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George Cain: A Lyrical Life

Maybe a man's worth can be measured by the beauty of the words he inspires in those who knew him best. If there's any truth in that proposition, then firefighter George Cain was a very worthy man indeed, for in dying, he has made poets of the family he left behind. George's sister, Nancy, recalls his "infectious" laugh. On George's 40th birthday, which fell on this past May 13th, his mother, Rosemary, wrote: " I close my eyes, go back in time, and you are here beside me, telling me you love me just once more."

It's no wonder that George yielded such heartbreaking eloquence. He was brave, handsome, and overflowed with good cheer. If Frances Cornford had known him, she might have written of him, as she did of Rupert Brooke:

A young Apollo, golden-haired
Stands dreaming on the verge of strife,
Magnificently unprepared
For the long littleness of life.

Except George Cain's life wasn't little. George made sure of that. If there was any excitement or novelty around, he found it. If there wasn't, he made it. Although George grew up in Massapequa, well within New York's sprawl, he felt such a passion for nature--for the smell of pine on a mountain breeze--that he lit out at the age of 23 for the Rockies. Settling in Telluride, he made his living as a carpenter, but lived to ski. On the slopes, George was a star, even by exacting Telluride standards. Even the famous Kant-Mak-M (described by competitive freestyle skiier Caleb Martin as "the most bang for your buck") couldn't cramp George's style. As George's good friend and fellow skiier Adrienne Bartolini told a reporter, "He used to just rip down that."

Other adrenaline junkies might have gone on forever making a profession of their hobby, but not George. He was no ski bum. In 1994, after five exhilarating years on the slopes, the New York City Fire Department called: there was an opening. George answered. Loading his belongings in a Volkswagen van, he and Adrienne Bartolini said goodbye to the sweet and easy life of Telluride and drove back to the City, where he went on to join Ladder Company 7.

Settling in Patterson, New Jersey, George may have found fewer chances to savor the face-the-wind buzz of skiing, but he took a new kind of satisfaction in the steady, grinding discipline of long-distance running. The conditioning didn't hurt him in his job--even halfway through his thirties, George could beat the rest of the ladder company up any staircase. In 1999, George completed the New York City Marathon, and enjoyed the experience enough that he planned to repeat it in 2001.

But of course, George wouldn't get that chance. New York City holds its marathons in November. In September of that year, he, along with the rest of Ladder Company 7 and hundreds of other firefighters, faced an even tougher race: a race straight up two of the world's tallest buildings. George and the rest of New York's Bravest did not flinch at the challenge. Their courage recalls Tennyson's tribute to another group of heroes:

Storm'd at with shot and shell,
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell

If the troopers of the Light Brigade could have seen George and his fellow firefighters that day, they'd have bowed their heads.

Fun and good works--that was George Cain's life, and it has been his legacy. In George's beloved Telluride, cyclists gather each year for the George Cain Memorial Bike Ride. Every year on George's birthday, golfers hit the links at Oyster Bay to raise money for the High Hopes Memorial Fund, a foundation set up in George's name to help those in need of therapeutic riding. Wherever George is--probably at the top of a long, steep run with no icy patches--he must be pleased.

A.E. Housman once wrote a poem called "To An Athlete, Dying Young":

Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay,
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.

Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears:

Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.

But the words don't quite suit George Cain. George's goodness had no expiration date. When his laurels and honors faded, he'd have won new ones, and he'd never have lacked for a cheering section. To prove that, let's take a moment not to mourn George, but to cheer him--for the man he was, for the good he did, and for the good he would have gone on doing.

Way to go, George--and thank you for playing on our team.

5 Comments On This Entry

I have a feeling that he is still doing good works in Heaven and that he got to hear "Well done, my good and faithful servant".

Thank you for writing this Mooga. It was truly a tribute to the life of an American hero and pure poetry to my heart. :ph34r:
Beautiful Mooga. I hope all that knew George get a chance to read this tribute.
Thanks, guys. Yes, I hope George's family takes some pleasure in reading this. Judging by what his mother, sister, and niece have posted on other tribute sites, they're very nice people.
Very beautiful, Mooga.
Very beautifully written, Mooga. Thank you for taking the time to write about George Cain. You made him alive again with your words.
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