of the previously single firemen now had small children and asked him to work on Christmas for them to repay their favors.
But even when my dad switched shifts to work for them, he always seemed to find a way to sneak over to our section of the city with the ambulance. It meant a lot to me to have him present even if it was just for five minutes.
You see, back then, there were no response time standards or GPS vehicle tracking; and the public was understanding that it might take a while for the city’s only ambulance to get to their emergency.
I can still see that bright red Cadillac ambulance plowing through the snow on our street with its tire chains clanking on the road like the bells on Santa’s sled and pulling up in front of our house.
I can also vividly remember my dad trudging through snow piles in front of our house in his highly polished black boots and fur-lined Alaska State Trooper-style hat that had a fur brim angled up 90 degrees in the front, and ear muffs snapped up on top.
He was my Santa Claus, my hero and my inspiration. He represented all that was good in the world on Christmas Day.
And, how I yearned to be him and ride in that “Mercy vehicle” (as it was often referred to by local news reporters).
Then, when I was 10, my dad called my mother early on Christmas morning and told her to get me dressed because he on his way over to the house to take me along with him on calls as a “third runner”—to help carry equipment through the heavy snow.
Oh my God, what an unbelievable gift! It was like a scene from A Christmas Story. But instead of getting the official Red Ryder BB gun Ralphie obsessed about, I got the ambulance ride-along I long desired. It was the best gift of all time for me!
But it got better. When the assistant chief on my dad’s shift saw how excited I was to be hanging out in fire headquarters and riding on ambulance calls instead of being at home playing with some silly toys, he told my dad, “Why don’t you make up a bed for the kid and let him stay the night?”
The excitement I felt was just like Ralphie’s dad’s reaction when his infamous leg lamp arrived. A lightning bolt could have struck and killed me right there and I would have died a happy death.
But there’s more to my Christmas story. When my dad called my mother to tell her I was going to stay overnight I could hear her yelling at him over the phone louder than the howl of the Bumpus’ dog when Ralphie’s old man closed his ear in the front door.
She only calmed down when my dad put the chief on the phone and he told her “it was snowing too hard” and he couldn’t let the ambulance bring me home.
My dad gave me a wink because it wasn’t even snowing where we were and the ambulance already had tire chains on.
I didn’t sleep a wink that night, lying in bed listening to 12 burping, farting, snoring firefighters for hours!
That night started my odyssey into the wonderful, challenging and rewarding world of EMS, fire, rescue and public service. It was the greatest Christmas of all.
In a strange twist of fate, when Luther Bender died, his son presented me with his dad’s beautiful Santa suit. I cherish it to this day.
Do all you can to be with your kids on Christmas morning. And, for heaven’s sake, when you pass through the pearly gates and see my mom, don’t tell her about the chains and the fake snowstorm!
Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!