Sunday, January 27, 2008

Volunteer Firemen

Bob Thomas suggested I write a bit about the Wenonah Volunteer Fire Dept. since I had just covered the Police Dept. When I was in fifth grade the firehouse was a two story building on South West Ave. It was a white building and the one fire truck was kept on the first floor with the second floor functioning as a social hall for the volunteer firemen and other community functions. On Election Day the first floor was where the voting took place. On top of the firehouse was a loud whistle which was sounded to summon the volunteers should there be a fire. You could hear it everywhere in town. The number of whistles indicated (at least this is what us chowderheaded kids thought) the severity of the fire. It also was sounded at 8:00pm each evening to tell all the children to go home. It was called the Eight O'Clock Whistle. On the 4th of July it was sounded to let everyone know the parade was about to begin. It was also supposed to be sounded as an air raid siren. There would be tests of the air raid function when we were young and if we were in school we either a) got under our desks and put our hands over our heads or b) went into the hall to do "duck and cover". I guess this made people feel safe. I know that in fifth grade we were fairly certain that if there were a real nuclear war we would be toast by the time the dopey whistle went off. We lived about ten or so miles from Philadelphia and the US Navy Yard as well as some of the largest oil refineries and chemical plants on the east coast. There was a Nike missile base in Pitman and it seemed like the Russians would probably know to hit Philly. We read John Hersey's "Hiroshima" and that was just a little bomb. An H Bomb would cook us all. But still we did as we were told.
I wasn't the child of a volunteer fireman so my experiences with the fire department were limited to rides on the truck on the 4th and watching the volunteers speeding to the firehouse when there was a siren. My brother Ted joined the department as a young man and it was then that I found out that one big feature of being a volunteer fireman was that you hung around and drank beer. That probably explains much of the appeal in a town like Wenonah, with no bars and lots of young married men with children. Plus every once in awhile you got to put out a brush fire or a fire in a kitchen. Bob reminds me that Ed Campbell would leave school for fires and return covered in soot and smelling of smoke.
I don't recall anyone ever dying in a fire in Wenonah. I actually don't recall any really big fires. But still there were fires and danger and men willing to help for no pay at all. They still do. In a bigger firehouse with two trucks (at least) and serious training and probably the same amount of beer.
I go to the firehouse each 4th of July to drink beer and meet old friends and remember the good old days. We watch the parade and try to egg the firemen into pulling their sirens. They're not supposed to but they do anyway.
It's kind of strange that a town as small as Wenonah was divided up in little ways. I don't know much about the holiday displays and the care and work that went into them because my father wasn't in the Lion's Club (until much later) and whatever danger the men who volunteered to fight fires faced is something I know nothing about because my father wasn't a fireman. But divided up or not divided still men got together for business or pleasure or to help their town and did it all for free. For free.


Paul said...

I got drunk for the 1st time at the fire house on the 4th of July. We lived around the corner from the fire house (on Park Avenue) and I wandered over and found the keg. I have a vague recollection of Mr. Campbell helping with the tap, but it could just be an apocryphal self-made myth.

Paul said...
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