On Saturday, September 1st, 2001, I was in my happy place: Sparks, Nevada.
My family and I were at the Annual Nugget Rib Cookoff, and I was heading toward the Nugget Hotel elevator when the doors shut on me.
While I waited for another elevator door to open, a weary, red-eyed man appeared next to me. His hands were dirty and he was a sweaty mess. And he kept rubbing his eyes.
I watched him for about 10 seconds before the elevator chimed again. He had leaned up against the mirrored facade of the elevator lobby and tilted his head back. He looked as though he could fall asleep right there — with the casino bursting with noise from slot machines, cover bands, and old women complaining about stingy nickel machines.
I assumed that he worked at one of the rib vendor spaces, so I opened my purse, grabbed some wet wipes (because, after all, we WERE at the Rib Cookoff) and my eye drops, and said, “Here. The smoke back there can make even the most seasoned vet cry like a baby.”
He opened his eyes and looked at me like I was from Mars.
“Thanks . . . I, um . . .”
“You look like you could use a drink. And a shower.” I said. “You with one of the companies back there?”
He smiled, and said, “No. I’m actually . . . I’m a firefighter. I’ve been up on the hill for the last 18 hours.”
And at that moment I felt like a complete idiot.
There was a huge wildfire burning in the hills of Reno that weekend as well. Fire crews had been battling the blaze for at least three days, and it didn’t look like they were getting any closer to gaining control of it.
“Oh. Wow . . . I’m so sorry. And here I’ve been complaining about rib smoke . . .”
“No, it’s okay,” He said, as he wiped his hands with the wipes and poured eye drops into his eyes, “It’s not like I’m wearing my helmet or anything.”
I laughed, and I knew he said it to try to make me feel better.
A couple of seconds later, I realized my floor was approaching, so I said, “Well, thank you.”
He gave me the ‘Mars’ look again, so I elaborated.
“For what you do. I mean, there’s people up in those houses right? You guys go out there and fight fires and rescue people like me. No questions asked. So, you know, thank you.”
And I will never, EVER forget the way he looked at me as he told me these horribly haunting words:
“You’d be surprised at how little we hear that.”
I shook my head in disbelief as the elevator door opened at my floor. After I got off the elevator, I turned around and held the door so it wouldn’t shut right away.
“Good luck,” I said.
And then I let go.
Not knowing that just over two weeks later, he could very well have needed it.