This month I will become 46 years old. I'm not really sure how I got here so fast. Here being my involvment in the fire service. But, I certainly remember how it started over 30 years ago almost by accident.
I always wondered why from the time I was ten years old people would always ask, what do you want to be when you grow up? Hell, I’m forty six as I begin to write this blog and I’m still not sure what I want to be when I grow up.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s a favorite television show at our house was ADAM-12. Rarely did my father and I miss the Jack Webb produced police drama. My friends and I, using my aunt’s 4-door Cadillac as the squad car, often imitated the words and routines of officers Pete Malloy and Jim Reed. I remember uttering the phrase, “watch your head,” as we pretended to cuff and then stuff the bad guys into the back seat. My father told me of a new television show that would not only have our old pals Malloy and Reed, but firemen as well. Dad was referring to the TV movie and pilot for EMERGENCY!. I know from research that this program aired on January 15, 1972. Of course, my beloved LAPD officers only had a small cameo appearance in the show, and I remember being a bit disappointed waiting and waiting for them to come back on the screen. I tried to figure out how their characters played in this new drama. I got comfortable in my usual spot on the living room floor, in front of our color console television watching the story unfold with the action of the firemen and soon to be paramedics easily holding my attention for the two hours. Soon Roy DeSoto and Johnny Gage made Malloy and Reed distant memories. Saturday nights became Emergency! nights with the channel selector and the rotary antenna both positioned to Channel 6, our local NBC affiliate. My interest in fire fighting and emergency medicine truly began then, watching the victories and defeats of not only of Squad 51, but Engine 51 as well. I was ten years old. Without knowing it dad and I began using a phrase that I would repeat in part over and over again as my life as a volunteer firefighter grew. As the end of the hour of fire fighting and rescue was action approached we would ask each other, “Is this the big one?” We were referring to the large, involved incident the climax of that night’s show. The big one. If I only had a buck for every time I said, “see you at the big one” as I left a group of firefighters, or as I departed from our own fire hall. I think that my children’s education would be paid for.
My friend Eddie and I responded to imagined emergencies in my back yard playing the roles of Gage and DeSoto. We also tried to ride our bicycles to the fire hall as quickly as we could when the fire whistle began to blow. We wanted to see the trucks leaving the hall and follow them if we could. It was rare if we caught up with them. Sometimes they would be leaving our little borough on a mutual aid call, and at our age we didn’t know or expect that.
I was in 6th grade when our fire company, New Florence Volunteer Fire Company, hosted a live fire training session. I remember volunteers from the close mutual aid companies also taking part in this important drill. I don’t remember anybody specific, but I do remember seeing the different fire trucks representing each company at the drill site. Plumes of black smoke first caught our attention and lead us to the drill location. They were burning down an empty house at the corner of 15th and Vine Streets in New Florence. It was a two story, wood frame, ordinary house. The goal at the end of the exercise was to have the structure destroyed. In the mean time I watched as a fire was started over and over again. With each new ignition a crew wearing air bottles just like on EMERGENCY! would enter the black, smoky environment and put the fire out. I noticed that before each rotation the firefighters who were not making entry assisted the others with the breathing apparatus and protective gear to make sure everything was working properly. When each station’s men had enough practice the building was lit up and consumed by fire until only a smoldering pile of rubble remained in the foundation. I recall the heat produced by this blaze, and didn’t realize how far the heat could travel. Sure I knew it would be hot close to the burning structure, but at times I still had to shield my face standing on the opposite side of the street. Watching this training session intensified my interest to find out what this fire fighting thing was all about. Eventually Eddie and I decided that when we got old enough we would join the fire company. Back then a person had to be 16 years old before an application to be a junior fireman could be submitted.
When older friends of ours became junior firefighters Eddie, now and forever more to be known as Smedley, a nickname given to him by an upperclassman, and I began to try and stop by the fire hall occasionally. Bill “Stoker” Glessner, Ron Gorman, Ed “Squint” Bealonis, Duane “Dewy” Moon and Todd Gable all encouraged us to join when we got old enough. I didn’t know many of the regular members other than my Uncle Rich and Hugh Wakefield who was our neighbor and little league baseball coach. As I remember, Smedley knew some of them though. It was the beginning of the summer of 1977 and we were learning the names of the trucks and what they were used for and some of the equipment kept in them. Occasionally we helped wash them. Our involvement with the volunteer fire company would increase dramatically in the next few weeks. Disaster was secluded in the shadows of the future, waiting for the right time to strike.