Learning, Earning, and Burning

By Michael Morse

A wise old man once explained to me how to lead a productive, happy, and fulfilling life:

“You have your learning years, your earning years, and your burning years. Learn so you can earn, then earn as much as you can so you can burn what you earned.”

So, I learned to be a firefighter, and I worked as much as I could until I couldn’t do it anymore. I’m still earning, just doing so with some things I continued to learn while I was earning. It isn’t much, but every bit helps. Someday, perhaps soon, I’ll be done earning for good. With any luck, I’ll have enough to burn and a little left over for those I leave behind.

One thing is for certain: I was fortunate. I had the best job in the world, and no matter what I do with the rest of my life, I have great memories from my most productive earning years. The fact that those years included more than a little burning is a bonus.

I miss getting to work an hour early, picking up the paper from the ramp, the apparatus floor ghostly quiet, entering the boot room, smoke mixed with sweat and leather, gear lined up, squared away, waiting for bodies to fill it.

I miss signing the accountability sheet, seeing who was already there, climbing the stairs and entering the day room, hot coffee ready, quiet now, before the banter begins.

I miss telling the person I relieved they’re “all set,” telling my officer, “I’m with you,” then catching up on the night’s events as the sun breaks on the horizon and a new day begins.

It’s the mundane things I miss, almost as much as the fires and rescues–the routine, familiar things that made up my days on duty: the 0800 time signal, housework, washing the truck, checking the equipment, starting the generators and saws, fuelling up, district inspections, preparing the meals, and—yes–even drilling.

There is an ebb and flow in the fire service, routine interrupted by chaos. The chaos gets the glory, but the routine keeps us sane. There is something timeless about that; the firefighters come and go, vehicles get replaced, but the spirit of the station never changes.

Yeah, I miss it, but every day I am grateful that I am aware it exists, and I was once a part of it.

I never knew that while I was doing it the job was becoming a big part of who I was. I showed up and did the job, enjoyed the camaraderie, responded to the emergencies, and went home. At the end of the day, that is what mattered most–going home. At the end of my career, having a home to go to, one that is comfortable and even more satisfying than the firehouse, allows me the satisfaction of occasionally remembering “the good old days” fondly and reminiscing without regret over a part of my life that nobody can take away from me. I learned, I earned, and for the rest of my life I’ll be burning.


Michael Morse is a former captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD), an author, and a popular columnist. He served on PFD’s Engine Co. 2., Engine Co. 9, and Ladder Co. 4 for 10 years prior to becoming an EMT-C on Rescue Co 1 and Captain of Rescue Co. 5.

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