By Anne Gagliano
Thursday night at FDIC, my husband Mike and I attend the author’s dinner hosted by PennWell Books. The volume of conversation in the small banquet room is deafening, the sound of laughter somehow even louder. I sit across from Mark Wallace—the human encyclopedia of information—and learn that his grandmother was a bootlegger. Casey Phillips, one of our beloved Seattle Guys, announces that he, too, is descended from bootleggers. But the proudest heritage of all is that of Mark Haugh, PennWell’s video producer and onetime real-life rock star from the band Caroline’s Spine. Mark is probably one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met–humble, kind, and unbelievably funny. He is also very blond, blue-eyed, and fair skinned. He tells us his great grandparents were ex-adopted Cherokee Indians. Pause—they were what? By the time he finishes this incredulous tale of attempted deception for the purposes of entitlement, we are in tears from laughing so hard.
On a more serious note, John Salka shows us an amazing photo of his family that momentarily halts the laughter. In the picture we see his two sons, both of whom are Marines in full dress uniform. The younger son is pinning stripes on his big brother and is about to give him his first salute, while mom stands in the background beaming with pride. It truly is an incredibly touching moment captured in time—a moment of achievement, pride, and family devotion. Everyone at the table is deeply moved and impressed by this image. That is the fire service: Family stories run the gamut from extreme hilarity to extreme honor and meld into one to make gatherings anything but dull.
Friday lunch proves to be a milestone for me, a moment I’ve waited for most of my life. Mike and I race to meet Marla Patterson, managing editor of Fire Engineering/PennWell Books, to discuss my doing a book. I’m anxious and excited; I want to make a good impression—but I show up late. Great way to start a meeting! The combination of my still labored, slow walk (from my twisted ankle), and Mike’s being perpetually greeted on the streets by other firefighters makes a short walk to the restaurant take much longer than expected. I’m disheartened by our tardiness, but Marla is so easygoing and gracious that my unease is forgotten. By the end of the lunch, I have a book deal! Wow—I’m speechless. My FDIC week has just culminated with a dream come true.
I float back to the convention center, my head in the clouds, my sore ankle barely touching the ground, to do my stint in the Fire Life booth for the day. Afterward, I watch Mike teach a new class with Casey Phillips entitled, “The 7 Deadly Sins of the Situationally Unaware.” Of course, it is amazing. Mike and Casey hit it out of the park once more, just like old times. We go our separate ways after class—Mike to his next obligations and me to rest my sore ankle for a while back in our hotel room, with plans to meet later at the Fire Life booth.
After my much-needed ankle rest, I head to the booth to find my husband. He’s not there, but Mike Ciampo of FDNY is. In another life, “Ciampo” would have been a highly successful and well-paid stand-up comedian; the guy is that clever and that funny. I ask him if he’s seen my Mike, and he tells me, “He’s over there showing me up.” Ciampo had bragged to Mike that he had gotten a picture with the “Swamp People” and, not to be outdone, had raced over to get one too. What are swamp people? I had asked this question on arrival at Indianapolis when seeing their billboards all over town. They are Troy and Jacob Landry, gator hunters from Louisiana with their own reality show, brought to the conference by Ferrara Trucks. Mike proudly struts up to Ciampo and shows him not only his newly taken picture with the Swamp People but an autographed still of them for his station and a stack of hats for the guys that say “Choot ‘Em” on the back. After much razzing, Ciampo reluctantly admits defeat.
Kevin Shea rushes past us, busily preparing for his hunting and fishing display at the Fire Life booth. He and “Bust-a-Duck” owner Buster Cooper are preparing for a sign-up for their new hunting club. Kevin is nervous that no-one will show up. But he is pleasantly surprised when many show up; this is no surprise to us, for what firefighter/hunter wouldn’t want to hang with Kevin? We happily watch him standing in the midst of his group excitedly telling them of the upcoming trips, for no-one deserves success more than Kevin Shea.
We head out for dinner. At the restaurant Mike sees Eddie Buchannan from Hanover, Virginia. Eddie’s a great guy and a talented guitar player; he and Mike make plans to form a band for next year’s Battle of the Bands. Mike simply refuses to give up his dream of being a rock star! Talk about stubborn.
As we’re waiting for our table, the bagpipers enter the restaurant; big, burly, and slightly disruptive, they file past me to line up neatly in two rows for all to see. In their kilts they are quite a spectacle; I notice that interspersed among the traditional plaid kilts are some made of bunker material, reflective stripes and all! One of them whispers to the other, “Hello people, we’re here to f*#@ sh*# up!” I’m aghast at this profanity and am about to rebuke the offender when he catches my eye and gives me a wink and a smile, and I find that I am charmed in spite of myself.
Then they begin to play. The restaurant is enchanted. The ordinary has now become extraordinary because firefighters are in town; their presence is uplifting to all who encounter them. The music stops too soon amid cries of, “More, we want more!” But they are quickly gone, leaving a strange sense of emptiness as they depart.
It is Friday night, the end of FDIC for me, and I feel a sadness begin to settle on my mood. The week has been a mixture of incredible highs and incredible lows. I remember Lt. Rich Nappi once again; I see his smiling face in my mind, and the weight of his loss threatens to kill the “high” of FDIC. But then my husband Mike’s short class, “This House Rocks,” from earlier that day comes to mind, and this is the image I decide to carry away this year. In the class they show a video clip of water buffalo and lions; the lions scatter the herd and capture a calf; they are about to make the kill. But everything changes when suddenly on the screen we see the buffalo return, en masse, an impressive, impenetrable force. They charge the lions as one. Miraculously, the lions run off, and the calf is safely returned to the fold. Mike freezes the image and says loudly to the crowd, “Shoulder to shoulder we stand … we will not let this happen … not in our house!” and the crowd spontaneously stands to applaud and cheer.
This is what FDIC means to me—firefighters gathering together, shoulder to shoulder, to regroup, retrain, and lift each other up, so that next year, they’ll be better, they’ll be stronger, and they’ll strive even harder to never lose another brother or sister again, not in our house!
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 26 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.