Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Life With Purpose


Retired Fire Fighter Specialist Terry Zimmer, Fire Station 24, Battalion 17, passed away unexpectedly on Sunday, November 16, 2008, at the age of 63. Fire Fighter Specialist Zimmer retired from Fire Station 24 after 32 years of dedicated service to the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

A eulogy, undelivered by Terry's friend:

I'm going to read something from a novel I wrote three years ago. Two men are talking in a bar, and although he's not named, the two men end up talking about Terry Zimmer.

“I’m serious, Luis. I need to provide for my children, and right now being a stockbroker is where I can make the most money, have the best chance of scoring enough cash for my kid’s education. But is selling stocks and bonds really what I was born to do? My life’s purpose?”

Luis slides our tequila glasses off the bar. “Only you can answer such a question. But I agree that a man should have a purpose.”

“I have an old friend who’s a fireman,” I say. “He doesn’t get paid much, and he’s always arriving at the scene before the ambulance, trying to save or resuscitate horribly wounded accident victims. But he loves going to work every day because he’s allowed to drive a giant red diesel fire truck as fast as he can. He loved racing cars as a kid. Now he loves racing fire trucks. It’s what he was born to do.”

Luis considers my tale. His long fingers are rinsing glasses, holding them up to the light one at a time to check for smudges. “For the injured, and the people threatened by the fire, it is very important that your friend drive fast and drive well, is it not?”

“Of course.”

“Then your friend is a lucky man,” Luis says. “Also a wise one. He knew his purpose, and he chose a path with heart.”

Of course this story is personal for me. It describes one of the many things I love and admire Terry for. One of the many ways in which he was a better man than me.

I decided to mention it because I think it’s more than personal-- that fire truck is really just a symbol of Terry’s personality and purpose.

Terry Zimmer went through life trying to help others -- just about everybody he met -- spreading the healing power of love.

Did you ever see Terry frown at, or be mean to a stranger?

* * *

Okay, let’s face it....Other than one of his daughters getting married, this is about the only way you get Terry Zimmer back inside a church.

And if it were God’s will to bring Terry back, one thing God might try to wake him up -- dress Terry in a suit and tie, maybe wingtips.

And yet, better than any man I’ve ever known, Terry followed and preached, especially through his actions, one of religion's or spiritualism's great principles. He did unto others as he wanted done unto him.

Treating EVERYone with love and respect. Not an easy job for us humans, but Terry was the best I’ve known.

When Jeanne (Terry's wife) asked me to say a few words about Terry, to be a spokesman for our high school class, I worried I wasn’t the guy for the job. High school was not always the great joy for me that it was for others. But when I thought about it, and remembered how everything changed when I met Terry, I realized that’s the reason Jeanne asked me. I’m the perfect one.

I met Terry on the first tee of Almansor golf course. As freshman try-outs for the golf team, it was near sundown when we teed off. Even the sophomores were almost finished.

My parents had moved the summer before, and I had no friends. Not one. It had been a sad, scary year for me. Plus, maybe I was pretty wierd. Whatever, I no longer expected people to talk to me, let alone like me.

But Terry opened up right away. Terry said he didn’t expect to make the team, but at least he’d get a free round, plus, the alternative was going home and having Mrs. Z find house work for him.

We laughed pretty much the whole time, trying to outdo each other. I won the golf part, but Terry easily won in the joke department. When the round was over, I followed Terry home like a lost puppy. I've been stuck ever since, like old gum on the back of his shoe.

In high school, I loved Terry like everybody else -- for what he was, how he made me laugh and feel good about myself. But the truth is, how well Terry knew and liked you was big time social currency at San Gabriel High School. If Terry liked you, thought you were worth knowing and hanging with, you were in with an ever-growing population of gearheads, surfers, rebels, gangsters, soches, and nerds like me --a clique that clung to Terry like a movie star’s entourage.

We were a collection of well-meaning but essentially odd people.

I see a lot of us in this room.

But knowing Terry was a ticket across social boundaries, a free pass to laughter and fun and getting along. Our whole senior class came togther around Terry -- Exiles and Centurians, Hot rodders and Ivy League scholarship material.

Terry didn’t have to run for office. He was the unaniomously acclaimed King of San Gabriel High School.

* * *

It’s a terrible day when your best friend dies.

And yet I have much to be thankful for. I’m grateful I knew and loved him. I’m grateful for the time we had together, especially the last two years. We put almost two weeks together, laughing, playing golf, and eating tacos.

I’m grateful that anytime I want, I can hear Terry answering the telephone to talk to one of his children. I can hear that silly, high-pitched, baby talk voice he used.

And I’m grateful that Terry will always be with me, helping me make decisions, helping me choose the right thing to do. The kind thing. The nice thing. The loving thing.

Helping me choose, always, a path with heart.

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