Apparatus, Features, News

Cantankerous Wisdom—Part 1

By Bill Adams

Cantankerous can be defined as crabby, difficult, cranky, and grumpy. Wisdom is described as knowledge, understanding, insight, and perception. Combine both with old timers and fire apparatus and you can run the gamut from whining, “the good old days will never come back,” to, “maybe those old people were on to something.” With an open mind and a willingness to evaluate change—either to something new or reverting to something old—the fire service may benefit from history. My father was a volunteer and later a call man (paid volunteer) from the early 1930s to the early 1960s. Some of his sayings, less the cuss words, were:

  • After 45 miles an hour, you don’t steer a fire truck; you aim it.
  • The fire service went downhill when they moved the steering wheel over to the left side. I didn’t mind them putting air in the tires, but moving the steering wheel was over the top.
  • What’s the worst fire I’ve ever been to? The next one. After I get out, I’ll tell you what the worst one was.
  • When we rode the ladder (before they got an aerial in 1953) you threw ladders until the chief told you to stop. They don’t do that anymore.
  • It ain’t like it used to be. Whose brilliant idea was it to put a roof on a ladder truck? How do you spot it when pulling in?
  • Who ever heard of putting a pump on a ladder truck?
  • If the good Lord wanted aluminum extension ladders, he would’ve made aluminum trees. Metal and wires (electric) don’t mix.
  • We got the navy nozzles (the old Rockwood SG series) and 1½-inch hose when the boys came back from the war (WWII). Before that, we used a booster or a deuce and a half. It didn’t matter though. The nozzleman makes you or breaks you.
  • Engine 3 pulled in (at his retirement home). There were more doors on that thing than fire truck—a four-door cab with full height compartments each side. “How the hell do you find anything,” he asked.
  • The trucks are getting too damn big. Look at that one. The hydrant man can get a nosebleed just reaching the line.
  • When the siren blows, leave your toys at home.

He had two scanners running 24/7 at the retirement home and commented on the decline of volunteers in the local departments:

  • Hell, that company can’t put out a fire without calling for help.
  • That’s all you hear on the scanner—need manpower, need manpower. Back when we started hurting for help (WWII), we always sent two stations for house fires plus a ladder truck.
  • They can blow the siren until it comes off the roof—no one’s coming. They’ll all be permanent (career) soon.

Before his passing at 103 years old, he complained about departments using “plain language” on the radio. He couldn’t understand what they were saying all the time and wondered why they had switched from “signals” to talking. He said that the louder and faster they talk on the radio the bigger the fire must be. He commented that with the signals you knew exactly what was going on. Signal 1 meant a false alarm; 2 meant the first engine can handle it; 3 meant a definite fire, wait for an update; 4 meant the next due engine lays in; and 5 was a worker—all hands will be used. He said you couldn’t screw that up too much. His take on two-piece engine companies, Gamewell boxes, and the transition from volunteer to career are topics for another diatribe.


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BILL ADAMS is a former fire apparatus salesman, a past chief, and an active member of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has more than 45 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.