Monday, September 6, 2010

Hail To The Deputy Chief

Yesterday morning in New Brunswick was an exquisite time to run. Do not feel compelled to take my word for it. Ask any of the several hundred people who gathered in the cool of the morning at Memorial Stadium for the 6th Annual Jimmy D 5K. This race honors the life and legacy of Deputy Chief James D'heron of the New Brunswick Fire Department. It was slightly more than six years ago - on September 3, 2004, that Deputy Chief D'heron died in the line of duty while rescuing people from a house fire. Those he rescued lived. He, the rescuer, died.

As a tribute to him and all he meant to them, his family has been the driving force behind not only this now annual rite of early September (as I learned yesterday its date is designed to coincide as much as possible with the anniversary of his death) but behind the Foundation that bears his name. Yesterday his daughter Erin Vargas handled the starter's duties for the 5K and emceed the post-race awards. His niece and nephew sang the Star-Spangled Banner together shortly before we started our race. Usually I feel salty discharge in the corners of my eyes at or about the 2 mile mark of a 5K and the salty discharge I feel is sweat. Yesterday it was present before I had run even one step. And it most certainly was not sweat.

A group of Harley Davidson-riding firefighters served as the escort vehicles for the lead runners. There was a bagpipe and drum corps. And there were firefighters from all over New Jersey out on a drop-dead gorgeous September Sunday to honor the memory of their brother. Whether they knew him or he knew them was irrelevant. Trust me, I know of which I speak. I am one who never met the man. Yet it was most assuredly my honor and my privilege to have participated - in my case for the first time ever - in what shall now become for me an annual rite of September.

While I did not equal or better my personal best 5K time, which I set last Saturday in Long Branch, I came within fifteen or twenty seconds of it. And the fact that I did so while running on a course that was more challenging than its Long Branch counterpart left me with a feeling of great personal satisfaction. But the race was not the whole story yesterday. Not even close to it. Margaret and I spent about ninety minutes post-race just taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the post-race picnic/barbecue that was part of the day's festivities. Deputy Chief D'heron's family has figured out a way to make this event transcend a mere 5K race. It is something more like a spirited Irish wake. And true to its model, everyone appeared reluctant to leave.

It takes a hell of a human being to run towards danger when the better bet is to find an alterate route of travel. It takes the type of human being who would trade his life for the lives of strangers and not once think to complain about the apparent inequity of the transaction. It takes also the type of human being who honors the sacrifice of his fellow firefighter by running 3.1 miles while wearing his full turn-out gear (from the helmet down) - save for the running shoes he wore in place of his boots. Margaret and I met a young firefighter from the Montclair Fire Department who did just that....and in doing so completed the course is just a hair under 30 minutes. Being a dumb ass I forgot to ask his name when I spoke with him for a moment or two post-race. I merely wanted to tell him what an incredible thing it seemed to me (and to the dozens of others standing near Margaret and me near the finish line when he finished) he had done. He said thank you and smiled when he did so. I thought I detected just a tinge of self-consciousness in his smile.

It was simply an incredible morning. One that I am happy that Margaret and I had the chance to experience firsthand. And one that I suspect caused Deputy Chief d'Heron to smile ear-to-ear, looking at all which his family has made out of one singular terrible moment. And if you look at him hard while he smiles, just a tinge of self-consciousness is surely present in his grin.....

...and perhaps just a bit of salty discharge in the corner of his eye as well.

-AK

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