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October 11, 2008

Proud Children

Right after 9/11, a firefighter in Manhattan approached me with a special request.  It seems the wife of a member of his company brought their newborn daughter around for the guys to meet.  The firefighter, still in his turnout gear from a run, held his daughter in his arms while someone snapped a photo of them.  Soon after, he was one of the 343 men killed at the World Trade Center.

Patrick explained that photo might be the only one the child would have with her father.  He went on to tell me that he and his wife were expecting a child in a few months and asked if I would return then to take that photo for him.  

Although I originally set out to provide portraits of firefighters, from that day on I never turned down a request for a child to be included in the photo with the firefighter.  In fact, along the way it became a significant choice many made.

Taking photos of children was a relief from the more somber and stern images of big, tough guys expressing their grief.  When I arrived at one station in Queens in the Spring of 2004, there were so many men with young children waiting for me. Clearly, a number of them had been born post 9/11.  It was a wonderful and hopeful sight.

Watching children playing at fire stations always makes me wonder if I'm witnessing the next generation of firefighters.  New York stations make families an important part of fire house life with annual Christmas parties, picnics and more.  The children of firefighters get to know each other.  They know where the soft drinks and snacks are.  They respond to the other firefighters like members of their own extended family.

It's much the same in many of the departments I've visited.   For instance, while in San Marcos in northern San Diego County, I saw a family arrive to be photographed with Firefighter Tom Spencer.  Mrs. Spencer arrived with their two sons.  The youngest one marched right in like he owned the place.  He was wearing a full firefighter's outfit, including a holstered axe.

"You know what I think would be cool?" he asked me.  "If I got in the driver's seat and you took my picture there, alone."

We took a few pictures of Tom and his entire family.  But we took many more of Tom and his youngest.  I also took several of the boy alone.  It was clear he had a reason to want them.

During a break I asked his mother, "Does he want to be a firefighter when he grows up?"  He turned around to look at me, smiled and nodded his head positively.

His mother offered more proof.  She explained that one day she found him in the backyard in full firefighter regalia.  The garden hose had a smaller version of the nozzle his father uses on the fire hose.  The boy was spraying water over the fence onto the neighbor's roof.

"What are you doing?" his mother shouted.

His answer was simple and direct.


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