Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Man They Called MacGyver

FF Robert McMahon - Ladder 20

I may very well be the least handy person I know and have ever met.  While there are certain household chores that I am capable of performing with at modicum of competency, such as painting, my only real talent lies in demolition work.  A lawyer whose gift lies in the tearing apart of something as opposed to the creation of it?  Perhaps I should have specialized in "family law", which is, if nothing else, my favorite euphemism. 

FF Robert McMahon, 35 years of age at the time of his death on September 11, 2001, had avocational talents that were beyond my limited ability to comprehend.   He was regarded as Ladder Company 20's most exceptional chef - so much so that someone in the house sent his lasagna recipe to GQ - and was the one in charge of putting up the house's Christmas tree and Christmas lights each year.  In his spare time, he built a haunted house for children who were battling cancer and, also, shaped pieces of wood into hand-crafted pieces of furniture.  

He grew up in Queens.  After he married his wife, Julie, a nurse at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital who he met while he was doing some volunteer work with sick children, the couple purchased McMahon's childhood home.  He proceeded to gut it and essentially replace it with an updated, improved version where he and Julie intended to raise their family.  

At the time of his death in September, 2001, Robert McMahon was the proud father of one little boy, Matthew, who was but two years old.  Julie McMahon was pregnant with the couple's second child, Patrick, who arrived in early 2002.     

FF McMahon has been memorialized in a most beautiful manner, through the painting of a portrait, which portrait you can see here.  The beauty of the image, as great as it is, pales in comparison to the words his wife, Julie, wrote that serve as the portrait's caption.  They are a tribute to a man whose love for his family and their love for him serve to remind us that there are certain things that neither time nor memory can fade away.  


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Journey to the Jubilee

I'll meet you at the Jubilee,
If that Jubilee don't come
Maybe I'll meet you on the run.
- Grateful Dead

FF Robert Linnane, 33, was still a relatively new member of the FDNY when he and his brothers from Ladder 20 died in the North Tower of the World Trade Center.  He had joined the department slightly less than two years earlier.  Ladder 20, which proved to be his final assignment, was also his second assignment, having moved over to Manhattan after beginning his FDNY career as part of Engine 219/Ladder 105 in Brooklyn. 

He joined the FDNY after having spent eight years working for Delta Airlines.  He pushed himself to ensure that - when his opportunity to join the FDNY presented itself after he had already celebrated his 30th birthday - he would be able to make the most of that opportunity.  He knew it would not likely come his way again.  His friends jokingly made fun of his utter absence of fashion sense. Perhaps being required to wear a uniform, which eliminated choice from his day-to-day wardrobe, was one of the things that drew him towards the life he ultimately chose.  If it was, then it was only a small part of the total picture, paling in comparison beside his desire to help others, which was paramount. 

It has been said that if you work doing something that you love, then you never work a day your entire life.  In September, 2001, FF Linnane was doing something that he loved, in the company of those he held most dear and to whom he entrusted his life as they did theirs in him.  He spent his final moments in this life with them.  

One last gathering at the Jubilee...


Monday, August 22, 2016

The Power of the Shamrock

September 11 Memorial 
- Spring Lake, New Jersey

Spring Lake Memorial has a beautiful memorial dedicated to its residents and neighbors who were murdered on Tuesday, September 11, 2001.  Among those who is memorialized on the shrine is Donald W. Robertson, Jr. 

Mr. Robertson, who was thirty-five years old at the time of his death, was a vice-president at Cantor Fitzgerald and was in his office on the 105th floor of the North Tower when the tower was struck.  He never made it out of the building.  

On September 25, 2016, the 15th annual Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers Run shall take place.  Thousands of people, including the Missus and me, shall travel through the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel from Brooklyn into Lower Manhattan.  And once again this year, one of the event's stalwarts is Kathy Robertson Cunningham of Spring Lake.  She is Donald Robertson, Jr.'s sister and the architect of the fund-raising juggernaut, Team Shamrock.  

Team Shamrock

Team Shamrock first ran in the T2T in 2005.  In the decade-plus since, its effect has been nothing short of extraordinary.  In 2014, its 300-plus members raised $150,000 for the Siller Foundation.  Last year, they raised more than $200,000.  

From something terrible, something incredible has grown.  A testament to the man whose life is being honored.  A testament, as well, to the woman whose love for him ensures that irrespective of the number of years he has been gone, he shall never be forgotten. 


Sunday, August 21, 2016

In Their Blood & Bones

It takes a certain "something" to be a firefighter in New York City.  It is not an occupation for the faint of heart.  Yet is a calling to which certain families are drawn, generation after generation.  And the siren's song calls even those whose own family's history includes at least one line of duty death. 

On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, FF Hanley and his brothers from Ladder 20 responded to the World Trade Center before the first alarm had even sounded.  Although Hanley had only been on the job for a little more than five years, he had been part of a house that had experienced tragedy.  Prior to joining Ladder 20, FF Hanley had worked at Engine Co. 257/Ladder Co. 170 in Brooklyn, which lost three firefighters from Ladder 170 in December, 1998, while battling a high-rise fire in Brooklyn.  One of the firefighters who died on that terrible December day had swapped shifts with FF Hanley.  It was something that his father said weighed on his son's mind for a considerable period of time thereafter.  

FF Hanley did not walk away from the FDNY following the December, 1998 fire that claimed the lives of three of his colleagues.  FDNY firefighters have proven themselves to be historically poor at walking away from anything.  It is likely a by-product of a lifetime's worth of moving headlong towards something, no matter how terrible it is, and doing so with all due speed and dispatch. 

On what proved to be the final morning of his life, FF Hanley exhibited that tendency one final time.  He has worked the night shift and was off-duty when he heard on the radio that a plane had struck the World Trade Center.  He knew that was where he was needed and it was there that he went as fast as he could to do all that he could for as long as he could.  

FF Sean S. Hanley - FDNY
Ladder 20

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Making Change

FF James Gray, - Ladder 20

For six years prior to joining the FDNY, FF James Gray of Ladder 20 wore a different uniform in the service of the people of New York City.  He drove a bus for New York City Transit.  Being a firefighter, however, was in his blood.  His dad, Patrick, retired from the FDNY as a Lieutenant whose last assignment was at Ladder Co. 9 in Manhattan.  When his chance to join the FDNY appeared in October 1996 he did not hesitate.  

Nor did he and his mates from Ladder 20 hesitate on what turned out to be the final morning of their lives for seven of them.  They were en route to the World Trade Center before the first alarm sounded.  The seven men were last seen on the 35th floor of the North Tower immediately prior to its collapse. 

FF Gray, who was only thirty-four years old at the time of his death, and his wife, Jean Marie, were the parents of two little girls who were just eight (Colleen) and six (Caitlin) at the time of his death.  He was working an overtime shift on September 11, 2001 and had called home that morning at or about 7:30 am to speak with his wife and to wish his two daughters a good day at school.  It proved to be the last time that Jean Marie, Colleen, or Caitlin would ever hear his voice. 

On a day replete with memories of things most horrible, it is nice that they all have a most wonderful memory upon which to rely and to cherish. 


Friday, August 19, 2016

The Fischer King

Lt. John R. Fischer, Ladder Company 20, was an eighteen-year-veteran of the FDNY when he and six of his firefighters died at Ground Zero on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001.   He was a Staten Island boy, born and raised, and it was on Staten Island, in the West Brighton neighborhood where had grown up, which he and his, Jean, chose as the place to raise their family.  

At the time of his death, Lt. Fischer (who was posthumously promoted to Captain) and Jean were the proud parents of two sons, Timothy and John, and one daughter, Laura, who was sandwiched chronologically between her two brothers.  All three of the Fischer kids were active participants in sports and their dad went to extraordinary lengths to make sure that he was not only there to watch them play, but to coach them.  Timothy, John, and Laura all called their father "Coach" in at least one sport, be it basketball or soccer. 

He spent the final seven years of his FDNY career at Ladder 20.  When he first joined the FDNY in 1983, after having spent several years as a special education teacher and a brief period of time working on Wall Street, he was assigned to Ladder Company 13 on Manhattan's East Side.  His promotion to Lieutenant happened in 1994 and with the new rank came a new assignment:  the 23rd Battalion on Staten Island.  He spent just six months working in the borough he called home his entire life before being transferred to his final assignment at Ladder 20. 

The final thing he did before he and his men headed into the maelstrom that was the World Trade Center on that terrible Tuesday morning was telephone his wife.  Sadly, Jean was not home to pick up the phone, as she was taking their three children to school.  He left her a message on their answering machine, likely trying to reassure her that everything was alright and he would see her and the kids later.  

Whether he believed those words when he spoke them or she believed them when she heard them matters not.  What matters is that he called and that at some point that morning she was able to hear his voice one final time.  Under those circumstances, it was the best they could do.  And all things considered, it was pretty damn outstanding. 

Lt. John R. Fischer,
Ladder 20, FDNY
(Promoted to Captain


Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Strength of the Chain

There is a land of the living and a land of the dead,
and the bridge is Love, the only survival, the only meaning.
- Thornton Wilder

Monday night brought a horrible reminder of the frailty of human life and the vicious speed with which the trajectory of one's life can be irrevocably altered.  

At or about 9:30 pm on Monday, a fire broke out at a home on the 200 block of 14th Avenue in Belmar.  The fire quickly engulfed the home and it took the five fire departments who joined together to battle the blaze slightly less than two hours to contain it, initially, and thereafter extinguish it.  

As I write this, the circumstances that led to the fire are unknown - at least to me.  While they ultimately shall prove to be important to the governmental agencies entrusted with the responsibility of determining its cause, the fire's cause is much less significant than its effect.  It killed Mark Oberschewen, Bill Oberschewen (Mark's father), and Tickles (Mark's dog).   

"Obes" as I think Mark was called by just about everyone who knew him, was a man who I had known for more than thirty years.  He graduated W-H in 1984, a year after my sister Jill's class, and a year before my class.  W-H was then, as it is now, a school with a relatively small number of students, a trait that tends to engender friendships being formed by and among students in different grades.  Kids of like interests tended to hang out together irrespective of whether they were sophomores or seniors.  

I had not seen him - to my recollection - in the quarter-century following my class's graduation from W-H in 1985 until I saw him, at W-H, on a Saturday in mid-January, 2009.  We both were on campus for a ceremony the school held that day honoring the boys basketball team that captured the State title in 1983 and the girls basketball team that did likewise in 1984.  In the seven and one-half years since that January afternoon, he and I had only seen each other a handful of times, usually - if not always - at something related to W-H.  Even after he relocated to Monmouth County, Obes was a regular presence at alumni events (far more so than I), which he would endeavor to make unless an event happened to coincide with an event in which either of his children was a participant.  When that occurred, we got his regrets and his children his attention - proof of the fact that he was a man whose priorities were always exceptionally well-aligned. 

He had moved to Belmar a few years ago - renting the home on 14th Avenue where he tragically died on Monday night.  A divorced father of two, he adored and doted on his son, Michael, and his daughter, Gina.  Michael, the older of the two, starts high school in September.  Apparently, among the things that his kids had begged him for once he found his home in Belmar was a dog.  Not too terribly long after he moved in, he honored their request and rescued "Tickles", who in short order became a fixture on the front porch of his home akin to a swing.  As I recall, an issue arose between his landlord and him regarding whether the presence of Tickles in the home effectively breached the lease.  It was an issue about which he and I had one brief conversation, after which he and his landlord fashioned a solution to the problem that satisfied both.

Margaret and I closed on our home in Lake Como in May, 2015.  Obes lived three blocks north of us, and about a half block east of where his and my long-time friend Tom Swales just moved earlier this year.  Although he had not lived in Belmar full-time for a very long period of time, Obes was a veritable font of useful information about things in and about town such as restaurants, liquor stores, and - critically - pizza joints.  Every time the delivery guy from Reye's "NY" Style Pizza pulls into our driveway, I reflexively think of Obes.   I always shall.  

The Oberschewen men, Mark and Bill, had endured more than their fair share of tragedy and loss before the horrible events of Monday night.  Mark's mom and his sister, Susanne, both died a number of years ago.  Now, that sad experience of dealing with profound loss has been paid forward a generation. There is little doubt that his two children shall miss him terribly and shall feel his loss for the rest of their lives.  Occasionally, on my early morning runs up and down the Boardwalk, I saw Obes and his kids, either riding bikes or just walking up to the beach.  He was a father as happy to be in the company of his children and as proud of their achievements as any father I have ever known. A dad who made those of us who are dads aspire to be better in our day-to-day.  

Tough days lie ahead for these two youngsters.  Although I have only met Michael on one or two occasions, it was of him who I spent most of my Tuesday thinking about.  He is a young man, preparing to begin high school, who now also has to deal with the sudden loss of his dad.  His shoes are shoes that I wore myself thirty-five years ago.  

Michael and Gina are in need of help.  Whether that help is financial, emotional, or otherwise matters not.  All of it is needed.  They need as much as can be provided.  A woman named Lisa Castellano Britton has created this GoFundMe page for Michael and Gina.  Their father was a man who never hesitated to help someone in need and did so without giving it a moment's thought.  There is nothing in this world Obes did not do for his kids.  Here is to honoring him - and them - by doing now what he is not able to do any longer.  

In doing so, we may remind them perhaps that even in the longest, darkest days, there is light on the other side.  They deserve nothing less.  

Neither does Obes.