Cantankerous Wisdom: Skinnyisms and Quahoggers

By Bill Adams

Skinny was the fire chief back in the early 1980s. He passed on several years back. We all miss him, especially the white hairs who meet for fire house coffee every morning. Skinny had his own language. We never tire of telling Skinny stories and his unique one-of-a-kind sayings—100 percent understandable to everyone, including those who didn’t know him. 

In the early 1970s when he was a captain, we had a report of a fire in a very large wooden building—a former railway freight depot. While en route on the first engine, we heard a microphone being keyed, but there was no sound. Then we heard a pant-pant-huff-huff and in an all out-of-breath voice we heard Skinny, unexcited but firm, say: “All trucks lay in.” No identification, no call letters, no saying who he was calling or why he was calling—but we all knew exactly what he meant.

We caught a chimney fire one night, and I rode the second due—the quint. We pulled up and there didn’t seem to be much going on. A few guys were milling around in front of the house when all of sudden three more came running out of the house with smoke right behind them. Skinny came on the air coughing and hacking and said, “Send me in a 3-C-02 extinguisher and one regular pike pole.” We knew he had a problem.

Long before the county departments used sector and division terminology and numbers (or letters) to designate the sides of a building, everyone used plain language—not one of Skinny’s main attributes. We had a machine on fire inside a very large commercial structure. Skinny was chief then, and he got there at the same time as the first engine. He went inside to size it up. An assistant chief stayed outside in front of the building and radioed Skinny asking what he needed. Skinny radioed back “Have the quint come in on the left side on the building.” The assistant asked, “Uh, OK chief. Which way are you facing?” Skinny replied, “Toward the road.” Today, it would be proper to say the “D” side or the “number 4” side. No big deal.

Skinny had no use for blowhards. You know, the type who interjects their personal comments into conversations they know nothing about. A bunch of us were chewing the fat over some obscure topic when the department expert chimed in with some stupid comment ending with, “Well, what do you think of that?” Skinny looked at him and said “Its inveneral.” We all looked at each other. None of us ever heard of the word, but we all know what he meant. The blowhard left.

Skinny made the absolute classic, although politically incorrect, statement on the air at a burn drill around the same era. It was a rather large building and when the roof lit off, there were a lot of small pieces of burning shingles and tar paper dropping onto one neighborhood. Skinny keyed the microphone on his portable and said “Ya better get a pumper over on the north side cause we got flaming embryos falling in the driveways.” It took a good minute for the fire dispatcher to regain composure enough to answer him.

He was one of those firefighters who others would follow into the gates of hell. We knew he wouldn’t get us hurt, but we also didn’t want to miss what he might say when he got there. We miss him.

The first fire company I joined was right on the ocean. We had quite a few quahoggers in the department who worked on the water. For the uninformed, a quahog is a thick-shelled edible mollusk native to the North Atlantic.) Today people call them clams, and quahoggers are called clam diggers by landlubbers. Unfortunately, we used to respond to drownings every year or so. Despite dragging operations with multiple mutual aid boats, there were occasions when a body recovery was unsuccessful. So, one of the officers would ask one of the quahoggers for an opinion. Invariably, he would look up towards the sky (I don’t know why…) and sometimes dip his hand into the water (I also don’t know why…), and say, “Well, with the tide running the way it is and the weather being like it is, the body’ll probably pop up in about three days—most likely just east of the entrance to the bay.” You could have made book on it.

How can you tell you’re getting old? One of the new guys was at morning coffee overhearing the raisin squad talking about forcing doors. A white hair said, “I remember when we had a Detroit Door Opener.” The newbie said “What’s that? A burglar?”

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.

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