Verner column: Just one of those days, and then …
A vivid glimpse of a higher code
Here are some other things that happened on Friday, March 7, when Victor Isler and Justin Monroe pulled on their firesuits and their oxygen tanks to answer the final call of duty.
In Chapel Hill, investigators searched for clues in the slaying of 22-year-old Eve Carson, the Carolina student body president whose bright promise crossed the shadow of the depravity and despair we numbly dismiss as “random violence.”
In Jerusalem, weeping Israeli parents buried eight Jewish yeshiva students, most of them teenagers, who were killed when an Arab gunman opened fire with a machine gun inside a religious school.
In Washington, executives from some of the nation’s top financial firms defended the $100 million they pocketed even as their companies lost billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of Americans face losing homes, jobs and retirement investments because of the nation’s credit crisis.
Some days, when you look at the headlines and consider all the hatred, violence and greed in the world, it’s enough to make you think that God should have knocked off work a day early, before dirtying his hands with the mud of man. Some days, when you ponder the senseless slaughter of innocents and the breathtaking venality of people who wield economic and political power, the human species can make vultures appear noble and rattlesnakes the essence of reason and empathy.
Friday, March 7, could have been one of those days. Predators traded lives for pocket change on America’s streets. Cycles of sectarian warfare left their unholy carnage in Jerusalem, Baghdad and beyond. Global financial markets tottered and swayed because our titans of commerce and their regulators proved to have all the discipline and foresight of junkyard dogs in heat.
It could have been that kind of day, and no more. Then Justin Monroe and Victor Isler said goodbye to their loved ones, showed up for another day of work at the fire house and walked into the smoke and flames at the Salisbury Millwork.
We’ve mourned and honored them as heroes, and rightly so. Those who make the ultimate sacrifice in service to others deserve such tributes. It’s the least we can do; it’s all we can do; and it will never be enough.
But if we could somehow summon them back from the flames and ask, “Why did you do it? What motivated you to go to work that day, and all the days before that day, knowing what might happen?” ó I doubt that heroism would enter into it. Instead, it would be something more down to earth but no less lofty in its final and purest form: They had taken a vow, made a commitment, sworn their allegiance to a worthy mission, to put duty and the wellbeing of others ó including their fellow firefighters ó above their own individual existence.
We witnessed the steadfastness of that commitment not only in their flag-draped coffins but in the thousands of firefighters and other public safety workers who converged on Salisbury to grieve and relieve. For those of us who labor in safer fields, who may risk loss of income but not loss of life, it’s difficult ó perhaps impossible ó to comprehend the bond forged among those who link arms to face the crucible of fire. Writer David Halberstam captures some of its essence in “Firehouse,” written in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, when more than 300 firefighters died responding to the terrorist attack. Halberstam focuses on a single fire station in Manhattan that sent 13 men to the World Trade Center that day. Only one survived.
“A firehouse, most firemen believe, is like a vast, extended second family ó rich, warm, joyous, and supportive, but on occasion quite edgy as well, with all the inevitable tensions brought on by so many forceful men living so closely together over so long a period of time,” Halberstam says. ” … The men not only live and eat with one another, they play sports together, go off to drink together, help repair one another’s houses, and, most important, share terrifying risks; their loyalties to one another, by the demands of the dangers they face, must be instinctive and absolute. Thus are firehouse codes fashioned.”
In the weeks and months ahead, investigators will sift through the ashes, as they must, trying to determine exactly what happened at the Salisbury Millwork and how it might be prevented from happening again. Whatever they find, however, won’t alter the instinctive and absolute truths of that day. The measure of these men won’t be found in the details of how they died but in what their life’s work meant, to them and to us.
On some days, humanity’s instincts appear ever more drawn to selfishness and self-destruction. Abiding loyalty seems as quaint as a 20-year gold watch, while avarice and brute ambition rule the day. But on March 7, 2008, we saw another possibility ó caught a searing glimpse of devotion to a truer code, allegiance to a higher calling.
Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.