Growing Up in Alameda: The fire years
Growing Up in Alameda: The fire years
Photo courtesy of Dave LeMoine.
After growing up on Bay Farm Island through the “Happy Days” era, and with high school behind me, I prepared for my future: Two years in a brass foundry, one year in a gas station, two hours at American Can Company, and six years operating Caterpillar tractors accompanied by a stint in the National Guard. Finally, I arrived at what I was born to do, stepping into my great-grandfather’s, grandfather’s and father’s footsteps, along with my brother: following 100 years of fire service history.
I see him crawling out of the building, steam rising from his turnout coat and a smile on his face. I know that I’m in the company of men of uncommon valor.
Alameda Fire Department, October 16, 2004
Last night, Patty and I attended the movie, Ladder 49. What fun! On the same day my neighbor loaned me the book Firehouse by David Halberstam, the story of Engine 40 and Ladder 35 that lost 12 men on 9/11 in New York.
As I read of these brave men and viewed the movie that night, I realized that Bertha had loaned me her book and suggested that we see the movie 36 years to the day that I entered the Alameda Fire Department to start my career. I had been dabbling in writing for a while but am now inspired to tell of my wonderful life experience and to honor so many of my brothers (and one sister) that I shared 25 years of my life with. That night after the movie, my thoughts went back those 36 years to the start of my career…
In the Beginning: Webb Avenue, Old Station One, circa 1890s
I was 27 years old, with 10 years in the trades. I left a well-paying job as a heavy equipment operator, demonstrator, and mechanic for Peterson Tractor, the Northern California Caterpillar dealership. Six months of competitive testing, and I was starting over: I arrived at Station One in the 2400 block of Webb Avenue.
I have many pictures from my dad’s collection of horse-drawn rigs standing in the three arched, wooden doorways of this station, which was built before the 1900s. These same coil-spring-activated doors were now stretched open to welcome the five of us into our future. The recruits were starting a month of on-the-job training before being assigned to our shifts and stations. The new kids this go-around were Vince Maloney, Larry Branchaud, Minor Chipman, Dave Costa, and me.
Hey Jackson, Ya Got Visitors!
The apparatus room interior is probably 25 feet high, and contains two front line rigs and two reserves following. The smell of smoke, gasoline, solvent, and old wood greet you as you step through the door. It feels as if you are stepping back in time 100 years. The rigs are different, but the station is the same.
In the right front corner, a black steel spiral staircase ascends to the second floor library and dorms. That spiral staircase now stands in the Elks Club on Santa Clara Avenue. On the west wall is a rack of spare 50-foot rolls of hose. Above the racks hang turnout coats and helmets.
To the east sits the chief’s car and the resuscitator wagon. Directly behind those is a windowed cubicle with the officer’s desk. Next to the cubicle sits the station’s Gamewell alarm system, pegboard, dispatch radios, maps of the city, and hydrant locations, enclosed only by an oak railing and gate that separates dispatch from the main apparatus room. Assorted oak captain’s chairs, as old as the stations, have been reinforced with wire to hold them together after years of being tilted back on two legs. These chairs are neatly lined up against the railing. To enter that area, we must pass through the oak gate, then left, to the officer’s cubicle and, right, to the switchboard phone system, which is manned 24 hours a day. Out from the gate, left of center, was a wonderful brass pole.
The pole brought back memories of 1946, with my mom, brother Jim, and me standing at that railing, waiting to see Dad, and hearing the dispatcher call for him, “Hey Jackson, ya got visitors!” (Jackson was Dad’s nickname.) And then seeing him descend the pole with a grin that came from a man who truly loved what he was doing, and loved the family visits as much as I did. He was my hero.
Behind the pole was a long staircase clad in period wooden, bead-board paneling with a landing halfway up that reversed direction 180 degrees, then meandered up through the ceiling to join a short hallway and two doors. They went left to the kitchen and straight to the dormitories. Under the stairway was the private phone and turnout equipment room. Below was the boiler room for the station heater. I am told that in the days of the horse-drawn steamers, hot water was circulated from the boiler through the rig’s heating coils to keep the water near operating temperature. The water, then, could be brought up to steam quickly en route to the fire.
To the rear was another set of large, arched doors leading to the shop and hose tower. Gus, the city mechanic, ruled this space full of parts, tools, paint, and history. In the floor was a pit that has seen almost a 125 years of undercarriages, from steamers to gasoline rigs, and hard rubber to pneumatic tires.
The kitchen was a patchwork of history: oldest, old, not so old and in need of renovation. One long table was in the center with a skylight overhead, and a stove on the east wall, a refrigerator to the north, and counters on the west. On the south wall was a sink and door to the outside balcony, next to the hose-drying tower, and stairs to the backyard.
On the wall, under the table, was a fireman’s worst nightmare: one duplex outlet with a half dozen plugs and extension cords overloading the circuit. Do you think there could be pennies in the fuse box? Nah! Only in a fire station, I thought.
A cribbage board and a couple of decks of cards, with the edges bent and frayed from years of shuffling, were ready for a game. Ashtrays were everywhere as probably 90 percent of the men smoked. Upon entering the dorm, you could see wooden bead-board and plaster walls painted a blah cream color, many single beds with iron headboards. My mind returns to a picture I have of Dad, in bed reading a magazine, a cigarette in his mouth, his hat tilted jauntily to one side as they did in the 40’s. How times have changed. To the west was the bathroom and left center was a wire-glass windowed cubicle that enclosed access to that wonderful brass pole.
To look down would take your breath away, as the floor opened to see the concrete of the apparatus room 25 feet below. At first it was a little unnerving to reach for the pole. But, then, to see John Hales, Sr. run across the room, bells ringing, him yelling, “AH—OOOO--GAAAH, AH--OOOO—GAAAH,” and hit the pole with such force that the brass would seem to ripple and flex from ceiling to floor. Then he would disappear like the contents of a public air-assisted toilet. Standing below, you knew who was on the pole, and you stayed clear.
Then came Jack Reason, often sliding upside down in full control. Jack was amazing at fires; he was kind of like a Tasmanian devil. You didn’t get in his way; just let him go and take some of the credit. At the bottom, the pole and the stairs converge dangerously close; if the men were not careful, a serious collision could happen.
To the front of the dorm, through the locker room, were windows facing Webb Avenue. You would turn left to the study, or right to the assistant chief’s rooms. To the left rear of the dorm was the bathroom and lieutenant’s room, or right rear to the captain’s room. From the front windows you had a great view of the street below.
A story told by Moe Hale goes something like this: Jack Reason bet Harry Bass that he could hide inside the station and Harry wouldn’t be able to find him. The bet was on. Jack went to the second floor front room, raised the wooden blinds, and lowered the top of a double-hung window down alongside the bottom pane. He then stepped up and perched in the frame on the two widows, and pulled the blinds halfway down.
To walk into the room, you could look out the lower widow to see the street below and never realize that Jack was just above you, chuckling. From outside looking up, he raised quite a ruckus as people thought a fireman had finally snapped and was going to jump. Meanwhile, inside, Harry combed the whole station with frustration but no results. Jack won the bet.
Around age 16, passing by Station One on my way home from football practice, I would stop at Tucker’s Ice Cream. As I passed by the firehouse, I would look in with anticipation to see if the apparatus room doors were standing open, in hopes that some of my surrogate fathers were working. Some of the chairs were always occupied and, of course, tilted back. One of my dreams was to master the tilt, which I eventually did.
I only stood watch one night behind that oak railing as this station was to be closed by the end of the month, December of 1968. We were not allowed to sleep while on watch but could sit in an old recliner. As I sat in that recliner, my part of the room was illuminated by a 60-watt bulb. Moving out from the watch area, the light dimmed into the shadows of the surrounding apparatus room. The smell was incredible.
I was alone downstairs, but everything seemed to be moving. A cold breeze leaked through the non-insulated walls. With the pipes clinking, and an occasional creaking of floorboards from above, I was glad my back was to the wall. The building was alive with sounds that couldn’t be heard during the day. The light coming through the windows from passing cars played tricks with the shadows. The ghost of Monk Morgan, the only Alameda firefighter to die in a station on duty, moved among the rigs. And there I sat, in the spotlight behind that gate. I could feel the spirits of so many that had gone before.
And now, as I write this story in 2014, I am but a memory, a name in the history books. Maybe a good story will be told, or a laugh about how anal I was. I ate, slept, and dreamt of the Alameda Fire Department from age 3 to 27. I lived the AFD from 1968-1994, and will remember until I die that we had purpose.