For personal use and select distribution only © by Addmom

DISCLAIMER: "Emergency!" and its characters © Mark VII Productions, Inc. and Universal Studios. All rights reserved.

The poems and songs used in this story do not belong to me. I have indicated the singer/writer of each one.

No infringement of any copyrights or trademarks is intended or should be inferred. This is a work of fiction, and any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental. This story is only written for entertainment. No financial gain is being realized from it. The story, itself, is the property of the author. Please ask before archiving elsewhere and/or using characters created by the author.

I am in no way connected to the medical profession and take responsibility for all mistakes in dealing with treatments, diseases, etc.

Warning: Major Character Death

Friendship Thrown Away or a Special Gift Received?

 

Johnny sighed as he headed into the station. Today was a new day, but he was sure that it would be just like every shift the last few months had been. The decision he had made as he got dressed that morning weighed heavily on his mind, but he knew it was the only way things were going to change. Just when he thought things were looking up and his life had changed for the better, he was brought back to reality once again. It hurt that he no longer looked forward to coming to work and doing a job he really loved—a job that meant the world to him. He loved the guys he worked with, but something needed to change. Not knowing how to make that change he had reached a decision that he had never wanted to make.

He hoped that the locker room would be empty, but it seemed all the guys were there in various stages of getting dressed taking their time. It was like they were waiting for something to happen and he knew what the something was. What was it going to be today and would he get any relief? Not looking forward to what lay ahead but wanting to get it over with, he opened the door.

“Hey, Roy, Beth said to say thank you again. We had a great time last night.” Mike had not seen Johnny enter the locker room.

“Yeah, Emily said she needed that get together. It helped her relax.” Cap looked up as he heard the door open. “Good morning, John.”

“Good morning, Cap. Good morning everyone,” Johnny was not in the mood for pleasantries. From what he had just overheard, he knew that the crew and their families had gotten together again and he was left out—again. Oh, they still invited him when someone actually thought about it, but usually he learned of the gatherings the next morning when they were discussing them. This one hurt the most, however, because yesterday was his birthday—and they had gathered without him—and they didn’t even realize it or remember his birthday. Or maybe they did. The pain ran deep because he always made sure that they were honored and remembered on their birthdays.

Noticing the glances he was receiving out of the corner of everyone’s eyes he knew something was in store for him. What would it be this time? The water and flour bombs were bad enough, but the last few months, there had been a fake tomahawk, an Indian doll in war paint, a “peace pipe”, and several other poor references to his heritage. At first it had been hard, but he could accept it. But it had been leaning more and more towards prejudice and it hurt even though he knew it was only out of ignorance and not real prejudice. He opened the door to his locker accepting whatever lay behind it. When he was hit with a “water balloon” filled with honey, the rest of the crew broke into laughter.

“Hey pal, ten minutes to roll call. You’d better get cleaned up or you’ll be late.” Cap was laughing with the rest of the guys.

Not saying a word, Johnny grabbed his uniform and his shower supplies and headed for the shower. He was thankful to hear Hank telling Chet that he needed to clean up the mess. At least that would be taken care of. Maybe someone would listen to him today. And then again maybe not—the laughter followed as he closed the door between him and his so-called friends. His thoughts went back to the decision he had made that morning and he knew that it was the right one.

***************************

As Roy walked with the rest of the crew through the bay towards the dayroom he thought about the look he had seen quickly pass over Johnny’s face when the “honey” bomb had hit. It had been one of sorrow and pain mixed. But it had passed by so quickly that he gave it no more thought. Johnny would forgive this incident just like he had every other one. He briefly thought of how he would react if he had been the target and then let it go since the target was Johnny and he always forgave. The fact that he gave no more thought to his friend’s feelings would later haunt Roy. It would be something he would always regret for the rest of his life.

***************************

Johnny took his shower and dressed in record time. He actually had five minutes left before roll call so he thought he would take the opportunity to talk to Captain Stanley. Just as he arrived at the Captain’s door, the tones sounded sending the engine out on a run. Even though it was before their official starting time, the A-shift crew took the call. As they pulled out of the station, Johnny put the papers he was holding in a spot in the squad where no one would find them until he was ready to give them to the Captain and started checking the squad supplies.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” Roy had been surprised that Johnny had not come into the kitchen when the engine left.

“Sure, thanks.” Johnny took the cup Roy offered and set it on the running board of the squad.

“Man did we ever have a busy weekend. I probably should have called you on Saturday. I could have used your help in getting Joanne’s honey-do-list done.”

“Oh?” Johnny had long stopped telling any of the others about his off time even though he knew every detail of theirs. They never wanted to listen or teased him unmercifully about something that happened.

“Yeah, she wanted everything done before everyone arrived for the barbeque yesterday afternoon.” As he made the statement, something niggled at Roy. Just as he realized that Johnny had not been there and then that he had not even told his partner about it the tones sent the squad on their first run of the day.

***************************

Johnny had ridden in with the patient. He was covered in blood from the accident scene and the contents of his patient’s stomach. But even that could not make him feel any lower than he had since arriving at the station that morning.

Dixie had noticed the lack of sparkle in Johnny’s eye and wondered what was going on. She had just invited him for a cup of coffee, when Roy arrived.

“There you are. Let’s get back to the station. We don’t have all day to just hang out.” Roy knew that the Captain was waiting on them to get roll call out of the way and Roy wanted to get it over with. He didn’t stop to think about how his words sounded to both Johnny and Dixie.

Dixie gave him a look of surprise. Johnny was not just hanging out. When she noticed the look of sadness quickly pass over Johnny’s face, she determined to talk to Johnny before the shift was over. Then she saw the stoic unemotional mask that Johnny slipped behind and knew that unless something drastic happened, there was a wall between John Gage and the rest of the world.

“Sure, let’s go.” Johnny squared his shoulders and retreated internally to the place where no one could or would hurt him again. He had left that safe haven about a year after starting to work with the A-shift because he thought he didn’t need it anymore. Now he knew he was wrong and that was where he would stay for the rest of his life.

***************************

On the way back to the station, Roy noticed his partner was quiet. Thinking about it, Roy realized that Johnny was no longer the hyper, out-going man who had become his partner four years ago. He had been withdrawn for several months now. He also thought about the fact that they had not invited Johnny to the get together the day before. Not sure how to broach the subject, he wanted to find out what Johnny was thinking. “Johnny, is something wrong?” Roy had a feeling that he could not quite put his finger on.

“I just wish Kelly would give me a break with the pranks and bombs.” Johnny hoped that since Roy was the one to ask that maybe he would listen this time.

“Oh, Johnny, you know it is just Chet being Chet and it is the way to release tension in the station. He’s not hurting anyone. You just have to learn to stay out of his way more. You know it is all in fun. You just need to forget about it.” Roy glanced at Johnny but missed the look of pain that crossed his face. He hadn’t missed, however, the use of Chet’s last name. Something was not quite right. He was just glad that Johnny had not mentioned the gathering at Roy’s house.

“Yeah, sure, you’re right.” Johnny knew that would be the response he got but he had tried anyway.

Nothing more could be said before Roy backed the squad into the station. As he exited the squad he was shocked when he noticed that Johnny’s face was void of any emotion. There was a wall there and something deep within Roy told him he might want to find out what the cause was—that maybe he had even contributed to it. But he didn’t feel like dealing with it right at that moment—he had enough with the frustrations he had in his family life that morning and he didn’t feel like trying to solve anyone else’s petty problems. This was another instance that Roy would look back on and regret.

As soon as the squad arrived back at the station, Captain Stanley called for the delayed roll call. After he gave out assignments—giving Johnny latrine duty, everyone headed into the dayroom to get a cup of coffee before starting their chores. Talk once again turned to the barbeque they had the day before and Johnny poured his coffee out and started out of the room.

“Hey, where are you going? Are you too good to socialize with us?” Chet was in full “get my pigeon” mode.

Instead of answering his nemesis, Johnny turned to look at the others in the room. “Cap, can I talk to you in your office for a few minutes, please?”

“Sure pal. Give me a minute to finish this cup and I’ll be right with you.” Captain Stanley wasn’t sure what his junior paramedic wanted to talk to him about. He really hoped it wasn’t to complain about Kelly again. By the time he arrived at his office, Johnny had retrieved the papers from the squad and was waiting for him just outside his office door. “Come in. What can I do for you?”

“Captain Stanley, could you please talk to Kelly and ask him to tell the phantom to back off a little?” Johnny hoped that maybe something could be done. “Or maybe he could change the target once in awhile.”

“Well, now Pal, the honey was a little overboard today and I told him no more of that type of thing, but the pranks are all a part of releasing the stress. You know that. And all of us have been targets of Chet’s pranks. I think you are just overreacting because it was honey and not water or flour today.” It did not escape his attention that Johnny had called him Captain Stanley and used Chet’s last name when referring to him. Something niggled in the back of Hank’s mind but he would try to figure out what was bothering him later. By then it would be too late. “Is there anything else?” As he looked directly at Johnny, Hank was taken aback by the fact that Johnny’s face was void of any emotion.

“Yeah, I have….” Johnny never got to finish his sentence as the tones sounded sending several stations to a large warehouse fire. He sighed—it would just have to wait until they returned.

***************************

The fire was huge. There were ten stations battling the fire. Johnny had been sent in paired with two firefighters while Roy was attending to some of the victims they had already rescued. Johnny had a bad feeling that if they didn’t get out soon, they wouldn’t get out at all. His sixth sense was telling him the place was going to explode and the center of the problem lay in front of them. But the fire was raging behind them. There was a small window of opportunity if they took it now. Just as Johnny was about to call Captain Stanley and let him know, his HT came to life.

“Gage, get out of there now. Head out the front. There are two teams focused on the front entrance.”

“Cap, my instincts are telling me we need to head out the back way and that we’ll never make it out the front.” Johnny had motioned for Don Green and Bill Sands to follow him out the back. “We need to head out the rear entrance NOW.”

“Gage, the fire is out of control back there. There’s no way you can make it out the rear entrance. Now head out the front where we are waiting for you. That is your best chance.”

“Cap, my gut instincts are telling me that we would be in trouble if we go out the front.” Johnny had a sixth sense that everyone in the department knew about and relied on. He had never been wrong yet. Not sure why his Captain was questioning something that had saved the members of Station 51’s A-shift more times than anyone could even remember, Johnny led the other firefighters toward the back. He would have to deal with his Captain’s wrath later. “We’re heading for the back. Can you let them know?” Johnny had a feeling he couldn’t shake and started towards the back.

Don and Bill paused, but both had worked with Johnny before and had experienced his “feelings” first hand. They turned and began to follow him the opposite way logic would demand. It would be several days later when Captain Stanley would realize that those actions had saved the three firemen’s lives. But by that time things would have drastically changed for the A-shift of Station 51.

Keeping his anger in check for the moment, Hank never paid attention to Johnny’s statement about his instincts. If he had, he would have realized that Johnny was right, but as it was he just radioed Captain Anderson and told him to watch for the three firemen. He would deal with Johnny when they got back to the station.

The explosion rocked the building and sent all the firefighters ducking for cover. Hoses were quickly grabbed as everyone jumped to their feet when the debris stopped raining. As Captains quickly did a head count to determine where all the firefighters were fighting the fire, they realized three were unaccounted for—John Gage from station 51, Don Green from station 16 and Bill Sands from station 84. The controlled chaos grew more frantic as the search team gathered to search for their missing brothers. As they entered the front door, they were met with a pile of debris they knew buried their fellow firefighters—a pile that would take them a long time to get through.

***************************

John Gage fought the darkness that threatened to engulf him. He needed to help the other two firefighters that were with him. Finding them was what he needed to do—he had to stay awake. Taking stock of his own injuries, he knew he had a head injury—the blood running down the back of his neck indicated that. The hand that he had touched to his side had come away bloody, too. As he started to try to move the debris that covered him, he realized he was hearing three different sounds. The first was the sounds of the rescue team coming from the front and back of the debris. The second was the sound of scared children crying—at least three if not more. The last was the faint cry for help of a woman. Because the last sound was getting weaker with each cry and because he knew help was coming for the firefighters, Johnny focused on the two other sounds that were coming from the back of the building and pushed off the debris covering him. It took him longer than he wanted, but he made it. Later no one would ever know how he succeeded in removing the timbers that were pinning him down. Nor would they ever figure out how he was able to even move.

Taking a second to gain his bearings, Johnny made sure the sounds he heard from the search teams were getting closer to the other two trapped men and headed back towards the crying sounds he was hearing. Knowing the fire was advancing, Johnny hurried back where he found a five-year old girl huddled in the corner. Quickly arriving at her side, he was able to determine that she had two sisters and two brothers who were trying to help their mother who had been pinned by a large bookcase after the explosion.

The firefighters needed another hand, but all personnel were occupied. The men had been buried for an hour. Although they were gaining on the beast, no more personnel could be released to assist with the search. Emotions were running high. The fire in the back had been brought under control, but it was still there. They were able to attack the search from both sides. Captain Stanley would realize when he started to write his report for headquarters that the pile of debris was not as impenetrable from the rear as it was from the front. There was a lot more debris from the front than anyone had anticipated. As it would be much later that Captain Stanley would realize that had the men gone out the front as he had commanded, they would have been killed. Johnny’s “feeling” had led them away from the scene of the largest collapse after the explosion. All he could think about right now was there was what seemed an almost insurmountable pile of debris in front of them and they had three firefighters to account for. No one was sure where they even were at the moment of the explosion.

Johnny had lifted the heavy book case that was pinning down the woman he had found and carried her out of the building racing before a flare up that had just occurred. It was another incident he would not remember or be able to explain. After laying her down on the blanket Tom Stevens had laid out, he bent down to rub the head of the five-year old girl. The other four kids all gathered and tried to hug him at once. Tom saw the blood running down Johnny’s neck and saw the wince that crossed Johnny’s face when the kids hugged him.

“Hey, Johnny, I think you need to be checked out, too.” Tom tried to keep Johnny from leaving.

“You’re right, Tom. He was buried—I saw where he came out of right now and I don’t know how he even got out of there. I know he was buried and but I don’t know how he got out. But there is a lot of debris and he really needs to be checked out. Jimmy there told me that Johnny moved the bookcase and got his mother out. But Johnny had to have been injured in that explosion.” Captain Anderson had seen Johnny coming out of the building.

Before either man could say anything else, another voice was heard. “Hey, Gage, quit goofing off with those kids. They need more help in there getting out Don and Bill. What did you do, leave them behind? Didn’t you even try to help them? Are you too good to help your fellow firefighters?” Sam Carlson had seen that Johnny was injured, but his prejudice ran deep. Johnny had received the assignment at Station 51 that Sam felt should have been his brother’s. It didn’t matter that his brother had failed the firefighter training a year before Johnny even graduated. Nor did it matter that his brother had not even been around to try to become a paramedic—he had washed out long before. It didn’t matter that his brother had actually tried to kill one of his fellow students in the academy which had landed him behind bars. Johnny’s Native American blood gave Sam all the reason he needed to hate the man and blame him for his brother’s failures. His comments would start a series of events that could very easily cost John Gage his life.

Captain Stanley turned at the sound of Sam’s voice and saw John Gage surrounded by kids. It looked like he was playing with them. “Gage, get over here and help us. We need your help in getting Don and Bill out of there. What do you think you are doing? Where did you leave them? Did you leave them trapped in there so you could come out and play with those kids?” He couldn’t believe his eyes—they were trying to get two firefighters out and John Gage was surrounded by a bunch of kids. Hank was still angry with Johnny for going out the back way instead of heeding his instructions and didn’t even consider that Johnny might be checking the kids out for injuries. It never occurred to him to find out where the kids even came from and what they were doing there. The fact that his anger at the fight he had with his wife that morning and the circumstances surrounding that fight made him not think rationally about the situation. His anger in his personal life fueled the anger in his professional life. It would be later that he would realize that it was the first time he had let his personal and professional life mix and it could cost the life of one of his men.

“Captain Stanley, Gage really needs to be checked out. He was…” Tom Stevens knew that Johnny was in a bad way, but he never had a chance to finish what he was saying.

“He needs to get over here now! He left those two men in there and if he had followed my instructions, they would gotten out safely.” He didn’t think about it until later that Johnny was in the middle of the fire and would have been better able to assess the situation than he did from outside. It was just that one of his men had gone against his instructions—even if that man had a sixth sense that even headquarters relied on when the need arose. The question of how Johnny had gotten out of the building while the other two were buried would not cross Captain Stanley’s mind until later—when it was too late. The fact that Johnny might have been inside that building when it exploded would not occur to him until much later.

Captain Anderson called to Hank several times. He had seen the blood and knew that somehow Johnny had gotten himself out from under all the debris. Captain Anderson didn’t know how, but he prayed that Hank Stanley would realize it, too, and at least make sure John Gage was ok. John Gage would never leave anyone behind. He had brought out a victim and had not had the time to go back it, but Captain Anderson knew that no matter how badly injured he was, John Gage would have been back in that building as soon as possible given the chance. As it was Hank was not in the mood for someone to make excuses for John Gage and ignored the concerns of the other Captain and his crew.

Johnny just shrugged and jogged painfully over to his Captain who steered him into help with the search. Johnny never said a word but did as his Captain commanded.

***************************

It had taken the search team another half hour after Johnny had joined them to get the two men out. Both men were in critical condition and had been sent to the hospital with the paramedics from Station 84.

Just before the ambulance took off, Tom Stevens once again tried to make sure Johnny was taken care of. “Captain Stanley, Johnny really needs to be checked out. He was injured in that explosion.” Tom hoped the Captain would pay attention, but he didn’t like the look of disgust the Captain gave him as he closed the ambulance doors.

“Hey, Roy, Tom Stevens says you need to check out your partner. He said that he was hurt in the explosion. I don’t know how though, he was outside with a bunch of kids while Don and Bill were buried under all that rubble.” Hank had a pang of guilt that maybe there was more to the situation, but he was still angry at his wife and that just kept his anger at Johnny fueled.

“Where are you hurt?” Annoyance dripped from every word Roy spoke. He was going through a problem at home, too. His son was having trouble with some other kids at school and was causing major problems. Roy and Joanne had discussed it the entire evening last night. The discussion had continued this morning before Roy had left for work. He knew that Chris was going to be meeting with his teacher and principal during the day and he would be hearing from Joanne as soon as Chris arrived home. Like his superior, his problems in his personal life spilled over into his professional life. He had heard the comments Sam Carlson’s best friend, and later Sam himself, made as the group dug out the two firefighters. Sam had joined the search teams when they got the fire out. He made sure that everyone knew Johnny had been “playing” with a bunch of kids. Most of the men there knew Johnny and Sam. Several wondered how Johnny could keep his cool when what was being said was lies and how the rest of Station 51’s crew could let the comments keep coming.

“My head and my side.” Johnny knew that everyone was angry with him, but he wasn’t sure why. He thought his Captain would realize that had they followed his orders, all three men would have been killed. Roy’s anger surprised him. Not knowing what he had done, he quietly followed Roy to the squad to be checked over.

Roy did something he had never done on the job and would never do again. He was about to learn a very hard lesson that would haunt him the rest of his life and he would never forget. Knowing that crews were close to being done with cleanup, Roy let his mind drift to the problems that he was dealing with at home. The problems they were having with Chris at school were starting to flow over to Jenny who was starting to follow in her brother’s footsteps. He knew that Joanne was going to call him and he really needed to apologize to her for the way he had acted. He had been way out of line. That’s why his mind was not focused on his job and he would regret it for the rest of his life.

Roy ran his hand over Johnny’s head, but didn’t find any lumps or lacerations—because he didn’t even check the right location. He never checked out Johnny’s side. But he wasn’t really concentrating on what he was doing—Johnny had walked out of the building while two other firefighters were carried out, so he had to be ok. Roy was thinking about the phone call he knew he would be having with his wife when they got back to the station. Roy would regret his distraction for the rest of his life.

“How is he?” Captain Stanley had come over to see if his youngest crew member was really hurt. He would hold off on his “talk” with the man until they returned to the station.

“He’ll be sore for awhile and have a headache, but he’ll live.”

“Do you think you should run him into Rampart?”

“No, he’ll be fine with a couple of aspirin and some rest.” Roy’s words would come back to haunt him later. He knew the hidden problems that could arise with a head injury, but wasn’t thinking about his job.

“But Roy, the pain is more—“ Johnny never got to finish his sentence.

“Johnny, you know you always make something out of nothing. I didn’t find any bruises or lumps. You are going to be just fine. Now it is getting close to lunch time and I am getting hungry.” Roy knew that Hank would be dealing with Johnny and that he would be a part of that meeting. After all, Johnny was neglecting his duty. Bells should have been sounding loudly in Roy’s head. Johnny always played down his injuries—especially when he was hurt the worse. Roy would dread his words for the rest of his life. And he should have remembered that Johnny never neglected his duty.

“Yeah, pal. I’m getting hungry, too. Let’s get back to the station.” Hank was still angry with Johnny and would deal with him when they got back. He did something he had never done before on the job. He let his mind think about his home life rather that what was happening right now on his job. Both men missed the excruciating pain that crossed Johnny’s face as he stood up to follow his partner. It was another situation both men would regret.

***************************

The atmosphere in the squad on the trip back to Station 51 was tense. Johnny had tried to talk to Roy and tell him that he thought he needed medical assistance. But all Roy did was said that they would talk about it in the Captain’s office when they got back to the station and he didn’t want to hear any more from Johnny at that time. Johnny turned to watch the passing landscape out the side window realizing none of his crewmates were going to listen to him.

When they arrived back at the station, Johnny knew something had to be done about his back and head. “Roy, I think I need to go to Rampart.” But that was as far as he got.

As soon as the squad and engine had backed into the bay, Captain Stanley looked at Johnny. “I want to see you and Roy in my office immediately.” He didn’t wait for a response and Johnny saw that his partner had already joined his Captain on the way to his office.

Johnny looked at the three remaining crew members to see what their reactions were. He only saw anger in their eyes. He realized that for some reason they all believed he was at fault and had not been doing his job. Straightening his shoulders, Johnny knew what he had to do. With a heavy heart he headed towards his Captain’s office.

“Roy, will you please tell Mr. Gage here what the time he wasted playing with those kids may have cost Don Green and Bill Sands?” Captain Stanley gave his youngest crew member a hard look.

“Well, they lost more blood than they needed to. If he had been there, we would have been able to get them out at least fifteen to thirty minutes earlier if not more. They were both in critical condition. I just hope they make it.” Roy’s voice was hard.

“But I wasn’t playing with those kids, I….” Johnny had been trying to explain since the fire what had really happened, but none of his crew had seen the woman he had brought out.

“I don’t want to hear it. When I looked over those kids were all over you. I don’t want to hear any excuses. Plus you disobeyed me when I told you to get out of the building and that we were waiting with hoses at the front of the building. Not only that, you led Don and Bill into a situation where they were critically injured. You are suspended without pay for the rest of this shift. Depending on what headquarters determines, you may be suspended longer or further actions may be taken. You are relieved of duty as of now.” Captain Stanley turned his back on the young man and Roy turned his head away from Johnny’s pleading eyes.

Just as he had figured, no one would listen and he knew he was right. No one saw the tear slip down his face as he turned and headed out of the office and to the dorm. He knew that Roy and Captain Stanley would be joining the others in the dayroom, so after hanging up his turnout coat, he slipped into the locker room, grabbed everything in his locker and left through the back door. With one last look at the station that had been his “home” for four years, he drove out of the parking lot.

When he had driven as far away from the station as the pain in his head and side would allow, he pulled into a shopping center parking lot. Finding a pay phone he dialed 911 to call for help. Then he placed a second call that would change the lives of the A-shift crew of Station 51 forever.

He didn’t know that both Hank and Roy were beginning to have second thoughts as pangs of guilt hit both of them. Both men had to fill out paperwork for the call and as they started writing down the details, little things began to nip at their consciences.

***************************

“Squad 35, code-I Station Street Shopping Center. Cross Street Stevens. Time out 13:45.” Sam’s voice came over the loud speaker just as Craig Brice walked into the building to replace Johnny for the rest of the shift.

Seeing the paramedic and knowing they were closer, Captain Stanley ran to the alcove to call dispatch and let them know that Squad 51 was available to take the call. However the response he received was totally unexpected. “LA, Squad 51 is available to respond to the call at the Station Street Shopping Center.”

“Negative Squad 51.” Sam’s voice almost thundered through the building. All the men heard the response and wondered what was going on. They all hurried into the bay to listen to the rest of the conversation they knew would be taking place.

“Repeat, LA? We are closer and can respond. Our replacement paramedic has arrived and Squad 51 is available.” The look of surprise on Captain Stanley’s face was mirrored on the other men standing near him.

“Negative on Squad 51 responding. Victim specifically asked that 51 not respond. Also, Station 51 is stood down until Chief McConnikee arrives.”

“10-4 LA” Captain Stanley could not keep the look of shock off his face. McConnikee was coming? The victim—a Code I—had specifically asked that they not respond? What was this all about?

Four of the six men walked into the dayroom wondering what had just happened.

Craig Brice had not been involved in the fire and did not know what had happened, so he was no help. “Captain, what was Gage’s chore. If he didn’t finish it, I will complete it.”

“He had latrine duty, but I can reassign someone.” Hank was in a daze.

“No, that will be fine. I will complete the task.” Craig Brice knew something big had happened and wanted to give the men a chance to talk.

***************************

Gil Robinson had been working with Tom Stevens and was worried about his friend. Because of a hit he had taken to his ribs at that fire, he was given the rest of the shift off on medical leave to let them heal. He was glad they were only bruised. Because of the seriousness of the two firefighters, he had to wait several hours to get treatment, but he wasn’t complaining. He did wonder, though, how badly Johnny had been injured, but he hadn’t heard that he had been brought to Rampart. All of the crew members of Station 16 had seen Johnny, Don and Bill enter the structure just before the explosion. After the debris had settled they looked into the building and saw the pile that had covered the three men. They gave a silent prayer of thanks that the men had seemed to be headed out of the back of the building instead of having gone further into the front of the building where the center of the explosion was. However, they weren’t able to get into it from the back because the fire had roared to life and was preventing their entrance. That’s why they were all surprised when Johnny came out of the building carrying the woman with five children hanging onto his coat. Even from where he was, Gil could tell that Johnny had been injured.

Wanting to know how his friend was, Gil decided to stop into 51’s to see if they had any word on his condition. There had been a major MVA just as he was getting released so he couldn’t ask the Rampart personnel about Johnny. He figured he would get the word from Johnny’s crewmates. He was glad when both the squad and engine were in the bay when he drove in. Entering through the dayroom door, he saw the crew had just started a late dinner. He noticed that Craig Brice was working with Roy.

“Hey, Gil, what brings you here? Aren’t you on duty?” Roy was surprised to see the paramedic.

“I got hit in the ribs at the fire and Brackett sent me home to let them heal. I’ll only miss the rest of this shift. I just left Rampart and thought I would stop here on my way home. The emergency department was hit with a major MVA so there wasn’t anyone there I could ask so I stopped in to see how Johnny was. How badly was he injured?” Gil was surprised at the anger he seemed to feel coming from Johnny’s crewmates. “He must have been injured badly enough to be sent home or require a hospital stay. I noticed Brice is here.”

“Mr. Gage was sent home alright, but not because he was injured. He has been suspended for at least the rest of this shift if not longer.” Captain Stanley’s voice had a hardness to it Gil Robinson had never heard.

“Suspended? For what?” Gil wondered what had transpired since the fire.

“For disobeying my instructions and goofing off with those kids instead of doing his job—Don and Bill could have died during that time he was fooling around. He is lucky they are going to be ok. Otherwise I would have asked for his resignation.” He hadn’t found Johnny’s resignation letter on his desk where Johnny had left it.

“What instructions did he disobey? And he wasn’t goofing with---” Like Johnny, Gil never got the opportunity to finish his statement.

“We don’t want to hear any excuses. It is about time he took responsibility for his actions.” Roy was tired—tired of excuses—tired of working with Brice—just plain tired. And he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

The tones sounded sending the squad on a run. As Roy, Brice and Captain Stanley ran into the bay, Gil followed them on a hunch. As Roy and Brice climbed into the squad and Captain Stanley answered the call, Gil walked over to where Johnny’s turnout coat was hanging. Looking inside, he saw what he was afraid of. The inside was still wet from all the blood Johnny had lost. “Captain Stanley---” Gil wanted to prove that Johnny had been doing his job. “I’d like to show you something.”

When Captain Stanley saw that Gil was holding Johnny’s turnout coat, he turned away. Just before entering his office again he turned back to Gil. “I know you are Johnny’s friend, but trying to make excuses for him isn’t going to change anything. I told him to get Don and Bill and get out of the building. They were to come out the front as we had hoses waiting and knew that the fire was closing in from the back. But, no—he had to take them out the back and look what happened.” Then he turned and headed back into his office. But as he entered, Gil never saw the pained look that crossed Hank’s face as he recalled not only Johnny’s words about his instincts about the situation, but also the many times Johnny’s instincts had saved several men’s lives.

Gil exited out the back door. He had no desire to see the men Johnny had called his family for the last four years. They had turned their back on the one person who would have given his life for any one of them. His heart was heavy. The A-shift crew of Station 51 and Roy DeSoto’s family had been the only family Johnny had. And now they were gone. They didn’t care about what happened to him. What did his friend have to live for now?

***************************

Hank entered his office and just sat behind his desk. Why had a victim—a code I—ask that they not respond? It was then he noticed the papers sticking out from under a file on his desk. Pulling them out he realized they were Johnny’s resignation papers. A large knot started forming in his stomach. Hank recalled his words about asking for Johnny’s resignation. But now that he had those very papers in his hand, the knot in his stomach grew to an over inflated basketball. Why would Johnny want to resign? As Hank thought back over the situation today, he realized that Johnny had been on the receiving end of many such “talks” that were totally unfounded. For some reason unbidden thoughts of different events over the last several months made Hank realize that Johnny had been treated like an outsider lately. That thought brought another question—why wouldn’t Johnny want to resign?

Taking the papers, he left his office to go talk to the rest of his crew. Hopefully one of them could shed some light on what he hoped was just a figment of his imagination. But his gut feeling was telling him, they had made a horrible mistake. That feeling grew when he heard Squad 35 request a life flight indicating time was of the essence. Trying to deny it, Hank Stanley knew who the Code I was.

“Cap, what is going on?” Chet was afraid to hear the answer, but he had to know for sure. He, too, knew that the Code I was Johnny and he was afraid that Johnny was in deep trouble.

“Let’s all sit down.” Hank wasn’t sure where to start. He looked at each of the crew as they all found a seat. “First, I found these on my desk just now. It is Johnny’s resignation and a letter to me, a letter to Roy and a letter to the whole crew.” Guilt started flooding over Hank Stanley and he was powerless to prevent it.

“His resignation?” Roy joined his Captain in the flood of guilt that was beginning to fill the room. As with Captain Stanley and Chet, Roy was sure that the Code I was Johnny.

“Yeah.” Hank knew what he had to say next would not be taken well. “And I think that Code I is Johnny.”

“Johnny? I have a feeling you’re right. But if he was injured enough to need the life flight they just asked for, wouldn’t we have noticed it at the fire?” Chet remembered the comments of Sam Carlson and his friend. None of them had stopped the two men and they had not stuck up for Johnny either.

“He was hurt. I checked him over, but I wasn’t really giving him my full attention. I wanted to get back here in time for me to be prepared for the call I knew I would be getting from Joanne about my kids. I was thinking about how to handle the situation. I even told him he always made something out of nothing. He said that he thought he really should be checked out at Rampart when we arrived back here at the station. But instead of listening to him, I just went into Cap’s office and blamed him for Don and Bill not getting help sooner. Some paramedic I am.” Roy knew that not only had he made a huge mistake he would have to answer for—he had let his best friend down. “I should have known when he asked to go to Rampart that something was wrong—he only goes fighting and kicking—he never asks to go. Some friend I am.”

“And I told him at the scene that Roy had checked him out and I was hungry. When we got back here, I didn’t listen. He tried talking to us, but I told him to leave. When I called them out of the fire, he said his instincts were telling him they would never make it out of the front door. I told him he was wrong and got angry when he led the others out the back. And like Roy, I should have realized there was something wrong—he never shirks his duty and he would never disobey an order unless it meant the safety of others. But, like Roy, I was thinking of what was going on at home and not what was happening here.” Hank knew that he would be facing his chief regarding how he had handled the entire situation.

***************************

Craig Brice had finished the latrine and headed back towards the dayroom. When he heard Chief McConnikee’s voice, he wandered out to the back of the station.

Captain Stanley called for all the men to gather in the dayroom when the Chief asked him to. “Chief, what can we do for you?” Hank detected a hint of underlying anger in the Chief’s voice.

“I would like to hear from each of you your version of events of what happened at the fire today. I need them to complete my inquiry into the event.”

As the circumstances surrounding the fire began to unfold, all five men knew they had destroyed their family. With each sentence the knots in their stomachs grew tighter and tighter.

Captain Stanley looked at each of his men and started. “Well, I radioed for Johnny to grab Don and Bill and get out of the building because the fire was getting faster and hotter. I told him to head for the front as we would have hoses on them. But he said his instincts were telling him to go out the back. After the explosion we were looking for them. We all assumed John was in the building with the other firefighters. We had been working for about 45 minutes when I heard Sam Carlson yell at Gage to stop playing with the kids and get to work. I called him over and sent him in to help. It took another half hour to get the two men extricated from the building. Had he been doing his job instead of having left them there in the first place, we could have gotten them out at least 30 minutes earlier and they wouldn’t have lost so much blood.”

“I see. Did you ask him about his instincts and apparent disregard of your orders? He was inside the building. You were on the outside. Did you take a really good look at where the center of the explosion was; where the major damage was, and think about where the three men would have been had they followed your orders? Would they be alive today? Did any of the other firefighters say anything to you? Was there any indication remark Sam made that led you to believe John Gage really was goofing off? And how do you know you could have gotten the men out at least 30 minutes earlier?”

“Tom Stevens started to say something about him needing to be checked out, but I didn’t let him finish. And I think Captain Anderson was trying to get my attention but I didn’t respond.” Hank’s guilt was starting to grow and the knot tighten.

“Why didn’t you let Tom Stevens finish? Captain Anderson probably felt confident that you would make sure everyone involved was ok and let you get away with not responding. After all, what Captain doesn’t make sure all his men are ok after a fire like that?” Before Hank could answer, Chief McConnikee turned to the other men. “Did any of you see John Gage either before or when your Captain called for him?” His words were hitting home to the five permanent members of A-shift. They really hadn’t asked Johnny if he was ok.

“I saw him with five kids hanging onto him.” Mike had seen the same thing that his Captain did. “But I didn’t see anything before that. He actually could have been trying to check them out. I was paying attention to the gauges and really didn’t notice.” Mike began to question what he had really seen. He, like his Captain, was beginning to realize there was something terribly wrong with this situation.

“How about the rest of you—did you see anything? Did anyone else tell you he was goofing off?”

“I heard Sam Carlson yelling for Gage to stop playing with the kids and asked him why he left Don and Bill inside.” Chet had been close to the man who had started this whole process rolling. “I didn’t see him until after Cap had yelled for him. But now that you mention it, no one else said anything except for Sam’s best friend. While we were inside digging Don and Bill out, the two of them kept make snide remarks and jabs at Johnny.” Sure Chet thought of Johnny as his pigeon and his pranks had become a little viscous lately, but he really didn’t want Johnny to leave their crew. He owed the man a huge apology.

“Everyone in the department knows that Sam has a hatred for Johnny. He thinks that Johnny got his job just because he is an Indian and that he got the assignment here that his brother should have gotten. I know that all of you are as aware of that fact as anyone else.” Craig Brice had entered the kitchen to get a glass of water and couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Johnny would never neglect his duty or leave anyone behind. But Johnny, like all the other firefighters, knew victims came first.

“Marco and I were inside working with the others to free Don and Bill, and heard Sam and his friend make all those remarks about Johnny.” Roy’s nagging voice was beginning to become a huge knot in his stomach. “But no one else said anything.”

“What happened on the way back to the station and once you arrived here?”

“Well, John started to say something about needing to be checked out or something. I didn’t want to hear what I wanted to believe were just his excuses, so I cut him off. I didn’t want to hear his whining.” Roy knew now that something was very wrong. But he was still trying to justify his actions.

“And as soon as we got back, I sent him home for disobeying my instructions and for not doing his job. I faxed all the paperwork to your office.” Hank had the same feeling Roy had—that something was terribly wrong.

“Well, after my investigation, my findings verify my conclusion that none of you really cared about what really happened in that building. I am going to tell you what I have found out and let each of you think about it. I haven’t quite decided what actions will be taken from here—it may depend on what happens with Johnny.

“John Gage’s instincts led the three men away from the center of the explosion. Had they followed your instructions, Hank, all three men would have been buried and killed instantly. As it was, they were far enough away from the major part of the blast that although they were buried and injured, they did survive. Johnny was buried under that same pile of debris as Don Green and Bill Sands in that building. No one is sure how, but he was able to get out from under several timbers in that pile and find those five kids that you all seem to believe he was playing with and their mother who was trapped under a heavy bookcase. The timbers he moved would later take four men to move. He was able to move the bookcase that trapped the mother, which later took eight men to move, and carried her out of the building through a spray of water with those five children hanging onto his coat. What you saw was those kids thanking him for getting their mother out and his assurance that she would indeed be ok. No one knows how he moved the large pieces of timber off himself, or the bookcase or even stayed on his feet to go back in there when you ordered him to. Captain Anderson told me that Johnny should have been flat on his back. He had seen were Johnny was just before the explosion and knew that he had to have been in the same area as Don and Bill. But Johnny stayed on his feet and went back inside and---” The Chief stopped himself. He wanted to tell these men that those actions may well cost Johnny his life. But Johnny had given specific requests that no one on the A-shift receive any information about him.

“You mean he was injured?” Captain Stanley remembered Tom Stevens trying to tell him something and he had cut the paramedic off.

“What type of injuries did he have? How badly was he hurt?” Roy remembered Johnny trying to talk to him in the squad.

“The only piece of information I can give you is that John Gage called me and has resigned from the department. None of you will ever have to worry about working with him again. Don and Bill suffered broken ribs, punctured lungs, lacerations that caused severe bleeding and concussions. After talking with all the other firefighters on the scene, I know that they would not have been extricated any sooner had Johnny been there from the beginning of the rescue. But they will survive.” Again the Chief stopped short of saying that very possibly Johnny would not. But his emphasis on the word they gave the other men the knowledge that Johnny had been critically injured.

“If he was injured, I would have been notified. I am listed as his next of kin.” Roy was sure that Johnny had not been injured. He would have been told by Rampart. He was trying to justify himself.

“Not any more—Johnny changed his next of kin designation several months ago.” Craig Brice’s voice was now filled with hardness.

“Who is his next of kin?” Roy looked at him in shame. Here he had been telling Johnny for the last four years that he considered him the brother he never had. But now he had let Johnny down so badly Johnny didn’t even want him listed as his next of kin and felt that all he had been doing was pretending to like him. “But can you at least tell us if he was injured? He’s not a patient at Rampart—they would have said something about it.”

“MR. Gage--” Craig purposefully emphasized the Mr. to remind the men that they no longer had any rights to know anything about Johnny’s situation-- “has made it clear that none of you are to be given any information regarding his life.” He turned and started walking out of the dayroom before the anger that had been building up during the unfolding of events according to the A-shift crew could come to a head and explode. Just before he went through the doorway, he turned around to look at the men. “The person listed as next of kin in his file is his wife.” He went outside to lean against the back wall leaving five very stunned men seated around the table.

Captain Stanley remembered Gil had tried to show him something when he had visited the station. He was afraid to see what it was but knew he had to check it out. As he left the dayroom, the rest of the crew followed to see what their leader was doing. With a deep breath Captain Stanley held up John Gage’s turnout coat and looked inside. The color drained not only out of his face, but out of the faces of the four men standing behind him. The whole inside of Johnny’s turnout coat was covered in what they now all realized was Johnny’s blood. He had been injured in the fire. From all the blood, it must have been very, very serious.

As the Captain slowly hung up Johnny’s coat, he accidentally knocked Johnny’s helmet off. Roy gasped when they all saw the blood that covered the inside of it, too. After hanging up the helmet, the Captain looked at the other men. What had they done? Nothing was said as they slowly made their way back to the dayroom. Johnny had been injured, none of them had listened and now he didn’t want them to know anything about his injuries. And, he had resigned from the department—the one thing he really loved to do. What could they say?

***************************

Chief McConnikee had listened to the men of Station 51’s A-shift. He had to make some decisions because there would be disciplinary measures following their actions after the fire, but he knew that a valuable lesson had been learned—not only by the men of Station 51, but also by him. Some guidelines, training, and assistance needed to be in place for the men in the department—not only for how to treat each other and how to handle prejudice, but also when someone was the in the position John Gage had been in. He needed to know there was somewhere he could go and get help and not destroy his crewmates. The Chief had realized that Johnny had cared about his shift mates and didn’t want to get them into any trouble—that is why he had never said anything to headquarters. With the stress these men faced every day, they needed to be able to let it out—but sometimes a little guidance was needed.

Chief McConnikee had left the members of A-shift with the information he had provided them. They all knew the situation wasn’t over. Each man had to deal with their own actions.

Hank wondered if he was really fit to be a Captain. He had not even listened to Johnny when he tried to tell Hank what had really happened. He realized that as Captain he had a responsibility to at least listen to his men and check into what they had to say before he jumped to conclusions—a responsibility he did not fulfill to John Gage that day.

Mike’s thoughts were the same as Hank’s. He was planning on taking the Captain’s exam, but now he wondered if he was really Captain material. He had jumped to a conclusion based on a man’s word—a man they all knew was so full of prejudice and hatred that he would do anything to hurt Johnny. He should have taken a closer look at the circumstances and what had really gone on around him. Mike knew that he should have paid closer attention to see if Johnny really was playing with those kids or if he had been doing his job and was checking them over for injuries. He had let the paramedic down.

Chet thought of the pranks that he had been pulling on Johnny for four years now. Johnny had always forgiven him. But Chet realized that his pranks were getting more and more vicious and were making fun of Johnny’s heritage. He had listened to Sam Carlson yelling at Johnny and heard the words. He knew how much Sam hated Johnny and realized that Sam would have done anything up to and including lying to hurt Johnny and destroy his career. Sam may have just accomplished his goal. Chet was feeling guilty for believing Johnny would goof off instead of helping when he knew that two of their own were trapped. He knew Johnny wouldn’t leave any of his fellow firefighters behind for any reason.

Marco felt guilty because he had not questioned what happened. There had been only one firefighter besides Sam Carlson that had said that Johnny was playing around. And that firefighter was Sam Carlson’s best friend. He would have said anything to help out his friend. If Johnny was goofing off, there would have been others who would have said something. He had not come to the defense of his friend—could he still call Johnny a friend?

Roy thought back to the conversation he had with his wife just a couple of weeks ago when they were talking about Johnny having taken a risk and gone back into a burning building to make sure Chet got out safely. She had reminded him of how many times Johnny had gone above and beyond to make sure any firefighter was safe—but even more so how many times he had done so for his fellow crewmates. He knew that Johnny would put his life on the line for anyone and would never shirk his duty. His job was his life and meant as much to him as Roy and his family did. Now Johnny had lost everything.

They had spent the time waiting for the Chief reading the letters Johnny had left. The more they read, the more they were plagued by guilt.

As they waited for the Chief each of the letters Johnny left was read.

Dear Mr. DeSoto,

Although I know it was only on my part, I do want to thank you for at least pretending to be my friend and for sharing your family with me. I want to apologize for making you feel you needed to pretend to like me and make me a part of your family. Please take care of them. I know it doesn’t matter to you or the guys, but all of you were the only family I have ever felt that I had and for a few years, I felt I was worth something. But now I know the truth just like I have been told all my life—I should never have been born.

Please take care of your family, yourself and the guys. I do care about all of you and will always have a special place for each of you in my heart.

Sincerely
John R. Gage

Dear Captain Stanley,

Please accept this letter as my immediate resignation from the L.A. County Fire Department. I am sorry for any inconvenience this short notice may cause. I know that it is a relief for you to have this. I am sorry I didn’t do it sooner.

Sincerely,
John R. Gage

To the A-shift crew of Station 51,

Although I know you really didn’t mean it, thank you for pretending to be my friends for the last few years. I realize that I was only in the way as the pranks and jokes have shown me what you really think of me. Although I was hoping that they were wrong, everyone in my past was right—the world would be better off without me. You all are the family I never had and will always have a place in my heart. Please take care of each other.

Sincerely,
John R. Gage

The pranks that had been pulled, the jokes that had been played and the off-the-cuff remarks that had been made over the last few months were brought to mind as they read the letters. Maybe a few of the pranks and jokes or even comments would have been funny. But they all realized that as they continued, these were getting to the point where Johnny would have had the right to say something to headquarters, but he hadn’t. None of them would have put up with it.

“Roy, I just realized something.” Chet was so consumed with guilt, he almost couldn’t breath.

“What Chet?” Roy wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what the stocky fireman had to say.

“We all got together yesterday and Johnny wasn’t there.”

“Yeah, I realized that too. I never even called him to invite him. It’s like I forgot he even existed.” The knot in Roy’s stomach had grown to a boulder.

“But, the worst part,” Chet wasn’t sure he wanted to say what was bothering him.

“Go on.” Now Cap was wondering what Chet had to say.

“Yesterday was Johnny’s birthday.” Chet had looked away from the men at the table during the discussion of the letters and the reason for Johnny’s resignation. His eyes had landed on the calendar and the date from the day before hit him like a ton of bricks.

If it could get any bigger, the knot in Roy’s stomach did. “Oh, man, you’re right. And Johnny always goes out of his way to make sure our birthdays are special. Not only did we forget his birthday, we had a gathering and he wasn’t even invited. No wonder he was so withdrawn this morning when we were talking about it. And I even told him I should have had him come over on Saturday to help me get ready for it. I never mentioned that he should have been invited. He must have felt terrible.”

“I was hoping that things had improved for him.” A voice from the doorway startled the men. “I’m sorry to ease drop, but we were looking for John Gage. We were told he works out of this station. From the conversation, I take it he was the topic?”

“Yes, but who are you?” Captain Stanley eyed the slender man standing in the doorway. He also noticed the heavy set man just behind him. “What do you want with Johnny?”

“I’m Kevin Johnson and this is Randy Longbow. We knew John growing up. It pains us both to admit we treated John so badly as teenagers, I’m surprised he didn’t kill one of us. But he always had a forgiving spirit. If he had said anything to our teachers or parents, we both—not to mention quite a few others—would have been in legal trouble. Since John was a half-breed, both worlds converged on him to treat him like a dog. But he ended up with one of the highest grade point averages and as one of the top members of the track team. He took everything we dished out without saying a word. We didn’t find out until later that he was getting the same thing at home, too.” Kevin looked at the men he had hoped would be Johnny’s friends. He had learned a lot since he was a teenager—a lot about prejudice and about the hurt it can do.

Randy took up where Kevin left off. “A couple of years after John left the reservation both Kevin and I went through a difficult period in our lives. The two incidents were not related, but because they were happening at the same time, we couldn’t be there for each other. Although our wives tried to help, sometimes it takes a friend instead of a spouse. Well, when John heard about it, he came back to the reservation and was that friend to both of us. He continued when he returned here, helping out whenever and wherever he could. We both became friends with him and realized that had we just gotten to know him in high school, he would have been a great friend. Since coming here to Station 51, he has written a lot of good things about his crewmates and the people he considered to be the family he never really had. But it sounds like something has happened.”

“Before we tell you what has happened, what do you mean the family he never had?” Captain Stanley was beginning to feel like a heel. In the back of his mind he was wondering if he was fit to be a Captain.

“Because his own family abused him.” Roy had been the only one Johnny had started sharing parts of his childhood with.

“Yes, his parents both beat him for any little thing. They were always telling him he was not worthy to be loved and never should have been born. His mother said that if she had been given the choice when she found out she was pregnant with him, she would have aborted him. When he had the chance, he moved here to L.A. His parents were killed in a house fire shortly after he left. He never came to their funeral and everyone said they were glad they didn’t have to put up with the ‘breed’.”

“He would come to school covered with bruises every day. Until he met Dave Williams his sophomore year, Johnny was treated as an outcast not only at home but also at school. I am surprised that he graduated at the top of his class. He had the highest grade point average of anyone in the school, but because he is a half-breed, he was not allowed to be the Valedictorian. But that did not deter him. Getting beaten up at home and at school and not given the honor he earned didn’t keep him from continuing to try. I don’t think there is one picture of Johnny that doesn’t show some type of bruise.”

“He would come to school every day with bruises?” Chet couldn’t believe that someone would hurt someone they were supposed to care for. But then his treatment of Johnny came to mind and he realized they really weren’t much better.

“Why didn’t he run away or talk to an adult and get some help?” Roy was seeing another part of the story of Johnny’s childhood that further clarified what Johnny had shared with Roy and his family about his life growing up.

“What adult? Even the adults looked down on him because he was a half-breed. The only teacher that showed him any kindness was Mrs. Williams—Dave’s mother. She was the English teacher and the only one who treated Johnny like everyone else. There was no one to turn to and no where to go. He would go home every night knowing what lay ahead when he arrived and turned around to come back to receive the same treatment the next day at school. But through it all he was the kindest, most caring and forgiving person I have ever met.”

“Who is this Dave Williams you talk about and why hasn’t Johnny mentioned him?” Mike wondered if Johnny ever had a friend.

“Dave was Johnny’s best friend. They were inseparable during their senior year. After graduation, when no one would hire Johnny because of his heritage, they joined the service together. They were sent to Viet Nam and Johnny watched Dave get shot. He carried him for five miles to try to get some medical attention, but Dave was dead when they reached the medical camp. Johnny had to come home and tell Mrs. Williams her son was dead. It took Mrs. Williams six months to get through to him to make him realize he had done everything he could and that it wasn’t his fault. We thought he was going to end up just like all the others on the reservation—an alcoholic and dead before he was 25. When the opportunity to attend the fire academy here in LA came up, he jumped at it. He thought he had a family when he joined this crew and that his life was worth something. He felt things were turning around for him. The last few letters we received were beginning to sound like the old Johnny who felt he didn’t have anyone.”

“Johnny served in Viet Nam?” Roy wondered what else he didn’t know about his friend.

“And had his best friend killed right before his eyes?” Mike wondered why when they talked about Viet Nam Johnny had never mentioned it. “I would not want to have to be the one to tell someone their loved one had died. And I sure wouldn’t want to carry my best friend five miles only to have that effort be in vain.”

“Yeah, he had his best friend killed. And Johnny had a hard time telling Mrs. Williams about Dave’s death.”

“One of his mother’s sisters had let him move in with her here in L.A. when he got accepted into the fire academy, but she never showed him any love. She let him know that the only reason she had taken him in was out of duty to ‘family’ and not because she cared about him or what happened to him. He felt he was better off, though, because at least she didn’t beat him. She treated him like a servant and as soon as he could he left her house. About six months ago she died and he didn’t even attend the funeral. The letter he sent us telling us she had died said that he had felt he never had any family—at least until he came here. We haven’t heard from him in a few months and wanted to find out what was going on.”

Roy realized he had destroyed someone he had considered his best friend—no, his brother. Maybe that was why he had gotten involved with the pranks, jokes and jibes—he had come to love—and treat—Johnny like a brother. All brothers fight and kid around. But as he thought about it, he realized that it had gone beyond even the typical sibling play. How could he have treated Johnny like that? How would he feel if someone treated him like that? He would have gotten angry a long time ago. “We took Johnny for granted.”

Roy’s voice startled all the guys. They had all been trying to figure out just what had happened and what they were doing to their friend.

“We took his forgiving nature and his easygoing spirit for granted.” Mike was kicking himself internally. He had been the brunt of jokes, pranks and jibes growing up for always being the new kid when his father kept getting transferred from state to state for his job. They were always promotions for his father, but his parents never realized what they were doing to their son. He had become somewhat of a “nerd” as he was called so that when he was pulled from one school and sent to a new one, he wouldn’t fall behind. He never had time to really make any close friends and thus, ended up on the receiving end of the usual taunts and treatment teenagers hand out.

“And then, we didn’t even listen when he really needed our help today.” Captain Stanley knew he had really failed one of his crew today.

“So that’s what Lynnette meant when she wrote that something needed to change in his job or Johnny would once again feel worthless.” Kevin had talked Randy into coming to L.A. because this time it was their turn to help a friend in trouble.

“Who’s Lynnette?” Chet knew Johnny didn’t have any siblings and the last any of them knew he had been dumped by four women within one week. They had really made a big deal of that and ribbed him for weeks on end. It occurred to Chet that Johnny had stopped talking about any dates several months ago and had taken their jibes without saying a word in response.

“You know, we have told Johnny we are sorry when things happen. But we didn’t mean it we only said it to placate him so he wouldn’t say anything about the jokes or pranks. We didn’t want to hear what he had to say. I, for one, would have decked Chet after the first prank, if I had been on the receiving end. But Johnny took it in silence. We need to put ourselves in his place.” Marco couldn’t believe how they had treated someone they had all thought of as a brother.

It really sunk home as the men told Kevin and Randy all that had happened over the last few months and even that day.

“Johnny deserved to know that he was special. We never showed him that as teenagers and, obviously, you haven’t now—at least the last year. But Johnny always said that it was his fault and never anyone else’s. His last letter four months ago said that he wasn’t worth being alive. I had hoped that Lynnette had changed that. I think she had until now. I just hope if you care about Johnny at all, you will try to work this out.” Kevin and Randy were about to leave when Roy stopped them.

“Who is this Lynnette you keep mentioning?” Roy hoped it was someone who had treated his partner better than he had.

“If you had cared over the last year, you would have known. Lynnette was Dave’s sister and is now Johnny’s wife.” Randy never waited for a response. He wanted to get to Rampart to check on Johnny. Leaving the room quickly, he was followed by Kevin before any of the men could say a word.

“His wife? Why didn’t he say something to us?” Roy knew then that his part in the treatment of Johnny had severed his bond with Johnny. He just prayed that it could be fixed. “Why would he say anything to us? We would have just used it as more ammunition to tease and harass him.”

“Would you tell us if you had been him?” Mike had been realizing for a few weeks that they were saying “sorry” to Johnny a lot—more than anyone should. As he thought about it, he realized that every time they said them made the words sound as if they were just words being said by rote. He doubted Johnny even wanted to hear them anymore.

There was total silence around the table as each man thought about what had just happened. It stayed that way for half-an-hour.

“Johnny got married and didn’t even think he could tell us.” Mike thought about how important his wedding day had been and how he had wanted to share it with everyone. He knew that Johnny would have been just as excited but felt he had no one to share it with.

Before anyone could answer, the first of a continuous string of calls sounded over the speaker. They would not get a break until an hour before shift change. None of them had dared to ask for the rest of the shift off. In a way it made them all glad as they knew that having time on their hands would mean they would only think about Johnny and what they had done.

***************************

It was a very subdued A-shift that greeted their counterparts at shift change. A pin dropping could have been heard in the locker room. Each man was going over their role in the events of the last several months—again. It was Craig Brice who filled C-shift in on what had happened. Even he had compassion for the men leaving the station—no one had planned for any of this to happen and there was a large rift that needed to be repaired. Although none of the others knew it now, Craig and Johnny had become friends and it was he and Gil Robinson who had tried to lend Johnny support over the last several months.

When they arrived at Rampart, the crew was guided into the doctor’s lounge to wait. It had been an hour since they had arrived and no one had come to tell them what was going on. Roy was beginning to think that maybe they wouldn’t be told anything. After all Johnny had requested they not be given word about his injuries. What right did they have showing up expecting to get answers?

Each crew member was lost in his own thoughts. Roy began to remember the times Johnny had been there for them and, without realizing it, started reminiscing out loud. The others started remembering some of the rescues, too.

It was as they were discussing the last year that it was confirmed in their minds that Johnny’s resignation was not due to this one event. Chet had targeted Johnny more and more over the year and the jokes and pranks were bordering on being vicious. Johnny had asked the Captain to stop Chet’s pranks, but the Captain had just said that it was a release for them all. When Johnny had tried to talk to Roy about it, Roy had just said he didn’t want to hear Johnny’s whining. Marco and Mike realized they had gone to avoiding Johnny after a prank so they wouldn’t have to listen to him. And they all realized they had laughed at jokes and pranks that would have made them angry had they been the recipient. Some of the jokes and pranks were full of prejudice and they had all laughed.

Then Roy realized that the crew had been getting together to go out to breakfast and for potlucks more frequently. That was what had been bothering him all day. He remembered the conversation he had with Johnny that morning about everyone coming to his house the previous day for a barbeque—a barbeque without Johnny. He knew that Johnny had not been there not because he didn’t want to be there but because Roy had never invited him. Roy remembered the look that had flitted across Johnny’s face so fast he almost missed it—the feeling of a deep hurt—and realized the cause of that look and pain. He also realized there were several other times Johnny had not been invited. Yes, he attended the majority of the events, but there were several where no one had thought to invite Johnny and didn’t seem to miss him. Although the oversight was unintentional, it had gone unnoticed until now. The dart hit home when Roy remembered that the last get together had been Johnny’s birthday. Not only had they not invited him to the get together—they had ignored his birthday all together. Roy had felt a small pang of guilt at the look on his partner’s face at the time, but it had soon been forgotten. And to top it all off, they had bragged about the good time they had at that gathering right in front of Johnny. But he had not said a word.

All of the men realized that over the year Johnny was still included in many of their activities, but not all of them. And the atmosphere around the station had changed. It was as if they were still a family, but Johnny was an adopted kid who was being left out. Those were the signals they now realized they had been sending to the one person who really was the life of the station. Hank was the one that brought up the fact that Johnny had stopped trying to talk to any of them about anything important or personal. His work was still flawless and professional. The rhythm he and Roy were famous for was still there when they responded on a call, but the camaraderie in the station was gone. He had taken all the jokes, jibes and pranks and not said a word. He had stopped asking that someone do something about the Phantom to end his torment. He had stopped because he knew no one would listen or do anything about it.

“I think we blew it. I know I wouldn’t want to be friends with us if I had been the one treated the way we treated Johnny over the last several months. I’m surprised he took it as long as he did. I wonder if he will ever talk to any of us again.” Roy didn’t realize he had voiced his thoughts out loud until the others responded.

“That was because he considered us family and for family you go the extra mile when it comes to forgiveness. He went the extra mile several times over, but I think he finally reached the end of those extra miles.” Mike remembered the look on Johnny’s face as he had painfully walked over to his Captain when they had returned to the station after the fire. There had been a pain, disappointment and sadness all mixed into one. They had destroyed their “family”.

“I think you’re right, Michael. I wonder if there is anyway we can ever make it up to him and tell him how sorry we are.” Captain Stanley felt the most guilt of all. He was the Captain and had not been a leader that day.

They had been joined by their wives and families Kelly Brackett, Dixie McCall, Dr. Early and another lady none of them knew hearing the tail end of their conversation.

“You know, I really don’t think there isn’t anything you can do. Put yourselves in Johnny’s place. He puts his life on the line everyday and from what I heard from Bill Sands and Don Green that is exactly what he did today.” Dixie couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She had been told, but she thought everyone had been exaggerating the situation.

“I just hope we can get a chance to see Johnny and tell him how sorry we are.” Roy knew that Johnny had the most forgiving heart of anyone he ever knew. But he knew that even forgiving hearts had a limit.

“Those are just words. How many times have you said them over the last year? How often can you hear them before they become empty words?” Dixie knew that those words had become a part of the others’ every day vocabulary when it came to Johnny and now they were nothing but hollow sounds when coming from the members of the A-shift crew. He had confided in her once that all he ever heard anymore was “we’re sorry” from them. “He did wonder what he had done that would make you throw away his friendship. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find a reason for the way you have been treating him over the last several months. He believes that that over the last year, something happened and he was no longer a part of this crew—this ‘family’.” Dixie turned and headed out of the lounge before she said something she would later regret.

Although they had been quiet, Dr. Brackett, Dr. Early, and the lady with them all left with sorrow written on their faces. They, too, wondered how these men could treat a member of their crew that they supposedly called “family” the way they had treated Johnny.

“Dixie’s right. We have said that we are sorry about something so many times to Johnny lately that even I was beginning to think those words were that—just words.” Mike had been thinking about the constant use of ‘we’re sorry’ to Johnny even before this incident. Now to have his thoughts confirmed made him feeling that much guiltier.

It was quiet in the lounge as the men thought about what they had done. Their wives had been sitting silently listening to everything that had been said. Now they understood the sadness and even lack of emotion Johnny often showed at a gathering or when they tried talking with him. He had even stopped coming to their homes unannounced as he was usually known to do. The women quietly left to go to the cafeteria. Joanne, Emily, Beth and Marco’s and Chet’s mothers were very upset about Johnny being injured, but they were even more upset with the men. They had been the only family Johnny had and now to find out they had treated him like an unwanted part of the family, bothered the women terribly.

***************************

When the women returned to the lounge, the men wanted to talk about what had happened. They poured out their hearts. But if they expected sympathy, they didn’t get it. After telling them all that had happened, Joanne was the spokesperson for the group.

“There is nothing for us to say. You all know that Johnny would have had a good reason for ‘shirking his duty’ as all of you so strongly put it and for disobeying Hank’s instructions. He would never leave a fellow firefighter unless he was helping a victim or needed to get additional help. You aren’t the only ones in this “family” who lost something today. Because of all of you, John Gage will probably never set foot in any of our houses again. I will never get to see the man who has become like a special little brother to me. Chris and Jenny will never get to see the man they consider a beloved ‘uncle’ again. Mike’s kids will never roughhouse with their ‘uncle’ again. Hank’s girls will no longer have another male adult they trust enough to confide in about anything and everything—even things they can’t talk to their own parents about. Do you even realize how devastated they are going to be? You have destroyed a bond that was a once in a lifetime bond for all of us.

“But the person who lost the most today is John Gage. Roy, all of you and the members of your families are the only family Johnny has ever had. Or did you forget that? Did you forget how hard it was for Johnny to open up about his childhood and what he went through? Did you forget that his blood relatives used him for a punching bag and abused him almost to the point of death? Did you forget him saying how he considered you the brother he never had and felt actually closer than a brother to you? He had never experienced the love and caring of a family until he was partnered with you and became a member of your crew. We all were the family he thought he would never have. He lost all of that, but you know what the saddest part is?

“John Gage lost the ability to ever trust anyone again. Every time he would open his heart and let someone in they eventually ripped it out. He was just beginning to believe that he was really worth something and could be loved and even eventually get married.”

“But he did get married.” Roy felt that their families needed to know that Johnny had at least tried to find that love.

“He did? When and why didn’t we know? Because he felt he couldn’t tell us. Well giving his trust and friendship or bond of brotherhood to each of you came very hard for him. It has taken him all his life to find someone that he would be able to trust—someone who might care about and trust him. The reason it has taken him so long to find a wife was because he did not believe he was worthy of anyone’s love. He had never experienced that before. But he was beginning to feel that he could be happy and find a wife and have children of his own—children he would love and raise to be wonderful human beings. But now that is all gone. I haven’t talked to Johnny since this incident happened, but I know him. His confidence in himself and his self-esteem is now non-existent. Because of all of you, I bet John Gage believes he is not worthy of his wife’s love and will end their marriage. The one thing he has left out of this he will let go because he feels he doesn’t deserve it and has no right to it. During the first couple of years of your partnership, he often confided in me that he felt that it would have been better if he had never been born. Johnny said that he wished his mother had been successful in somehow terminating her pregnancy with him. Over the last couple of years, he has come out of his shell and said that maybe he had a right to be alive after all. He said that maybe he was worthy of someone loving him.

“I think you had better figure out what you are going to tell our children when they get home about why their favorite ‘uncle’ will no longer be a part of our families and why you tore his heart out. I know that Johnny will no longer want to be a part of this so called family and will probably even leave the area. He will probably transfer out of your station if he doesn’t resign.”

“He, umm…, he has already resigned.” Roy’s guilt was all consuming by this time and he knew that he was only adding credibility to what Joanne was saying.

“I’m not surprised and I don’t blame him. But you have taken away everything that means anything to him. You are going to be the ones to tell our children what happened because we are not going to make this easy for you.” Joanne, Emily and Beth stood up and left their husbands to think about what had just been said. They were soon followed by Marco’s and Chet’s mothers.

A-shift members had finally been listening to what Joanne was saying and knew she was right. With each word a dagger pushed further into their hearts. How could they hurt the man they had considered to be a part of their family.

Roy wondered how he could hurt the man he considered to be closer than a brother. Johnny meant the world to him, but he had treated him worse than an enemy. How could he have ignored any possibility of injury? How could he respond to him as he had?

All five men hung their heads as they thought about what they already knew—John Gage would never shirk his duty. He would go above and beyond and put his own life on the line like he had many times. How could they all believe the lies Sam Carlson was spreading? They all knew he hated John Gage and could not be trusted.

Roy knew that things would never be the same again, but he had to do everything he could to let Johnny know how sorry he was. Johnny deserved to find love and happiness and Roy was ashamed that they might have taken that from him. Joanne was right—they had ripped his heart out. Roy didn’t need to talk to Johnny to know that. He also knew that Johnny’s self-esteem had been building over the last four years. Now, with one incident, he knew that it was non-existent. Not only had they taken everything in terms of a family from Johnny, they had also taken away his job. John Gage had resigned from the department—the one thing that meant the most to him.

Roy looked at his watch. He couldn’t believe they had been there for over three hours and no one had come in to tell them what was going on. They all needed to know that Johnny was alright.

***************************

John Gage knew he was in a hospital. The familiar smells and sounds verified that for him. As he slowly came to, he remembered what had brought him to the hospital. The pain in his side and head did not compare to the pain in his heart. Just before he could close his eyes and wish that he had never woke up, he felt a movement beside him.

“Hi, how are you feeling?” Lynnette smiled as her husband slowly opened his eyes.

“My head and side hurt.”

“I’m not surprised. You have a skull fracture and a rod went through your side.” Lynnette knew she had something to say and hoped that Johnny would accept it. “Johnny?” She waited until she had his full attention and then continued—your crewmates are here and would like to see you.”

Johnny didn’t know how to respond or even what he felt. Was he glad they wanted to see him? Was he angry at them for the way they had treated him? Did he want to see them? “All of them?”

“Yeah, all of them. Do you want to see them?” Lynnette knew her husband had a huge forgiving heart, but it was confirmed when he quietly answered her.

“Yes, I would.” But before he could say anything more, he tried to move but was stopped by the intense pain in his head. His eyes were squeezed shut in pain.

“What’s wrong?” Lynnette pushed the call button as she tried to help her husband.

“I have a sharp pain in my head.” Johnny held onto Lynnette’s hand as the pain intensified. “I called for the nurse. We’ll have the doctor paged.” When the nurse came to see what the problem was, Lynnette asked to have Dr. Andrews paged. She never let go of Johnny’s hand.

As the doctor sent Johnny for a CT scan to find out if the bleeding had gotten worse, Lynnette went along with him. She noticed that periodically would slightly squeeze her hand as if to verify she was still with him. When the CT scan showed they had to operate to stop the bleeding in his brain, Lynnette promised Johnny she would be waiting for him and kissed him on the cheek. She prayed that it would be enough to give him the will to live and make it through surgery. Just before he was wheeled through the doors to the operating room, Johnny whispered in Lynnette’s ear. She smiled through her tears and nodded yes.

***************************

Lynnette pushed the door to the lounge open slowly. She dreaded delivering the news she had for the occupants of the room—people she didn’t even know. But Johnny had made a request of her and she was going to deliver.

Roy looked up as the door opened and he saw the lady that had accompanied Dixie, Kel and Dr. Early before. He stood up as she entered. “Hi.”

“Hi, it’s nice to finally meet all of you. I’m Lynnette Gage.”

***************************

Feeling a presence by his side, Johnny turned to see Dixie and Dr. Brackett standing beside his bed. He knew that Lynnette was on the other side.

Dr. Brackett was the first to notice he was awake. “How are you feeling, Johnny?”

“Like I have been run over by a semi-truck.” Johnny didn’t need anyone to tell him he was not going to make it. He had often wondered what it would be like to die and now he knew. He was not scared like he expected to be. “Doc, how much longer do I have?”

Dixie and Dr. Brackett exchanged looks. They had wanted to keep from telling Johnny as long as they could both praying for a miracle. “It won’t be long now, Johnny.” Dr. Brackett was having trouble keeping the tears from running down his face. Dixie had long lost the fight with hers. They both knew without looking that Lynnette was crying, too.

“Doc, Dixie, don’t worry. Everything will be ok.” Johnny was ready to just let go now. “Lynnette, I love you, but I think it is my time now.”

Leaning over and placing a kiss on his forehead, Lynnette looked her husband in the eye. “Johnny, I love you so much I don’t want to let you go. But if it is too hard to stay, it is ok. You are a very special person, and your child will know that. They will realize that their father was a hero and I pray they will grow up to be just as special as you are.”

“My child?” Johnny looked at his wife. He knew she had not been feeling well and had forgotten that she had a doctor’s appointment the day of the fire. “I wish I could see them grow up, but it is just too hard. Please take care of the little one for me.”

“I will, and please tell me that you know how special you truly are and that this little one will always know that they are important to you. Tell me you know that I love you.” Lynnette needed to make sure that Johnny knew that although things had gone wrong at Station 51, he was still someone special.

“I know that Lynnette. You have proven that to me over and over. I know that I made a difference in this world, but know it is time for me to leave it.” Johnny pulled Lynnette’s face close and kissed her with all the passion he could.

“Johnny, A-shift and all their families are in the doctor’s lounge and are worried sick about you.” Dixie saw the doubt in Johnny’s eyes.

***************************

Everyone stood up as Dixie, Lynnette and Dr. Brackett entered the room. Gil and Craig had joined the group waiting for word. Gil had been there for Lynnette when they first brought Johnny in, but hadn’t been updated.

Craig stood with open arms and Lynnette collapsed into them as he held her for support and the tears came. “How is he, Doc?”

“Doc, how is Johnny?” Roy was on his feet—he had to know.

***************************

Johnny couldn’t get comfortable and couldn’t rest. He was sure one of the nurses was back when he heard the door open. He was anxious when the crew and their families filed into the room. “Hi. I didn’t expect you all to be here—especially after I got suspended.”

“But we want to be here. And Johnny, we all want to apologize for the way we acted not only at the fire, but for the last several months. We all know that the words ‘I’m sorry’ seem hollow right now because we have been saying them a lot lately and haven’t really meant them. But we would like an opportunity to show you just how sorry we are. I found your resignation papers and would understand if you wanted to transfer. But please don’t give up something that means the world to you.” Hank, as Captain, spoke for all of them and couldn’t stop the words from coming out in a hurry. “We all know now what really happened at the fire and your suspension has been rescinded. I know I can never take back what I said, but I am so sorry I jumped to conclusions. We all are. Johnny, we don’t know how we are ever going to make this up to you.”

Looking at Lynnette, Dr. Brackett and Dixie, Johnny knew that they had not shared the fact that Johnny was dying. Knowing he didn’t have long, Johnny tried to put his feelings into words. “Yeah, sorry is a hollow word, and it has come a little too late. And how do I know that you aren’t just saying them now because you found out that you were wrong and you are feeling guilty. What happens the next time a situation like this happens again? I guess I’ll never know. I don’t know what I did to make you all turn against me, but you won’t have to worry about having me around to bother you anymore.” Johnny was losing his strength fast. He wasn’t sure how he felt and part of him wanted to let them off the hook, but he wasn’t sure he could.

“What do you mean, Johnny?” Roy had been hopeful that when Johnny had said he would see them that maybe things would be able to be worked out so that he would come back to A-Shift.

“He means that…..” Dr. Brackett was having a hard time with this. They were all losing a very special friend.

“What, doc?” Roy was beginning to get scared. Something told him he knew what the doctor was going to say and he really didn’t want to hear it.

“Johnny won’t last through the night.” Dixie had seen how hard it was on Kel and blurted out the news.

The stunned looks on the faces of the people in the room let the medical people know they understood. They all felt the guilt land heavily on them. Johnny was dying and they had made him feel like they didn’t care. There was no time for them to prove otherwise. That would take at least as long as it had for them to make him feel they had turned against him and that was time they didn’t have.

“Johnny, we can’t ever prove that we really mean it this time. There just wouldn’t be enough time. Please believe me when I say that it isn’t just our guilt talking. The station isn’t going to be the same without you around. I can’t believe I treated my “brother” like I did. I took you for granted and I let my personal life interfere with my professional judgment. How do I let you know before you—you— How do I let you know how much I care and how wrong I have been?” Roy didn’t try to stop the tears that were streaming down his face.

“How wrong we’ve all been--” Cap, Mike, Marco and Chet had joined Roy at Johnny’s bedside.

Johnny realized he had nothing to lose in forgiving the crew that they would have everything to lose if he didn’t. It would never make things the same way they had been, but he knew this group needed to come to terms when what had happened to be able to move forward in their professional lives. “I do know you all mean it because you are all here and I see how much you care. We are a family and families make mistakes. But they learn from them, forgive each other and go on being families. I wish I could show you I know how much we really are a family and how much I care. Things might never have gotten back to the way they were, but families forgive and learn from their mistakes. The way you all treated me the last few months has hurt deeply. But that hurt has been lessened by the fact that you are here.” He didn’t want to leave them with feelings of regret. They needed to go on helping people and they couldn’t do that if they had to live with guilt. They were the best team in the county and they needed to keep helping others.

“We will arrange to have the empty bed moved out and chairs brought in for all of you and you can stay until the end if you want.” Kel knew that he wouldn’t be able to pry this group out of the hospital.

“Tha—Than—Thanks, doc.” Roy finally lost the fight to keep from crying. He turned as he realized Dr. Brackett had already made the arrangements to let them stay and there were several orderlies taking care of it.

***************************

Johnny looked at the faces of the people around him and realized that although it had been a rough year, these people really did care for him as they claimed. He could see the pain that the knowledge he was dying was bringing to each of them. Mike and Roy had even made arrangements for their kids to be there so say goodbye.

Catching Chris and Jenny’s eyes he beckoned for them to come where he could talk to them. “Hey sport and princess—I have something every important to ask of you.” Johnny knew what no one else did—he was fading faster than they thought. He reached deep inside of himself and found the strength to get through the next few minutes.

“What’s that Uncle Johnny?” Chris knew that whatever Johnny was asking of him, it would be a ‘grown-up’ request. He knew that he and Jenny would do whatever it took to honor the request about to be made of them.

“I need you guys to take care of Lynnette, your Mom and Dad for me—especially your Dad for awhile. He is going to be feeling real guilty about what happened, but he is a great paramedic and needs to help take care of others. What happened was not his fault. Also, please take care of each other and promise me that you will grow up to be the special people I know you are.” Johnny wiped the tears from both of the kids’ faces.

“We will, Uncle Johnny.” Both kids answered in unison. They hugged him and then moved to the Stoker boys to send them over as Johnny requested.

After making the same request and getting the same promise from Mike’s kids, Johnny asked if he could have a few minutes alone with his wife, the crew and his friends Craig and Gil. The others filed out, but stayed close to the door.

“Guys, I am losing strength fast, but want to say something to all of you. I want you to know that I really do know you are sorry and that things would probably have worked out alright. We were, are and always will be a family. You all made me a part of your family and that is something I would never have been able to forget or to repay.” Johnny had to stop for a minute to catch his breath. “You all mean the world to me.”

“Johnny, I should have realized that when you went against my instructions that you had a good reason. I should have known that you, being on the inside, would have a better idea of what was happening than I did. I am so sorry pal. I took my personal problems out on you and look where it got you.” Hank didn’t try to stop the tears.

“And I should have listened to you when you started to tell me you thought you might need medical help. It doesn’t matter how insignificant an injury, it should be looked at. I am sorry, too, that I let Chet keeping pulling the pranks on you.” Roy had so much he wanted to say, but knew he was not going to get to say it. He only hoped Johnny would understand what he did say.

“We are all sorry about the last several months—the pranks, the gatherings where you were not invited, treating you like you were an unwanted family member. You are the life of the station, Johnny, and you are going to be missed.” Mike didn’t care what anyone thought, he broke down and cried.

All Marco and Chet could do cry. Neither one could find their voice and had nodded as Mike told Johnny how they really felt.

“Guys, it won’t be long now, so promise me something.” When Johnny knew he had each one of their attention, he went on. “Please learn from what happened. Watch what is going on and don’t let anyone tease and pick on someone else the way I was. Chet, the phantom is great for a release, but he needs to keep in mind what he is doing. Cap, Roy, Mike, you all have families and will have problems no matter how hard you try not to. Please don’t let your personal problems cloud your judgment. All five of you are great firefighters. Please don’t throw that away and please don’t throw away a friendship that may be the most special thing of your life. Your friendships all meant more to me than you will ever know, so please don’t throw away any friendship you may have. Don’t let guilt ruin you. Please promise me you will all try to go on and be the best LA County Fire has to offer.” Johnny was gasping for breath as Roy pulled an oxygen mask over his face. “And, Gil and Craig, as angry as you are at these guys right now, please let it go and don’t throw away their friendship. It was all a mistake and is in the past. This is the best group of people I know.”

“You’re right, Johnny. I see what you have seen and said all along. Even when you were down and feeling discouraged about how they were treating you, you never gave up. I just hope that I can have that forgiving spirit and see the good in people like you do.” Gil smiled to show Johnny that he had indeed let his anger go and had seen the family Johnny had always talked about. Craig had a lump in his throat and could only nod.

Looking at each other, they all knew they had been given a special gift. They had thrown away Johnny’s friendship, but he was giving it back. Because they all had lumps in their throats and tears running down their faces, they each looked at Johnny and said together a quiet “we promise.”

Knowing it was time, Johnny squeezed Roy’s and Lynnette’s hands as a flash of pain ran through his side. “Roy, get everyone in here please?”

Roy knew right away what was about to happen and with a heavy heart went to the door and asked everyone else to come back in.

“I just want everyone to know how much I love you and want you all to promise to take care of each other. But most importantly—promise me NO guilt. Families make mistakes and families forgive. And please take care of Lynnette and my child for me.” As he saw the affirmative nods from each one, Johnny smiled.

Kel could see Johnny’s breaths becoming shallower. He sent everyone but Dixie out of the room so that he could turn off all the equipment without anyone feeling it was the wrong thing to do.

As Dixie turned off the heart monitor, Johnny opened his eyes. “Doc, please make sure the guys know that it wasn’t their fault—that I wouldn’t have made it anyway. Please—they need to know.”

“I’ll tell them. I’ll make sure they know. Johnny thank you for being my friend.” Kel had wanted one last chance to say goodbye.

“It was a pleasure—thank both of you for being my friends.” Johnny gasped.

Kel knew it was time and walked over bringing everyone back in. He stood to the side as they all gathered around Johnny’s bed.

Johnny used his last ounce of strength. “Guys, I love you all. Take care of each other, Lynette, and my child and remember—we are a family.” And then he gasped and closed his eyes.

It would be a few more hours before Johnny took his final breath, but he never regained consciousness. A-shift realized that although they could have destroyed a bond, they had been given some very special gifts by a very special person—the gift of forgiveness and unconditional love. It was during that time they got to know Lynnette—the person who held a special place in their “brother’s” life. They found out that the child Johnny mentioned was his unborn child—a child who although he would never get to meet, they would make sure would know how special their father really was.

When that final breath did come, Roy wanted to yell NO and start CPR, but he also knew that even if Johnny came back, it would just prolong the inevitable and Johnny’s agony. Looking at Kel, Roy indicated Johnny was gone.

Kel walked over and although he already knew the answer, tried to find Johnny’s pulse. Maybe he had been praying for some miracle or maybe he just didn’t want to accept it, but he was disappointed when he didn’t find a heartbeat or a pulse. Johnny was gone and he called the time of death.

***************************

Roy watched as Chris and Jenny walked hand in hand down the front sidewalk. His thoughts were on the friend they would be burying in two days. The members of the A-shift had asked if they could be the ones to plan his funeral. Chief McConnikee knew they needed to do it in order to begin the healing process and had agreed. Today they would be meeting at the DeSoto home to plan the service. Chris and Jenny were going to the park. Roy was amazed at how the two children had handled Johnny’s death, but even more so how they were doing what Johnny had asked—looking out for each other and for their parents. Instead of fighting when they arrived home the evening before, they had both asked their mother if she needed help in getting dinner ready and setting the table. Oh, sure it was only the day after Johnny had died, but Roy had a feeling that Johnny’s requests had changed all their lives and that none of them would ever slip back into their old ways again.

As Chris made sure it was safe to cross the street, Roy saw Hank and Mike pull up out front. From their posture, he knew that this was as hard on them as it was on him. He also knew that it would be just as hard on Chet and Marco. He made it to the door just as the other two mean reached it. Opening the door, he saw the tears none of them tried to hide anymore. “Hi, come on in.” Joanne and Lynnette were in the kitchen.

Hank and Mike walked in and sat down in the living room. Roy had picked up the envelope with Johnny’s plans from headquarters that morning, but he had not opened them yet. He was waiting for the others and had even thought that maybe if he didn’t open it, he would wake up and find this was all a bad dream. But he knew that it was indeed all too real. He was pulled out of his thoughts as Chet and Marco arrived at the front door. Yes, it was indeed really happening. And Roy knew they all blamed themselves for Johnny’s death. If they had listened to him, he would be alive today. They would have gotten him immediately medical attention and he would be there giving them a hard time. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Roy was surprised to see Dixie and Dr. Brackett walking up the front walk as he started to close the door after Chet and Marco had arrived. He wondered why they would be there, but welcomed their presence. After showing them in, he indicated that everyone should take a seat.

“Roy, I know you are all wondering what we are doing here.” Dr. Brackett had seen the looks of surprise on their faces. “Well, Johnny wanted me to make sure that you all didn’t blame yourselves for his death.”

“But, doc, if I had listed to Tom Stevens and Captain Anderson, I would have had him checked out at the scene instead of sending him back it to work and with such severe injuries.” Hank was really feeling guilty—he had sent an injured man into lift heavy debris and work when he should have been on his way to the hospital.

“And if I had listened in the squad, I would have taken him directly to Rampart instead of jumping on him in Cap’s office and letting him leave the station.” Roy couldn’t believe he had let his “ brother” suffer the way he had.

“And if we had been paying attention, we would have seen the pain in his face and know that something was wrong.” Chet spoke as Mike and Marco nodded their agreement.

“Johnny knew that you would think that and yes, the delay in treatment should never have happened, but he wanted to me tell you that even if he had been treated immediately, his injuries were just too severe and he would have died anyway. The infection that started due to delay in treatment was only one part of the problem.”

“What do you mean, doc?” Roy had thought that the infection that had started was the cause of Johnny’s death—an infection that wouldn’t have started if he had gotten treatment immediately.

“The rod that entered his body pierced his liver and his kidneys damaging both. The fractured skull was severe enough to cause fatal damage. Receiving immediate treatment would have only prolonged his agony and delayed the inevitable. He said that he was thankful he didn’t have to suffer long. But he said the thing that meant the most to him was that all of you were there at the end. He said it meant a lot to him that he had the opportunity to tell you how much he cared for each of you. It still hurt the way you had treated him but he said that he realized that he was right—that all of you did care about him. That made it easier for him to let go. It was very important to him that you all know that he appreciated your friendship and making him a part of your family more than he would have ever been able to tell you even though he thought he had lost it the last year.” Dr. Brackett watched as each man thought about what he had just said. Johnny had been thinking about them until the very end.

“Thanks for telling us, Dr. Brackett. It still hurts more than we can say, but it makes it easier knowing that our mistakes did not cost Johnny his life and that he had the forgiving spirit right to the end. It will take a long time before we can forgive ourselves for treating him the way we did. Hopefully, we can somehow make it up to him by taking care of Lynnette and his unborn child. Also, I have talked with Chief McConnikee and we have volunteered to do a training for the rest of the department to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else.” Hank couldn’t believe that even to the end Johnny was thinking about them and their feelings. He knew it would take a long time for them all to accept what they had done, but the guilt was lessened a little by the knowledge they had not been directly responsible for Johnny’s death. “Would you like to stay and help plan the funeral?”

“Yes, Hank, we would like that very much. Thanks.” Dixie saw that Johnny indeed had been right—this group was a family.

As Roy started to open the envelope with Johnny’s last wishes in it, Joanne and Lynnette joined the group in the living room. It was with tears that Roy read one of the notes that was addressed to the A-Shift crew.

***************************

Johnny’s funeral had been attended by so many people, the crowd had flowed out of the church which held over 1500 people and out onto the sidewalk. The church and a local TV station had set up a sound system outside so that the additional people outside could hear. That had delayed the ceremony for 20 minutes. But no one complained. The day had dawned beautiful with a rainbow crossing the sky.

Roy stood in front of the large group that had gathered to say goodbye to his best friend—his brother. After sharing the person that was John Gage, Roy knew he had one more thing to do. “During the last year, Johnny started to lose the hope and life that made him so special. Those of us who served with him on the A-Shift started to take him for granted and even treated him like the outcast adopted brother. This poem written by Kelly George puts into words some of the feelings I have and I am sure the other members of our shift have:

The Deepest Pain

There is a pain that lives very deep inside of my heart.
It was caused by the words that were left unspoken
Between you and I when you were killed.
I live with this pain everyday since your death.
I replay everyday the angry words I said
The last time that we ever spoke.
I should have trusted you and realized that it was
Just a test of my integrity.
You never gave up your hope in me.
The week before your death
You still thought of me.
You cared. That's who you were.
You cared!

Kelly S. George (Jan. 2001)

But Johnny being Johnny gave all of us the special gift of forgiveness. So please remember the importance of friendship and don’t throw away something very special. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place as Roy concluded. “This poem by Allison Chambers Coxsey tells about how Cap, Mike, Marco, Chet and I really feel about the special friend we are here to honor.”

Journey's End

When your light goes out upon this earth,
I'll look up to the sky;
It will twinkle there in a million stars,
Like it did here in your eyes.

And when your flame no longer burns,
To warm my every day;
I will bask in the warmth of your memory,
That will never go away.

Then when your laughter no longer rings,
I'll listen deep within;
For it will be the sweetest gift,
'Twas left here by my friend.

So rest in peace in the arms of God,
My precious, faithful friend;
You'll be in the joy of each memory,
Long after your journey's end.

Allison Chambers Coxsey (1996)

As the squad and engine passed Station 51, they slowed. None of the members of any shift from the station wanted to continue – they wanted Johnny there with them. But the engine with its precious cargo went past and ended at the cemetery close to the DeSoto home. Roy had purchased a plot there two years earlier and had included enough space for Johnny as a member of the family. He hadn’t gotten around to telling Johnny yet because he didn’t think Johnny would ever outlive his “nine” lives. Now he would make sure there was room for Lynnette and Johnny’s child, too. They were all family and he was going to make sure they stayed a family.

***************************

Epilogue

Roy had been right. Everyone was changed the day John Gage died. The DeSoto and Stoker children had done as Johnny asked and taken care of each other, their parents, and most of all Lynnette and Johnny’s kids. Lynnette had been thrilled when John Roderick Gage, Jr., Michael Roy Gage and Henry Chester Gage had been born. Knowing how much Johnny thought of his crew, she used the names that they had talked about when they were first married if they ever had any boys. The triplets were all spitting images of their father and for that Lynnette was truly grateful.

The Stoker boys and Chris followed in their Uncle Johnny’s footsteps and became paramedics. Jenny became an emergency room doctor specializing in trauma cases. The Gage triplets also became paramedics like their father, but they wanted to make sure that what had happened to their father did not happen to anyone else. They used the program that the original Station 51 A-shift crew had developed to train new paramedics and even other firefighters. Eventually they took over the paramedic training program.

No disciplinary action had been taken against the five men as Johnny had specifically asked the Chief not to do anything. Chief McConnikee realized that John Gage had been a very special person and that his original thoughts had been correct—the department had to offer some type of training for their employees. The original Station 51 A-shift crew had been true to their word and developed just such a training program for the L.A. County Fire Department to help others not fall into the same situation they did. They didn’t hesitate to use their experience as a good example. This training was later used in the L.A. County Police Department, too. It would take the men two more years to make the move, but eventually, they split up with Hank becoming a Chief and later retiring. Mike and Roy went on to be Captains and later Chiefs. Marco and Chet became engineers and then Captains. But none of them forgot the person who had given them the special gift of forgiveness—John Roderick Gage.

The End


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