Public Service, Ultimate Service

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Government workers don't get a lot of respect. "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you" gets instant laughs from the anti-government "conservative" set. President Reagan promulgated the proposition that government was the problem, not the solution.

Yeah, tell that to the families and friends of the nine firefighters who died last night after saving the lives of furniture store workers, in the worst disasters among firefighters since 9/11.

Maybe even if it hadn't just been after Father's Day, I still would have thought of my grandfather, a career firefighter for the City of Pittsburgh back before unions, oxygen tanks or very much else in the way of protective equipment. He talked about the most fearsome fires -- lumber yards, furniture stores -- but in a general way. He didn't scare his grandkids with tales of danger and rescue, even though he twice narrowly missed an early death. The first time, just as in Charleston, a roof collapsed, and if Grandad hadn't been called away by his chief a few moments before, my father would never have been born and I wouldn't be here to rant on HuffPost.

He never claimed to be a hero, but there are a lot of people whose lives he saved. And not just on the job. Heck, he was such a chronic do-gooder that when he happened in the neighborhood of an old folk's home and heard it was on fire, he not only ran to help, but also dragooned his 14-year-old kid (my dad) into carrying out hysterically frightened would-be victims. In his own neighborhood -- a full-fledged slum, pre-unionized firefighting not being particularly lucrative -- when the water started to rise in the early morning hours of St. Patrick's Day, 1936, he and his sons roused other families and urged them to safety before one of the worst floods in local history (34 feet, if anyone's counting).

Just another government worker serving the public.