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Ray Duckler

Ray Duckler: A firefighter loses battle with cancer but wins over a town

  • The casket holding Chris Palmer, a lieutenant in the Newbury Volunteer Fire department, is wheeled out of the Chadwick Funeral Home in New London on June 8, 2013. Helping the casket are Palmer's two brothers Ryan and Devon, at the front, and his father Chuck. Palmer passed away in March at the age of 27 after a long fight with cancer. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>

    The casket holding Chris Palmer, a lieutenant in the Newbury Volunteer Fire department, is wheeled out of the Chadwick Funeral Home in New London on June 8, 2013. Helping the casket are Palmer's two brothers Ryan and Devon, at the front, and his father Chuck. Palmer passed away in March at the age of 27 after a long fight with cancer.

    ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff

  • Chris Palmer's casket is loaded into Newbury Fire Department's Engine 2 after leaving the Chadwick Funeral Home in New London on June 8, 2013. Palmer drove Engine 2 for the fire department for 10 years and the truck now bears his name in honor of him. Chris died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>

    Chris Palmer's casket is loaded into Newbury Fire Department's Engine 2 after leaving the Chadwick Funeral Home in New London on June 8, 2013. Palmer drove Engine 2 for the fire department for 10 years and the truck now bears his name in honor of him. Chris died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon.

    ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff

  • Devon Palmer hugs his sister Caitlin after helping to load the casket carrying their brother Chris on to the Newbury Volunteer Fire Department's Engine 2 on June 8, 2013. Chris died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>

    Devon Palmer hugs his sister Caitlin after helping to load the casket carrying their brother Chris on to the Newbury Volunteer Fire Department's Engine 2 on June 8, 2013. Chris died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon.

    ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff

  • The flag that draped the coffin carrying Chris Palmer is folded before being presented to his family during his burial service on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery  in Newbury. Palmer died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>

    The flag that draped the coffin carrying Chris Palmer is folded before being presented to his family during his burial service on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery in Newbury. Palmer died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon.

    ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff

  • Steven Palmer, 1, lays a red rose on his father's casket alongside his mother Jessica and brother Chuck, 8, during the burial service for Chris Palmer on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery. Chris died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff

    Steven Palmer, 1, lays a red rose on his father's casket alongside his mother Jessica and brother Chuck, 8, during the burial service for Chris Palmer on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery. Chris died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon.

    ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff

  • The flag that draped the coffin carrying Chris Palmer is folded before being presented to his family during his burial service on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery  in Newbury. Palmer died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>

    The flag that draped the coffin carrying Chris Palmer is folded before being presented to his family during his burial service on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery in Newbury. Palmer died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon.

    ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff

  • The flag that draped the coffin carrying Chris Palmer is folded before being presented to his family during his burial service on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery  in Newbury. Palmer died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>

    The flag that draped the coffin carrying Chris Palmer is folded before being presented to his family during his burial service on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery in Newbury. Palmer died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon.

    ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff

  • Maggie Hassan, Democratic candidate for governor, held a town hall at Havenwood-Heritage Heights in Concord on July 6, 2012.<br/><br/>(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

    Maggie Hassan, Democratic candidate for governor, held a town hall at Havenwood-Heritage Heights in Concord on July 6, 2012.

    (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

  • The casket holding Chris Palmer, a lieutenant in the Newbury Volunteer Fire department, is wheeled out of the Chadwick Funeral Home in New London on June 8, 2013. Helping the casket are Palmer's two brothers Ryan and Devon, at the front, and his father Chuck. Palmer passed away in March at the age of 27 after a long fight with cancer. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>
  • Chris Palmer's casket is loaded into Newbury Fire Department's Engine 2 after leaving the Chadwick Funeral Home in New London on June 8, 2013. Palmer drove Engine 2 for the fire department for 10 years and the truck now bears his name in honor of him. Chris died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>
  • Devon Palmer hugs his sister Caitlin after helping to load the casket carrying their brother Chris on to the Newbury Volunteer Fire Department's Engine 2 on June 8, 2013. Chris died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>
  • The flag that draped the coffin carrying Chris Palmer is folded before being presented to his family during his burial service on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery  in Newbury. Palmer died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>
  • Steven Palmer, 1, lays a red rose on his father's casket alongside his mother Jessica and brother Chuck, 8, during the burial service for Chris Palmer on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery. Chris died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff
  • The flag that draped the coffin carrying Chris Palmer is folded before being presented to his family during his burial service on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery  in Newbury. Palmer died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>
  • The flag that draped the coffin carrying Chris Palmer is folded before being presented to his family during his burial service on June 8, 2013 at the Booth Sherman Cemetery  in Newbury. Palmer died in March at the age of 27 after a long battle with cancer. His family lay his body to rest on Saturday afternoon. <br/><br/>ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff<br/>
  • Maggie Hassan, Democratic candidate for governor, held a town hall at Havenwood-Heritage Heights in Concord on July 6, 2012.<br/><br/>(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

Engine No. 2 began beeping yesterday afternoon at 12:53.

The beeps signaled that the engine, the one Chris Palmer once drove, was backing into the parking lot, between the New London Fire Department and Chadwick Funeral Home.

But it also signaled the start of a service that included 20 vehicles, later moving over winding, tree-shaded roads. Engine No. 2, carrying Palmer’s casket, led the way during the 40-minute drive, to Sherman Booth Cemetery in Newbury.

Palmer, a veteran of the Newbury Fire Department, died from brain cancer recently. Tributes similar to this one are given to all Newbury firefighters who pass on, but Palmer’s had a little extra emotion and sadness attached to it.

After all, he was 27 years old, far younger than the gray- and silver-haired rescue personnel who attended. He fought the cancer, diagnosed five years ago, with the fury of the fires he once put out, and, if you talk to people in Newbury and surrounding towns, he lived with a unique brand of optimism that set him apart.

“Family was of the utmost importance to him,” said Colin Nelson, whose son played with Palmer when the two were little. “If you were younger than he was, you looked up to him as a father figure, and if you were older than he was, you looked at

him like a son. To me, he was a son.”

Nelson and others watched as Palmer fought cancer while building a house – a home, actually – in Cornish, near a high-ceilinged garage he inherited from his grandfather before graduating from Kearsarge Regional High.

The house isn’t finished, but volunteers are ready and waiting to donate their time and materials to get the job done.

Meanwhile, Palmer’s wife, Jess, their 8-year-old son, Charles, and 1-year-old son, Steven, will stay in that two-story garage, located in a tranquil area, with tall trees and seclusion and the subtle trickle of a nearby brook. It was while living there, in all that peace and quiet, that Palmer was told he had brain cancer.

Surgeries and chemotherapy failed to completely destroy the bulb of cancer at the intersection of his neck and spine. But, his loved ones said, he would not quit.

“He never said ‘Why me,’ never complained about any of his treatments he got or surgeries,” Jess said. “He just took it and just accepted that this was his road to go down. Just amazing.”

Finally, doctors chose a radical form of chemo to knock out the cancer, then bolster his immune system with fresh stem cells. His 19-year-old sister, Caitlin Palmer, a sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, was a stem cell match.

“I was very excited,” Caitlin said. “I was happy that I could help, and I’d do it over and over again, a million times if I could.”

She did it twice, but her brother grew sicker and sicker. Told he would die soon, Palmer kept looking to the future, kept believing he could beat the odds and put out a fire as deadly as any he’d ever seen.

Nelson visited Palmer near the end. “He found out he was dying, and he was still planning this for next year and that for the year after,” Nelson said. “I pulled Jess aside and asked if he knew the truth or not.”

He knew, enough to have a father-son chat with Charles, preparing him for the future. It happened at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, where Palmer spent his final month. The family gathered in the waiting room while Palmer spoke to Charles, who had climbed into the bed.

He told his son, according to Jess, that he might not be around much longer. He told him he would have to be the man of the house. He told him he didn’t want mommy to be alone, that one day she should find another man to love her.

Palmer died March 17, after which two services were held, before yesterday’s burial. After Engine No. 2 backed into the parking lot, firefighters wheeled Palmer’s American flag-draped coffin out of the funeral home, placed one end on the small section between the cab and the back end where the ladders rest, and slid it into place.

Then Jess’s twin sister, Allison Orlowski, Charles, Jess and Caitlin climbed in for the procession to the Newbury cemetery, 12 miles away.

The rumble of the Red Knights, a motorcycle club affiliated with firefighters, drove directly behind Engine No. 2, followed by a line of cars with heavy hearts and flashing lights.

The line snaked by farms and parks and old men mowing lawns, by cars waiting at stop lights and stop signs, wondering what it all meant.

Just past 2 p.m., at the intersection of routes 103A and 103, the line moved past Newbury Fire Department, at which point fire trucks and rescue vehicles from there poured out, red lights flashing, to join the group.

At the cemetery, a huge American flag hung between tall engine ladders, near the parking lot with knee-high grass and weeds. People moved through two lines of firefighters dressed in blue shirts, black ties and white gloves, all staring straight ahead, all with fingers to eyebrows in mid salute.

A priest led everyone in prayer, then 13-year-old Katie Santti read a short speech. Santti is the granddaughter of Newbury fire Chief Henry Thomas, who trained Palmer as a carpenter and guided him in the fire department.

Santti and Palmer were best buddies, said Thomas’s wife, Helga Thomas. Palmer helped Santti with her math.

“We’d sit on the back porch when he was building my house,” Santti said.

A simulated radio dispatch, marking the occasion, crackled and beeped over a small loudspeaker.

The flag on Palmer’s coffin was folded by firefighters into a series of tightly creased triangular sections, then presented to Jess, who gently kissed Steven’s head as he sat on her lap.

Jess then passed the flag to Charles, seated to her left, on this warm, overcast day.

(A fundraiser, featuring dinner, music and comedy, to help raise money for the Palmer family will be held next Saturday at the Mount Sunapee Resort. Ray Duckler can be reached at 369-3304 or rduckler@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @rayduckler.)

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