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Charlie Chaplin and Friends

This is part of our ongoing series of Dave LeMoine’s memories of growing up in Alameda and becoming a firefighter. Further installments are published every Friday.

Don’t Step on the Siren (Do You Want Us to Die?)

Alameda Post - AFD Station One on Webb Ave.Old Station One on Webb Avenue was built before motorized apparatus. As time went on, the horses were retired, and equipment grew in size until the rigs seemingly had to be pressure injected into their stalls. If you inhaled pulling out, you could scrape both sides of the door jamb at the same time… too little space, too many pieces of equipment.

There were three apparatus room doors with four rigs, two in front and two behind. The left door was just right for horse-drawn rigs but too narrow for the chief’s car and the resuscitator wagon, so they were stacked in, one behind the other. If a medical call came in, someone would have to move the chief’s car to let the resuscitator out. Well, it worked in theory except, in those days, money was tight, and the chief’s battery needed replacing. We often had to push it out of the way to release the resuscitator.

The resuscitator wagon was a stock six-cylinder, 1950’s vintage Ford station wagon. After attaching the red lights on the roof, two-way radio, and a giant siren on the front fender, the alternator was taxed beyond its capabilities. It was a real challenge to be driving at night, with red lights and headlights drawing so much current that, when the officer turned on the siren, the headlights would dim, and the engine would start to die. If the siren was released, the lights would return, and the engine would cough to life again, sputtering into the darkness.

Alameda Post – 1955 Ford Country Sedan Station Wagon
1955 Ford Country Sedan Station Wagon. Photo Randy von Liski, Flickr.

It was hilarious to watch. A call came in, one of the firefighters jumped into the chief’s car and hit the starter, usually with no response.

A yell, “Hey guys! Help me push the chief’s car!”

As it rolled into the street, the resuscitator would pull out. Halfway down the block approaching Park Street, you heard the siren wind up, saw the lights dim and the taillights go out. The engine would buck, cough, and start to die.

The driver hollers, “Get off the siren!”

The officer screams back, “Do you want us killed?”

The drivers shout, “Do you want me to push the D*# thing?”

As the pedestrians watched in amazement and thought, there go our professionals, or asked “Is that Charlie Chaplin and friends?” they disappeared into the night. This could all be fixed but no one seemed to want to solve the problem. Pennies were pinched so badly in those days; you could be sent to the hardware store for six nails to fix the back fence. Yes, it really did run that way for a season. Happily, things have changed for the better with new equipment and better training. The downside is, I have less to write about, but real life was more entertaining than fiction.

I didn’t know when I signed up for the fire department, I would be an actor in scary movies, but even stranger things have happened.

What’s Psycho Doing in Alameda?

House Fire, 1984 — Engine One is First to Arrive, 9:00 a.m.

We found another three-story Craftsman-style home with smoke coming from the eves. The house was a little like the one in the movie Psycho. Looking up from the tailboard of our rig, I could see the third-floor widows. The curtains and shades were in tatters. They didn’t match the outside, which was clean and orderly.

Alameda Post - Psycho movie poster

The captain said, “Let’s go up the front stairs while Engine Three’s crew goes to the basement.”

We donned our breathing apparatus and entered the main floor, going through the front door into the parlor, which was full of smoke but no fire. The three of us made a quick search; finding no people or fire, we saw a large staircase with a banister (envision Gone with the Wind) leading to the third floor. At the top of the stairs, we were in a narrow hallway that extended front to rear. In the dark, narrow, smoke-filled hall, as our eyes adjusted, I realized the right wall was lined with furniture. I was thinking, we must be on the right side of the house. Moving down the hall, we saw doors to the left, a bathroom, bedroom, and utility room.

Having cleared those rooms, we joined up in the center of the hallway again. I saw light under one of the chests of drawers. Dropping down for a look in the smoke, there was a door visible behind the chest. We must have been in the center of the building, and there were rooms on the right side as well. Why the doors were blocked was beyond me. At this point in the almost total darkness, with breathing masks on, and our flashlight as the only source of illumination, we missed the door at the far end of the hall leading to this side of the building and a separate apartment. Pulling the furniture out, we tried to push the door open. It moved about two inches, but something was stopping it from opening. Could it be a body? The captain shouted, “Get in there!” so Bob and I shoved with our shoulders. It moved another ten inches. I dropped down on my knees again to see and slid through the door.

At first my mind was playing tricks as I felt something soft, maybe a body, but my flashlight helped me to see that it was only bags of clothing. With an adrenaline-filled push, the bundles moved away into a larger room and I stood up to find myself in a closet full of mothball-smelling, dusty, 1930’s type dresses, and face to face with a fox coat, head still attached. A gasp and then the realization, it’s dead. As I stood up, pushing aside the dresses, I used my light to look around the room and I was feeling like I wanted to back out, but George was pushing Bob, who was pushing me.

Alameda Post - fox fur coat
Silver fox fur coat. Photo Wikimedia Commons.

I saw before me the pile of clothing, a double bed with dirty yellow sheets, a shade-covered window with the tattered curtains, and newspapers scattered all over the floor. My light focused on the far end of the room with a bookshelf. Moving the light up the wall, it came to rest on two large, glowing yellow eyes, and I swore I heard the sound of the shower scene from Psycho. Bob had pushed into the room and there was no turning back now. George entered and I relaxed a bit as nothing was attacking me. I moved my light back to those eyes and realized that it was a stuffed owl. The head had rotted off and fallen down on the shelf upside down next to its body. There was an audible, “Whooo,” as the three of us started to move through the apartment.

Alameda Post - Taxidermy owlLeaving the bedroom, we entered a narrow kitchen, shades drawn, newspaper neatly covering the floor, sink full of dishes and appliances encrusted with grease. With every step, it felt more eerie, like something or someone I didn’t want to encounter could be around the next corner. Entering the front room, still in darkness, were those tattered shades I saw from the street. The walls were lined with shelves full of hard-bound books and two, old, dusty, overstuffed chairs.

Bob yelled, “No one’s in the bathroom, no sign of fire. Let’s get out of here!”

We tried the front door and realized that it was padlocked from the outside. We went back through the apartment, into the closet, said goodbye to the owl, and stepped out into the main hallway with a sigh of relief.

Report from Engine Three: “The fire was in the basement and under control.” Now, with the smoke dissipating, we look at the apartment door and see the padlock. Sure would have been easier to enter there.

Captain George was now talking to another tenant who said, “I have lived here for five years and have never seen the upstairs tenant. Apparently, he works nights, pays the rent by mail, and is heard but never seen.”

I didn’t know when I signed up for the fire department, I would be an actor in scary movies, but even stranger things have happened.

David LeMoine is retired from the Alameda Fire Department and now lives in Eagle, ID. These stories are excerpted from his book, I Could Have Died a Thousand Deaths, published by Big Boots Publishing of Redding, CA.

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The Railroad Town of Alameda

Join Dennis Evanosky for three tours in May exploring Alameda’s history as a railroad town. Saturday May 14, 21, and 28 at 9 a.m. Tickets $15.
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