If you're paying attention, you know blogging has sort of taken a backseat since my baby girl has entered the scene. But every once in a while something happens that’s so special (read: blog worthy) that I make the time to sit down to share.
Meet Tom, aka “Bull.” Recently, I received a text from a sweet friend telling me that her Aunt’s boyfriend, a retired firefighter, was in Charleston walking for a cause, and she thought it would be great to have some documentation of this. I jumped over to his insta feed to see a bunch of snapshots of this journey he was on, and a few posts about someone named “Shakey.” After a few messages back and forth, we made a plan to meet at the Charleston Nine Memorial Park. I’d like to say that I understood why he was suggesting that park, but I had to google it. You see, I didn’t live here back in 2007 when a devastating fire at a furniture store took the lives of nine firefighters on the scene. I had no idea that they are memorialized one mile down the road from my favorite BBQ joint. I didn’t think twice about the nine flags lining the street across from the best chicken sandwich shop you’ve probably never been to. I never noticed that this stretch of Rt.17 was named for those nine heroes. I didn’t know because I never looked past the dang restaurants’ parking lot. But not on this day. This day, I took a walk with a man named Bull and heard story after heartbreaking story from a hopeful man who deals with the burden of grief the only way he knows how, by carrying it on his back.
He looked just the way I imagined a retired firefighter from Florida would look. And his warm and welcoming smile was exactly what I’ve come to expect from the retired folk down there. I don’t know what it is about a retired Floridian, but they are all just remarkably friendly and hold a special place my heart (hi mom!).
Bull immediately started telling me about the numbers and patches on his pack. About how he walks through towns from fire station to fire station, collecting these numbers, patches, trinkets, and even some ashes of fallen heroes. (currently totaling 70)
He told me about how it didn’t start out that way. At first, it started with just one number.
Shakey’s number. His buddy, who he lost to cancer.
Shakey got sick and was eventually pushed out to an early retirement. When he passed, there was no financial support for his family. This hit Bull hard. He talked about the many ways the job is to blame for so many firefighters getting cancer and then there is little to no financial support for the families when this happens. He felt helpless when Shakey died. All he could think to do was walk. So he did. He carried Shakey’s number on his back, wishing he could have carried his old friend’s burden for him. It was just a couple miles a day because it’s all his knees would allow. Then he started to be able to walk farther. He visited different states. Then a funny thing started to happen. People got wind of his walk and started contacting him to ask if he would carry their friend/son/daughter’s/brother’s patch. His collection started to grow as he walked longer and farther. He’s slept in firehouses and homes of other firefighters dealing with loss. He’s sat down with parents of fallen firefighters and listened to their stories while learning about each person he carries with him. I’m so glad to have this opportunity to see this memorial that I never noticed before with someone who spends his time and energy bringing attention to something happening that goes unnoticed.
Here, Bull takes a minute at the spot where Louis Mulkey’s body lay after fighting a blaze that ultimately took his life. I stood there, looking around at the meticulously placed plaques where each of these Charleston nine were found, and listened to Bull tell me about Louis. He didn’t know him personally, but because of My Brother’s Burden Walk, he’s been able to meet and talk with many who did. While Louis died in the line of duty and had his heroism rightly acknowledged, many career firefighters like Shakey die of cancer caused by the job, with little to show for it.
Bull takes a second to leave behind a little something, marking our time there. He’s sure to include Shakey, as he typically does. We chat at the entrance of the memorial as cars drive by. Business as usual. I’m not surprised by this, as I never noticed it myself until now.
He asked if I would like to walk with him a while. Even though I had a baby waiting at home, and was wearing the most inappropriate shoes ever (as per usual), I was thrilled to be a part of this walk! Right before we headed out, a couple passersby stopped to chat with Bull about what he was doing. He told me that happens a lot and that it’s one of his favorite things. Sometimes they’ll even walk with him for a little while. After the sweet old man wished me “very special Valentines day”, we were off, heading just a mile or two down the road. It was a nice walk. A walk I would never have taken if I hadn’t met this interesting man who, while a complete stranger two hours earlier, was now is feeling a lot like a friend I’ve known for years. Thanks to Bull, this stretch of road is now so much more than just the place I go when I’m craving the best vinegar based chipotle BBQ sauce south of the Mason Dixon Line. One road at time, Bull tells the stories of firefighters whose stories need telling, carrying his brothers’ burdens on his back.
If you’re wondering where you can learn more about Bull and his walk, check him out on Instagram @thebullhill89. Be sure to follow him there as there is currently a nonprofit being formed to come to the aid of these families after this kind of devastating loss. I tried to compliment him about the attention he’s brought to his cause. He was very uncomfortable with taking any credit, and with the enormity of the response he’s been receiving. He humbly responded, “I just wanted to take a walk for my buddy.”