Fire Casts a Glow on True Heroes

1StrawberriesCoverWooden-&-Me-cover-mock-upFor a Personalized Autographed copy of STRAWBERRIES IN WINTERTIME” or “WOODEN & ME” mail a check for $25 to:

Woody Woodburn

400 Roosevelt Court

Ventura, CA 93003

* * *

Thomas Fire Casts a Glow on True Heroes

When the Thomas Fire burned my father’s home down to the ground, my boyhood bedroom went up in flames.

Lost, among more valuable things, were posters of Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, Bart Starr and Leroy Kelly, and more heroes from youth.

After the smoke cleared, this clarity: How misguided to consider someone a hero because he can hit a jump shot in the clutch, zip a backhand passing shot, throw a touchdown spiral.

Today, the poster I would want to hang up is an enlargement of a photograph I saw from the atrocious Thomas Fire. It is picture of a true hero. A firefighter.

1firemencourageStriding boldly through smoke and embers toward the camera, he is faceless, a good-guy Darth Vader behind a helmeted breathing mask. His firesuit looks like an astronaut’s lunar spacesuit, except instead of white it is soot-smudged tan with rows of neon-green-and-silver reflective stripes.

From his toolbelt hangs a flashlight. His black-gloved fists clutch a crowbar and red-headed fire axe. Deacon Jones, from another poster turned to ash, never looked more fearsome. The firefighter is ready for real battle, not the gridiron kind.

Hercules’ second labor was to defeat Hydra, a monster so devilish that every time the mythical Greek god chopped off one head, two would grow back. The Thomas Fire has seemed to multiply similarly.

Thousands of real-not-mythical heroes have been laboring to defeat this Pyra beast. Heroes from throughout California and also Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Idaho and Washington.

Not only do firefighters, and other first responders, put their lives on the line – and frontline – helping others, but something that often goes underappreciated is they are thus absent from their own loved ones during trying times.

Another poster-worthy photograph taken during this Cal-amity features the black silhouette of a lone firefighter against an orange inferno backdrop. It is impossible to tell if the firefighter is walking forward toward the camera or away with back turned.

Actually, it seems certain the firefighter is stalking from the lens and towards the flames because that is what these brave heroes do.

If the world were fair and just, firefighters – not superstar athletes – would be on bedroom posters and have multimillion-dollar salaries. Like pro athletes, firefighters too often wind up with prematurely broken bodies, not to mention scarred lungs.

While it seems firefighters should wear capes, like Superman or Batman, one thing has proved beyond the powers of these real-life superheroes the past ten days: buying their own meals or cups of coffee. Seemingly every time they try, local restaurant owners or patrons pick up the tab and rightly so.1venturaspaULASTRONG

I did not know it at the time, but I was boyhood friends with two such heroes – rather, future heroes. And I have been manhood friends with a third firefighter for a quarter century.

Thinking of my friends Don and James and Hall, and their brave brethren, I am reminded of a parable about a man tossing starfish, one by one, back into the ocean after hundreds had been washed ashore by a violent storm.

A second beachcomber walks up and says dismissively, “You’re just wasting your time. There are too far many starfish for you to make a difference.”

Like stranded starfish, there have been too many threatened homes and buildings for firefighters to possibly save them all. And yet they battle on, tirelessly as the tide.

I imagine their answer while protecting a home from flames is the same the first man on the beach gave while tossing a starfish into the ocean: “I cannot save them all, but to this one I’m making a world of difference.”

One final photo: a young girl wears a disposable respirator mask outside her Ventura home. On a wall she has written, in chalk of pink and orange and blue and yellow; in block letters and in script; and written also in love: “Dear Firefighters, Thank You for Saving our Home.”

I wish every fire station could have a poster of this picture on a wall.

* * *

Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoCheck out my memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” and my essay collection “Strawberries in Wintertime: Essays on Life, Love, and Laughter” …

Column: An Unknown Hero

Wooden & Me Kickstarter Front PhotoWOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece” can be purchased here at Amazon


 *   *   *

An Unknown Hero Among Heroes

For the first five days of August, I was in the august company of heroes in our nation’s capital.

Heroes like astronauts John Glenn and Neil Armstrong and earlier fliers like Charles Lindbergh and the Wright Brothers, all in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.1-arlington

Men and women, heroes, interred in Arlington National Cemetery, a heartbreaking landscape that is ironically beautiful.

My tour of heroes included monuments for those who served in World Wars I and II; the Korean War Memorial; and the Vietnam Memorial Wall.

In the National Archives I peered at Founding heroes like Benjamin Franklin and John Hancock’s faded “John Hancocks” on the original Declaration of Independence.

And, of course, there are the marble heroes in the National Mall: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Yet the hero who arguably engraved the deepest impression on me was one I encountered shortly after my late-night arrival at Ronald Reagan National Airport when I boarded the Metro Blue Line to my downtown D.C. hotel.

The first few minutes of the ride were quiet, sans the pleasant rhythmic sounds of the train itself, when suddenly came clamor.

A passenger facing me two rows ahead in the near-empty train car – a tall, sinewy man in his 20s, his bare arms covered with long sleeves of tattoos, his electrocuted blond hair making Einstein’s look tame – jumped from his seat like a jack-in-the-box. He shouted at a goateed man, about the same age as he although shorter and stockier, sitting across the aisle.

Apparently the goateed man had “disrespected” the mangy tattooed man’s dog. In a flash the two men were nose-to-nose although only the tattooed man spoke – or rather, shouted. He cursed at the goateed man; challenged his manhood; unleashed racial taunts. Exclamation marks punctuated his torrent.

At any second I expected weapons to come out and I don’t think I was alone; a young woman facing me across the aisle looked absolutely petrified. As the vile racial epithets from the crazed tattooed man intensified, I signaled with my eyes that she – we – should sneak out the door at the next stop.1-metro

Just then, THUMP! The goateed man unloaded a punch. And another and a third. Frankly, Gandhi might not have blamed him at this point. Meanwhile, the tattooed man’s large dog remarkably remained nonviolent.

In slow motion this is what I next witnessed: a baldheaded man with his back to the fray bolted from his seat and in one fluid motion spun 180 degrees into the aisle, took three lightening-quick strides and grabbed the goateed man from behind before he could throw a fourth punch. Breaking apart two pit bulls would have required less courage.

It was as if Batman was aboard.

Sitting beside his gray-haired wife, the baldheaded man had been as unimposing as Bruce Wayne: he was wearing peach slacks and a white sweater and appeared old enough to receive Social Security.

Once he rose, however, the Teddy bear came into focus like a grizzly. If not a former NFL linebacker, my guess is he was once an Army sergeant or perhaps a retired police officer for he exuded the authority of both.

After getting between the combatants who were now both screaming bloodily at each other, the baldheaded man barked commands: “Knock it off! Now! Get out of here! Now! Before you get arrested!”

All the while the baldheaded man strode forward slowly and wide-footed, a heavyweight boxer backing up a foe, herding the goateed man towards the exit door as a German Shepherd would direct a sheep.

At the next stop the goateed man and tattooed man both got off; the baldheaded man returned to his gray-haired wife’s side; and the rest of us in the train car breathed easier.

When my stop came, I used the exit door furthest from me but nearer the baldheaded man.

“Thanks,” I said, shaking his hand. “You’re a hero.”

He smiled humbly, but appreciatively, and almost as widely as did his wife.

*   *   *

Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at

Check out my new memoir WOODEN & ME: Life Lessons from My Two-Decade Friendship with the Legendary Coach and Humanitarian to Help “Make Each Day Your Masterpiece”