Tales From the Tailboard

First Time Behind the Wheel.

When one was on the job for 32 years, and has been retired for 18, it means 50 years of memories. It also means trying to fully recall events that were firsts.  But we all know–some things you just never forget.  Such is the first time Bob drove an engine on a fire run.

There was a six-month probation period for new firefighters. During that time you were the probee–the new guy, the flunkie, etc., and you prayed for someone else to be hired so you would no longer be the low man on the ladder. That time was also an intense learning time. Before you were allowed to drive an engine on an actual fire call you had to know where all the streets in town were located, which streets were your area, and where the fire hydrants were located on said streets.  Station #1 went north and west of the train tracks which dissected the town, and station #2 went south and east. However, if it was a structure fire, then an engine from each station responded, and hoped there wasn’t a train on the tracks at the time.

Since the first engine a probee would drive (the one they trained on) was the one that responded to car and trash fires in the city limits and all fires outside city limits, whether car, trash, grass or structure, plus the one that was sent on mutual aid, each man also had to know the location of the various county roads, by number (naming of county roads didn’t come into being until the 9-1-1- system), and whether the address was an east/west/ or north/south road. (no Google maps 50 years ago)

The day Bob made his debut drive was also the day they were assigned to paint the running boards and the tailboard of this particular engine–with aluminum paint. He remembers thinking that even if an alarm did ring, he’d be able to step over the running board.

Well, the alarm rang and it was dispatched as a fire along the railroad tracks. He recognized the location as being in his territory-and in his excitement he stepped on the running board anyway.

The officer in charge always rode shotgun.  Chief at that time was  Elvin Warhurst. He set high standards for himself, and for his men. One of his goals was that the driver knew his streets before he ever responded, behind the wheel, to an alarm. He didn’t want the driver talking to the officer en route to the fire. Some officers were adamant about this rule. Others were cautious enough not to be driven to the wrong address, so would allow talking.

Bob doesn’t remember if he asked questions. He does remember being very nervous, and his leg shaking so badly, he didn’t think  he was even going to be able to hold the clutch in to shift gears.  Now–lest you think this was a simple 1-2-3 shift, it wasn’t!!  In fact, this engine was probably one of the most difficult to drive. (This will only make sense to men, but it is interesting to note) This GMC truck had a two-speed axle.  So one would shift into gear #1, then into high-axle #1, then back to gear #2, and then high-axle #2. And somewhere in this shifting you would break sequence between high and low axles. If you happened to miss that shift, it was very difficult to get into any gear, and would sometimes require coming to a complete halt and starting all over again. Need I say it was a probee’s nightmare. No firefighter, or his officer, wanted to be stalled in the middle of the street, sirens howling, and gears grinding.

They did get to the fire, and it was only a kerosene smudge pot that the railroad was using to keep their switches thawed.  Some passerby saw it and called it in as a fire.

I asked him, while we were talking this morning, if he kept that day in mind when he was the officer and had a probee driving for the first time.  He just smiled, and said he didn’t remember.

So, anybody out there who drove, for the fist time, with Bob riding shotgun?  Let’s hear your side of the story!!

That’s the tale for this week!