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Cantankerous Wisdom: Lousy Coffee, Teasing, and Memories

By Bill Adams

Times have changed. You stop in some fire stations today, and you’re lucky to get a decent cup of coffee. The new breed drinks that flavored, healthy, weak-bodied fluid that looks and tastes like ground-up squirrels’ nuts. You seldom find good strong caffeinated java as thick as pine tar that’s brewed in pots that haven’t been washed in a month. And, fire stations don’t smell like fire stations anymore. There’re no gasoline exhaust fumes, cigar smoke, unemptied ash trays, or the residue and smell of working fires in the form of cancer-causing unburned hydrocarbons. Not having carcinogens is good—having lousy coffee is bad.

The ultimate let down is most of the liars, fibbers, storytellers, and cojones smashers are gone. Oldtimers tell tales and tease each other because that’s all most of us have left. Today’s young guys seem to be on edge all the time. They don’t like to be teased. And, they don’t tease for fear of being sent to sensitivity training for offending somebody’s pet rock, religion, ancestry or someone’s fetish for stuff that might not be 100 percent natural. 

When I was a young kid in the early 1950s, every week or so my parents drove into the big city to a corner market they’d shopped at for 20 years. I was allowed to walk two blocks to the quarters of Engine 10, Engine 11, and Ladder 5. It smelled like a fire station, and the troops tolerated my visits. Their stories were incredible. I couldn’t tell until later in life that they told a lot of tall tales—to me, to each other, and I think to themselves.

Ladder 5

The ladder crew bragged they did such a good job in opening up that the engine guys could walk into a building without packs. The hose humpers said they had to use “Scotts” because ladder companies were always slow in ventilating. Sometimes it got heated like the time when 5’s guys said it was hard to keep a fire burning long enough for the engine crews to get water. And 10s could get a line in service before 11s. It was nonstop, and I ate up every word. I couldn’t tell if they were really mad at each other, were just teasing, or were doing it for my benefit. Most of the time, my parents had to chase me down because I overstayed my allotted 20 minutes. Every now and then I was given a well-worn and frayed copy of Fire Engineering or Fire Command (a former NFPA publication). It was better than Christmas. 

They knew my father was a volunteer out in the burbs and knew the rigs his department ran. They were teasing me, although I didn’t know it at the time. One day it was, “Hey kid—come here and sit in the front seat. Betcha your father’s rigs don’t have doors and roofs.” They didn’t. On one visit, they helped me climb onto the turntable of what they called a “real ladder truck.” Dad’s department didn’t get an aerial until 1953. When they got it, 5’s crew said it didn’t matter because, “theirs had two steering wheels and his only had one.” Another time, they let me sit in 10’s canopy cab when they backed the rig into the barn. I couldn’t sleep for a week. Although I later became a Mack C-Series aficionado, long-nosed 500 Series American LaFrances were, and still are, impressive. They’d make Jimmy Durante proud. 

Years later we moved further away from the city and I eventually got my driver’s license and joined the local fire company. Occasionally I’d drive back to visit the older guys still on the job. It was like old home week. I didn’t mind them subtly teasing me about being a volunteer. After all, they were all good people. “Permanent” was a local term for career or paid firemen. “You know kid—you oughta think about becoming permanent after ya get outta the service.” Back then, the local draft board (Selective Service) ensured most all able-bodied males served in the armed forces. And, nobody on the job really gave a rat’s rectum if they were called a firefighter or a fireman.

Engine 11

It’s different today. Regardless if they’re career- or volunteer-oriented, some of the younger guys can really get their bunkers in a twist over the slightest thing. The Raisin Squad kicked that topic around over morning coffee. There was a wide divergence of opinions. The rational old timers conceded that “Times have changed,” and “It’s the young guys turn now.” The moaners and groaners that lamented, “It isn’t fun anymore,” and there’s “too much training” haven’t been on the load or picked up anything heavier than a fork full of food in a long, long time. A couple of the realistic squad members admitted extensive training is required, and firefighting shouldn’t be a game or hobby for volunteers. Several said volunteers should have the same training as career people. 

All the Raisins acknowledged the hardships volunteering has on family commitments and, to their credit, none of them belittled young guys for joining the fire department. The new breed has the ambition, strength, and chutzpah to learn and excel. 

But (and there’s always a “but” when dealing with old people), that should not prevent geezers from doing a little teasing. Stand in front of the fire station watching a rig respond and glance down at your watch. The young guys will wail that you were complaining it took them too long to turn out. Frustrating to some of them is when their rig pulls up to a call and there’s a couple raisins standing there watching expressionless with their arms folded. It’ll drive them nuts if you just turn around and walk away without saying a word.

Oldtimers have to exercise a degree of caution when teasing because it can easily turn vicious, and that’s not right. One example could be watching a new guy getting off a rig not wearing his full rubber goods or not carrying anything in either hand and asking him if he’s there as a tourist or if he’s there to work. The new breed shouldn’t get upset with us white hairs. We are really, really glad you’re here.

BILL ADAMS is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board, a former fire apparatus salesman, and a past chief of the East Rochester (NY) Fire Department. He has 50 years of experience in the volunteer fire service.