Stay at this business of writing and public speaking long enough, and the clutter of small prizes and gifts becomes one of life’s certainties. If you visit Rotary and Lions Club luncheons, book-club gatherings and writers’ conferences, you’re sure to collect enough coffee mugs to stock an all-night diner, plus pens galore and certificates of appreciation by the boxload. Along the way, you can be assured an endless diet of rubber chicken, green beans and grateful handshakes from the guy saddled with the responsibility of rounding up the speaker of the week.
Occasionally, however, something out of the ordinary occurs.
Not long ago, it was my privilege to say a few words at a celebration of local emergency ?responders, an event filled with waving flags, parading fire engines and ambulances, and a cheering crowd of men, women and children there to demonstrate appreciation for those who work to keep us safe. It was not an invitation for which I expected to receive another token of gratitude. At the program’s end, however, Fire Chief John Ballard of Cedar Hill, Texas, approached, offered a few kind words for my brief talk and pressed something into my hand.
Only after I’d returned home, coat and tie ?discarded, did I take a careful look at the small bronze medallion he’d given me and begin to wonder of its origin and significance.
On its front was a relief of a muscular Roman soldier, staff in one hand, pouring a pitcher of water onto a blaze from the other. Printed along the medallion’s edges were the words Saint Florian: Patron Saint of Firefighters.
I was curious to learn more.
Search online and you’ll learn that according to the legend, the Austria-born Florian was a noble and brilliant officer in the Roman army, performing heroic deeds and even miracles of healing as he quickly rose to the rank of general. His downfall was his Christian faith in a time when the orders of the day were to round up and swiftly sacrifice Christians to the Roman gods. Florian’s refusal ultimately resulted in his being flogged and thrown into the Enns River with a rather heavy stone tied around his neck.
He was regarded as patron saint of Poland after Pope Lucius III gave some of Florian’s relics to the king of Poland in 1138. Among the mythology that preceded his afterlife fame was the story of how Florian had once managed to douse a raging fire with only that single pitcher of water. Adding to the firefighting mythology is a story about a latter-day Polish firefighter who called out the saint’s name as he rushed into a burning building to rescue its occupants. In time, then, Saint Florian would gain worldwide recognition as the patron saint of those who fight fires.
The legend, I can only assume, is true. Whether Saint Florian actually looks down on those who battle fires, large and small, I have no idea. But the fact remains that we all, regardless of religious bent or superstitious need, want to think there is some invisible hand on our shoulder, protecting us from bad times and harm’s way. If a talisman kept in a pocket or attached to a chain around one’s neck offers some measure of comfort and confidence, I applaud and endorse it. Perhaps we might all be better served to embrace the notion that famed author Jim Harrison refers to as the “ecstasy of belief.”
Long a talisman of firefighters throughout Europe and the eastern cities in the United States, the Saint Florian medal’s popularity has spread greatly in the past decade. In Cedar Hill, says Fire Marshal Randal Jordan, one is presented to each new training graduate, as well as given to honor promotions and for over-and-above deeds performed.
“Everyone in the department has one and carries it,” Jordan says. “Some wear the medals around their neck, some carry them in their pockets, others keep them in their equipment bags.”
So now, when a late-night silence is broken by the wail of a fire engine racing somewhere to tend whatever new tragedy has invaded the darkness, my thoughts go to my own prized medallion. And I sincerely hope that Saint Florian, wherever he might be, is on the job.