When the bagpiper came in, playing “Scotland the Brave,” and walked up the center aisle as the small crowd of proud family members stood, I got the first lump in my throat. Then the color guard, firefighters in their perfectly pressed, navy blue uniforms, the young man in the center carrying the American flag, strode in, flanked by two other young men carrying what looked like ceremonial silver axes, and the lump in my throat gave way to damp eyes.
We’d been invited to the badge pinning ceremony by one of the five new firefighters being formally inducted into the 35-member crew of the Sacramento County Airport Fire department. And there he was, walking in line behind the other members of Academy 19-2 (the second class of 2019), tall and proud, his shaved head gleaming even under fluorescent lights of an airport meeting room. Out of the corner of mine, I saw Dick wipe his eyes, for this was the young man who’d saved Dick’s life just ten months ago in an airport in Honolulu.
We didn’t know his name for a few days, but Pamela Foster of the AED Institute tracked him down, and then we knew it for all time: Salesi Maumau. A Honolulu firefighter, but also, we later learned, a boy who grew up in Elk Grove, played football at Sacramento City College and married a lovely Yuba City girl named Eryn. The day he saved Dick, Salesi was about to board the plane to Sacramento to interview for a job with the city of Sacramento fire department. He didn’t get that job, but not many months later he interviewed and was invited to join the airport firefighters. He’s just completed an eight-week training at the airport, and he wanted us to be there, along with his family and Eryn’s.
Because we’re ohana now, too, as they say in Hawaii. And Salesi and Eryn wanted to come home because in January they’ll be first-time parents. They’re living with Salesi’s mother and stepfather in Elk Grove for the moment. We met them after the ceremony, and Eryn’s parents, too, and we beamed like proud family members as Salesi, the class speaker, stood at the podium and talked about their training.
He was well-spoken and thoughtful and gracious with his appreciation to so many people. Dick and I applauded as loudly as we could after he finished. And when Salesi and his fellow firefighters had their shiny new silver badges pinned on by their loved ones, Dick stood near the front of the room, taking photos, as he likes to do.
I sat near the back, my eyes darting from Dick to Salesi, thinking, it could have been otherwise had Salesi not stepped out of line when Dick collapsed. Had Salesi not conferred with a man we now know, Claudio Alvarado, a UCDMC nurse also in line behind us, who knelt at Dick’s side and felt for a pulse, realizing it had vanished. Had Claudio not indicated that to Salesi, who started chest compressions that he kept up for a few minutes until the AED arrived, the life-restoring machine run to Dick’s side by a breathless Hawaiian Airlines employee named Chris Ohta. Had Salesi, who is also an EMT, not positioned the pads on Dick’s torso, and stood back as Chris pushed the button that brought Dick back to life with one huge jolt of electricity.
At the ceremony there were big smiles all around, before and after, but we were surprised to get hugs and handshakes from Salesi’s family members who swarmed Dick as if he were a rock star. They all know the story and of Salesi’s role in it. And afterward, when airport fire chief Dale Carnes came up to Salesi and Dick, I urged Dick to tell the chief the story. He was surprised to hear it. “He never told me that,” he said, and we looked at Salesi, one of the most modest men we’ve ever met. He grinned sheepishly, and I said to the chief, “Well, we’re happy that you know now.” And the chief shook Dick’s hand and thanked him.
We scooted out then, noting the lovely cake in the back of the room with the Sacramento airport fire logo on it. I kissed Dick at the walkway to the parking garage as we went our separate ways. I knew he’d go home and load the images he’d just shot into the computer and start editing them. It is what he does. Salesi was one of the people who made that possible.
I got out of the airport parking garage a bit after 6 p.m. and came chugging into town in Friday night traffic. Four writers, who knew I would be late, were waiting, and we were joined by two more. This is what I love to do on Friday nights, twice a month, sit in the story loft—on this particular night, writing this story—surrounded by some of my tribe.
But tonight we were also inducted into a new tribe, one of firefighters and two families who have embraced us. We could brag like family members about the man who certainly doesn’t see himself as one of the heroes of Dick’s story, the tall firefighter with the sweet smile who will become the father of a son in the new year.
We hope to stay in their lives for some time, long enough to tell that little boy one day about his father, the hero, the one who was in the right place at the right time in our lives, who made all the difference.