One of the great things about going home from college for Thanksgiving is catching up with your old friends. We trade stories of debauchery in our respective new settings. One thing I did not expect to hear, though, was an inspiring story of pure courage.

I was a member of a volunteer fire company during my high school years. Being a volunteer firefighter took a lot of work, but it was a very rewarding experience. I didn't turn 18 until I was in college, so I was never allowed to actually enter a fully involved fire. It was too dangerous. I didn't have the proper level of training. No kid could be counted on to hold up in the face of danger if anything truly devastating happened.

I went back to the fire house for old time's sake and ran into a few of the guys that were there. We reflected on old times, and they told me countless stories of all the things that happened while I was away. One story in particular, one that had happened very recently, surpassed all the others.

My hometown has about 300 year-round residents. Many houses are occupied by their owners in the summer only, and rented out in the winter. In one of these houses lived a family of five, an old woman and her four sons whose father had abandoned them. The two older sons were off at college already, despite the fact that they had very little money. Through hard work, they obtained full rides to Rutgers. The next oldest just became a freshman in high school, 13 years of age. I'll change names to protect the innocent, so let's call him Jeff. The youngest suffers from cerebral palsy and requires constant attention. Every second of Jeff's time belongs to his brother. Their mother cannot take care of him because she spends every waking hour working.

As a result of having to take care of his brother, Jeff's life is miserable. He doesn't have any friends, and gets picked on in school all the time. He does not share the academic accomplishments of his older brothers, most likely because he has no time to himself. The life of solitude is his reward for devotion. I have never seen Jeff without his brother. I can't really fathom how much patience this must take.

Shortly after Halloween, a massive fire destroyed their house. The gas pipes in their house began to leak and a ton of gas built up in the crawlspace beneath their house. Once that happens, any miniscule spark can trigger a giant explosion, and that's exactly what happened. Their mother was in the shower at the time; the shower curtain melted onto her hair. She immediately ran out and called 911. Jeff was in the center of the house, and his brother was in a bedroom upstairs. Flames enveloped the entire house. Jeff searched for his brother, eventually found him, and carried him out. Jeff's a skinny, short kid, so it was a struggle for him to do so. Jeff practically had to drag him out. When they finally got out of the house, both boys had suffered second degree burns.

This was the worst fire my company had seen in a long time. They received the assistance of four other neighboring companies. Eventually they smothered the fire with (and I quote the Chief here) "enough PKP to suffocate a herd of elephants" and clamped up the gas pipes. The threat was over, but everything that family had was destroyed. They had Thanksgiving dinner this year at the First Aid Squad's building, where the First Aid people are holding a clothing drive for them.

Maybe I'm a bad person, but when I heard this story, something immediately popped into my head. Without having to take care of his brother, Jeff's life would improve dramatically. Jeff could have just left his brother there in the fire without checking on him. I've seen it happen. Husbands have run out of fires without their wives who were probably sleeping right next to them. Jeff's mother ran out immediately without her sons. It's not necessarily because they don't care about their family. If your house is on fire, your first instinct is to run away. You don't know if your other family members have already evacuated, and it's best left to the professionals to do what they can do to save anyone else inside.

Jeff's actions that day were extremely brave. When gas explodes and flames surround you, there is no time for hesitation. Jeff did not waste any time because his devotion to his brother was so strong. When disaster struck, he immediately thought of his brother and saved his life, badly burning himself in the process.

This year, Jeff became the first non-member of the company to win the Firefighter of the Year award.

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