Cantankerous Wisdom, Features

Cantankerous Wisdom—Old Timers and Political Correctness

By Bill Adams

At a recent trade show, two old-timers were sitting on the tailboard of a pumper arguing the firematic benefits and drawbacks of open cabs (no doors or roof), semicabs (with doors but no roof) and two-door enclosed cabs with real rear steps. I and Harvey Eckart, a Mack aficionado who wrote his fifth book about Macks in 2005—Mack Fire Trucks: 1911-2005 (An Illustrated History)—were the guilty ones. We progressed into a discussion about today’s pump sizes, which for some unknown reason, made me think about political correctness. Old timers tend to wander.

Our jabbering brought to mind the days in the firehouse when you could get into a debate about any firematic topic without offending peoples’ rights, race, religion, family heritage, or sexual preference. It didn’t matter if you argued about manual versus automatic transmissions, 2½- or three-inch supply lines, the value of a booster line, solid beam versus truss ladders, or whether it was a 2½-inch line with a straight tip or a fog nozzle that backed up the 1½-inch attack line or the 1½-inch backed up the booster line. Everyone voiced their opinions and everyone paid attention. Most learned something and all parted without animosity.

Sometimes sides were switched and the topic was rehashed—that gave everyone a different insight into topics. Afterward, decisions or changes made usually benefited the department and not somebody’s individual whim or preset opinion. Unfortunately, many firematic discussions today end up in heated debates with people choosing or ignoring specific facts just to defend personal agendas and beliefs. It’s really sad personal agendas, individual whims, and preset opinions spill over into fire truck purchasing.

Changing Times
But, times have changed and not necessarily for the better—for us old timers. I remember when you could call firemen firemen. Manpower was the number of people who got off the fire truck regardless of what kind of tools they carried or were personally equipped with. Remember when mentioning a double lay did not raise eyebrows, require more than two people, and result in mandatory sensitivity training? What about that untrainable probie who said “with what” when you told him to “hit the plug? It was just natural for us old timers to call him a dumb son-of-a-something you really should not have called his mother.

Today, why does telling the truth warrant a trip on-the-carpet in the chief’s office? I remember that big fire thirty years ago, when it was impossible to get on the radio for an assignment. When we came around the corner on the engine we saw a white coat in the middle of the street pointing at a nearby hydrant with one hand. The inadvertent placement of his other hand clearly meant, “Make a big fire hook-up on that plug.” It became the big fire hookup signal for decades after. Nobody complained. Today, some firefighters would be filing charges, claiming sexual discrimination or personal harassment by the chief.

Back then everybody knew the Italians on the engine made the best sauce and meatballs and the ladder company’s Irish made the best corned beef and cabbage. That was plain fact. Everyone knew it. It had nothing to do with ethnicity, heritage, brogue, accent, or number of legal parents. They didn’t care what you kiddingly called them as long as you ate the chow, helped clean up, and didn’t steal their recipes. You pop off to the wrong people today and they’ll call whatever antidefamation group they belong to, whine to the chief, blow your butt into the personnel office, and sue you because they were offended.

The hydrantman’s job was, and still is, to open the hydrant. Nobody cared if the hydrantman stood to pee. But, if you call the wrong person a hydrantman today, you can end up the recipient of a sexual harassment lawsuit and the water may never get turned on. Political correctness has gone too far when you can’t describe a working fire as, “she’s going good.”

Now for a classic—remember when the Mayor always wanted the fire department to bring Santa Claus into town on the ladder truck? Now, they won’t let you use the ladder truck to put up a Christmas tree on the firehouse. Common sense may be a lost commodity.

Now, the real subject of this tirade was to be about…ah, damn I can’t remember. Forgetfulness is another advantage of being an old timer.

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.