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Rookie Firefighter Life

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

A Slight Hint of Horse Manure — Station Two, Engine Two, Truck Two, and Resuscitator Wagon

This station is at 635 Pacific Avenue, at the west end of town (before renovation). On approach, you see a double overhead apparatus room door; I still have a picture in my mind of my childhood, standing next to the only tiller truck in our history until the arrival of two new monster trucks in 2014. The old Seagraves truck with an aerial ladder was raised under spring power, while the platform rotated, and the ladder extended manually by the men on the turntable using large crank wheels. Truck Two was probably the best part of the show during Fire Prevention Week at our drill tower. To the right, the office windows, front door and dayroom windows. Upon entering the front door, the hallway extended all the way to the rear and into the kitchen. You detected the smell of wood, brass polish, smoke, floor wax, diesel fuel and maybe, just maybe, a slight hint of horse manure. To the left was the office; next, the turnout and phone room; left again is a short hallway, bath, and apparatus room door; or straight again, toward the kitchen, you passed by wall lockers and a door to the shop with that great Rudd cast iron instantaneous water heater.

Alameda Post - Alameda Fire Station 2, Pacific Ave.

What amazed me the most in this room was the gas-fired water heater and the storage of flammable liquids such as paint and thinners nearby on the bench, only in a fire station. I remember Al at the bench nightly presiding over his fishing flies as the captain teased him unmercifully. Al was easy.

The best place to be at night was in the apparatus room. There were two 60-watt globes that stayed on all night. In that glow, the red paint and gold leaf were breathtaking.

On the right side of the hall, front to rear, was the dayroom with a Gamewell Alarm System, maps, watchman bed, and the obligatory oak table and captain’s chairs, the officer’s dorm, locker room, and main dorm. The main dorm had three doors, one from the lockers and two from the hall. In 1968, we still used the Gamewell Alarm System. The alarm was a tap and bell system that would punch a number location onto a paper tape while, at the same time, sounding bells in the station. For example, if Box 3231 (at the corner of High Street and Thompson Avenue) was pulled, the station lights would all turn on at once and the bells would ring, four rounds as the tape would be punched with holes 3-2-3-1, four times. In the station was a card file that would show the address of the box. The officers were responsible to read and respond if appropriate.

Every night the bells were wound at 8:30 radio check. As a rookie, I got to sleep right under the dorm bell… a heart attack just waiting to happen. On the first strike of the bell, all the lights in the station would drop (come on) and I would levitate about a foot off the bed. It was great fun for the old timers to watch a new guy freak out. Again, I was amazed that, if the alarm were not for us, the “FOGs” (F*# Old Guys) would resume snoring immediately, and I would lay in the darkness, heart pounding, with nowhere to go.

I was told by my Uncle Pat, who had worked with horses in the early days of the Richmond, California Department, where Granddad retired as chief in 1917, how the horses could tell, by the first round of bells, if the alarm was in their response district. If so, they would move out of their stalls and under the harnesses, prancing and snorting as if to say, “Get this harness on and let’s go!” Behind Station Two was a garage that housed a 1958 GMC Civil Defense engine; at that stage we had some volunteers that would use the rig for training weekly. I was a member for a very short time in the early 60’s. Now we have a state of the artwork out room in its place.

The best place to be at night was in the apparatus room. There were two 60-watt globes that stayed on all night. In that glow, the red paint and gold leaf were breathtaking. I used to love to remove myself from the confusion of television, with the guys laughing and talking, to go sit behind the wheel of my rig. It was so quiet in comparison. The apparatus room had a life of its own, with unexplainable clicks and thumps, constant mechanical sounds only heard in the quiet stillness of the night.

Alameda Post - Alameda Fire Department 1963 American-La France engine
This 1963 American-LaFrance open-cab engine is still maintained by Alameda Fire Department retirees at Station 5 on Alameda Point. Photo Adam Gillitt.

What’s the address? What’s burning?

It continues to amaze me that this quiet could be so abruptly and forcefully broken by bells ringing, with engines starting, and eight men dressing as they ran to the fire rigs shouting, “What’s the address? What’s burning?” Then to be standing on the tailboard of a 1963 American LaFrance open cab, as the engine pulled out and leaned into the turn, your buddy and one of your arms the only thing holding you as you finished buckling your turnout coat.

My mind began playing tricks on me. Suddenly I’m living back in the 1890’s, as if I’m playing a part, and trying to envision what my uncle had told me about responding on the tailboard of a horse-drawn steamer. In the night, hearing the horses snorting, harnesses being buckled, and hooves prancing in anticipation as we/they climb aboard.Alameda Post – Steam fire engine I swear I can see one of the wild-eyed horses looking back at me as if to say, “What are you waiting for?” And with the crack of a whip, we’re off! Out of the barn holding onto the bar, the smell of wood and coal burning, smoke exploding from the top of the steamer, kind of like a volcano. The sound of the steel-clad hooves on cobblestones, sparks cascading over the pavement then, leaning into the turn, the horses pull for all their worth, muscles straining as the steamer wheels slide back in line behind the steeds.

Snapping back to reality, I have now stepped into this line of glorious history. Looking ahead ten blocks, over the hose bed, past the driver and officer, through the open cabbed windshield, the night sky was lit up, the glow of the fire reflecting off the low hanging clouds. It was a light show! On arrival we hit the ground running. Everyone knew what to do. Whether first in or last on the scene, the many hours of training paid off, and instinct took over. With the adrenalin pumping, my strength had doubled. It seemed I could lift anything. I could clear a six-foot fence, kick down a door, and was pushed beyond the limits of my courage by my brave buddies as we crawled into uncharted territory.

Chief, There’s Fire in the Center Wall! — First Methodist Church Fire, Corner of Santa Clara and Eighth Streets

A full response for Engine Two, Truck Two, Engine Three, and Engine Five. Engine Two took the corner hydrant, and the crew entered the basement on the Eighth Street side. The report from Engine Two was a live line attack on the fire, assisted by Engine Five. Captain Steckler had me pull a 1-1⁄2-inch line to the west side of the structure. As I took my position, no one could see me in the smoke. I heard a crash and looked up to see the explosion of a two-foot diameter stained glass window, as Moe’s helmeted head appeared, gasping for air. The thought went through my mind, “Here’s Moe!” reminding me of the intro to the Johnny Carson Show. When he entered the tower, it was clear of smoke, but that changed quickly and bit him. The assistant chief called for a second alarm, Engine One and Truck One. Engine Two’s officer, Burney Brooks, reported that the fire in the basement was under control.

The chief ordered me to check the main sanctuary. It was very dark as I made my way between two pews about a third of the way back. My foot slipped off the edge of a four-foot hole. I caught myself on the pews to stop the fall. I’d better report my finding to the chief. As I turned back toward the center wall, I saw light all along the baseboard. There was fire in the walls! It was an old building and the “balloon construction” walls created a chimney from basement to attic. I should have shoved the nozzle through the plaster and fogged the hollows, but I had been warned very sternly by the chief, whose religious belief had clouded his better judgment not to do any damage to this sacred place. No damage? Two hours later we could walk on the roof from the first floor.

When I reported my findings to the chief, he looked at me with glazed eyes and said, “Take the pickup to Station One and refill the Scott air tanks.”

This is not what I wanted to do with so much action taking place. As I loaded the truck to go, I said to Jack, “I’ve got to fill the tanks and there’s fire in the walls. The chief isn’t doing anything; I don’t think he believes me.”

He smiled knowingly and gestured toward the eaves, which where belching black smoke, a telltale sign of more fire somewhere in the structure.

Jack said, “It’s not over by a long shot! Those three guys better get off the roof and you’d better do what you’re told.”

Alameda Post – First Methodist Church Fire

In record time, I was back from Station One to find fire blowing out the roof. Now it’s surround and drown. I found the line that I had laid in the smoke earlier, climbed the fire escape to the second floor, and shoved the nozzle through a 12-foot stained glass window. By now Truck One had taken the front and Ed was raising the ladder pipe into position. As I heard a rumble and ducked behind the wall next to the sanctuary window, flames blew out 30 feet and the roof dropped to the second floor. At the same time Pete, on the top of Truck Two, was engulfed in flames and smoke. Otis, observing from Engine Five, thought he was seeing the death of Pete. Jack tried to retract the ladder, but Pete’s axe handle was stuck between the rungs. With quick thinking, Jack extended the ladder and then tried again; it worked, and Pete came out steaming but unscathed, counting his body parts to be sure everything was there.

I was still in the same position but was now looking down at the roof that had once been 25 feet above me. One thousand gallons per minute of water from Truck One’s ladder pipe was now a waterfall dumping directly on top of me, and I was trying to climb under the brim of my helmet to catch a breath. I was drowning in an inferno! Eight hours later, we saved the foundation. You win some, and you lose some.

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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