By Linda Militello
What kind of mother would encourage a child to become a police officer, firefighter or soldier? The mothers I knew in my age group hoped their children would become doctors, lawyers, dentists and all around high-wage earners. I wondered what career my children would choose.
Forty two years ago, Tony, then 3½, was napping with me, or so I thought. Tony climbed out of his crib, donned his baseball cap, quietly exited the house and rode his tricycle to Southgate Plaza. He pedaled down sidewalks, crossed one 30 MPH intersection, a four-lane 45 MPH section of Union Road in West Seneca, and navigated the bridge over the creek into Bell’s. My husband was shopping there while we napped, but Tony woke up and decided to help him.
This was the first of hundreds of independent childhood adventures that showed Tony’s risk-taking propensity. His surprise “shenanigans,” as my grandmother called them, kept us in a state of fearful alert, yet awesome wonder. Did his risk-taking personality develop in the womb throughout a tumultuous pregnancy?
At 13, Tony decided to become a fire protection engineer. The word fire raised my stress level, increased by the word protection. An interest test determined this career a perfect match.
I asked, “What does a fire protection engineer do?” He answered, “Everything to prevent fires, control them, or figure out the cause.”
He stated emphatically, “I will attend the University of Maryland, the only school that offers this degree. I need to go there now to find out what to do to assure acceptance.” We visited Maryland on Veteran’s Day weekend.
Relentless at 15, Tony insisted on training in Fire Explorers and worked with volunteer fire stations. I attended a conference on risk taking in teenagers. I learned that if a child shows an inclination to risk taking, parents should encourage and direct them to occupations where risk taking is positive and critical to performance. Without a parent’s support, a young person may choose negative risk taking behavior like alcohol, drugs or sexual diversion to satisfy an innate hyper-curiosity.
Years of intense education and scientific problem solving at the University of Maryland, along with laser-focused determination to solve fire-related problems, led to a civilian career as a fire protection engineer with the Department of Defense.
Recently, Tony and two other engineers were specially chosen by the National Science Foundation to immediately fly to McMurdo Station in Antarctica to determine why two civilian fire maintenance workers died servicing fire suppression machinery.
“Mom, I have to go so hopefully this won’t happen again.”
I heard the thrill in his voice for the opportunity to solve a life-and-death puzzle. The reality of his going immediately and missing our family holiday celebrations lowered the velocity of my pride over the next day like a balloon losing helium. My heart ached more for the mothers and families of the two workers who had done this job before and never returned home.
Today, fewer young people are joining police and fire departments throughout the country. Respect for police officers has decreased. Fewer individuals are gaining the education and skills needed to become leaders in fire protection science and criminal justice.
I imagine mothers of police officers, firefighters and soldiers watching sons and daughters turn into men and women who risk their lives for others and wonder how these mothers stop worrying. A loving parent would never raise a child to seek danger, but some parents will instill the courage and values needed into the future protectors of our society.
Linda Militello, of Williamsville, takes pride in her son Tony’s accomplishments.