Some years ago, I worked as a fire fighter in order to pay my way through college. Of all the things I can recall from those days, one of the most difficult — yet interesting — things to describe is the way in which a person’s voice — and most often his whole manner — would change when he became dead serious.
“Dead serious” might not be the best words for it. Maybe a word like “realistic” serves better because the temperament I am trying to describe is characterized by complete realism. But whatever word or phrase is used, it is a hard thing to describe. And, in large part, I suspect it’s a hard thing to describe because we think that we already know what dead serious is. But do we?
Of course most of us are quite frequently serious about something. Even quite serious about something. But please allow me to submit that most of us are rarely dead serious. In my own experience, I haven’t been dead serious about anything in years. And for good reason. There has been no call to be dead serious.
I do not know for certain what causes a person to become dead serious. I might say it is triggered by great personal danger. But I’ve been in situations when I was in great personal danger and yet I did not become dead serious. So it doesn’t happened every time you’re in great personal danger. But generally speaking, great personal danger is a trigger.
At any rate, I noticed when I was fighting fires that now and then someone’s manner would change. They would become what I am calling “dead serious”.
I remember once six or seven us were discussing abortion while we waited for a call. One of the men was dogmatically opposed to abortion in any circumstance. And that evening he was quite passionate in condemning any woman who might have one — even to preserve her own life. As he spoke, his voice was raised, his face was red, and he was gesturing adamantly. I think most of us would have said he was serious — even dead serious — about abortion being in all cases immoral.
Yet, a short time later, I was out with him on a call, and — confronted with an especially dangerous fire — both his voice and manner changed in such a way as to make me marvel that everything he’d said about abortion had been said without the deepest possible conviction! Face to face with that fire, he was serious to a degree that he simply could not muster earlier — no matter how hard he had tried to work himself into it.
The difference between being dead serious and not being dead serious struck me on that occasion and on others. In the years since I worked as a fire fighter, I have now and then tried to write about that difference in my journals, but I have never written about it with anymore success than I’ve had here. Describing the difference simply eludes me — and yet, I think nearly anyone would notice the difference if they encountered it.