Thank You, Binks
Bill Anderson was his name. Most people called him Binks. Who was he? The best friend we firefighters ever had. Most guys in later years didn’t know what he had done for us. He should have been honored at our awards banquets every year. In later years he was thought somewhat of a joke by the guys that didn’t know his history. When he would drop by for a visit or show up at an emergency, they would question why he was there. I have a scrapbook full of front-page fire pictures and wonderfully written articles from the Alameda Times-Star, all because of this man. My biggest regret is that I didn’t intervene on his behalf and honor him. A little late now, but he should be remembered…
I met Bill in the mid 1940s. He hung out at Webb Avenue, old Station One. Yes, he knew the time-honored secrets of the “lean” in the oak chairs. He was accepted in the early days and helped in training evolution. Bill knew the rigs as well as anyone. When shorthanded at fires, he would do crowd control, set flares and pull hose the right way. He was appreciated and accepted by all for his help and knowledge of fire tactics. Bill, Dad and a handful of others had tried out for the department about the same time. Dad made it, but Bill couldn’t pass the physical. He never got over the disappointment. But, instead of walking away, he became a volunteer.
As far back as I can remember, he lived across the street from Webb Avenue (old Station One) so that he could be near his friends and hear the fire alarms. Bill never married, but he had friends all over the city. Most mornings you could find him at Ole’s Waffle Shop or see him walking down Park Street. He had his own business repairing all kinds of electronics including Gamewell Alarm Systems, televisions, and ham radio equipment. Of course, he had CB radios in the shop, at his house, and in his truck, all tuned to the fire channel.
Because he was always out and about in the city, he often beat the fire department on scene. That was no problem in the early years because everyone knew him and his story. Later, rumors started to the effect that he might be lighting fires because he was always there. This was far from the truth. He just loved being in and around the action. I’m much the same; we were kindred spirits though I got the job and could work legally. After joining the department, it was great to see Binks come for a visit or show up at a fire, but he was slowly falling out of favor due to the change of locations of Station One. We were now in a new building at Encinal and Park with not much time to sit around anymore. He did stay loyal to us and took pictures for close to 40 years.
A few years before his death, he moved to the city of San Leandro; somehow that seemed wrong, a loss to our community. We stopped seeing him. Part of what made Alameda, Alameda were its characters. He definitely was a character, a man of character. He died pretty much alone, not ever knowing that he will always be remembered, at least as long as I’m alive. Thank you, Bill Binks Anderson, the quiet hero of the AFD.
It’s More like a Sepulcher than a Place of Laughter
The station is positioned on a corner in the center of town. I liked responding from this station; we would cover both ends of the city and didn’t need to ride an ambulance.
There are two single apparatus rooms; one faces Pacific and the other faces Grand. A long path cuts through the grass to a brick porch with two steps up, under a metal awning to the heavy oak door. In 1949 Alameda celebrated its Centennial. Not to be outdone by the other stations, Station Three’s crews tore down the back fence and used the old wood to make a saloon facade. The men of Alameda were told not to shave under penalty of arrest and incarceration during the days of this celebration. Clean-shaven men were put in the hoosegow (a trailer with bars surrounding) on Park Street and Santa Clara Avenue. Great fun.
I started negotiating Station Three’s steps at around age three, when Mom and I would visit Dad. The station has windows on either side of the front door; the sign above makes it clear that you have arrived at Station Three of the Alameda Fire Department. The left (or Pacific) wing contains a hall with lockers and the main dorm extending to Engine Four’s apparatus bay. To the right wing was the office, officer’s dorm, and Engine Three’s apparatus bay. Behind Engine Three was a small workout room and shop. There’s nothing better for the lungs than to be riding the Aerodyne exercise bike when Engine Three started… choke, cough! On the inside wall was a storage room, bathroom and turnout/phone room.
Twelve years after my retirement, upon entering the front door of this station built in 1923, all of my senses are assaulted anew as the memories flooded in. But in 2006, the building was condemned. The living area sits empty and the feel is more like a sepulcher (tomb) then a place of laughter and music. The sounds of the auxiliary generator being run and chainsaws being tested are gone. Shadows invade all areas; the cold and slightly musty smell cannot eliminate the warmth in my heart for this amazing building. There are great memories of the years of service to its community, with the guys sitting on the front porch on Sunday afternoons in the fall talking to kids as they walked by or waxing the engine as we waited for the next, inevitable emergency. We even had time in those days to whiten the Goodyear lettering on the tires. It was a pleasure to see my family arrive for a visit, as Mom and I had done so many years before. This was good stuff!
Some things need to be saved; new is not always better. The floors in the station are not waxed anymore but strewn with all kinds of debris. The kitchen where we cooked 100 tons of popcorn is now in need of “Tim, the Tool Man, Taylor.” Only the apparatus rooms are being used. Life has moved next door to a Victorian. As I walk through this wonderful structure, I feel as though I’m attending a wake at the home I lived in for 13 years. After all these years in and around this sanctuary, the smell has changed. The feeling has gone from warmth to cold, from light to dark, from laughter to silence, from clean and waxed to debris-strewn and dusty. Now the odor of dry rot has replaced the aroma of life. The district map that Ed and I colored so many years ago still hangs in the hallway. I look quickly to see if my secret is still on the map, and it is. Some traditions are still here. Goodbye, old friend!
Ed and I were ordered by the chief to color a new city map designating, First In (still, or single unit response) Districts. We worked hard for a couple of weeks in between runs, rig and station maintenance, inspections, and bicycle licensing, with the chief checking every shift to see what was holding us up. The day came when the job was finished and finally the chief was happy. But something was missing. I decided it was my map. What could I do to mark it (kind of like a male dog marking his territory)? I know… I’ll draw a man swimming for his life from a great white shark in one of the Harbor Bay lagoons. Then I’ll post an ever-so-small sign that says, “No Swimming.” Now that felt good. I don’t think anyone ever noticed but, every time I went to the map, I knew.
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.