Family First

Once upon a time, I moved into a brand-new neighborhood. Most of the residents of my street were young married couples getting on with the business of becoming American success stories. Maybe it was something in the water, or our housing development had been built atop a sacred burial ground, but all the children born on our street were girls. On the surface, a street populated entirely of little girls conjures up visions of squealing, pig-tailed angels, giggling with sheer joy while they navigate their Barbie Jeeps down streets shaded by giant clouds of pink cotton candy. In actuality, there’s a dark underbelly, as the following story shows.

Our neighbors across the street had a pair of daughters the same age as our kids. This led to a lovely friendship, complete with the convenience of carpooling. One morning, I was transporting my eldest daughter to school with her girlfriend from across the street. My young neighbor was sitting in the back of the car yammering on about her daddy’s wild success at his chosen profession. Her father worked for a computer business owned by a European conglomerate. This was during the early 1990s, when a 32-MB stick of RAM cost as much as a four-year-old Chevy.

My daughter’s friend was sharing grand tales about her family’s summer retreat in Italy, where every year the family would escape the desert heat and visit grandma and grandpa. After what seemed like a really long time, the harpy stopped talking about herself long enough to ask my little princess what she did with her summer vacation. My daughter replied with the standard answer given by all residents of Phoenix: “We went to San Diego for a couple of weeks.”

It has been my experience that little girls enjoy playing the game, “I used to wear clothes like yours until my daddy got a job.” It has also been my experience that some big girls (and wives) never outgrow this game. I glanced in the rearview mirror as the little neighbor girl did a one-up: “We flew on a big airplane; you probably drove to the beach because it isn’t as far away or as nice as Italy. My daddy’s almost rich and he buys me anything I want.” She punctuated her jab with an obvious caress of her brand-new Spice Girls fake leather backpack. The only comeback the fruit of my loins had to counter with was, “My daddy just got back from a business trip last night. We picked him up at the airport.” It surprised me just a bit when the little show-off from across the street said, “Did he need to fly to another city to help them put out a fire?” Seeing my little lioness’s bottom lip begin to quiver, I felt it my parental duty to take some type of action.

I could have easily told the little neighbor girl to “Shut the $#@! up,” but this was the wrong thing to say for several reasons. Reason #1: She was not a grown firefighter. Using that phrase implies “Stop it immediately or the current situation will be elevated to another level.” Reason #2: It is impolite to use this phrase with small children. Little girls love to tattle, and I know for a fact she would have called her mother the moment I dropped her off at school to inform her that I had said a bad word to her. This would have caused bad mojo on my street. Reason #3: If I intervene in a way that sends the message that she was winning the “I used to wear those kind of clothes until my daddy got a job” game, she gets the checkmate and will continue to lord over my little princess.

I resorted to my natural gift of confusion and irritation. Rarely have I been so proud of myself when I said, “No little neighbor girl, I didn’t have to help another city extinguish an out-of-control fire. I’m surprised that Chelsea (my little girl cub) didn’t tell you the exciting part of my trip. I was flying home last night when the plane plunged into a dive. One of the flight attendants made the terrifying announcement that the pilot just had a heart attack and the plane would crash if no one saved him. My training and exposure to A-shifters took over. I ran to the cockpit and gave the pilot CPR. He was quite dead when I began, so it took a while, but I was finally able to bring him back to life. It was fortunate that we were flying over the Grand Canyon at the time, because when the pilot regained control of the plane, we were only 100 feet from the bottom. The Colorado River is quite beautiful at night.” This turned the little neighbor girl mute. She sat wide-eyed and slack-jawed while my little Miss America beamed.

It didn’t take long for my incredible tale to get back to me. That evening the mom from across the street called and asked me to tone down the tall tales I was sharing with the kids on the way to school. I replied, “I didn’t make it up. It really happened.” She was having none of it: “Nick, last week you told her that when you were a little boy you killed a tiger that had been eating the children of your village. The week before you convinced her you invented the kite. I appreciate that you spend time with the kids, but she is very confused and is asking her daddy why he hasn’t done anything special with his life. Please give us a break. She’s driving us nuts.” In the name of neighborhood harmony, my wife took the kids to school for the next few years.

I am at the point in this article where my editor is asking, “What does this have to do with the fire service?” My initial reaction is, “Who cares?” I’m on page two, and so far I don’t think I’ve offended any major fire service organizations. I don’t think I can go wrong with this one. Oh what the hell-in my own spin on FireRescue’s mantra, “Read it today, develop the moral flexibility of Jimmy Swaggert (or Jim Bakker) tomorrow,” let’s take on moral hypocrisy.

The most important thing that many of us will ever do is raise our family. I’ve often made the observation that fire departments are more like a family than other workforces. It only follows that managing a fire department is more like raising and maintaining a family. The smartest people I know believe the best management training in the history of mankind was developed and taught by mothers.

We all learn how to behave and interact with others from the family we were born into. While there are exceptions to the family influence, most sociologists, biologists, family counselors, clergymen and Freudian psychotherapists are of the opinion that the tribe you are birthed into sets your eggs. Most folks rank their family as being the most important thing in their life. Following blood and marriage on the importance scale are close friends, pets, workplace associates, neighbors, the mailman, third-world dictators and reality TV-show hosts.

Because we place family at the top of our personal pyramid, you can get a pretty accurate idea of how someone will treat you based on the way they treat their family members. It should come as no surprise that a person who demeans their own family members to co-workers has no problem talking smack about the same co-workers when they leave the room.

During the course of my career, I have been very fortunate that my teachers include Alan Brunacini, Tom Brennan, Gordon Graham and Pee Wee Herman. Bruno, Brennan and Graham are genuine people who fall into the category of “What you see is what you get.” On the other hand, Pee Wee had an alter ego that landed him in a little hot water.

The core of effective teaching centers around training people how to be successful. The most authentic teachers have a measure of success in the subjects they teach. The other end of this spectrum is inhabited by those who have no business instructing others in their chosen subject of expertise. Example: A while back, I attended a conference featuring a series of professional ethics classes. In one of these classes, the instructor noted that people of high moral character make the best leaders, and all management and leadership ability flows from the spring of doing the right thing. He reasoned that if the workers can’t trust the boss, they shouldn’t be expected to follow and obey. Most of the day’s lessons were lost that evening when I saw my ethics teacher with his tongue in the mouth of a woman who wasn’t his wife. Isn’t ethics about values and principles? Cheating sends the clear message that your personal pleasure is more important than the emotional health and stability of your spouse and children. I can’t think of anything more unethical.

I want to make it explicitly clear that I’m not on a moral crusade. It’s a big country and we should all be free to do what we want. So long as a person doesn’t force their way into other people’s lives, they should be allowed to pursue whatever floats their boat.

However, there’s a social responsibility that comes with free will: If you talk the talk, then you’d better walk the walk. When you accept the gauntlet of teaching ethics to the fire service, keep in mind that you look like a morally bankrupt idiot when you choose to leave your spouse at home in favor of taking your girlfriend along, and then proceed to tongue bathe her in public places.

Chief officers must also pay attention to this concept. Establishing and enforcing a bunch of nebulous “feel good” rules pertaining to personal accountability and professional conduct rings a little hollow if you’ve spent the better part of your career breaking the new rules you’ve just enacted. If the powers-to-be spent the early years of their careers breaking the morals and laws of most southern states while on duty, it will probably confuse the workforce when their first order of business becomes the stringent enforcement of the dress code.

Cheating behavior can, and does, have a negative effect on the fire department workplace. This is most evident when it occurs at the fire station. Many moons ago I knew a captain who fancied himself a Don Juan. He was married to a very strict woman who came equipped with a good-sized inheritance. Like most cheaters, Don Juan became more brazen and lackadaisical over time. One day Don was entertaining a female guest when his wife made an unscheduled visit. As his better half came through the front door, Don assisted his new soul mate out the window of his office.

Don’s crew did not approve of his philandering ways, but they had grown used to them. Don’s wife, on the other hand, was having none of it, and once she made the determination that station visitors don’t typically leave through the windows, she took decisive action. Honey Bunny pulled a six-shooter out of her purse and began dispensing lead. The upside of this (true) story is the only thing that got shot was the walls. Captain Don’s reign of submerging the members of his fire department family into his personal life was over. I have no idea what became of his crooked-shooting wife, but I do know that Captain Don ended up in a nice, out-of-the-way staff position. It doesn’t matter what he accomplished before or after the incident-he will always be known as the guy whose wife showed up at the station and started shooting.

The human condition can be impulsive, weak and fragile. For these reasons, some believe that marriage is a fool’s errand that can only end in heartache and failure. If you believe this, don’t get married. If you are married and come to believe this, then get divorced.

The higher a person promotes, the more it affects their professional reputation. All of us have our share of bad habits. But when a person can’t remain loyal to their mate, it’s a sign that you probably shouldn’t trust them either. I’m not suggesting that married people are more trustworthy or somehow better; simply that I have observed that people who don’t think infidelity is a big deal will have absolutely no problem screwing you if they think they can benefit from it.

How can we ever forget Tammie Faye Bakker’s mascara-streaked cheeks? She sobbed and mobbed for the cameras while her husband Jim begged our forgiveness for his infidelities with a young and pert Jessica. It came as no surprise when the FBI took Jim away in handcuffs a few months later for embezzling millions of dollars from his Jesus theme park and redemption center. The lie following the hypocritical act never makes things better. Imagine if old Jim would have just told us that God personally spoke to him and said he should delight in the pleasures of a young girl, and if we had a problem with that, we were welcome to jump off a freeway overpass? I would have immediately sent him a check for $100 just for his honesty.

I think the best way to end this is by revisiting the point that mothers know more about management than anyone else. Go ask your mom how she would react if she caught your father having a little afternoon delight with his secretary.

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