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Every person from your past lives as a shadow in your mind. Good or bad, they all helped you write the story of your life, and shaped the person you are today. ~ Doe Zantamata
The first time I met Bruno, he was already eighty years old.…
John Gage looked down at his opening sentence with a worried frown.
“Who are you trying to kid? This isn’t the kind of story, high school kids are interested in, Gage,” he muttered.
He snatched the sheet of paper off the table, wadded it into a ball, and tossed the offending object into the infamous file thirteen along with the rest of his previous attempts.
For the past several hours he’d been wracking his brain, trying to think of any excuse to get out of being the Fire Department’s representative at the local high school’s career day.
And he had thought of everything; from calling in sick that day, offering to do overtime for someone else … to all out insubordination by refusing to do it.
But staging a Coup d’état was not his thing. Besides, he had too much respect for both the Cap and his badge to ever do something like that.
In the end, he knew he was stuck with it. Everyone man in the department fully understood the party line. Compliance was mandatory, and every peon was expected to obey with a, Lassie-esque type of loyalty.
Okay maybe he was being a bit melodramatic with that last thought. But there was a certain amount of truth to what he was thinking. Treating a request from headquarters with any amount of ambivalence was tantamount to departmental atheism. In essence, any request from HQ, in their minds at least, was to be treated as it if were a commandment from God himself.
It wasn’t that he and Roy weren’t used to doing public service gigs; heaven knows they’d done more than he could count over the last four years. It was just that this particular assignment had left him feeling flustered. For one thing, he’d be on his own this time. The school had only allotted space for one representative from each profession; and the powers that be had decided he was the man for the job.
If it had been a simple case of meeting with the kids, handing out pamphlets, and giving them the low down on what becoming a firefighter or paramedic entailed, he would have been fine with it. But the school had been very clear on the fact that each representative was expected to give a small speech on why they personally had chosen their respective fields.
It had been that last part of Cap’s dictum that did not sit well with the dark haired man.
John Gage had no problem speaking passionately about being a Firefighter-Paramedic whenever he had been called upon to do so; but delving into any aspect of his personal feelings was taboo.
That was a form of inner exposure that he reserved for only one other person, other than himself. It was the person he depended on to keep him safe and alive on a day to day basis; the person to whom Johnny was personally dedicated to keeping safe and alive in return, so the man could go home to his wife and kids at the end of each shift; It was the person who, over the course of the last four years, had earned the right to see every aspect of him. He was the only other person Johnny fully trusted to guard his secrets. And that person’s name was, Roy DeSoto.
But it wasn’t just that personal aspect of the task that bothered him. There was also the issue of his target audience.
Johnny, having just turned twenty six himself, remembered vividly what it felt like to be a high school senior. And he knew from personal experience that seventeen and eighteen year old kids weren’t interested in some kind of prosaic tale about life. And in light of recent events, he was sure they were bound to expect some kind of majestic, grand reasoning behind his life choices … something less allegorical.
And if the young students were anything like he had been at that stage of his life, then it would be all about the adrenaline rush and excitement of the job; something that would impress the girls.
Why’d Cap have to give this assignment to me, anyway? he mused for the umpteenth time that day. Any one of the other guys would have been a better choice than him.
Why not Mike? He was the second in command. He would have been a much better representative. After all, Mike’s father had been a Battalion Chief in San Diego. The Engineer had been groomed for his job since birth, and Johnny had no doubt that one day, Mike would be a Battalion Chief himself. The guy just oozed upper echelon.
The mental image of Mike Stoker participating in any form of public speaking made him smile. He didn’t think he’d heard the man string more than five words together during the entire time he’d been at 51’s. Okay, maybe Mike gets a pass on the job.
But reticence did not come into play when it came to Chester B. Kelly.
Chet came from a long line of fire fighters, including his father, grandfather, two of his uncles, and all three of his older brothers. It was a given that if your last name was Kelly and you were from Boston, you signed up for the fire academy on your eighteenth birthday. Chet would have been perfect for this task. He was pretty good at the kind of Braggadocio teenage boys love … not that Johnny wasn’t guilty of the same thing himself whenever there was a pretty face nearby.
Johnny thought about what a speech given by Chet Kelly would entail and grimaced.
On second thought, maybe he wasn’t the best choice. These were impressionable young kids who might actually decide to become Firemen or Paramedics themselves; men who would hold the life of another in their hands. Making sure they did the job for the right reason was more important than anyone’s bragging rights.
As long as his mind was riding along this train of thought, then why not give the assignment to Marco? Marco probably had the noblest reason of them all.
When Marco was nine, his family’s home had caught fire. His mother, father and three sisters had managed to escape the building fine, but Marco and his thirteen year old brother, Luis had shared the attic bedroom. When the fire broke out, the two boys had been cut off from escape. It had been three firefighters that climbed up to the attic window who pulled the two Lopez brothers to safety. Marco never forgot the heroism of the firemen who had literally snatched him and his brother from the jaws of death that night. From that moment on, he had been determined to pay it forward by becoming a firefighter himself when he grew up.
And last, but certainly not least, was his partner, Roy.For as long as Roy could remember, he had wanted to be a fireman. Roy had been one of those boys that would follow the firetrucks on his bike whenever they went by his house with their lights flashing, and their sirens wailing. When Roy was four, he had been given a toy fireman’s hat for his birthday, and for months afterward he had tried to convince his mom to let him sleep in it. At the age of eight, his father had built him a go-kart
that was a mini-replica of a firetruck. Young Roy had literally worn the wheels off of the toy, putting out every imaginary fire within a two block radius of his house. Everyone in his neighbourhood knew that little Roy Desoto was going to grow up to be a fireman someday.
But none of those things were true of Johnny. The truth of the matter was, that the idea of joining the fire department had never even crossed his mind until he was seventeen and in his final year of high school. In fact, it was probably safe to say that he was one of the few, if not the only guy in the whole department to whom firefighting had not been a lifelong ambition.
Johnny sat twirling his pencil in his hand. He had been pondering this problem for over three hours now… ever since Cap had informed him of his so called, ‘honour’ at roll call. He glanced down at the ever growing pile of balled up paper in the waste basket and tossed his pencil on the table in defeat.
Johnny’s private pity party was interrupted by a gnawing sensation coming from the pit of his stomach.
I can’t concentrate on an empty stomach.
If he was going to somehow get through this assignment, he was going to need some sort of sustenance. He pushed himself back from the table, and wandered over to the fridge where he retrieved a small carton of milk and the fixings for a sandwich.
He carried his snack over to the kitchen table and dropped down into his chair dejectedly. The sounds of laughter drifted in from outside, drawing his attention away from his task. The door leading out from the kitchen to the parking area had been propped open with a fire axe in order to allow some fresh air into the kitchen. From his current position at the table, Johnny could see his shift mates joking around with each other as they shot some hoops. It was late Sunday morning; a traditionally quiet time to be on duty, and he was supposed to be taking advantage of it by working on his speech.
Cap had ‘suggested’ that the rest of the crew go outside to play some basketball and leave John to work in peace. He’d made the ‘suggestion,’ in the same tone of voice that he had used when he had ‘suggested’ that Johnny accept the assignment HQ had offered him. Both propositions had been one of those thinly veiled ‘suggestions’ you get from a superior officer … the kind you know is really an order ... the kind where you understand fully, that to refuse isn’t an option.
Johnny reached over to the notepad and slid it across the table to where he was sitting. He tore off a fresh sheet and gave it a forlorn look. Maybe he could get away with making up some fantastic, jaw dropping tale that would leave his audience on the edge of their seats.
No, on second thought, he’d had more than enough of that these past three weeks. It had only been in the last day or so that his phone had stopped ringing from television programmers wanting him to appear on their show. The last thing he needed, or wanted, was any more attention.
But maybe he could at least make something up that sounded a little more honourable; because for the life of him, he could think of nothing more mundane than the truth. It just seemed too anti-climactic when juxtaposed against his current notoriety.
So there he sat, pencil in hand, scowling down at a fresh, and annoyingly blank sheet of paper wondering… why him? Even though he really did know, ‘why him.’ In fact there were several reasons why the ubiquitous entity known as, ‘HQ’ had chosen to pick on him for this, quote- unquote, honour.
For starters, when it came to impressing those same ubiquitous, ‘they’ that lived at Headquarters, there was a definite pattern. Whenever ‘they’ needed a representative to stand behind the podium and deal with all the formalities and etiquette that went along with schmoozing the old guard crowd, Roy DeSoto was their go-to guy. The Senior Paramedic just polished up real well. Not to mention he had been one of the original driving forces behind the Paramedic program.
Johnny, with his slightly too long for regulation hair, boyishly handsome features, and maverick mentality, did much better in an informal setting like schools. Johnny was a consummate professional who took his job seriously; and when the klaxons sounded, he was all about the business of saving lives.
But once the patient had been delivered and the squad backed into the barn, John Gage, the serious and top-notch Paramedic, turned into Johnny, the dynamic and somewhat goofy story teller… the young hot shot. And it was that ability that made him a huge hit with the eighteen to twenty five year olds. It was a demographic that he connected very well with.
Roy, on the other hand, was the poster boy for conformity. His regulation appearance and more reserved attitude was considered too square by the kids. To them he was an old married guy. He was a man that had settled down with his white picket fence and 2.5 kids. He represented, in the kids eyes at least, a man who had become staid.
The only person worse for that crowd would have been someone like Brice … who was not even to be considered. Brice was just too much of everything they despised … he was like the teacher every student prayed they wouldn’t get for math.
Johnny sniggered at the thought. When it came to Brice, it wasn’t just students that felt that way. Brice was the partner every other Paramedic prayed they didn’t get too.
But people like, Johnny were perfect for this type of thing. Places where he would be at home sitting in a chair in front a crowd of young bucks while recounting his many feats of derring-do. He was also adept at extemporizing on the subject of being a fireman-paramedic.
But to be at his best, he needed a setting where he wouldn’t feel like he was being scrutinized by some, by-the-book superior officer…or where there would be no chance of any news reporters being there to film it.
Past experience had proven that any sign of a TV camera would trigger the deer in the headlights reaction from the normally brash young man. But sitting in a room with a bunch of high school seniors, was where Johnny’s ability and exuberance regarding his love for his job shone through.
He always gave a good account of himself, and the department. And when it came to getting down to basics, Johnny was still all business; he took his job seriously. He became poised and professional without coming across as stodgy.
Yes, Johnny knew that was one of the reasons why headquarters considered him to be just the man for this high school career day. He was the perfect recruiter for this crowd.
But he also knew that there was an even bigger reason they had saddled him with this assignment; and it all centered around his rather spectacular, albeit unscheduled, rescue three weeks earlier … spectacular, being the operative word.
It had happened on a sunny Sunday afternoon when he had been returning from one of his impromptu camping trips in the San Gabriel Mountains. He had been cruising along a quiet stretch of his drive home, when he approached a bend in the road. He had only travelled half way around the curve when he was met by the sight of a car lying overturned in the ditch.
He could tell by the smoke coming from the car’s undercarriage that it must have just happened within the last few minutes. A dead deer lying at the edge of the road, its neck bent at an odd angle, told the story or what had happened.
The deer had obviously darted out in front of the car, leaving the driver no chance of avoiding a collision with it. The force of the impact had broken the deer’s neck, and caused the driver to lose control of the car, sending it sliding off the road, where it had flipped onto its roof before finally coming to rest in the ditch.
Johnny had seen situations like this before in his job. This kind of thing happened all too often on these secondary roads… or any other road for that matter. A person could be alive at two and dead by one minute after. All it took was a lapse in judgement on someone’s part, or an unforeseen circumstance, like a deer darting out in front of you on a quiet road, to end a life.
That was how it had happened to Johnny’s parents. They had been killed instantly when a transport truck blew a front tire. The rig had lost control, swerved into his father’s lane, and hit them head on. Johnny hadn’t been in the car with them that day… he’d been in school. That was how he ended up living with his aunt in Sacramento at the tender age of fourteen.
Johnny, being a trained Paramedic, used the CB in his Rover to radio for help before he jumped out and ran over to the overturned car. He looked through the front passenger window, where he discovered an unconscious woman slumped against the drivers’ side door. In the back of the car, strapped into safety seats, were two children who he guessed to be around the ages of three and five. Both children were conscious, very frightened and crying for their mommy.
The grass around the wreckage had been soaked with fuel that was leaking from the gas tank, making the entire scene a giant incendiary device. The young medic knew there wasn’t a whole lot of time to waste. Pulling on the car door handles revealed that they were all locked.
Johnny ran back to his Rover, grabbed the hatchet from his camping gear, and hurried back to the car, where he smashed the window furthest away from the children. Reaching past the broken glass, he reached in, unlocked the door, and heaved it open as far as the ditch would allow. He was quickly able to determine that other than a few minor cuts and bruises, the children, thanks to their mothers’ foresight in placing them both in car seats, had escaped serious injury.
With the rear door now open, he was able to get in and unhook the kids from their seats, and lift them to safety. He ran back to his vehicle with a child under each arm, and placed them in the back seat of his Rover where they would out of harm’s way.
By the time he returned the car, a spark had ignited the gasoline soaked grass. The flames had already engulfed the hood of the car and they were rapidly creeping closer to the unconscious woman.
Although it was not the optimal situation, Johnny knew there was no time left for spinal precautions. Pulling his jack knife from his back pocket, Johnny began frantically sawing away at the seat belt that was holding the woman prisoner in her car. He sent up a silent prayer of thanks when in a matter of seconds, the seatbelt strap gave way. Tucking the knife back into his pocket, he gently began trying to ease the woman from the burning car.
By now the heat from the flames had begun to scorch the backs of his hands and forearms. He had barely managed to move the woman a couple of inches towards the open door when he felt resistance. Looking down it quickly became evident that the woman’s pant leg was caught on something. The level of urgency caused him to throw caution to the wind. He reached down, groping around blindly in an effort to try and figure out what was snagging the woman’s pant leg.
An intense stab of pain across the palm of his left hand quickly revealed the jagged shard of metal that had ensnared the woman’s pant leg. Giving a forceful yank, Johnny felt the material tear as her leg came free. There had been no time to check out injuries due to the fact that the flames were now licking through the broken windshield of the car; already the surface of the steering wheel was beginning to melt.
Keeping the woman’s head and neck as straight as he could, Johnny grabbed hold of her upper body, and as gently as the situation would allow, he pulled her out of the car and away from the flames. Less than a minute later the entire car went up with a whump and became fully engulfed.
Once he had the woman out, he could see that her brachial artery had been nicked. The force of her body pressing against the car door had been acting like a clamp while she had been pinned. But now that Johnny had moved her, she was losing blood rapidly.
Ignoring the pain in his own hand, the dark haired medic carried his victim closer to his Rover, where he carefully laid her on the soft shoulder of the road, all the while maintaining a vice like grip on the damaged artery.
With no real equipment with him, Johnny had no choice but to continue using his fingers as a clamp on the artery. Unfortunately that meant he hadn’t been able to do much more than a cursory check for other injuries.
For over twenty minutes, Johnny sat on the edge of the road, his fingers cramping while he fought to prevent the woman’s life from leaking out onto the side of the road while he waited for help to arrive. The entire time, he had been calling out every word of assurance he could think of, to the two frightened children who were still crying in the back seat of his Rover.
It seemed to take forever, but finally Johnny heard the cavalry coming to the rescue. The sound of approaching sirens was like music to his ears… help had finally arrived.
One of the Paramedic’s on scene had treated Johnny’s injured hand for him; wrapping it up adequately enough for him to be able to drive his vehicle to the San Fernando emergency room where he had been treated for first degree burns to the backs of his hands and forearms, as well as eleven stitches across the palm of his left hand.
After that he’d had met with the police to give a statement before he had been allowed to resume his trip home.
By the time he arrived back in Los Angeles and dropped the off the medical report from the Doctor regarding his injuries to headquarters, it was nearly seven o’clock. By that time, all Johnny really wanted to do was grab a shower and call it a night, with a cold beer and the ball game. But fate had other plans.
As soon as he had left headquarters, that ubiquitous, “they,” had informed not only his Captain, but the head of the paramedic program, Dr. Kelly Brackett, that one of his medics would be on the injured list for at least seven days while his hand fully healed.
The moment Dr. Brackett had received the message; he had tried to call the injured medic in question. Unfortunately for both parties, the injured man in question had been in the shower when the physician’s call came in, and he hadn’t heard the phone. This caused the good doctor to call the only other person he could think of who might know where his seemingly injured and apparently errant paramedic was … that person being of course, the one and only, Roy DeSoto… best friend, partner and keeper of Johnny Gage.
Of course Headquarters, having informed Hank Stanley that he would be needing a replacement for his Junior Paramedic for the next few shifts, had elicited a similar reaction in the Captain of Station 51. Thankfully by the time Hank called his wounded man, Johnny was toweling off, so he’d heard the phone ring.
After assurances to his Captain that his injuries were more annoying than serious, he had ended the call. But fate, having a great sense of humour, had decided to time the information in just such a way, that at the same moment Roy was trying to call Johnny, Johnny was talking to his Captain.
Another half hour had passed before it occurred to Johnny that he’d better call his partner so he wouldn’t worry himself into an ulcer, when he heard the news. Unfortunately, the idea occurred to him about ten minutes too late, as his partner had already taken matters into his own hands and was on his way to Johnny’s apartment.
It had taken another hour after Roy had arrived, for Johnny to dispel all of his partner’s fears concerning his health, and send him back home to his wife and kids. By that time his temporarily forgotten beer had gone warm, the ball game was over, and it was past eleven o’clock. The only good thing that had happened all evening was that he had been able to beg off the inevitable trip to Rampart until the next day.
Because Johnny wasn’t going to have to get up early for his shift the next morning, he’d shut the alarm on his clock radio off, allowing himself to sleep in late the following morning. It had been the ringing of the phone shortly after eight a.m. that had finally pulled him from a deep sleep.
The first thing he heard after his sleepy, “hullo,” was a really bad Chet Kelly attempt at what Johnny assumed was supposed to be a falsetto voice.
“Gee, Mr. Gage; can I have your autograph?” the mustachioed man’s voice sang out.
Before he could ask Chet what on earth he was talking about, Roy had snatched the phone from the linesman’s hand.
Johnny could hear Roy’s muffled, “Would you knock it off, Chet and let me talk to my partner?”
The still sleepy, and somewhat confused, Johnny didn’t wait for Roy to get a single word out before he growled into the receiver. “What does that idiot think he’s doing, Roy? I was trying to grab some extra sleep.” The irritation at being woken up was plainly evident in his voice.
“Never mind about Chet,” Roy said. “Have you by any chance had your television on this morning?”
Johnny rolled his eyes impatiently. “No, Roy… in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not in the habit of watching the television while I am sound asleep.”
“Well I think you’d better turn on the news, Junior,” Roy said ominously, ignoring his grumpy partner’s sarcasm.
“Wha … why?” Johnny asked; still not understanding what his friend was talking about.
In fact, if it hadn’t been for the tone of Roy’s voice, he would have assumed it was just another case of, Chet being his usual annoying self.
Any further explanation about what his partner’s words meant was cut off by the sounds of the klaxons going off in the background. “Just do it, Junior,” Roy ordered hastily. “I’ll call you later and we’ll talk,” was all Roy got out before slamming the receiver down in his ear.
By this time, curiosity had definitely gotten the better of Johnny. He reached over to the nightstand and set the receiver back on the phone’s cradle, before kicking off the covers and swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes with his unbandaged hand as he made his way over to his television set and switched it on, grumbling all the while about what he was going to do to his shift mates if this turned out to be nothing more than a prank, designed to interrupt his nocturnal…er, diurnal, bliss.
Johnny spent a good five minutes flipping through the channels trying to find anything that would explain the earlier phone call. Finally, after finding nothing, he just left the television on the local station and went to make some coffee. He decided he would just have to wait for Roy’s call to find out if he’d been the victim of a prank… or if there really was something Roy felt he needed to be made aware of.
But Johnny hadn’t had to wait for Roy’s call… he found out soon enough on his own. He’d been halfway through his second cup of coffee when a news report flashed on the screen about a car accident that had taken place on a quiet road leading out of the San Gabriel Mountain’s the afternoon before.
Johnny looked to see a female reporter standing outside of the San Fernando hospital reporting on how an off duty Paramedic had saved the lives of a very famous pop star’s wife and children. The report went on to say that according to the police statements, the name of the off duty hero was one, John Gage from the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Johnny stood gaping at the television screen in complete shock for a full ten minutes before his phone began to ring… and ring…. and ring.
As soon as the press had gotten hold of his name, they weren’t long in tracking down his phone number. After that, the next few days had become a blur.
The incident had made international news thrusting Johnny into the spot light right along with the singer and his family. Everyone wanted to speak to the hero who had saved the singer’s family from certain death.
It made a great story and an even greater public relations boost for not only the Paramedic program, but the fire department in general. All the newspaper headlines for the next few days read: Young off duty Paramedic hero, saves famous singers family from a fiery death.
Of course with all the media hoopla, came the obligatory commendation from HQ stating how proud they were of their man…that it wasn’t surprising … they really expected nothing less from their man. They heaped praises on him about what a credit he was to the Los Angeles County Fire Department, before handing over the certificate that was covered with all the usual phrases… bravery above and beyond the call of duty and all that jazz. They finished it all off with the expected handshake for the cameras.
Well what else did they expect? He was a Paramedic after all. That did not stop just because he wasn’t officially on duty. Did the vehicle he and his partner rode in every shift not say, rescue squad, on the side doors? And Johnny was, above all else, a rescue man. In fact, if he was being totally honest, he had to admit that he considered the job of Paramedic a continuation of rescue. He thought of it as being a part of the elite rank of rescue men.
His Paramedic skills meant that once he got the victims out, he could do something definitive to save their lives. It allowed him to extend their golden hour. The emergency care being a Paramedic let him provide meant that he could literally be the only reason a critical victim even made it to the hospital alive.
That had been the case with the singer’s family. His knowledge of what to do once he had rescued the singer’s wife from the burning vehicle, had saved her from bleeding out on the side of that road.
At first Johnny had enjoyed all the praise and attention from his crewmates; as well as the congratulatory back slaps and all the, “job well done’s” from the doctors and nurses at Rampart. Not to mention the VIP, backstage passes to the singer’s next concert.
But it had quickly gone beyond a few newspaper reporters calling him at home for a statement. And when it escalated to the point where he and his date were actually accosted while they were out for dinner, the intrusions began to both anger and frighten him. People had started to act like they owned him, body, mind and soul.
His natural aversion to television cameras had risen to the surface immediately and he had politely declined all offers of television interviews and talk shows, much to the chagrin of the department’s public relations team. He wasn’t worried about being censured for his refusal; “they” may have been chagrined, but HQ wouldn’t actually brow beat their hero. But Johnny did suspect this career day assignment was one way the department’s media relations experts had decided they could get some mileage from his being the current flavour of the month.
Johnny’s musings were interrupted by the sound of someone entering the kitchen. He looked up just in time to see his partner coming through the door on his way to the sink. Neither man said a word as the senior paramedic got himself a glass of water.
Johnny watched his partner with an air of suspicion as Roy’s eyes slowly scanned the room. Roy kept his silence until his gaze lit upon the waste bin that was overflowing with mounds of wadded up paper.
Johnny could see the ghost of a smirk playing at the corners of his partner’s mouth as he idly wandered over to where Johnny sat.
“I see you’re making some headway,” the older man said, tilting his head in the direction of the garbage pail. “Just make sure you leave some trees for the rest of us, okay?”
Johnny looked at his partner in obvious confusion.
“Do you have any idea how many trees have sacrificed their lives for this speech of yours?” Roy explained in mock horror.
“Very funny,” Johnny said sourly. “You know, if you’re not here to help, then you can just leave, partner,” he said, putting a liberal dose of venom in his voice on the word, partner.
The tone of the dark haired man’s voice apparently had Roy rethinking the wisdom of getting Johnny riled up, because he quickly decided a change in tactic was in order. Roy walked over and gave the younger man a sympathetic pat on the shoulder.
“Don’t over think the assignment, Johnny,” he advised. “Just start at the beginning and tell your story. Nobody is expecting anything more than that.”
Johnny’s posture visibly relaxed. He knew that deep down, his partner sympathized with him. Johnny knew that Roy understood his misery. Nobody really liked these assignments. In fact Roy had even made a small attempt to try and help Johnny get out of it when Cap had first, ‘suggested’ he do it. But the senior medic hadn’t pushed his protests too far for fear of getting roped into it himself. Not that there was any real danger of that. Johnny knew why they picked him… they wanted, ‘their star.’
He thought over Roy’s advice before heaving a sigh of exasperation.
“It’s just not that simple, Roy,” he complained. “These kids are going to expect more than just the usual, ‘pat’ answers this time. And we both know that this is more than just one of those run of the mill career days, where you have the Q and A session with an overview before we hand out the pamphlets. Thanks to all the recent news exposure I’ve been getting, these kids will be expecting something big and grand from me.”
Johnny ran his hands through his hair in frustration.
“Besides, you do remember what it was like being in high school, don’t you?
Remember those long boring speeches you had to sit through during every assembly? Remember what we used to think?’
Johnny propped his elbows onto the table and put his head in his hands with a defeated groan.
“I’m just no good at this speech stuff, Roy,” he lamented.
Roy stood groping for something encouraging to say to his partner.
Whether or not the senior medic’s mind would have come up with a suitable reply, was made moot by the sudden movement of Johnny’s head as it popped up so fast, Roy was sure he’d have to treat the dark haired man for whiplash.
“I got it!” Johnny crowed; his face lighting up like a Christmas tree. “You could help me write my speech, Roy. You’re so much better with words than I am.”
Johnny’s unexpected movements caused Roy to literally stumble backwards several steps. His younger partner’s train of thought had jumped from one track to the other so fast it took Roy’s mind several seconds to process what had been said. But once the words meaning had filtered into Roy’s brain, he wasted no time in raising his hands, waving them in a definite, ‘don’t involve me’, gesture.
“Not on your life, Junior,” he declared firmly.
But Johnny, never one to give in easily, persisted.
“Aw, come on, Pally. I thought you were my best amigo … you know, brothers in arms, having each other’s backs and all that stuff,” he pleaded desperately.
Roy continued to shake his head in a definite, no.
“This is supposed to be about you, Johnny,” he stated. “You are the only one who can write your story. And as for my writing skills, well… didn’t you study English composition in the tenth grade just like the rest of us?”
Roy’s question managed to coax just the faintest trace of smile to appear on Johnny’s previously frowning face.
“Roy ...” he said drolly. “The only thing I was interested in studying when I was in the tenth grade, was Belinda Sue Angell;” a sly grin now breaking out full force.
“Angell?” Roy questioned, taking advantage of his partner’s brightening countenance. “I take it she was a heavenly vision of beauty?”
This actually brought a snicker from the dark haired man.
“She may have been divinely beautiful, Roy. But take it from me, that girl was no angel … which is why I eventually turned my sights onto Abigail Curlew the next year.
Now it was Roy’s turn to chuckle.
“I would have thought a girl like that would have been right up the alley of any sixteen year old boys’ libido,’ he said.
Johnny surprised Roy by giving him long a considering gaze.
“Yes and no,” he answered seriously. “I mean, when it comes to girls, a little mystery doesn’t hurt. You have to figure that if they put out easily for you, then they will put out easily for anyone. It kind of takes the specialness out of it if you can’t have exclusive bragging rights over the fact that you and you alone got the girl.”
“Besides,” he added as an afterthought. “Sometimes the challenge of the chase is half the fun… it’s not the same if she gives herself up too easily.”
Roy shook his head and walked over to the sink to refill his glass.
“Look, Johnny,” he offered, pulling the subject back to the upcoming assignment. “I really do think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Just write down the story of why you became a firefighter, and then read it to the kids. After that you’ll be home free. You know you have always gotten along well with kids that age whenever we’ve done demonstrations for them before…” he started.
“That’s because, Gage stopped maturing at age sixteen,” Chet interjected from the open doorway.
Johnny eyes narrowed dangerously as he pinned Chet with an angry stare, treating the remark with the proper amount of disdain he felt it deserved.
“Shut up, Chet,” he growled.
Chet’s face still held a mischievous grin as he turned to look in Roy’s direction.
“I just came in to tell Roy here, that Cap says anyone interrupting Johnny, or getting him side tracked will be assigned latrine duty for the next month.”
The effect on Roy was instantaneous as he took a last swallow of his water, and set his glass in the sink. “I guess I’d better skedaddle,” he said, grabbing Chet by the arm and making a hasty retreat out the door.
“Thanks a lot, friend,” Johnny groused to the retreating pair.
Roy was supposed to back him up on these things, not spew out idioms about making mountains out of mole hills.
With a heavy sigh, he turned his attention back to his current dilemma.
Despite what Roy said, Johnny knew this was not just considered a career day assignment. Headquarters considered these kinds of events as a form of recruitment drive. And it was Johnny’s job to try and get the kids interested in signing up for the fire academy after graduation.
Leaning forward he propped his arms against the table, resting his head in his hands while he massaged his temples with the tips of his fingers. He glanced and the clock, a dejected sigh escaping from his lips.
I have to get this done, he thought miserably. I’ve been at it for over three hours and I’ve still got nothing to show for it … and we could be toned out at any moment.
He needed to make a decision and get on with it.
Johnny looked at the still blank sheet or paper and glowered. How on earth could he make his speech sound dynamic? He needed to produce the kind of story that would capture the kids’ interest; otherwise it would seem anti-climactic when juxtaposed against recent events.
The trouble was, his real story just didn’t seem very captivating at all. It was made worse because of his latest rescue of the singer’s family. As glamourous as the press had made it seem, it certainly did not reflect the truth. It didn’t even begin to tell the story of his reasons for the life choices he’d made when he was eighteen. The real reason came down to one spring afternoon when he was still seventeen.
Johnny pushed the empty plate away and leaned back in the chair, his eyes staring thoughtfully at the ceiling. He let his mind wander back in time to those carefree days of his senior year in high school, and the old man he hadn’t thought about in nearly a decade.
It had been a happy time, despite the absence of his parents in his life. He was living in Sacramento with his aunt back then. As his only living relative, she had taken him in at the start of his freshman year when his parents had died. She was a big hearted, childless woman who doted on him, showering him with as much love as if he had been her own son.
It was during those early days that he’d met another newcomer to Sacramento, Drew Burke. Being the only new boys in the neighbourhood had given he and Drew something in common. By virtue of that fact alone, it hadn’t taken long before the two of them became fast friends.
High school had been a good period in Johnny’s life. Before that time he had been attending a reservation school back in Montana; and while he had gotten pretty good grades, he’d also had to endure a lot of bullying over his half-native status.
But in the big city, no one had batted an eye about his skin tone and obvious native features. There were so many other diverse cultures and varied ethnicities that the subject had never been brought up. Everyone had accepted him as he was and his half native status had never mattered.
He and Drew had joined the school newspaper and the baseball team. He had an A minus average and had a particular fondness for English, Geography and History class. In his junior year he dropped baseball in favour of track. A decision that been inspired entirely by his healthy teenage libido and a certain young lady named, Abigail Curlew … who just happened to dig track stars.
Johnny smiled as he recalled the beautiful Abigail; the head cheerleader who also happened to be very pleasing to the eye. She had long blonde hair with legs to match, and two of the sultriest blue eyes his teenage-self had ever seen. In fact she was generously endowed with two of everything … and a few perks thrown in on the side.
It just so happened, that Johnny had a natural aptitude for running track, which meant he had no trouble making the team … a fact that stemmed largely from his days of running away from the bigger boys on the reservation. Boys who had wanted to break his nose for no other reason than his skin was a tad too pale for their liking.
Several first place performances and one or two interviews for the local sports page quickly elevated his status to the top rung of the student body ladder, which also happened to carry with it a sweet little ancillary benefit of attracting the cutest girls. It had won him the title of Abigail’s boyfriend.
By the end of October in their junior year, he (and Drew by virtue of his being Johnny’s best friend) began to hang out with the big fish in school… the elite crowd known as, the seniors.
The following September Johnny had become a senior himself and he was no longer just swimming with the big fish … he was a big fish.
Yes, he reflected with a smile. Those had been golden days. It had been good to be King.
It had been set against this backdrop that Johnny had first come into contact with Bruno.
There had been nothing particularly noteworthy about Bruno’s appearance that drew people to him. He was a simple unassuming man, who for the most part just blended into the scenery unnoticed… well unnoticed by everyone but Johnny. And even at that, Johnny had barely given the old gent a casual glance in passing.
If you had asked Johnny for an exact date when Bruno began to watch his track practices, he couldn’t have given you a definitive answer. He only knew that one day in late autumn, he’d observed the old man sitting there…just watching. The old guy would saunter up during practice, park his behind on the bleachers, and just watch Johnny run. Bruno was always gone by the time Johnny came out of the showers after practice.
After that, Johnny began to notice his presence more frequently, until by March, he actually began to look for him. It never bothered Johnny. He had simply put it down to another lonely old senior filling in time.
But it was that simple, unassuming old man who had changed the course of Johnny’s life.
Before Bruno had wandered into Johnny’s life, he’d been a typical seventeen year old boy. He’d been fairly ambivalent about things like social conscience or lofty ideals. Back in those days he just wasn’t that far-sighted…hell, what teenager was?
In fact, just the opposite was true. He and Drew were like most other teenage boys. They’d been girl crazy, self-absorbed, bundles of raging hormones.
His multiple track success had left Johnny full of himself with grand visions of fame and glory. He was the award winning athlete, the track star who had the girl every other boy coveted … the boy who had had articles written about him for the local sports pages. One sports writer had even christened him with his own personal moniker; he’d christened him with the title, The Galloping Greyhound. Phrases like, track scholarship and Olympic trials had even been bandied about, further inflating his ego.
At seventeen, Johnny thought he had the world by the tail. Fast cars with even faster women littered his dreams. And if he actually made it to the Olympics, he pretty much figured he could just saunter up to the girl tree and pick off any woman he liked. (Like any hormonal seventeen year old boy, Johnny always kept his priorities straight.)
Even after all this time, the day of his and Bruno’s first official meeting was still as fresh in Johnny’s mind as if it had just happened yesterday. It had been early spring, and Johnny’s high school had hosted that year’s statewide track meet. Johnny was riding high having taken first place in the mile relay. But the capper on the day had been when he broken the state speed record for the fastest time in the 440.
He was still floating on cloud nine when he exited the showers, after the awards presentations. He had said his good byes to the rest of the team members and began to head across the schoolyard for home. Only this day, when he walked past the empty bleachers, Johnny had found Bruno on his knees leaning over an old bicycle, trying to fix the chain that had fallen off. Johnny, being raised by his parents to do the right thing, stopped and offered to help the old man fix his bicycle chain.
After Johnny had finished repairing the bike, the old man had formally introduced himself to the teen. He was older than anyone Johnny had personally known up to that point in his life, and Johnny’s intention had been to make sure the old guy got on his way safely and then get home. But instead of getting on his bike, the old man turned and began to speak to Johnny. In fact it was the first words that came out of the old man’s mouth that had piqued Johnny’s curiosity.
Johnny could still recall that very first conversation … word for word …even after all these years. If he closed his eyes he could still picture the old man’s steel blue eyes as they watched him put the chain back on the bike. The weathered face was ruddy and tanned; tough as old shoe leather that been baked by years of working outdoors.
Johnny had stood up, wiping his hands on his jeans when Bruno first began to speak.
“You’re Johnny Gage,” he stated. It had been more of a declaration than a question. “Or maybe should I call you, The Galloping Greyhound,” the old man amended with a smile.
Johnny hadn’t responded other than to nod his head in acknowledgement.
“I’ve been watching you run for quite a few months now, son,” the old man continued. “I read that article about you on the sports page last month too.”
Bruno had paused to give Johnny a long considering gaze. “You’re very good… maybe even Olympics good,” he commented.
That last remark made Johnny swell with pride. “Thanks, my coach thinks so too. Did you see my time today? I couldn’t believe it when I broke the speed record in the 440. Must be why the papers call me The Galloping Greyhound,” he bragged.
The old man chuckled.
They had walked along in silence for almost half a block before Bruno broke the silence with another question that captured Johnny’s curios nature.
“So tell me Johnny,” the old man asked. “Why do you run track?”
The question had caught Johnny off guard, and he wasn’t quite sure what Bruno was driving at. Was he really asking him why he had chosen track?
Johnny thought the answer should have been obvious. He ran track because he had a natural ability to run fast.
Even though Johnny knew the only reason he had really started track, was because it was a means to an end in his quest to get Abigail to go out with him. But in the end he’d simply answered, “Because I’m good at it.”
Whether or not his answer had satisfied the old man had not been immediately apparent, but Johnny couldn’t shake the feeling that wasn’t what Bruno had been really asking him.
Johnny was never really sure, even all these years later, why he had followed Bruno home that afternoon. Initially he had told himself it was because he just wanted to make sure the old fella didn’t have any more trouble with his bicycle chain. But even back then, Johnny didn’t believe in coincidence. Since a very young age, Johnny held firm to the belief that everything happened for a reason. And although he hadn’t understood it until years later, Johnny was certain he and Bruno were supposed to meet.
Johnny’s trip down memory lane was interrupted by the sounds of the tones going off, calling the entire station to a fire at a gas station. After that there had been three consecutive calls for the squad.
By the time Johnny and Roy got back to the station it was nearly six o’clock. The engine was currently on scene at a warehouse fire with squad 45, who had been called in to cover for them, because they had been busy with a teenage overdose victim when the call for the fire came in. It was Roy’s night to cook, so Johnny poured himself a fresh cup of coffee, retrieved his long abandoned papers, and went into Cap’s office to work on his speech. Sitting down at the desk, Johnny quickly fell back into reminiscing about Bruno and the real reason he’d decided to become a firefighter.
Every life tells a story; and when someone is eighty years old, their story tends to be longer than most, and therefore it takes longer to tell. Perhaps it was the lack of adult male role models in Johnny’s life, or maybe it was simply because Bruno was interested in track, but for some inexplicable reason, Johnny not only liked Bruno, he began to trust him enough to open up to old man.
It had been over the course of those first two or three weeks that Johnny and Bruno had really gotten to know each other. Johnny told Bruno about his early life on the reservation, and about how his parents had been taken from him at fourteen. He told him about those first days when his Aunt had come for him and brought him west to live with her in Sacramento. Through their many talks, the two of them discovered that they both liked baseball, camping, and the foot long hotdogs sold by the vendor whose cart was just outside the local movie theatre.
Johnny had learned that Bruno had been married once and that his wife had died eleven years earlier; that he had lost a daughter in infancy and that his only son had been killed during the Second World War at the age of twenty two.
But as the days marched on and they talked more in depth about life and the future, Johnny had discovered the reasoning behind that first question the old man has asked him on that March morning regarding his reasons for running track.
Bruno told him that he had been born in New York City on New Year’s Day, 1888. He was the only child of Italian immigrants, Vincenzo and Gina Cipriani. His father, uneducated and poor, had only spoken broken English at best.
Vincenzo had worked in a garment factory while Gina had been a mid-wife.
Bruno had been the first member of his family to be born on American soil, and his father decided that he wanted more for his son, in this new land of opportunity. To that end, Bruno’s father was determined that his son would get an education and become a doctor or a lawyer.
But by the time young Bruno was thirteen, he had other ideas about what he wanted to do with his life. From very early on in his childhood, Bruno had shown a natural aptitude for running, and by the time he turned sixteen, he was winning races all over the state of New York.
Much to his father’s dismay, Bruno had dropped out of school after the eighth grade; and instead of following his father’s dream that he become a doctor, Bruno had dedicated his life to sports. And for good or bad, by the age of nineteen, Bruno was winning races all over the country.
Bruno was twenty when he’d first read the newspaper accounts of the men who had brought home the gold medal from the 1908 Olympics, and the seed of an idea was planted in his mind. From that moment on, Bruno set his sights on representing the United States for track and field in the 1912 Olympic Games.
By the time the next Olympics rolled around, Bruno would be twenty four. He understood that it would likely be his only shot to compete at the games. It was at that point that he found himself a personal trainer, left all notions of higher education behind, and began to prepare for the 1912 games in earnest. All of his training had paid off, because in the summer of 1912, Bruno had returned home to America with not one, but two gold medals around his neck.
Johnny couldn’t believe it when one afternoon Bruno had taken him to his house and shown him the paper clippings and the medals. Johnny stared at the golden medallions as if they’d been the Holy Grail. That was also the day that Bruno once again asked him, “Why do you run track, Johnny?”
Johnny, sensing there was something more to the inquiry than the obvious, questioned the old man on what he had really meant by his query. He got the distinct impression that it was more than just polite interest. It almost seemed as if the man was questioning his motives. Finally he just decided to ask.
“What are really asking me, Bruno?”
Bruno reached over, took the gold medals from Johnny’s hands and returned them to their case on the mantle before motioning for Johnny to join him at the kitchen table.
For a long moment Bruno just sat there staring into his coffee cup, as if it held the exact words he was searching for. Johnny had almost decided that no answer would be forth coming when Bruno finally began to expound on what he had meant.
“Johnny, there is a deeper reason as to why I showed you these things today. You see once upon a time… I was you. I was exactly where you are standing today. The only difference was, that I was blessed to still have a dad who was very much alive and who loved me with all his heart.”
“But I didn’t listen to my father, because at your age, I thought I knew it all … and I paid a very high price for that mistake.”
Bruno got up to refill his mug with coffee. He stopped to pour a glass of milk for his guest before sitting down to continue his story. “I have been watching you for quite some time now, and I see in you the same potential that a long time ago, my father saw in me.”
Bruno stared at the medals on the mantle and smiled sadly. “I guess I just want you to make sure that if you choose the same life path as I did, that you are prepared for what could happen. You see, John … you’ll never be a true success in any endeavor you choose in this life if your motivation is wrong.
Because if you don’t have a good reason why … running is just running.”
Johnny hadn’t been too sure just exactly what the old man was driving at, and it was obvious Bruno saw the confusion in his face, because the old man finally spelled it out in direct terms.
“I want you to sit there and imagine that you are a very old man, Johnny; just sitting in your living room. Imagine you are at the end point of your life and about to breathe in your last breath. Now I want you to answer this question for me. How do you want to be remembered? What would your obituary say about how you lived your life?”
Johnny pondered the question, but was clearly coming up blank. After several long moments he shrugged his shoulders and looked the old man in the eye. “I dunno, Bruno… I guess I’ve never actually thought about it. In fact I have never actually thought too much about what I would do when I am past the point of winning races,” he admitted.
Bruno was obviously pleased with his honesty, because his smile widened.
“So I will ask you again. What motivates you to run, John? Is it the girl … the fame … the prospect of big money? Can you look me in the eye and honestly tell me that if it wasn’t for those things you would still continue running track? Is it your passion in life, or merely a means to an end?”
The dawning of realization played across Johnny’s features as the question finally hit home.
Bruno’s face softened and he reached over to lay his hand gently on Johnny’s forearm.
“Johnny,” he said gently. “I know this must be hard for a seventeen year to fully understand; and looking back on it now, I wish I’d had someone there would could have warned me about the pitfalls I would face back when I was running. I guess I thought that maybe if I told you what it was like for me, that maybe you could avoid some of the pitfalls I encountered along the way.”
“First of all, let me tell you this much. Obtaining the pinnacle of your career with fame and glory before you reach twenty five is a very hard way to live. Nothing will ever match it again, and almost everything you do after that will be kind of a letdown. You’ll have to come to terms with that. Striving for the top of the mountain isn’t as much of a thrill when you get to see the view from the top right from the get-go. It’s a hard to get excited about your life goals when you’ve already attained the peak of success before you’ve hit the age of twenty five.”
Johnny must have looked skeptical, but Bruno being a very patient man merely smiled and patted his arm. “Indulge an old man Johnny… just listen while I tell you my story.”
Johnny smiled softly and settled back to listen to the old man, determined to pay attention and try to understand what the old guy was to impart on him.
Bruno smiled in satisfaction when he saw he had Johnny’s full attention, and began to tell his story to the teen.
“It seemed as if the entire State of New York had turned out in droves when I returned home from the Olympic Games with those medals hanging around my neck. I guess in part it was because for a few brief moments in time, I had been a bright spot in a city that was still reeling from the sinking of the Titanic. And of course I was too young and cocky to realize that at the time. I was still too full of myself and my success to even consider that these people were searching to find any kind of positive news after living with that disaster for months.”
“It didn’t take too much time before I started to buy into my own myth. I thought back then that I owned the world and that everyone loved me … and would always love me. And that, Johnny, was where I made my second mistake; my first mistake being, not listening to my father’s advice.”
“Oh, it was great for a while; I won’t lie to you about that. I got free meals in the finest restaurants, and newspapers wanted my face with the medals hanging around my neck for their front pages. I got to have lunch with the mayor and all the other perks that go with that kind of achievement. And just like you, I got the most popular girl in the city… a beautiful creature with an amazing voice who sang at the Metropolitan Opera house.”
Bruno looked down at the faded newspaper clipping still lying on the table. He couldn’t believe the youth smiling up from the yellowed parchment was really him. He smiled sadly and returned his gaze to his young guest.
“Yes, my life was good, John… for about three months.”
“Three months?” Johnny asked.
“Yes, Johnny,” Bruno confirmed. “Three months; that was how long it took for life to move on. That was when I learned the hard truths about life. I discovered that my notoriety began to fade almost as fast as the roar of the cheering crowds. You see back in my day, there was no live television coverage, or talk shows… no big endorsement deals.”
“It was then I learned that fame was like that opera singer I was dating. She was so stunningly beautiful on the outside … so seemingly flawless. It was if she had flowed from the end of the brush of a great painting master…she was just that perfect. I remember how shy I was when I finally worked up the nerve to approach her. She cooed over my medals, stoking my male ego, and I soaked it up like a sponge. I really thought she loved me … that we were perfect together and would one day get married and make beautiful children together.”
“But after a few weeks the story faded from the headlines. The anthems had ended and cheers died down. People soon forgot about the Olympics and began to move on with their everyday lives, and my fifteen minutes of fame came to a sudden end.”
“It was then I discovered it was my medal and my current notoriety that my girlfriend was in love with … not me … and certainly not my working class immigrant parents. As the furor surrounding my achievements cooled down, so did her love for me. It was then her real personality began to leak out and the ugly, cold heart was exposed. Pretty soon the ugliness was all I could see. She was like the beautiful, enticing icing, covering a majestic cake that was made out of human waste.”
“At first I was appalled by her shallowness, but then I realized she wasn’t entirely to blame. It was then that I became aware of… and was appalled, at my own lack of depth. Was I not equally as guilty? Did I love her, or did I simply love the package she presented to me?”
Johnny shifted uncomfortably, convicted in his conscience as he realized that that was what he and Abigail had. Hadn’t she been the only reason he quit baseball … a sport he truly enjoyed, but was not the best at and signed up for track?
And if he was honest, before he had joined the track team and started winning, Abigail had never even given him as much as a second glance. He hadn’t stopped to consider her personality when he had chased after her. All he had noticed about her was her pretty face, well-proportioned body, and the fact that she was the head cheerleader. There was passionate sex, but no real depth of love. He and Abigail looked pretty in a picture frame, but their connection ended there. It was purely physical with no real substance.
He looked up and realized that Bruno had stopped talking and was now scrutinizing him closely. It was if he could look inside Johnny’s head and read his thoughts. Johnny averted his eyes guiltily. He was never more grateful than when the octogenarian finally broke his silence and continued on with his story.
“So there I was, Johnny. Coming up to my twenty fifth birthday, with no job, no education and no girl. I went back home to my parents and for over two months I just sat in the living room and looked at my medals thinking…was this it? Was this all there was? I also quickly discovered that being a gold medal track star, wasn’t an in demand job skill. After several unsuccessful weeks of searching for a job that I felt befitted someone of my success, I was finally hired on at the same garment factory my father worked in.”
“And so there I was, a twenty five year old man with nothing more to show for my life than a grunt job in a factory and a gold medal sitting on a mantelpiece that was quickly gathering dust beside some newspaper clippings that world events would soon shove into the forgotten annals of history.”
For the next hour, Bruno had gone on to tell Johnny what had happened during the years following his big win. He’d told Johnny how he had eventually met his wife Isabella working at the same factory as him in the autumn if 1915.
They had gone on to get married in the summer of 1916. Occasionally, someone in the local bar would remember him and perhaps buy him a free beer and listen to him shoot the breeze about his Olympic experience … but even those days were growing fewer and far between.
By then, all the news had centered on the war in Europe and how it looked as if it wouldn’t be long before the United States would be getting involved. Soon that was all that occupied most people’s minds. That served to push the memory of Olympic medals even further into the forgotten past.
1917 had seen Bruno leave his very pregnant wife in New York as he joined up with the rest of the young men as they marched off to join the fight in Europe. A year later, Bruno returned home to face the next big tragedy of the world… the Spanish influenza outbreak. This tragedy had struck home for Bruno personally when it took the life of his baby daughter, Sophia.
The next spring, he and Isabella had packed up everything they owned and moved to Michigan where he was hired on in the newly burgeoning industry of automobile manufacturing. In 1922, Isabella gave birth to a healthy son he named, Vincent in honour of his father who had died the previous year.
Life finally seemed to be settling in, when the stock market crashed and Bruno found himself out of work again…people could no longer afford to buy cars, and production virtually ground to a halt, meaning the factory needed far fewer employees. It was then that Bruno wished he had listened to his father, stayed in school and become a doctor.
It was at this point that Bruno ended his tale and looked at Johnny in earnest.
“So why did I tell you this story, John?”
Johnny wasn’t sure if he was expected to answer, so he held his peace. Apparently the question had been rhetorical, because Bruno continued explaining without missing a beat.
“I told it to you, as a cautionary tale… I told it to you, because when I look at you, I see myself at seventeen and I wish I could go back and tell that seventeen year old boy to go on and study… to become a doctor, and make his father proud. A father who had sacrificed everything; that took a chance in leaving everything and everyone he knew to come new land to try and make a better future for his family. He came to a land where he didn’t speak the language … a land where he worked fourteen hour days, to give his son something more.”
Bruno paused and Johnny squirmed uncomfortably when he realized the old man had tears running down both cheeks.
“For a son who spit all his efforts back into his face, and turned down the precious opportunity my father had sweated and toiled to make for me,” Bruno finished; his voice full of regret.
The old man wiped his eyes and looked at Johnny through sad eyes.
“My father always loved me, Johnny. But he was never impressed by my achievements in sports. You see, he knew a medal would make me happy for a short period of time….but that it would not carry me through my life.”
“I am also telling my story to you, because whether you believe it or not, I see in you a virtue that perhaps you have not even discovered yourself, a virtue I didn’t possess at your age.”
Johnny shook his head doubtfully. If Bruno could have seen him and Abigail in the back seat of his aunt’s car last Friday night at the drive-in, he doubted virtuous would have been the word the old man would have used.
Bruno seemed to sense what the young man was thinking. He pulled the teen to his feet and led him over to the sofa. He pushed him down onto the cushions before sitting down beside the young man.
“Trust me Johnny,” Bruno said knowingly. “I may be a doddering old man, but I am also an excellent judge of character. Believe me when I say that I know you have a good heart … a normal teenage boy, with teenage desires … but you have a good heart.”
“I watched when you defended that younger boy last week, when he was being bullied behind the school. I witnessed as you paused to help a fellow runner after he fell and twisted his ankle. You didn’t run past him in order to finish first. You stopped to make sure he was alright. Just like you stopped that day to help me fix the chain on my bike; you cared. You have a good heart.”
“That is why I wanted to warn you...to make sure you understood that, money, fame, and wealth, are all poor yardsticks to measure success. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know money is a necessary evil in order to live. You’ll have a home, and someday a wife and children to support. But there is such thing as having enough, and then there is having too much; having money just for the sake of having it…for greed. And it is a trap, Johnny. Much always wants more.”
“The societal bent, tends to be towards glorifying celebrity and wealth, but where is the self-respect and honour in that? Live a good life, not one based on things. You don’t own your possessions John; in truth, they end up owning you.”
“Popular culture teaches you all the wrong lessons. They set the standards about what will make you happy, without even asking you first. Society will collectively try to tell you what type of clothes are in style. It will try and convince you that you aren’t going to fit in, if you are not wearing a particular brand of shoes … or that you will only get the sexy girl if you drink a certain kind of beer. It will tell your children that they won’t be cool if they aren’t wearing their style of jeans.”
“People in general, have ceased to think for themselves. We’ve let popular culture think for us. We let it dictate what we eat, the music we listen to, and even which movies we should think are the best.”
Bruno rose from the couch and began to pace.
“And, Johnny; suppose you actually did win a medal at the Olympics. Do you know what would happen to you? You would quickly become another cog on that wheel.”
“People who win medals become a commodity…a hunk of meat that is only useful as long as you make your sponsors money. They will chew you up … use you … and then spit you out again. You would only be worth as much as they could get from you…and only for as long as your fifteen minutes lasted. And then they will kick you to the curb without so much as a backward glance.”
“Fame is not your friend. To your handlers you are nothing more than a product. They will package you up and put your picture on the side of a milk carton, or slap your face on a cereal box. And your only job would be to convince other people’s children that if they drink this brand of juice or eat that brand of cereal, that they will be a winner too, regardless of whether or not what they are eating is even good for them or not.”
“And one other thing you must remember; being a track star is not like baseball career, Johnny. You cannot make much of a living at it once the Olympics are over and the memory fades. In four more years a new Olympics comes along with new heroes.”
Bruno stopped pacing and returned to sit beside Johnny on the sofa.
“Just don’t put all your eggs in one basket, Johnny. Be sure you have a backup plan, because sooner or later, someone will come along a break your time record. Records were made to be broken. There is no doubt about it, young man, you are good, you are fast, and you broke a record… but only in California. Just remember, there are dozens of other states with boys who broke their state records too. And there are dozens of other countries that have boys breaking their records. A state record is not a world record.”
Bruno paused and grabbed Johnny by the hand. “I am not doing this to rain on your parade, John. I am doing it to spare you what I went through. The truth of it is, you will age, and someone younger and faster will come along. Olympic athletes are like a box of Kleenex. As soon as you pull one out of the box, another one pops up to take its place. You are only useful as a headline until the next young star comes along…and they will…they always do.”
“Glory fades, but satisfaction and self-respect are for life. It’s the only true gold that does not tarnish. It’s the only prize no one can best you at. It’s the only possession that will give you a good conscience. I guess what I am really trying to say to you, Johnny is this; don’t reduce your self-worth down to a dollar sign.”
“You know I believe on judgement day, when I stand before my maker, he is not only going to ask me what I did… but what I did it for. That he’ll ask me if I focused my entire life on acquiring fame and possessions, or was I content with doing an honest job to support those I love; did I use some of that time I was given to make a positive difference in even one other person’s life?”
“I am not saying don’t go for your dream if it is truly something you love doing. But do it for the right reasons. Make sure that you are doing it because it brings you joy. And for heaven’s sake, Johnny, have a backup plan. But before you make that final decision, I want you to ask yourself this, John. Would do it for free? Would you run track if there was no prospect of getting rich, or getting the glory … or even getting the girl?”
“I guess that is what the whole purpose in my telling you this story boils down to. I want you to ask yourself … what is my good reason why?”
To this day, Johnny didn’t know for sure what had prompted Bruno to start watching him run all those years ago. Maybe the old man had seen in Johnny, a version of himself as he had been as a seventeen year old. Maybe it had actually had been nothing more than happenstance. Maybe Bruno had simply been out for a stroll one day and paused to watch a high school senior run as he revisited his own glory days.
But whatever the reason had been, Bruno had taken a shine to him. Looking back, Johnny realized it had been the most important schooling he had ever received to that point in his life.
Bruno’s story had been the start of a new epoch in Johnny’s life. It was at that point that he decided he’d better have some sort of backup plan, like Bruno had suggested. He just wasn’t sure what that backup plan should be.
It was a resolve that became even stronger, when in early May of his senior year; Johnny had fallen off his bike while riding on a gravel trail, and broken his left ankle. He had been sidelined from the final track meet of the year, and the college scouts had decided to wait and see whether or not there had been any permanent damage to the limb.
It had been a wake-up call for young Johnny about how quickly the rug could be pulled out from under his feet. Bruno’s words came back to him, and he began to wonder if track was really his dream? He had only done it to get Abigail in the first place. On top of that, he had heard about another boy from Oregon who had bested his time by nearly three seconds. Who knew what talent lay in other countries around the world?
This had posed quite a dilemma for Johnny. Because up until that point, he’d spent most of his after school hours and weekends at the track, or with Abigail. Unlike Drew, he had never felt like he needed to get a part time job, so he had virtually no savings for college. He had just assumed he would get the track scholarship. And he certainly wasn’t going to let his aunt pay for his tuition. He figured at that point, if he wanted to go to college, he would have to take a year off, and work to save up for his tuition. And he wasn’t even sure what he would study if he did go to college. It was then he realized how unprepared for the real world he truly was.
The rest of the school year had passed quickly, and soon it was time for Johnny to graduate from high school. During his senior year of high school, Drew had decided he wanted to go to the police Academy in Los Angeles and become a police officer when he turned eighteen in September. When Drew had first told Johnny of his plans that June, Johnny, his previous plans having fallen through due to his broken ankle, had decided he wanted to go with Drew to L.A.
After having a long talk with his aunt, it was decided that he would go to Los Angeles with Drew Burke. Both Drew’s parents and Johnny’s aunt had made arrangements for the two boys to stay with Drew’s Uncle Jerome and Aunt Kitty. Drew’s cousin, Andy was their same age and his Uncle had lined up some work for them on a construction site for the summer.
Before he left Sacramento, Johnny had gone to visit Bruno for the last time to tell him of his plan to go to Los Angeles with Drew for the summer. He told Bruno he was only going in order to think about his future and to look around to see what there was out there. Theirs had been a sad goodbye…the kind of goodbye you give to someone whom you instinctively know you will never meet again. He could tell on their final meeting that Bruno had wanted to give him a hug good-bye. He had seen it in the old man’s eyes that had misted over with unshed tears. Johnny had felt the same way, but his teenage male ego had stayed his actions on allowing the hug to happen.
Johnny sat at the table in Station 51 and sighed. For the first time in a long while, he felt a real stab of regret pierce his heart; he suddenly wished he had hugged Bruno that afternoon, before they had parted ways for the last time.
He had promised to keep in touch with the old man, but he’d been so busy those first few months in Los Angeles, and there had been so many exciting things to see and do, that all thoughts of staying in touch with Bruno soon slipped from his mind. It was the only promise Johnny had ever broken in his life.
Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, Johnny discovered firsthand what it was Bruno had been warning him about. Johnny may have been a big fish in his Sacramento neighbourhood, but in Los Angeles, no one had had a clue about his achievements on the track… and moreover they didn’t care. He had gone from being a big fish, to feeling more like chum floating on the surface, waiting to be eaten by sharks. It had certainly been a humility inducing experience.
Initially he’d had no clue as to what he wanted to do with life; although he did know that unlike Drew, policing wasn’t for him. For one thing he didn’t want to have to shoot to kill anyone…he didn’t even like guns. And standing along the side of a freeway, writing tickets to drivers who were less than thrilled to see him, wasn’t his idea of enjoyment.
After listening to Bruno, he had decided he wanted to help people…to make a difference with his life; and that is when fate once again intervened.
It just so happened, that Drew’s Uncle Jerome was a firefighter, and one of the first things Jerome had done when the boys arrived from Sacramento, was to take Drew and Johnny to the fire station where he worked.
It had been the first of many visits Johnny would make to Station 64. Almost immediately, Johnny had been bitten by the firefighting bug. He liked the idea of saving lives and helping people in their time of need. Unlike Drew, he would be using a firehouse as his weapon of choice against destruction.
The more he looked into it, the more he’d became enamored with the idea. The fire academy seemed to tick of all the boxes on the list of Johnny’s wants and needs.
Johnny turned eighteen on the twenty eighth of August, and since the next class at the fire academy started right after the Labour Day weekend, Johnny had signed up. And the rest as they say; was history. The firefighter John Gage became a rescue man… and the rescue man became the paramedic.
Johnny and Drew had moved in together while they’d attended to their respective academies, and had remained roommates until Drew had married his girlfriend, Pam the year after they had graduated. A friendly rivalry existed between John and Drew regarding whose job was more dangerous. It was a rivalry that had lasted right up until Drew’s untimely death a year ago.
After Johnny had informed his aunt that he would be staying in Los Angeles permanently in order to attend the fire academy, Johnny’s aunt had put her house up for sale and moved from Sacramento to Santa Barbara the following October; which meant Johnny no longer had any reason to return to his old stomping grounds. Consequently, he had never run into Bruno again.
Johnny figured the old guy was probably dead by now, and even if he was still living, he would be close to ninety now. He wondered if the old man even knew the influence he’d had on Johnny’s life. He kind of wished he’d kept in touch, like he’d promised. It would be nice to know where the old guy was… to find out what had happened to him so he could go back and thank him for his wisdom and sage advice.
Bruno had been there for Johnny in the absence of his father’s guidance, at a critical point in the young man’s life. In a way, Bruno had affected every life Johnny had ever saved. From the homeless woman they had worked on that morning, when she had been hit by a car, to that pop star’s family.
Johnny could trace every single rescue back to one eighty year old man.
Johnny smiled. He knew that his next road trip was going to be up to Sacramento. It suddenly became important to him to see if Bruno was still alive; and if he was, Johnny wanted to make sure Bruno knew that he had found his good reason why.
Over the course of his reminiscing that afternoon, Johnny had begun to realize just how much of an influence Bruno’s words had had on other areas of his life as well. One of the first questions he now asked himself, before he made any big life decisions was, am I doing this for the right reasons?
In a moment of clarity, Johnny knew what he needed to do. He would write about Bruno and give the old man his due. Besides, his father had told him on more than one occasion while he had been growing up on the reservation, that you always danced with the one who brought you.
Upon reflection, maybe this had been the best idea all along … to make sure that if any of these kids did join the department, that they joined for all the right reasons. Not just for the thrill of adventure or the chance that they might get their name splashed across a newspaper, like he had been experiencing of late; but because they truly wanted to help others….to make a real difference in the lives of their fellow man.
Doing it for the hero worship, or the adrenaline rush, was not a good life strategy, and a real BAD reason to become a Paramedic or fireman. Because you would not be a good Paramedic, and more than likely, you would burn out, or you would not give the job the full effort it required.
Because although a portion of the calls might feed your need for the thrill, more often than not, your call would be a midnight run to a passed out drunk. You may be dealing with people that were soaked in urine or excrement. They may be covered in vomit… or cover you in vomit. You always ran the risk of dealing with combative patients.
Over the course of your career, you would get hit, kicked, spit upon and sworn at. You would have to put up with the bone chilling cold, or with a strength sapping heat so bad that it will make you vomit. Then there would be times where you were up to your eyeballs in wet, cloying mud that found its way into every nook and cranny of your body. Not to mention countless interrupted or sleepless nights.
And if your motivation wasn’t truly altruistic, with a genuine desire to help others, then you would not last long. And frankly, you would end up being a bad medic who was not doing their best for their victim. But if they did it for the right reasons….because they genuinely wanted to help others. Then at the end of their career, they could be proud of what they’d accomplished with their lives.
Self-respect does not have a price tag attached to it, nor does it come in awards or commendations, it comes from a place from within. That would be his message to the kids. Be sure you’ve got a good reason why.
Johnny smiled as he thought back to all his visits with Bruno Cipriani. He realized that mentors came in all shapes and sizes, and his had come in the shape of an eighty year old man.
A feeling of rejuvenation moved through him as he realized he was going to write his story exactly as it happened. And so, shoving his now empty coffee cup aside, he picked up his pencil and slid the fresh sheet of paper closer to him, and began to write.
There are people you meet in your life who are merely visitors in your world.
That friend in third grade who moved away and you never heard from again…a favourite teacher… a neighbour.
And then there are those who breeze into your life and leave such an indelible mark on your soul … who have such a profound effect on how you view the world, that it literally alters your life’s path, and changes the way you conduct yourself for the rest of your days. For me that person came in the form of a man named Bruno Cipriani.
I first met Bruno when he was in his eighty first year of life.….
The character of Bruno is totally fictitious. I have no actual knowledge of who did or did not win medals at the 1912 Olympics. The character of Bruno and his achievements were purely made up for the sake of this story.
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