Local Lifestyle

Thursday, Jul 11 2013 05:14 PM

HERB BENHAM: This community won't let boots go empty

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    By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian

    Herb Benham

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By HERB BENHAM, Californian columnist hbenham@bakersfield.com

I drove down L Street Wednesday toward the Starbucks, passing Channel 17 on the way. A fire truck surrounded by blue and white tents sat in the parking lot across the street from the TV station.

Firemen stood along L, each holding a black leather boot in the air. The boots made me think of the riderless horses at funerals.

The boots -- called structure boots, I later learned -- stirred something in me, and I wasn't alone. One car after another pulled over, stopping to hand money and checks to the firemen to stuff in the boots.

The boots did not stay empty for long. Kern County firefighters were collecting money for the families of Granite Mountain Hotshots, 19 of whom lost their lives recently.

Caleb Smith was one of the firefighters holding a boot in the air. He stood on the sidewalk in front of the left-turn lane at Starbucks. He was of medium height, fit, and sweating even though it was overcast and not yet 8 in the morning.

Before joining the fire department, Caleb had worked in sheet metal and built racing cars. Five and a half years ago, after the economy had slowed down and the market for racing cars had diminished, he took the test to become a firefighter and passed.

"This job has humbled me," Smith said.

It wasn't clear whether it was the job that had humbled him or the recognition that the work could be dangerous and men could die, no matter how young or how fit.

Smith, along with 15 other firefighters, had been there since 5 a.m. In 21/2 hours, they had collected more than $7,000. They planned to stay until 5 p.m.

I drove down L to the empty lot in order to talk to Matt Imbelloni, a one-time member of the Rio Bravo Hotshots and now a Kern County firefighter who had helped organize the event.

"You have to realize these were just regular guys who went to work one day and didn't come home," Imbelloni said. "They left 10 wives, 11 kids and three fiancees."

While we talked, Tyler Koester, the firefighter closest to us, collected two $500 checks and $200 in cash in his boot. Every few minutes, Imbelloni would empty the boots into another one and walk the money to the men in the fire truck, who would then provide a running total.

"Prescott modeled their program after ours," Imbelloni said. "They were in contact with us."

We stood and talked as the boots were filled. Cars included late-model Escalades, Mercedes, modest American sedans, work trucks with company names on them and 20-year-old Japanese cars. Black, white, brown, everybody donated.

Nobody waved signs. The firefighters were quiet. They held the boots in the air and people nodded and stopped.

Firefighters have pull. They are among the best of public servants. Clean cut, fearless and helping families almost 500 miles away. How do you say no to that?

The Granite Mountain Hotshots were mostly seasonal workers, paid minimum wage and probably were without insurance. The money in the boots, and boots held aloft in places like Reno, was their insurance. That and the goodwill that firemen generate which proves to be considerable.

There had been a ceremony on Tuesday in Prescott, honoring the crew. Private funerals were to follow in the next few days.

Cars pulled over. Drivers saw the boots and they emptied their pockets and lightened their checkbooks.

It made me think of the song "Our God is an Awesome God." In this instance, our community is an awesome place. You could almost hear the singing.

It was like the snow day in 1999 despite the difference in temperatures. For a few hours, the town came together and was of one mind.

The final count was nearly $64,000. Sixteen boots. Sixteen boots and a community that would not let them go empty.

These are Herb Benham's opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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