Tall Tales and Short Stories

These are stories about different events in my life. Some are in fiction form due to the age of the writer at the time of the event in relation to the memory of the writer at the time of writing. Age does that sometimes. Enjoy the stories and provide some feedback.

Location: Fort Smith, Arkansas, United States

July 01, 2006

Adventures in Firefighting

The call came in just after one that Saturday afternoon. The Johnson rent house on Old Whitney road was on fire. As a volunteer with the Peoria Volunteer Fire Department, I was not required to be at every fire, but I couldn’t resist. I had a little firefighting bug from way back.

During my childhood, my Dad would take me to work with him. He worked for the Houston Fire Department and his station, Station 14, sat on the corner of 12th and Yale, in the old Heights section of town. Moss filled oaks lined the pock marked streets and filled the expansive yards of the old, rundown mansions throughout the area. The fire house was early 20th century with ornate carvings on the corners. Three big bay doors stayed open during the day, allowing the aroma from the burger, taco and chicken stands to drift through the station. The local shop owners, in their 1960s version of strip centers, knew each fireman and were generous to their kids when they came by.

In the rear of the house, the office, living room, and kitchen served as the day quarters for the firemen on duty. The well worn, low set couches and mold covered paneling spoke of a male atmosphere. The dining area doubled as a game room; besides car repairs, dominos and card games took up a lot of free time. Most of the guys would take the time to show us kids how to play the different games.

Behind the firehouse a large wooden rack, twenty feet long and eight feet wide, stood in a downhill slant in order to lay the hoses out to dry after a fire. The guys taught me how to properly roll out the hoses to prevent rotting and how to roll them back up for storage. Once that was completed, and a few other chores like truck maintenance and cleaning were done, we would always play a round of horseshoes or pitch washers.

The real fun was upstairs. Along the back wall, all of the bunks were lined up neatly – a wall locker for personal effects stationed beside each bunk. In the front of the room were the bathrooms, showers, and more lockers. But in the middle of the room stood two mahogany pool tables, a ping pong table, an air hockey table and an eight foot by eight foot closet.

The pool tables were beautiful; the imitation pearl trim and markers looked real to us kids. While playing, I would imagine that I was playing on the King of England’s pool table; only a king would have such exquisite tables. The ping pong tables were rather ordinary in comparison, but one side could be stood on end and I could play by myself for hours.

The closet, just beyond the tables, was extra special. Through that closet door stood the prize every kid dreamed about when they thought of firefighting — the Pole. I became the pole sliding champion of Houston. If they held a pole sliding event at the Olympics, the gold medal would be mine. Even when just stopping by the station for a minute with Mom, I had to slide down that pole.

When I got older, Dad would occasionally let me ride to a fire in the chief’s car. I had to stay with the car while at the scene, but the sights I saw at those fires still fascinate me. Firemen coming out of burning buildings holding children or pets, cars mangled by trains at major crossroads, or even the occasional use of the Jaws of Life had the mind of this youngster working overtime.

I arrived at the fire before any of the trucks, so I threw on my gear that was stored behind the seat of my El Camino and started to reconnoiter the area. The rental home was an old wood frame house with a small porch; it sat in the middle of an acre plot that was surrounded by a pasture on one side and cotton fields on the other and behind. There was a small Mulberry bush near the front door and a large White Oak tree just to the side of the back door, a few other trees dotted the yard and driveway. Twenty yards away, an old Ford pickup truck sat on blocks and a barbed wire fence lined the perimeter. A propane tank was situated on the side of the house. It appeared the only thing home was the renter’s Blue Healer dog. He sat trembling by the fence and growled when I tried to catch him. I did not want him running around when everyone arrived, for his safety and the firefighters.

The Hillsboro fire trucks showed up first. They set up near the front of the house. The pumper-truck, fully loaded with treated water, was bright and shiny; the pump motors started on the first try. Our pump motor usually took a little priming before it would start. Hillsboro aimed one hose at the propane tank to keep it cool and another targeted the front roof.

Before they finished setting up, the Peoria fire wagon ambled into the yard. I motioned them to the rear of the house. The rental was fully engulfed in flame and would require an all out assault from the front and rear if anything was to be salvaged. Charlie, a retired air force firefighter, and I rolled out the first hose and went to the back door. The door provided an excellent view inside the home; the bottom half was wood, but the top half was glass. Using the nozzle, I broke the glass and sprayed water into the back room in a counter-clockwise motion to arrest the flame and smoke long enough to see what we were up against.

I could see through the back room into the kitchen. It looked like a clear path, so we stepped back so I could kick in the locked door. My foot broke through the rotted wood, leaving me straddling the splintered wood with one foot inside the burning structure and one outside on the wet, slippery steps. I tried to calm down and assess the situation. Then, I noticed an acetylene bottle in the corner of the room. Wrapped around the bottle were two tires, fully engulfed in flames.

"Get me out of here, NOW," I yelled back at Charlie.

Without hesitating, Charlie turned the nozzle lever off and threw his arms under mine. He pulled and tugged, finally releasing me from my precarious predicament. We both fell into a pool of water that was beginning to puddle up near the base of the White Oak. The cool splash soothed my overheated face; the muddy water left dirty streaks down the front of my protective visor.

Instead of entering the house, we set up a hose to spray directly on the bottle of pressurized gas. If it were to explode, there would be a lot of injured firemen leave the scene that day.

Hillsboro stabilized the front of the house enough to send two guys to the rear to assist us. They took a hose to the side window, directly under the White Oak, and worked on knocking back the flames from that angle. One of the firemen, Gus, dropped his section of hose and started spinning; his arms were flailing about like a mad man. At first, I thought an ember had gotten under his fire retardant jacket. Then I saw the snake wrapped across his shoulders. The four foot chicken snake had fallen from the tree, dead from the smoke. All Gus knew was that it was a snake and it was on him. He didn’t wait around to see if it was dead or a live.

The snake incident so stunned Gus that he walked over to the fence to gather himself. As he leaned on a post, a swarm of ground hornets attacked him. With his arms flailing about again, he took off across the yard towards the cab of our truck. In all of the excitement, the Blue Healer joined in the chase. I don’t believe Gus ever left the Hillsboro city limits to fight another fire.

After about an hour, we extinguished the fire. Three quarters of the house had burned to cinders, but we were able to salvage some of the renter’s personal effects. He arrived on the scene as we were cleaning up. The shock on his face quickly vanished when he saw his dog.

I never heard what caused the fire. I did learn that the acetylene bottle was empty and open, so it posed no risk. It just scared the devil out of us. The owner leased another of his rent houses at a lower rate to the man to help him get back on his feet. Occasionally, I talk to some of my friends from that little department; we always end up talking about that fire. Because no one was hurt, we can have a good laugh about Gus and his adventures.


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