One firefighter turned to the other.
“It’s been fun,” Wayne Justl said.
“It’s been a blast,” Ray Larkins said.
Yeah, sure, their hair may have grayed or receded, and their midsections may have expanded a tad, but their heads and hearts forever are full of memories of working at Anaheim Fire & Rescue for nearly 30 years.
Justl and Larkins met in the fire academy in October 1986, were hired the same day by AF&R (Feb. 18, 1988), and — by design — they retired the same day.
Their last 24-hour shift together, at Station 10, began at 8 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 28 and ended today, Dec. 29, 2017.
“I’ve been counting down for a year,” Larkins said.
“He’s my counter,” Justl quipped.
It went back and forth like this, with one interruption for a medical aid call, at the firehouse table where the two and other Station 10 crewmembers break bread, talk shop and life, give each other grief, and enjoy the special bond that is unique to a profession where employees live and work together during 24-hour clusters that often stretch for days.
Throughout their nearly three decades at AF&R, Justl, 56, a firefighter hazmat specialist, and Larkins, 54, a firefighter paramedic, didn’t work a lot together since they were housed at different stations.
But they always checked in on each other and, outside of work, spent a lot of time together, along with their families (and watched each other’s kids’ baseball games).
A year ago, as their retirement date was approaching, Justl tried to transfer from his workplace of several years, Station 6, to Station 10, Larkins’ home base.
It finally happened on Sept. 12, 2017 when a position opened up, allowing the two great friends to work the last three months of their careers together.
“I’m a traditionalist,” Justl said. “We did everything together, so we were going to finish together. We were going to make it happen, no matter how hard it was.”
Said Larkins: “It’s great to go out together.”
STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE
Justl and Larkins grew up in Orange County and were gifted baseball players.
Justl, in fact, played a year of winter ball with the Houston Astros after college.
Not surprisingly, both were pitchers.
And, you guessed it, both were righties.
(For the record, Larkins is a Dodgers fan. Justl loves the Angels. So there is that discrepancy).
Both say the thought of a desk job never appealed to them, and that the physicality and teamwork that are hallmarks of the fire service were a draw.
Larkins wanted to be a firefighter since he was a kid.
“My mom used to chase fire engines when I was growing up,” said Larkins, who grew up in Orange and graduated from Canyon High School in Anaheim in 1981. “She thought it was exciting, and I found it exciting.”
Justl had a neighbor who was a firefighter for the Orange Fire Department who always urged him to test for the fire academy.
Eventually, both ended up attending the 64th Basic Fire Academy at Santa Ana College.
They met in a line of five when the class of 30 was divided into six lines to work on tasks together.
“We just hit it off,” said Justl, who grew up in Huntington Beach and attended Edison High School.
Said Larkins: “We had the same interests, and we worked well together.”
Larkins, who earned an associate’s degree from Santa Ana College in 1983, was working at a supermarket when he entered the fire academy. He said meeting his future wife propelled him to get serious about a career.
Justl, who went to UC Berkeley on a full baseball scholarship but graduated from UC Irvine in 1985, had his eyes set on becoming a professional baseball player, but changed his mind after his stint in winter ball.
“I felt like I had had enough,” Justl said. “I didn’t want to end up playing 10 years in the minor league system.”
After graduating from the fire academy just before Christmas 1986, Larkins and Justl were hired together as paid reserves for the Fountain Valley Fire Department.
Justl worked in a bank and Larkins at the supermarket while they tested at several fire agencies for full-time gigs before AF&R hired them.
Say a certain word at a firehouse, and memories of past calls rush back and the stories start flying.
That’s the way it is in a profession that exposes one to the entire gamut of the human experience, from responding to a 911 call about a splinter or shampoo in the eye (yes, those were real calls) to holding the hand of a woman on hospice as she took her last breath (that was real, too).
“Most people live in a bubble,” Larkins said. “We live outside the bubble. We talk to each other about calls, and we get it. That helps you get through your career.”
Said Justl: “The fire service is very humbling, no doubt about it. There are so many ups and downs. Good things happen and bad things happen, and bad things happen to good people, for no rhyme or reason. That’s part of what you deal with every day.”
One of their first calls together at AF&R — they worked, on average, a few calls per year together — involved an elderly gentleman who was having a medical emergency and having trouble not pooping.
Some ended up on Larkins’ shoes.
“I almost threw up,” Justl said with a laugh.
They also recall having to carry an obese woman down the stairs when her chair lift failed to operate.
“We tried everything to get it working,” Justl said.
Both firefighters worked together for six days on the recent Canyon Fire 1.
“We laid the initial (hose) lines and camped there a few days,” Larkins said. “It was intense.”
Larkins recalled a recent call involving a man in full cardiac arrest. When they arrived at the hospital, he had regained his vital signs.
“That’s a life we saved,” Larkins said.
“Those are the high points,” said Justl, who figures he’s delivered close to 10 babies on the job.
“If I could be with the guys and run on good calls all the time, I would never leave,” Larkins said.
“Oh, I would,” Justl said with a wink.
Larkins has been married for 30 years, Justl for 27.
Larkins was a groomsman at Justl’s wedding.
Over the years, they’ve helped each other move several times.
Justl has two kids, 24 and 22
Larkins has three, ages 28, 26, 24.
Both say their careers flew by, and they plan to hang out in retirement. Both said they likely will volunteer as youth baseball coaches.
To celebrate his retirement, Justl and his wife will go on an eight-day paddleboat cruise down the Mississippi.
Larkins will go on a cruise of the Great Lakes.
Both were asked what they will miss most about the job.
Justl glanced around the room.
“This,” he said.
Larkins had no other word.