This past weekend, my family and I attended a dinner honoring a firefighter and former scoutmaster who has spent his entire life serving his community. A little bio background:
For 40 years, FDNY Firefighter Richard Gimbl served as a volunteer fireman in every community in which he has lived he is currently serving his second term as Fire Chief in his Long Island community. In 2007 he was named Firefighter of the year from his county, Southern New York, New York State and the International Chief’s Eastern Division. With the NYFD he earned numerous commendations. For his actions in the rescue and recovery effort for Flight 800, he earned the Mayor Giuliani Medal. He served for 10 years on the FEMA NY Urban Search and Rescue Team, which responded to the Oklahoma City bombing, hurricanes in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands…his bio goes on and on, and as a Scoutmaster and BSA Commissioner, the bio continues. He’s retired from FDNY, but he is still involved with Emergency Management. All of his focus is on helping people cope and survive, and on helping boys grow into the sorts of men who care about others.
This is a life well-lived, a life of service. My understanding is that the people honoring Gimbl pestered him for two years before he allowed them to do so; he kept saying, “no, not necessary, please don’t.”
He hates attention, you see. As “corny” as it may sound to some, what Gimbl does, he does out of love of his country and his community and his fellow man.
Gimbl finally agreed to allow a dinner in his honor because the Boy Scouts needed to raise funds, and this was a way to do it. So, if you think about it, even his moment of public recognition and praise was a sort of sacrifice for Rick Gimbl; he walked out of his comfort zone in order to help out the Scouting organization he loves. Additionally, once he’d committed to the fund-raiser, he even assisted in its success by calling on people he knew, people who owed him a favor or two, to cater the evening for free, down to the cake, so that the benefit to the scouts would be optimal.
This is an unselfish man, with an unselfish wife and family. When, after many accolades, Gimbl made his own unscripted speech, he began simply, “on my honor, I will do my best…” He thanked many people. He talked about his brother firefighters, his scouts. He admitted, charmingly, humbly, that he utterly hates camping, and recounted a few stories justifying his dislike. But he camped for years, because his commitment to his troop demanded it.
Throughout his remarks, whenever he needed to collect his thoughts, he would say again, “on my honor, I will do my best…”
I realized, watching him, that Gimbl was not stalling for time; he was repeating the prayer of his life, the words he had wholly taken into himself, etched into his heart; “on my honor, I will do my best…” a promise to himself, and to his God; an approach to his whole life. A man who has pulled people out of burning buildings and rescued kids from frozen lakes knows all about the human heart; he knows how to take a pulse.
And for him, there is the constant heartbeat, “on my honor…”; the steady pulse, “I will do my best…”
Rick Gimbl is a great man, a patriot who serves his nation, wherever he happens to be; a Knight of Columbus (a Scout is Reverent) who serves his God, by the prayer of his heart. With honor, doing his best.
He is also a man who knows how to forgive when he has been wronged; I know this because I have seen it.
As might be expected, this dinner was attended by many of the young men who had gone through Gimbl’s troop, and their lives are a testament to the value of a healthy scouting program and what used to be called the “manly” virtues. But there was one young man in attendance who had never been one of Gimbl’s scouts, who had never met Gimbl, at all, in fact, until he came home from Iraq after spending a year at Walter Reed Hospital, learning how to walk without legs. He is an Army Ranger named Cpl. Christopher Levi:
Levi’s unit, a U.S. Army intelligence group . . . was in the middle vehicle — an armored Humvee — in a five-vehicle convoy. At the wheel was his friend and squad leader, Sgt. Norman Forbes IV, of Grapevine, Texas. They set off shortly after noon, riding through city streets that were frequent sites for attack.
That afternoon in Sadr City, a bomb known as a shaped charge device hidden in the street sent a jet of molten metal hurtling through the armor of the soldiers’ Humvee. The force shattered Forbes’ left arm and his left hand, and broke his left femur, destroying the muscle of his thigh. Forbes is today a patient at a medical center in Texas.
Levi was riding to the right of Forbes. The blast cut through both of his legs at mid-thigh, hurling his limbs to the other side of the Humvee. The blast tore away part of his right palm, taking most of the fifth metacarpal bone with it.
“Forbes,” Levi shouted, “I don’t have any legs!”
At that moment, luck and modern military field medicine adapted to the insurgent war in Iraq came to Levi’s aid. The machine gunner, Aaron Copeland, whose 50-caliber weapon had been bent in two by the blast, pressed his knee into Levi’s crotch, squeezing shut two major arteries that feed blood to Levi’s legs and preventing him from quickly bleeding to death. Copeland almost certainly saved Levi’s life.
The article in Newsday mentions that Levi’s family was planning fund-raisers to modify their house for Christopher’s needs, when he was finally released from the hospital.
And that is where Rick Gimbl comes in. Hearing that Levi’s mother had written a letter to the community wondering if anyone would volunteer to build a ramp to their front door, Gimbl -typically- took action. He and firefighter Mike Heffron knocked on the Levi’s front door. Levi’s father answered, and Gimbl introduced himself and was invited in. He and Heffron looked around and said, “We’ll help; you go be with your son, and we’ll take care of your house. We’ll knock down this wall, we’ll put a ramp here…just go to your son.”
Gimbl was off and running. He gathered people he knew from scouting, and his brother firefighters; he called in his markers and got donations of materials and labor, and then:
They poured over the crest of Holbrook’s Mollie Boulevard like a wave — 50 or so big-shouldered men who bore construction tools in their hands and determination in their hearts. Looking like a scrappy militia bent on waging a suburban war, they descended on a white split ranch, some to the garage, others fanning out into the backyard, all of them ready to go.
“Morning, Levi family, we’re here,” Holbrook Fire Chief Rick Gimbl said in a booming voice. “You guys ready? Let’s go to work!”“I feel America is the best place to live and, damn it, we have to do what we have to do to keep it that way,” Gimbl said. “The community came together, and I am proud of that.”
“[Chris Levi] did the right thing for us,” Sean Garfen said of Levi’s service in Iraq. “So if he needs help, we have the resources,” said Garfen, a union electrician who put renovations at his own home on hold to work on Levi’s house. . . . With that, a $1,500 wooden ramp began its evolution to a $100,000 home renovation.
Chief Gimbl, who has a son serving in the Marines, was in the New York City Fire Department’s hazardous materials unit on Sept. 11, 2001. His firehouse lost 19 men in the collapse of the World Trade Center. . . Of the nearly 350 firefighters killed that day, Gimbl recalls having worked with at least 95 of them.
Heffron, who has coached youth football and baseball in Holbrook, and has been a Cub Scout leader there, said he is no hero for volunteering. “I think you do what you can, when you can,” Heffron said. “Had this project begun a month and a half ago, I wouldn’t even be here, I would have been in Boston with my son.” That is because earlier this year, Heffron’s son, Kyle, was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
These are not, of course, the gasbag glamor boys and girls on television and in politics, with the Ivy educations that have left them so smart that they’re stupid about things like real life, and hammers and nails and levels. These are just men who live what they consider to be very ordinary lives, but they’re always willing to put their personal worries on “hold” for others. They look out “for the little guy,” for people who are in a tough spot, and could use a hand.
They never think of themselves as “the little guys,” because they are self-sufficient, and resourceful, and they are therefore never downtrodden.
They are great men, who build up, and build up, and who never tear down. They are a culture unto themselves, and it is a culture that loves life and hates death.
These men, of this culture, are the sturdy spine of America that keeps everything moving and operable. Spend some time in their company, and you realize that America does not need to be “remade,” so much as “re-prioritized,” and her idols re-ordered.
They are people for whom “volunteerism” is not a sometime thing, embraced for a political fad, or a photo-op; it is simply the way you live your life. You reach out, you give; when you dare to love, you always get it all back, and more.
When Cpl. Christopher Levi arrived back on Long Island, he was driven home by Gimbl, in a borrowed, jazzed-up Army jeep. There were banners on the avenue. There were 3,000 people waving in welcome. There were firefighters who had come from all over the state (and who had traveled over water) and who’d brought their biggest trucks and their biggest flags; they raised them in salute to this young soldier, as he approached his house, where a great deal had changed:
…volunteers organized by members of the Holbrook Fire Department built a handicapped-accessible apartment in the lower level of his parents’ home.
Donations ranging from lumber to labor helped pay the estimated $150,000 value of the renovation, which included a new kitchen, a widened bathroom, and a lounge area complete with flat panel TV, surround sound and a video intercom. The bedroom was wired with remote switches so he can turn out the lights once he sits on his bed and removes his prosthetic legs.
“This is awesome,” Levi said. “I don’t think I’m ever moving out.”
“Next year, Super Bowl at your house,” said Mike Barhold, Holbrook fire commissioner, who did carpentry during the renovation.
At the dinner in his honor, Gimbl honored Levi, calling him out for recognition and applause, and expressing his humble admiration for the Ranger’s determination and courage. The warm, mutually-respectful relationship between the younger and the older man was transparent, and beautiful to see.
And it was made even more beautiful by the fact that these men saw nothing heroic in themselves; they saw only the hero in each other.
Ordinary men. Ordinary heroes. On their honor, they will do their best. It is an honor to salute such people, today. God bless them all, says I.
UPDATE: Mary Katharine Ham with another great man you don’t know, but now you do…
And here is another
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American Digest: O/T but worth reading
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