"How many other jobs can you look forward to coming to work after 33 years, and feel sad when you leave?"
It is the early afternoon of September 13, 2014, a Saturday. I am sitting with Garry Hughes in the living room of IRC Fire Rescue Station 8 in Sebastian. Joseph Nolan sits near us on the couch, listening. The room is quiet now. Several crews have just been by to share in Garry's very last shift and have one last lunch on duty together.
I ask him to tell me about his most memorable calls. He laughs and tells of a time his entire family was all sitting around and one of them said, 'Uncle Garry, tell us about some of your most memorable calls.'
"And in that moment, I couldn't think of anything," Garry says. "It's because throughout the years our minds are trained to erase a lot of what we see. Or we would be insane. Also everything is so 'in the moment.' Events are instantaneous and you don't realize until it is all over what you just went through."
Right then he does recall one important moment.
"One highlight is a call we had with a little 2 year old boy," Garry says. "His grandmother found him in the bottom of the pool and we just happened to be right down the street when they sent the call out. I was on Engine 9. We pulled right up and ran to the house. It was the first time I ever did mouth to mouth on somebody. The little 2 year old was lying there lifeless. The paramedics were not there yet and my guys were getting the equipment out of the bag and I said 'the heck with this' and I reached down and blew into the child's mouth. I could feel my breath going into him. I am not saying that is what saved his life - I am NOT taking credit - but I know that had a part because we were able to get started right away and then the medics came and did their thing. And the boy lives today. He is doing fine."
Garry smiles. He has a beautiful, authentic smile that makes you just feel good all over, especially because he smiles with his eyes.
"And you know it's not the bad calls that really stick with me. It's the stuff around the station that we do here together as a group and a family. It's the conversations we have. That is what I will miss the most."
Those smiling eyes are welling up a bit now. "Today is a bittersweet day," he says.
He then switches to another good memory, telling me how the crew helped Drew Jobe plan a surprise proposal to his wife.
"Drew's wife works right down from here at the dentist office," says Garry. "Drew told us he was going to propose and wanted to do something involving the fire department. I said, 'All right - let's brainstorm for a minute.' So we sat around that table and decided to stage a fire alarm at her office. We got clearance and set it up so everyone including the patients were in on it. So there we all were in full gear and Drew hands her the clipboard to get the information and on it is written 'Will you marry me?' That may be my all time favorite memory of times here."
He pauses, then adds, "I do want to say this. I was telling the guys this morning that I took my calculator out and I conservatively picked the number of calls that I would run a day. I have been at busy stations and I have been at slow stations, so I picked an average of 5 calls per shift. I did the math and it comes out to 20,130 calls that I have been on. That opened my eyes. I never thought of it that way. That's a lot of calls."
He looks over at Joseph Nolan. "My wish is that I have passed on information to these new, younger professionals."
"Those young whippersnappers," I joke. They laugh.
"I just hope I have passed knowledge to them that will one day help them or save them or save somebody. I have been blessed to have a lot of good people on my crews. Just been a fun ride."
"Special," I say.
"VERY special," he says, smiling with his eyes.
(Scroll down to the previous post to see all of the photos I took during my visit to Garry's last shift.)
From November 2013 to January 2014, I had the rare chance to become 'part of the crew' as a photographer and journalist with IRC Fire Rescue over the course of four months, and I put a book together about it called MY ADVENTURE WITH INDIAN RIVER FIRE RESCUE.