From far up or down Independence Boulevard Saturday morning your attention would have been grabbed by the giant American flag flying high from the outstretched ladder of the Matthews Fire Department’s gleaming truck.
The flag was waving over the gathering for the charity motorcycle ride I host every year just as it – or others like it – fly from fire trucks at football games, 5k races, and Fourth of July festivities across the country. Everyone loved seeing the flag, the truck – and the firefighters.
They do these two things for us, firefighters: rush into the face of danger to save lives and prosperity, and help us celebrate who we are. Risk their lives and lead our parades. All while wearing the same blue and red and white that’s woven into those flags. Our relationships with these men and women, the pathos and ethos of them, woven as tightly as those threads.
Early Sunday morning I read that a firefighter had been killed in a fire at a strip mall in Pineville. Early Monday morning I learned his name was Richard Sheltra, 20, a three-year volunteer with the Pineville fire department.
Later Monday, I learned his father had been with me on that charity motorcycle ride.
I found myself thinking back to Saturday morning, wondering, had I met Mr. Sheltra? Wondering, had I shaken his hand?
Wondering – as he milled among hundreds of fellow riders and spectators, seeing the ladder truck and huge flag, seeing the way people loved it and the firefighters manning it – whether Mr. Sheltra been thinking of his son, a brother to those on the truck?
Of course he had, with the fullness of fatherly pride in a heart which only a few hours later would be broken.
This was all swirling in my head Monday having just been talking about the presidential campaign, the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Trump – and Cruz and Hillary and Sanders – circus. Thinking about the crowds adoring and cheering each of them; what big deals they are, so important and honored and butt-kissed.
The politicians’ service to our country amounts mostly to spouting words, pointing fingers, and pounding their chests. Meantime, in real, everyday life, a firefighter is actually doing for others, and his father is doing for others, but they’re anonymous to us. Until a moment like this.
Saturday, firefighters from across the country will come to Charlotte, to Pineville. They’ll be wearing their blue and white and red. Flags woven in those same colors will fly from their trucks as they lead another parade. This time, the flags will be flying low.
In firehouses, or houses of their own, their brothers and sisters will wait at the ready for a bell to ring, calling them to do that other thing firefighters do.
Keith Larson can be heard weekdays 9 a.m. - Noon on WBT AM/FM.