Last weekend, my husband had plans to work on the house addition that extends our living room and gives us a main level master bedroom for when our joints start to get too creaky to carry laundry and our bodies up and down the steps to our loft.
When your husband’s a carpenter, the renovation ideas never stop, and so we were looking forward to the progress he was going to make in two days of uninterrupted carpentry work on our own house. Except that uninterrupted thing lasted only a few hours into Saturday morning before his phone sounded the alarm.
If I didn’t hear it myself, I know immediately by the way he strides, big steps through the house, grabbing his coat and his hat and that big duffle bag in the entryway. “Going to a fire,” he says calmly as he swoops past me in the kitchen or out in the driveway where the girls are practicing riding their bikes on the only patch of cement for miles.
If I think he can hear me, I might ask him “where?” because for some reason knowing the general direction he’s heading in such a hurry puts me a little more at ease with the idea that he’s literally running into a fire.
That was Saturday. Sunday sent him out until past supper. We’re having grass fires in March. We desperately need rain.
When my husband and I first moved back to the ranch about 10 years ago, we lived in my Grandma Veeder’s small farmstead house while we built a new house over the hill. One hot summer evening, we arrived home to a blown breaker. Chad went down to the basement to flip the switch and just like that, the inside of our wall was on fire.
“Call 911,” he said calmly as he emerged from the basement and started handing me things to throw out on the lawn. Within minutes our neighbor, a volunteer rural fireman, was at our side, telling us the trucks were on their way. And under a calm, starlit sky, standing surrounded by my guitar, piles of clothes still on hangers, photo albums and paperwork, our computer and all the material things we could grab in armfuls from the house before it was no longer safe, I watched as the men and women of our “neighborhood” that spans dozens of square miles worked to save my dad’s childhood home from flames.
And they did. The house wasn’t grand, 650 square feet of wood and a crumbling foundation, but it was sentimental and it was one of the most helpless and lonesome feelings I’ve ever experienced, standing back and watching the flames rise. Those volunteer firefighters, my neighbors and former schoolmates, they managed to successfully put out the fire so that we had a chance to walk back inside and sift through the damage, gather the rest of the things worth saving, and shut the door for good.
That moment, my husband decided to become a first responder. I’m certain he would have made that decision without the upheaval, but true to the way we learn lessons around these parts, I know he made note of what those people meant to us in that moment. And he knew, at the very least, he could try to do the same where he was able.
I didn’t understand then, standing under that black July sky, what it really meant to be a rural firefighter. I didn’t know it meant, years later, that they would be the first on the scene to help my dad on the stretcher in the middle of the night — neighbors seeing neighbors at their most vulnerable.
I didn’t know it meant monthly meetings, training sessions, suppers interrupted, weekend plans paused, hammers dropped, doors left open, jobs left undone, breath held until the coast was clear. Until they’re out of the woods. Until they’re needed again.
And it certainly isn’t for the money — they volunteer, after all — or for the accolades. It’s 100% because that’s what living out here in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of everything means — to be on standby. To be there when the call comes.
And my husband, he will be the first to admit that he’s got work to do, that he could be better, take more trainings, get to more calls, that he’s working on it, that he’s doing what he can. But to know there are people like him out there with the call to action in their front shirt pocket, it makes that big black sky feel less lonesome, those county roads less desolate, nerves less shot.
It makes us feel so much less on our own to fight the flames, the out-of-nowhere crashes, the unexpected pains or slips that threaten to change it all in a blink…
To know, Sunday dinner or house project be damned, someone’s running when we call? What a thing to do. What a thing to be.
Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband and daughters on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. She blogs at https://veederranch.com. Readers can reach her at email@example.com.