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Volume V Issue XXXVII

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Seattle Washington USA

 

JON BOARMAN: The Creation of a Fireman -- Part II: THE REAL LIFE OF RILEY
by
GLENNAHELLER

jb-photo+clay.jpg (32479 bytes)In the Incredible People’s article, The Creation of a Fireman Part I, Jon Boarman, a talented and determined high school student from Carmel, Indiana sculpted a bust of a firefighter from a dramatic September 11th photo he’d seen in People Magazine. His sculpture, which began as a school art class assignment, is a testament to both Boarman’s artistic talent and his remarkable, unflagging desire to fulfill his childhood ambition of becoming a fireman. It also expresses his tremendous admiration for the NYC firefighters, and the one unnamed, dust covered fireman in particular, whose haunting photo in People Magazine inspired him. After pouring untold hours of work into the project, Boarman wanted to present his sculpture to that fireman. With his characteristic drive combined with more than just a little serendipity, Boarman was able to contact, then make plans to meet, the unnamed fireman he’d seen in the photo, Jerry Riley.

Riley is one of the hundreds of New York City firemen who courageously embraced the work for which he’d been trained – the work which others of us depend for our very lives.

It would be a meeting that these two men, bound by a common intent, will never forget.

 

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IT WAS THURSDAY. School was out for the summer. Jon and his father made their way to the airport in Indiana with the bust that had been the focus of Jon’s life over the past six months. He had spent every waking moment on the sculpture. He had gone through all the stages one might expect in the creation of a work of art. He had been pensive with the inception of the idea, completely consumed during the work, careful, jubilant with each winning result and, in the final days of the firing of the piece, he had been afraid. Though he had carefully bored hundreds, maybe thousands of holes in the ¼ -inch clay to release any trapped air, and hollowed it out as much as he dared, it could still just as easily explode in the kiln. Had that occurred, this story, the serendipity that had been in play in Jon’s location of his subject and mentor, and whatever difference the telling of the story would make to the world would have been over. Much was at risk. But finally it was done, and it had reached the perfection of this young man’s standards. And we all sighed.

Jon’s father, David Boarman, had taken the bust to work. In true community effort two special boxes had been constructed for the two-part bust by David’s coworkers. The fireman’s hat separated from the bust and each had been bound in bubble wrap and carefully crated. It now sat in Jon’s lap, grasped firmly between the creator’s hands, as Jon and his father made their way to the airport. It would be Jon’s carry-on for the trip.

Son and father were bound for New York City to connect with the man whose face had been the focus of Jon’s work over the past six months. From a simple color photograph Jon had captured Jerry Riley’s face in clay – an expression that mixed tenacity and exhaustion with a measure of agony. It was a grim overlay to a life that reflected in remarkable eyes a life of purposeful joy. The photo from which the sculpture was modeled was from the day of the disaster, 9/11. The landing of their plane at New York’s La Guardia Airport would mark the day Jon had been waiting for – the day he would present the sculpture to Jerry.

Jon’s nervousness heightened as he and his father waited in the hotel lobby early that evening for his friend and mentor. Jon knew every line and facet of this man’s face. Later, once they met, Jon confessed that he often found himself staring blankly at Jerry with the same focused attention that had entwined him during the work on the bust. Then he’d quickly jerk away, embarrassed that he had been staring. But now, sitting in that lobby, would he recognize Jerry as he walked in and they met for the first time? "I was really nervous. I didn’t have anything planned to say. I just wanted to play it by ear."

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Never underestimate the importance of a good cook

He pulled up in a fire department vehicle, the battalion chief’s SUV equipped with all the emergency gear. The Boarmans climbed in and Jerry took them on a tour of the city on the way to Engine 76, Ladder 22 – his firehouse. Jon described the firehouses in New York as one would describe them in any rural setting – there, too, the firehouses look like houses with very large garages. "Almost every other street, there is a firehouse because [the City] is so highly populated," Jon explained. "We spent that evening at the fire department. And they were great cooks!"

f-hse bbq.jpg (48212 bytes)"Ribs," was Jon’s one-word description of dinner that night. The ribs being passed around that night weren’t just the edible kind. Jon alluded to what was perhaps most remarkable about the time shared in the firehouse – the laughter, the jokes, and the jamming that went on among the members of the crew. The food in the firehouse was also a topic of jokes but the value of a good cook was no joking matter. "Anyone can be taught to fight a fire," Jon quoted their banters. "But can you cook? They hired one guy just because he was from cooking school, then trained him to be a fireman." One suspects this is only partly in jest.

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Jerry Riley and Jon Boarman

After dinner it was time to present the bust to Jerry Riley and to the firehouse. "There were about 15 firemen present," recalled Jon’s father. "When the two-part bust was presented, the room fell silent. The firemen had received many things – quilts, hats, patches from around the world, (and) many gifts from Europe. These were all on display in the firehouse. The bust was the ONE thing. Not one more thing. They grew quiet, very humble about the sculpture. It was very moving."

Jerry Riley is a quiet, unassuming and gentle man. He began his interview with Incredible People, "Howya dhoo-an?" – the one greeting that would immediately generate warmth and relation-ship. "I was very impressed by how much work Jon put into the bust," he shares, his voice characterized by an endearing New York City accent. When asked about his advice to Jon in his desire to be a fireman, only half-joking, Jerry said, "I told him to go to med school."

Jerry spoke of 9/11 as one might speak of a dream. "Sometimes I can’t believe it happened. I can’t believe someone would do this to another human being. We lost 343 from the fire department. Just about everyone I saw that day didn’t get out."

What drives the desire to be a fireman? "That’s our job. That’s what we are trained for. These guys are our family. We depend on each other to be there." Unlike Jon Boarman who had dreams of being a fireman since he was 6 years of age, Jerry explained, "I just became a fireman – I took all the tests. I was doing ultrasound x-ray at the time, and they called me for the fire department. I just took the test… I was selected… I joined. That was 21 years ago."

"I live every day like it’s my last," Jerry described the impact of 9/11 on his life. "I don’t worry about little problems any more. I try to carry this [attitude] forth into every day now. People from all over the world supported us financially and emotionally. And New Yorkers – everyone pulled together. People came from all over the City with food, with support…with love." With a quiet chuckle he added, "It just about ruined our reputation."

"The firemen who were with me that day… we are closer. Talking about it with other firemen is not the same. Those of us who had experienced 9/11 together had a group session with a counselor. It helped…just talking about it helped."

The guys in the firehouse are "…one giant family," Jerry continued. "Some days you get along. Some days you don’t. But they are always family." Riley remains a member of the family working in the firehouse, Engine 76, Ladder 22, in administration -- he can no longer fight fires directly. "On 9/11, I stayed there [at Ground Zero] until 6:30 that evening. I had my eyes washed. None of us had masks for 2 days, and lots of us are having lung problems. Everything was pulverized, and we inhaled it all." Jon told Incredible People that he understood from the other firemen that 700 firemen are experiencing lung problems as a result of 9/11.

David Boarman, an articulate and sensitive man, having spent 3 days with Jerry Riley and the other New York firefighters of Engine 76, Ladder 22, provided a unique perspective. David asks us to recognize that in Jerry Riley’s mind, he was just one of thousands of people who participated in attempts to rescue victims and help survivors. David said he knew that, "…Jerry and the others would like us to stop making a big deal of this – it’s over, done, let’s move on. These kinds of things are continuations of 9/11 and keep opening the wounds." As an example of the kind of pain encountered by the firefighters, David reported, "Jerry took us to (fire)houses where they lost all but one person." And yet, at the same time, "…there’s an outpouring of people needing to do something. People have reached out to New York firemen and police in general. I have a sense that people were overwhelmed. People do the only thing that they can. And that is reach out."

New York City is alive and well, stronger than before. She lives in the souls of every American and every foreign national who would have it be so. Jerry Riley, we have chosen you as one person – a face we’ve come to know through the hands and creative genius of a young protégé –a representative of a family of men and women dedicated to our well being. We thank you.

"Jon," I asked, "are you still interested in becoming a fireman?"

His answer was no surprise. "Of course."

Jon Boarman on visiting Ground Zero: "We asked Jerry if we could see Ground Zero. We got a taxi and met him at the firehouse. It took only 6 minutes. In normal times, it would have been a 20- to 30-minute drive. It’s completely cordoned off -- there is no traffic. He took us to Ladder 10, Engine 10, right across from Ground Zero. The firemen call it the Penthouse. We went up some stairs, about 3 stories. We looked down into a hole about 10 stories deep. That had been where the Twin Towers stood. I asked Jerry, ‘How tall were the Twin Towers from where we are?’ He pointed to a 50-story building across the street. He said, ‘It was the height of that building times two!"

 

GlennaHeller.jpg (15834 bytes)A curious combination of high tech and rustic, Glenna Heller works as a member of Seagate Technology’s engineering information group, lives in a cabin in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains and writes by the light of her wood-burning stove amid giant California redwoods. Glenna is a 12- year student of A Course in Miracles and embraces a lifetime commitment to transformational technology, beauty and true love wherever it might be found. You can email her at glenna@cruzio.com. 

 

Hope      Courage     Determination      Compassion
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