A Clearfield County native has written a children’s book to keep the flame of her son’s memory alive and burning.
Debbie Michuck created “Those Dirty Fire Boots” in honor of her son, Ryan Flegal. The book was recently published by Covenant Books.
Ryan, a Clearfield Area High School graduate, was a wildfire fighter out west for nine years, where he enjoyed the rush of battling the blaze and protecting the community. In 2012, he committed suicide, tragically leaving his legacy and story behind.
The book is told through the eyes of Ryan’s nephew, CJ, and gives a view of how he saw his Uncle Ryan, and how children look up to firefighters in general.
Throughout the 26-page publication, CJ and his sister, Josie, talk about their visits and interactions with Uncle Ryan. They idolize him, saying, “You have to be in tip-top shape to be a wildland firefighter,” and describes his clothes as having a “faint smell of burning wood that I have grown to love.”
Ryan always loved the outdoors, and had a Penn State University degree in Forest Technology, Michuck said. He pursued his firefighting dream in 2001 in Utah, and went on to be a trained smoke jumper and acquired other skills in the line of danger.
He endured seasonal depression, since wildfire fighting occurs only for about six months of the year, Michuck said. When he wasn’t experiencing the adrenaline rush, he had a hard time, she said.
“He was always full of laughter and life,” she said. “But, like so many of us, he suffered from depression, and that was a fire he couldn’t tame.”
After Ryan’s death, Michuck started her own blog, “Flames for Flegality,” which, she said, helped her realize how therapeutic writing can be.
Because the topic is so near and dear to her heart, it didn’t take long to write the book itself, Michuck said. She had always told Ryan to write a children’s book about fighting wildfires, so, she decided to write one herself in his memory.
“He was always so good with kids,” she said. “And they always say to write about what you know.”
She also wanted to write in a way that showed children the bravery of everyday heroes, Michuck said. There aren’t many books written specifically on wildland fighters, which she hopes makes this one unique.
All of the book proceeds go to the Ryan T. Flegal Memorial Foundation, through the Central Pennsylvania Community Foundation in Altoona. Funds will go to benefit charitable causes, such as the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, suicide prevention and awareness, and scholarships for high school seniors going to college.
“All we have now is memories,” she said. “If I can keep his name alive and help charitable causes, then that’s great.”
She has done many things to honor the memory of her son. Ryan had more than one firemen-related tattoo, Michuck said, which was one of the things that inspired her to get his signature and fire symbol tattooed on her wrist.
Since her loss, Michuck has also read many books on suicide, and is involved in suicide prevention groups and counseling efforts locally, aiming to be a shoulder for people to lean on who may be experiencing what Ryan did. At some point, she also wants to write a journal, about a parent’s struggle after losing a child to suicide.
Michuck attributes much of her strength and attitude to being a Christian, she said. Her goal is to use Ryan’s legacy to help others.
“I want people to know that at 65 years old, you can still live a dream,” she said. “I’ve been through the worst nightmare of a parent’s life. I would want him back in a second, but you can’t change it. You can still go on and find joy in life again.”
Michuck will have a book signing at Barnes & Noble in State College on Oct. 27 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., and she will also be attending book signings out west in “fire country,” among old friends of Ryan’s.
The book is available in hardback, paperback, and E-book through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kindle. “Those Dirty Fire Boots” also has its own Facebook page.