Fire in his belly - Firefighter follows in father's footsteps

Tuesday, April 23, 2002

On Sept. 13, two days after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the parents of Randy Morris Jr. watched their son graduate from boot camp with the U.S. Army Reserve with an uneasy mixture of pride and fear.

Monday, those emotions returned full force when they learned their boy was put on "alert status" and may be soon shipped off to active duty in an undisclosed location as an occupational specialist, part of an elite firefighting team.

He reports today to his unit in Granite City, Ill., to learn more about when he may be shipped off.

And at 19, though he's never been further from home than the fire academy in San Angelo, Texas, he feels ready.

He's watched his father, master firefighter Randol Morris, since he was in diapers and rode along with Cape Girardeau city crews when he became old enough.

He signed on with the Army Reserve after graduating from Central High School in May 2001 because it seemed like a good way to get practical job training while earning money for college.

Currently a volunteer with East County Fire Department, he's had a little hands-on experience, and the Army has trained him in structural and aircraft firefighting as well as hazardous materials response.

Cape Girardeau firefighters who've seen him in action have nothing but praise for young Morris, the son of a respected peer.

"If we could get 10 to 15 more guys like that, we'd have it made," firefighter Matt Mackley said. "There's always room for 'L-rod' on the truck."

"L-rod" is the nickname another firefighter planted on Morris Jr. after learning his middle name is Leroy.

Some plans on hold

Capt. Robert Kembel pretty much watched Morris grow up. He worked on the same crew with his dad for several years at Station 2.

"I think he's really determined to be a firefighter," Kembel said. "He's the type of guy who'll make us proud wherever he goes. But I hope he ends up here."

Morris hopes to join the Cape Girardeau department too. But that will have to wait.

He had lunch at his grandparents' house Sunday, was fussed over and served fried chicken and okra, his favorites.

Later, wearing a baseball cap, an Old Navy T-shirt and baggy shorts, Morris showed off his baby, a restored 1973 Chevy Nova painted "Corvette orange." He remarked that he's trying to sell this one because he's working on two more and needs the garage space.

Those cars will have to wait, too. Also on hold is an EMT class at the vocational school and further plans to study nursing.

"I want to work at the fire department full time and on my days off as a nurse," Morris said. The two fields naturally dovetail, since firefighters are required to spend more and more time on medical calls.

Because he was packing to leave, Morris' bedroom was a wreck, the bed tousled and clothes strewn everywhere. One wall is decorated with firefighting memorabilia, posters, antique tools and a hand-painted ax that was a graduation gift from his parents and two sisters.

And in the back of his closet is a miniature firefighter uniform sewed for him from his dad's castoffs. His aunt made the outfit after seeing the boy tag along to watch his father work and trying to learn everything he could about the fire station.

Went to watch fires

His father encouraged his son's interest.

Even when he wasn't on duty, Morris Sr. took his children to watch fires and educate them about firefighting techniques.

Gazing at the flames and watching intently as the firefighters doused them, his son was fascinated.

On Nov. 19, 1994, the emergency scanner told the Morris family that a fire had erupted at the Plaza Tire Complex. Randy, then 11, was eager to head to what sounded like an exciting scene.

It was Randol Morris' day off, so he loaded his kids, Randy, Jennifer and Emily, into the car and drove over to watch.

But instead of being quickly put out, the three-alarm fire was getting worse. Leaving the children with a friend, Morris suited up and waded in to help out.

When his wife, Marlene, drove over to pick up Randy and his little sisters, she heard the sirens to evacuate, but didn't worry.

They'd been home an hour when a knock on their door signaled bad news. A wall had collapsed on Randol. Her husband was in the hospital in serious condition.

"I don't even remember who was at the door," Marlene Morris said. "I just know I didn't believe them."

And she firmly puts out of her mind the thought that something similar or worse may befall her son.

"I don't go there. I can't," she said.

The night his father was hurt was a turning point for Morris. He became determined to fight the beast that injured his father, who was out of work for nearly a year with steel screws in his left femur and a pin in that hip.

"From that day forward, I made a promise to myself that I was going to be the best firefighter I could ever be," Morris Jr. wrote in an essay in December for a fire department newsletter.

"The idea that he could be put in harm's way is disturbing," Randol Morris said. "Obviously, I'm uncomfortable with that."

Marlene Morris works hard at not crying and, for the most part, succeeds. "He's my baby," she said. "But I couldn't be prouder of him."

abuchanan@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 160

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