From birth, Marshall Allen’s life had never been easy, but it became incredibly more difficult on July 2, 2001.That was the day the captain in the Fort Worth Fire Department went for a bicycle ride in the country. The 6-foot-4 body builder, considered by many a superman, recalls that a storm the night before had left the roadway cluttered with fallen branches. As he tried to “bunny-hop” one of the limbs, he crashed into a ditch, causing his huge body to fold over his shoulders and head.Allen immediately knew that he was paralyzed, and because he didn’t think any passersby would notice him, he assumed he would die there — slowly. Rather than continue to suffer and wait for wild animals to start chewing his flesh, he tried to maneuver his neck muscles and chin in a way to stop his breathing, “like crimping a garden hose.”The airflow did stop, he said, “and I knew that was it.”I’m mighty happy to report that it wasn’t it.His fate changed when a family with two kids in the back seat drove by. One child noticed the bike in the ditch, and the other said, “And there’s a man, too.”Allen was rescued from death, but he was paralyzed from the shoulders down.This would be one more major challenge for a man who had battled against the odds all his life.When he was born in Holbrook, Ariz., in 1957, his Anglo mother turned him over to a Catholic adoption agency. The first two families that adopted him brought him back because he was not quite white enough. (His father was black.)After some time in foster care, he was adopted by a black couple, but his adoptive parents favored a younger adopted child over him.Despite his troubles in school with other students and faculty, Allen succeeded and became the first black firefighter in Salt Lake County. He joined the Fort Worth Fire Department in 1979, and for years he was a swingman, a person who rotates from station to station.His heroic story is beautifully told in the book, Swingman: What a Difference a Decade Makes, by Alexandra Allred, and in a moving documentary by award-winning filmmaker Mark Birnbaum.It’s an incredible story of struggle and triumph. It was through those stories and this column that many who knew him well came to realize just how difficult his journey has been, physically and psychologically. He had been great in hiding his bouts with depression, he said.Two months after his accident, while he was still in the hospital, Allen watched the twin towers in New York come crashing down, and he immediately thought of his fellow firefighters who had gone into those building to try to save people.After six months of recuperation and therapy, Allen went back to work in the Fire Department — probably returning too soon, he admits — starting out in the training department and later moving to the Bureau of Fire Prevention. Recently he was named assistant fire marshal.Wednesday, Allen will retire from the Fort Worth Fire Department after 35 years of distinguished service, something a few years ago he wasn’t sure he’d be able to do because, “I didn’t know if I would live this long.”His official retirement party will be at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Police and Fire Training Academy.When I talked to him Tuesday by phone, he had just finished speaking to students in Eastern Hills High School’s fire technology program — doing what comes naturally to him: inspiring others.Fire Chief Rudy Jackson calls Allen “a great person with a great personality” who, before and after the accident, has great presence.“Wherever he was and wherever he went, you would know he was in the room,” Jackson said.He added, “He is loved and respected by everyone.”No one can argue with that.
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders