Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sad ... but a good time.

The late Keith Ferris. A real good guy.
Goodbye Keith
Nineteen years ago, when I first began as chaplain to the fire brigade, I met a firefighter who was on light duties because he was recovering from a near fatal bout of meningitis. He went on to work in the training department and found his niche there. He did fire rescue training for rest home staff, and other workplaces needing such training. He went on to train volunteer firefighters throughout Otago and Southland. He died last Tuesday of cancer and on Saturday I attended his funeral. (He was Catholic so a priest led the funeral - I was off the hook for this one.) Bus loads, van loads and carloads of firefighters came to his funeral from all over the place. The funeral home was packed to overflowing with people. St John ambulance staff and Police representatives were also there along with family and friends. It was a great tribute to a much loved man. 
Keith Ferris was his name and I had a great deal of respect for him. I recall he invited me to participate in a three day fire rescue course. Because he knew me and loved to tease me, he kept choosing me to be the guinea pig, or the volunteer to go first in any exercise. He was enjoying himself with a real twinkle in his eye. He also talked me into going into the smoke chamber with breathing apparatus on, and loved seeing me fight the fear of the heat. I had to shave my beard off and he enjoyed making that demand of me, taking photos of the bare faced, hot chaplain just after I emerged from the hot box.  Keith was an ideal trainer, he was always enthusiastic and effusive in his responses to people. You felt like you could do anything with Keith to guide you through. When you had completed the exercise he treated you as if you had won an olympic gold medal.  I will miss him because at 3 p.m. every Tuesday and Friday when I would turn up at central fire station to do my chaplaincy, Keith would be in the yard or sitting outside the Mess. He was a smoker and there is an outside bench where smokers sit to have their cigarette.  He always said "Hi Dave" and often threw me some good natured cheek and teasing. If he was with a group of trainee firefighters he would say "Hi Dave" and on more than a few occasions I would hear him explain to them that I was the chaplain and then say, "He's a good bugger". In the tribute from the fire service the senior station officer said, "When I came away from Keith I always felt like saying, 'Jeez I must be good!' because Keith always made you feel good about yourself." Heaps of firefighters attending the funeral looked at one another, grinned and nodded their agreement.  I reckon that is a pretty good thing to be remembered for!  One of his favourite sayings was "You beaut!" or "Bloody beaut!" Goodbye Keith my friend, we will miss you heaps. I hope I can be half as positive as you.
A good time
It is strange but it often happens at a funeral that you have a great time. When I was young and my Dad died, I of course was part of the "after funeral" gathering, where family and friends gathered for a feed, to catch up on one another and share memories. I recall thinking then, "This is great fun! Dad would enjoy this!" Well Keith's gathering was like that. Retired firefighters turned up and we caught up on them, chatting, laughing and being old friends together. After the funeral I did not go out to the grave side ceremony. A group of my St John Ambulance staff invited me to join them at the coffee bar around the corner. It was great to be included. I then went to the "after-match-function" at the Fire Station and found myself staying for a couple of hours chatting with various people. It was simply good fun. I began to feel a little guilty for laughing so much at a funeral function, but then I thought Keith would be happy! He would be saying "You Beaut!" I came away feeling privileged indeed to be part of this band of people. They are hard shots, often loose with their language and sometimes coarse with their humour, but they are basically good people whose company and support I enjoy. 
"Do you believe this religious crap?"
I was talking with a retired firefighter whose company I enjoy. He has worse "plumbing problems" to deal with than I do and we compare notes. There were of course religious elements to the funeral, though I appreciated the flexibility of this particular priest and his style of leadership which seemed sensitive toward secular people. As I talked with my friend, out of the blue he came up with a question, "Dave, do you still believe all this religious crap?" His wife looked embarrassed that he would ask such a question of a minister. I told him that I cannot go along with a lot of traditional Christian teaching, that I was fairly liberal and very much on the edge of Church doctrine. "That is one reason I am retiring" I said. I told him that I prefer to call myself a "Follower of Jesus" rather than a "Christian". "I am pleased to hear that! I just cannot go along with a lot of religious stuff,- I tried but it does not gel."  Whether it was because of the funeral or not, I was surprised with the number of in-depth,  profound and thought provoking conversations I had. I felt close to so many people.  I am very fortunate, I enjoyed a precious time of friendship.
"My soul-mate"
A friend of ours who I first met in the fire brigade has attended Church with his wife for the last few years. We "click" and enjoy many conversations. His mother died last Friday evening and I went out to help him begin to sort out what to do. He stood up in church and thanked the Church members for their support and then looked at me and said, "I especially thank my soul-mate up there for his help when it first happened."  It seems I am really important to him. He once told my wife that he looked on me as his brother. I am privileged. I don't have a heap of close friends but I do enjoy his acceptance of this eccentric, heretical old parson.

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