023 Forged in Fire
Updated: Dec 21, 2021
What You Learn About Life and Death from 25 Years in the Fire Service
When harrowing encounters with Death are a routine part of your job, how does it change the way you live?
In this episode, my friend Tony Gonzalez helps us answer that question based on his 25 years of service as a firefighter and put the lessons he's learned to work in OUR lives right now.
Meet Tony Gonzalez
At the peak of his career as a big city firefighter, in 2017 Tony traded in his badge, uniform, and hard-won seniority for a “mundane” life in the small mountain town where he grew up. After 25 years of almost daily encounters with trauma and Mortality in the line of duty, one particular encounter with Mortality finally convinced Tony that enough was enough.
His peers and colleagues scratched their heads in disbelief when he made the decision. But he's never looked back.
Tony is a native of Steamboat Springs, and after 25 years in the city, in 2018 he moved back to Steamboat with his wife and two boys to begin writing a new chapter in their story. Since 2001, concurrent with his fire service career, Tony has been co-owner of Garage Composites--the nation's largest consulting firm to the powersports industry, and that is his primary professional focus today.
I met Tony through a mutual friend, and he soon became a member of one of the Graveyard Group masterminds I lead. In that setting, on a weekly basis, Tony and his fellow Graveyard Group members remember that they ARE going to die, but they're not dead yet--and they work on the things that matter most in their lives. Today. Because "tomorrow" never comes. And Death always does.
We talk a bit about Tony's experience in the Graveyard Group in this episode--about how consciously keeping Mortality in mind with the confidential, compassionate, no BS support of 5 other guys helps him leave it all out on the field of life.
It's been a personal pleasure to get to know Tony over the past year, and it's a special pleasure to introduce you to him so you can integrate his life lessons and hard-won wisdom into your own life.
Starry-eyed at 5
Tony was gracious to indulge my child-like curiosity about what it’s like to be a firefighter when we kicked off the interview. Turns out that it was child-like wonder at five years old that turned Tony on to the idea of being a firefighter. He saw a fire truck in a parade with firefighters hanging off of it and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that THAT was what he was going to do when he grew up.
He was assembling his own first aid kits in elementary school and had his advanced first aid certification by seventh grade.
In the full episode, we noodle a bit on how we parents can reserve judgment and employ curiosity about what our kids find interesting so we can nurture and guide their development in those areas. This is especially important when what they like doesn’t interest us or seem very useful.
Hooked at 21
One of Tony’s favorite memories from his 25 years of service was the first time he rode down main street Steamboat on a firetruck as a fully-fledged firefighter. He remembers the rush of doing what he’d always wanted to do in the town where he grew up.
He knew at that moment that he was made to do that job.
Another favorite memory was a rescue he pulled off early in his career. He spotted a woman hanging out of a window four stories up. Tony and his partner got a ladder up to her window, and Tony carried her down to safety on his shoulder. His superior told him later back at the station that had Tony not been there that day, she would have died. That experience drove home to Tony the connection between what he loved doing and how what he loved doing made a real difference in real lives in the real world.
Some Other Highlights from the Conversation
Tony compares the camaraderie he gained and treasured in the fire service with the camaraderie he’s gained as a member of a Graveyard Group mastermind. A trait that both the fire service and The Graveyard Group share is that each has a common, unifying purpose--in the fire service, to save lives, and in the The Graveyard Group, to leave it all out on the field of life.
When there’s a shared, compelling purpose, there’s an opportunity for deep and meaningful camaraderie.
Tony shares how repeated exposure to trauma and death in the line of duty changes you in ways that are both useful and harmful. We explore how our reaction to Death is both understandable on the one hand AND counter-productive on the other when we try too hard to avoid Death’s inevitability.
Tony’s best friend in the fire service died tragically in the line of duty. The worst thing Tony saw in all his years of service was the look on his friend’s 13-year-old son’s face when he learned his dad had died. The worst thing Tony heard in his years of service was the same young man’s scream when he heard the news. Tony was somehow able to reconcile all of the other civilian and firefighter deaths he’d experienced. But he wasn’t able to reconcile his best friend’s death and the reaction of his son. Remarkably, Tony says that his friend’s death was even more painful than the recent death of his father and the loss of his first child at birth, a stillborn daughter. This was the tipping point that led Tony to take the off-ramp to a new life with his family.
In his work with Garage Composites post-fire service, Tony went from anywhere between 40-50 weeks a year on the road to none in 2020 as a result of COVID. That forced change in this new chapter of his family’s story has led to a new commitment to dramatically reduce his time away from home once travel is once again a regular option.
Some Key Takeaways
Keep the date you set with friends to get together.
Do the “mundane” stuff with the people you love.
Show up with your ski gear on when you pick your kid up from ski school, and take a few laps with him or her. It’ll make their day.
If you see an “off-ramp” to a different and better way of life, take it!
When Death shows up in your life, be shocked, grieve like there’s no tomorrow, allow yourself to feel the pain and loss.
There’s a LOT more in this episode than these shownotes can hope to capture. Tony’s warmth and wisdom abound in this conversation.
Change is Simple
I have a simple formula for change: Insight + Action = Transformation.
Which is not the same as to say that change is always easy. But the anatomy of change is, in fact, simple. And you can take the first steps toward the change you want in your life today.
What Insight emerged for you from this conversation with Tony? What's just one thing--no matter how small--you could do today to put that Insight into Action? Don't worry about all of the steps that might be necessary after the first one. Just be sure to take that first one today.
A thousand different reasons will pop up why taking that Action today is unreasonable or unnecessary, or why it might be better to think about it a bit more first or get others' opinions or do some more research. This is the voice of inertia, though, the voice of the status quo--whispering to you that it's not that big a deal to hold off on taking that step. That, in fact, it might even be prudent to let your Insight marinate a bit more first.
And that voice in this moment is the enemy of the life you know you were made to live. If you listen to it, It will keep you right where you are--stuck in whatever unsatisfactory state you find yourself.
Because it's less about the specific Action you decide to take than it is about your steadfast commitment to ACT. Your resolve to do what you can right now to move toward what you want.
I’d Love to Help You
My purpose as a coach is to help you live the life you know you were made to live. I can help you leave it all out on the field of life. Connect with me on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or email me. Go here to learn about Graveyard Group masterminds--where we make time each week to invest in your life's most important work.
Connect with Tony!
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