25. March 2006 · Comments Off on Volunteer Fire Departments · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, Pajama Game

I grew up surrounded by my mother’s family, which included eleven other siblings. Of the males in the clan, there were 3 Navy vets (2 in WW II), and two Marines. This is not about the military service though, but rather about another form of service that, in some respects, directly affected far more lives. It all started in 1947 when Grandpa was heading up the stairs of their modest home in upstate NY. My mother, then eighteen years old and a telegrapher at Western Union in Syracuse (where, by the way, she met my father a year later), was smoking a cigarette in the girls’ bedroom – a practice forbidden by Grandpa despite his proclivity toward cheap cigars every evening. To avoid detection she threw it out the dormer window whereupon it immediately started the wooden shingles ablaze. I am not aware of how the fire was extinguished, other than to note that the house was still intact when I arrived some years later. Nonetheless, this set in motion the events that would lead to the founding of the Moyers Corners Volunteer Fire Department (MCVFD) the following year. The land for the first fire station was donated by Ken Brand, a friend of Grandpa, and was located at the intersections of NY routes 31 and 57 – then a very rural area with little more than Brand’s 24 hr. truck stop and surrounding dairy farms. Grandpa and his older boys (just back from the war) Ken Brand, and a few of the local dairy farmers formed the original fire company, and together they built an actual fire barn.

Grandpa, who died in 1966, was a tinsmith at General Electric for some thirty years. In 1954, he was profiled on television in a commercial in the GE Theater for his efforts in founding MCVFD, the voiceover in the profile being recorded by Ronald Reagan. In the video, all of his children are shown posing in the kitchen of the Dudley homestead – my mother is shown at 8 ½ pregnancy (with me). The interesting thing about the segment is that it shows Grandpa watching GE Theater on TV. They didn’t have a TV until several years later – the TV crew brought the TV in to depict my grandparents watching GE Theater and took it when they left.

MCVFD proved to be about far more than fighting fires. It became the core of the community over the coming decades. To raise funds for buying equipment, they would conduct annual “field days”, which essentially meant bringing in carnies, rides and games for three days. The women’s auxiliary, of which Grandma, Mom, and two of her sisters were charter members, ran a food concession. It was a large open circus tent with Italian sausage sandwiches, raw and steamed clams (and clam chowder), burgers, dogs, and the best BBQ chicken I’ve ever had (I have the recipe – never been able to duplicate the flavor) served each day from late morning until almost the close. Adjacent to the food tent was the beer tent, manned by the volunteer firefighters. No politically-correct-have-a-designated-driver mentality here. Both the proprietors and customers tended to be hard drinking men and women who made no apologies for their behavior, and were quick to fight (and head off to a back seat somewhere as the circumstances indicated) as the night progressed. At a young age, and not coming from a family with a lot of disposable income, my older sister, myself, and our cousins and friends made our field days spending money by carting beer cases around picking up empty beer bottles (a nickel for a full case) – usually until around 21:00 hrs. I learned more about the seedier side of life from that job than from the bars in Itaewon. They ran the field days until the mid-eighties, when the liability insurance, legal issues, and other general societal norms conflated so as to make it no longer worth the effort/risks. I made a point of occasionally attending over the years until the very end, with the only bad experience being summer of 1975 – in the beer tent. Although my immediate family had moved from the area some seven years earlier, I was visiting the old home town. A bully who had made my life miserable throughout elementary and jr. high was there, and he got into a “baby killer” rant. Long story short – I clocked him and my 280 lb. cousin (just out of the Navy) and a couple of fireman broke it up. The bully was kicked out and everyone bought me a beer.

It was what the field days paid for that was special. In the fifties they bought an old hearse and converted it to an ambulance. Up to that point it took about a half-hour for an ambulance to respond from the hospitals in Syracuse. A decade later they bought a real ambulance (didn’t smell like formaldehyde) and a rescue truck. Medical training then was minimal – I remember Dad coming home covered in blood after a head-on collision and vomiting the entire night. The suburbs of Syracuse were extending north, with several large housing developments built in the area. Two more fire stations were added. They bought more ambulances, and found trained paramedic volunteers to man them. When new industry moved in, they bought trucks with taller ladders and pumps with more pressure.

When someone was born, died, got married, graduated from whatever, or was leaving for whatever, the parties were always held at fire station no. 1. I, along with at least 50 other unhappy young men and a corresponding complement of willing young ladies, took square dancing lessons upstairs for a few years in the sixties (yes – square dancing was big in NY). The girls in the bouncy dresses seemed not to mind – the differences between the sexes were apparent even then. A high point to the lessons was a fire – the siren that was mounted in the roof above our heads deafened everyone for days. The kids spent their Sunday afternoons washing the trucks and ambulances, and the social gatherings of the parents largely consisted of members of the fire department.

When there was a fire that required extended involvement, the women’s auxiliary would deploy to serve food and refreshments. It was part of my childhood to play a role in those deployments, whether making sandwiches, pouring drinks, or whatever. I got to see a lot of really cool fires. As I got into jr. high, I was promoted to be a gopher for hose fittings, walkie talkies, etc. (always away from direct danger).

Time has moved on, and although my mother still remains in the area, the stewardship of MCVFD has moved on to others. Ironically, on their way to the 50th anniversary party for the department in 1998, my mother and stepdad (also a longtime member) were struck head-on by another driver – it was an MCVFD ambulance that got them to the hospital. It is still all-volunteer, but the culture has changed – no more bar at the fire station – old timers discouraged. Their web site tells little of their history – those that run it now are of a much newer generation. Time moves on. The community in which I now reside is served by a volunteer fire department and, although I support them in every way possible, I have never asked to join. You see, all of the members were born here and grew up in the department – I will always be an outsider.

The concept of Camelot applies, I think, to more than a nation state. For two or three decades MCVFD was the center of gravity for hundreds of families, and provided security and safety to hundreds of others.

At least Ronald Reagan said so back in 1954.


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