“Don’t let your boy’s schooling interfere with his education,” goes the quote often attributed to Mark Twain. I learned that lesson more than 50 years ago when I was a commuter student at Stony Brook University. One afternoon when I returned home from school, my mother asked me if I could help a neighbor, Jim Boyle, move some furniture in the morning.
The next day, I sat in the passenger seat of Jim’s station wagon going somewhere to help him pick up furniture. Jim was a New York City firefighter, husband, father of five and a friend. We talked about everything except where we were going. It took about 15 minutes to reach our destination. Two people, a husband and wife in their 50s, greeted us and thanked us for picking them up.
They pointed to some small appliances, lamps and luggage in the driveway. We put those items in the back of the station wagon while the man and woman sat silently in the back seat. It was obvious that they were both demoralized. They wanted us to leave as fast as possible to avoid inquisitive conversations with curious neighbors.
Once the car doors closed, Jim handed them the railroad tickets that were donated by Jim’s wife, Barbara, and other parishioners at Saints Philip and James Roman Catholic Church in St. James. In a hushed and distraught whisper the husband told us that he lost his job, ran out of money and they had to move in with their daughter.
We moved their possessions onto the train when we arrived at the Lake Ronkonkoma station. They thanked us again. Before we drove home, Jim discreetly called the husband back to the car, opened his wallet, gave the man money and wished him well.
We were fairly quiet on the ride back home. I had never witnessed firsthand the despair of a family being evicted from their home because they were broke. The quote about schooling was right: I may have missed a class or two at school that day, but I got an education about compassion that has lasted me a lifetime.
I lost contact with the Boyle family when I moved upstate and the Boyles moved from Stony Brook. I knew that Jim continued his service as a firefighter. I thought of Jim and the courageous first responders on that calamitous day, Sept. 11, 2001. I watched in heart-rending awe as people raced out of the Twin Towers and New York City’s firefighters raced into the burning buildings to save as many lives as possible.
Jim was safe on that awful day. But one of his sons, Michael, who had followed in his dad’s footsteps, was finishing his tour in Manhattan on his FDNY rig with his best friend, David Arce. When the first plane hit, the firefighters raced to the towers to extinguish the fire and safely evacuate people. Sadly, they both died when the buildings collapsed.
When he saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center, Jim walked across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. As he rushed toward the north tower to help first responders, the building collapsed. He was knocked off his feet and covered in dust. He ran for cover, dusted himself off and headed toward the crumpled buildings.
The Twin Towers were destroyed and the remains of thousands of innocent people were buried in rubble. Once it was “safe” to start the respectful cleanup and search for victims and their belongings, Jim went to Ground Zero every day. He now has 9/11-related cancer and vigorously advocates for the men and women who helped to resurrect lower Manhattan.
I reconnected with Jim this summer after almost 50 years when I met friends of his at the Montauk Downs swimming pool. Jim and I have been talking regularly since. I’ve thought of Jim’s act of kindness throughout my life whenever I’ve had the chance to help a friend or stranger. And these days when I visit my mother and attend Mass at the Long Island State Veterans Home, I sometimes think that if there are angels in heaven, one must be named David Arce, and another Michael Boyle.
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