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So I Got a Tattoo

The Following post by Tom Howard appeared in the July 2016 ILFFPS Newsletter:






So I got a tattoo. I know what you’re probably thinking, “Really? A fireman with a tattoo is like walking into a coffee shop and seeing a barista with a ‘man bun,’ it’s a requirement now days. I recently got my second tattoo. However, before I explain my new tattoo I should start by explaining both why I have one, as well as the importance of my first one.

I always wanted a tattoo but when I was in my late teens early 20’s they still were not all that common, and even carried a bit of taboo if you had one. I remember my grandmother commenting to a friend of mine, after seeing his tattoo, “Were you drunk?” She did not ask if he was a sailor at least. That being said, I still wanted a tattoo but I didn’t want a half-naked woman, or the standard barbed wire around the bicep.

No, I knew that when I finally decided to put something permanent on my arm it would be something that really meant something to me. So my I got my first tattoo in my late 20’s and it is a tattoo of a cockroach. Yea I know, I can hear it now, “So the long wait for the tattoo with deep meaning and it’s a cockroach?” Well let me explain. I wanted to be a fireman like nothing else in my life to that point. When I made it to my first career department in the south suburbs of Chicago, I really felt I had made it. I bought into the idea that men identify themselves with their jobs. For me the fire service was who I was, I loved the job. To clarify, I still love the job but in a different way than I did over 20 years ago.

So why a cockroach? Well one day, our senior man, the station engineer, came up with a drawing of our shift logo. The logo was of an upright cockroach holding a line, an axe, a pike pole, and a cigar. This was based on a slogan, “2nd Shift: Tough as a cockroach.” The idea was that as the old saying goes, nothing can kill them, and that’s how tough we were. Nothing can kill us. Couple months after the t-shirts showed up the first tattoo was inked. When I saw that tattoo I knew instantly that was just what I had been waiting for all these years.

So for about 20, I have had a larger then life cockroach hanging out on my left bicep. Over the years it has faded but still no mistaking it for what it is. Often times when the tattoo topic comes up or someone notices that I have one the always ask to see it. I always love the reaction from people, especially outside the fire service. I am not even sure how many times I have explained the concept of tough as a cockroach, “Because you can’t kill them” I would tell people inferring that just like the cockroach, I too was indestructible.

I know so what about the new tattoo? Well to start, I turned 50 last November and I wanted to do something to mark the milestone. So I had decided to get my second tattoo. This time, I knew just what I wanted. Several years ago I answered a different call in my life, a call to ministry. I will be graduating from seminary with a Masters in Divinity in June and as I near the end of my time in the fire service, I wanted a tattoo that marked this transition in my life.

My second tattoo is of a cross. This is a large wooden cross with my bunker boots at the foot, my coat on the cross member and sitting on top is my helmet. My thought process in this tattoo was the idea of hanging up my gear for the cross. As I near the time when retirement is always the topic and the inevitable question to follow is, “What are you going to do then?” I have a clear understanding of what my next step is. I want to continue helping others just in a different way.

I also included scripture from the Book of John. Specifically, John 15:13. In this scripture we have the words of Jesus explaining that there is no greater love than to give one’s life for another. I felt this was appropriate in that each of us in the fire service gives so much, I don’t believe the idea of self-sacrifice should go unrecognized. Each of us gives a piece if his or her self in this job, both mentally and physically.

While my gear on the cross is there to signify my transition I also have a drop of blood dripping off the bottom edge of my helmet to, again, signify the sacrifice I have made over the years. The knees, the back, and whatever other physical ailments I may incur from my time in the fire service.

But even more than the physical aches and pains that drop of blood is there to signify immeasurable mental stress, the countless images of the people that I have done the best I could to help in one way or another, sometimes successfully, and sometimes not. That drop of blood signifies all the people that have called 911 for someone else, often a loved one, for one reason or another, the opportunity to help had passed.

That drop of blood is for my brothers that I have watch go off the job because of an unexpected injury. While that may seem terrible, the fact is going off the job is better than what could have just as easily killed them. That drop of blood is there because I know that all the while, it could have just as easily been me in their shoes.

It wasn’t until after I had gotten my second tattoo that I realized the stark difference between the first and second. When I think about the first tattoo, being young and ready to take on the world, I thought I was indestructible. Now, I think about how the job I thought I was stronger than, has broken me. At the same time, I refuse to allow this job to take control of my life. No, I won’t give this lifeless animal we call the fire service the credit for doing that to me. Yes, it has broken me but it hasn’t won.

See, I believe that in my new tattoo, along with my gear placed at the cross I also wanted to place my false perception of my identity, that false identity of being indestructible, wrapped in the uniform I wore. I instead need to acknowledge where I find my true identity. The fact is the fire service, with all its ups and downs has formed much of who I am today but it is only a part of me. What I have learned is that my life is more than the gear I put on or the uniform I wear. My life is more than the shift I work.

Yes, I have been broken, but I am not beaten, the fire service has not beaten me. What I believe is that part of me needed to be broken so that I could become the person I am today. The fire service has been a big part of my life but it does not, will not, define who I am, I will not seed that power to the service.

The real importance of the two tattoos’ is the realization of the journey. In my first tattoo it is easy to recognize that I felt indestructible, I had taken on the world and I was going to win. 25 years later I now understand that was a false presence. It never was a case of being indestructible but rather a case of how do I manage my way through the demand, the loss, the trauma, as well as the beauty, the blessing and the joy of being in the fire service. See I never had the power within myself, but I needed to find something stronger than me to bring me through.

I would ask each and every person reading this to stop and think about where they receive their identity, where they receive their strength. The life we live, our successes, our failures, shape each and every one of us but what defines us goes much deeper. I guess my final question would be, “Where do you rest your helmet?”

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay one’s life down for a friends.”  John, 15:13


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