Early evening on June 1, I was in front of the Bloomer Fire Station with about 100 other firefighters.
The night was warm and somewhat humid. The evening foretold of another Wisconsin summer being just around the corner.
We mingled and caught up on friendships and happenings around the Chippewa County fire departments. The occasion that brought us together was the passing of Bloomer Fire Chief Brian Bleskacek.
Brian would have loved the evening. Jokes were told, fires were remembered, and the stories grew ever so slightly — much like the prize fish you caught years ago gains a inch or two in the telling.
Of course, there was no beer or brats present, but the evening was made special by the person we were honoring.
I had last seen Brian at the October 2019 meeting of the Chippewa Fire Chief’s Association.
The Bloomer Fire Department has a rule that you retire from line service when you reach 60. Brian had planned to do fire inspections for the Fire Department and I was going to meet with him to cover some fire inspection procedures he had some questions about. That meeting was not to be.
Brian was the second fire chief to pass away from cancer in the last two years. The first was retired Chippewa Fire District Chief John Neihart. Also Eau Claire firefighter and engineer-paramedic Denise Waterman died of cancer on May 1, 2014. The state of Wisconsin does have laws on the books that cover firefighters who have died of cancer, but as far as I know the fund has never paid out.
When the time arrived for us to honor Chief Bleskacek, we lined up four abreast in a block formation and with a simple cadence marched to the funeral home to say our goodbyes.
Because most fire departments no longer issue Class A uniforms, we were a bit colorful as we marched behind the Bloomer Fire Department engine and a Fire Service Color Guard from the area.
What we lacked in uniformity we matched in sincerity. Brian was our friend and fellow firefighter.
As we arrived at the funeral home, we faced left and lined up in four rows to enter. Our part in the remembrance was to simply to be there, lend our support and pay our respects. We were going to do a simple walk past, then return to the Bloomer Fire Station. But something quite different happened.
The Fire Service is linked nationwide by the sound of bagpipes. The tradition is as old as the fire service in America. The Irish, because of discrimination, were only allowed into certain professions in the United States, mainly police and firefighting.
When an Irishman was killed in the line of duty, bagpipes were played at the funerals. Most people probably do not know that both the Irish and the Scots have bagpipes. Even though the Irish have bagpipes, the Scottish Great Highland bagpipes are used because they significantly louder than traditional Irish uilleann bagpipes.
Also played by the bagpipes at police and firefighter memorial services is the hymn “Amazing Grace” by John Newton.
John Newton was a reprobate, a heathen and a blasphemer. He has the distinction of being one of a very few sailors thrown off a ship because of his attitude toward religion. In his trials and tribulations he turned to religion and the hymn, his personal legacy, was written for posterity.
As we entered the funeral chapel, a simple walk through became firefighters walking two at a time to the casket, turning to face Brian; a slow hand salute was given.
In the background a recorded bagpipe played “Amazing Grace:” “Through many dangers, toils and snares, We have already come, T’was Grace that brought us safe thus far And Grace will lead us home.” Tears flowed freely.
Walking back to the Bloomer Fire Station to get a group picture taken, we spoke and laughed about Brian. Hopefully he was pleased.
The last and best words belong to Bloomer Fire Capt. Cory Baier: “The whole Chippewa County (fire service) is a family. Between Brian being the chief and other members, we’re all family. We all stand up together.”
And so we do. Godspeed Brian.
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