SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
Have you ever remembered something you did a long time ago and thought to yourself, “What in the world was I thinking?”
You haven’t? Well, maybe you aren’t remembering hard enough. As for me, I was going through some old papers the other day when I stumbled across a Fire Prevention Week column that I wrote way back in 1999.
The first thing I noticed is that it really didn’t have anything to do with fire prevention.
Now, fire prevention is a deadly serious business. Countless people are killed and injured, and millions of dollars in property lost every year, to fire. But I write a humor column; dare I write about fire in a humorous way?
Apparently so. Not only that, but in 1999 I went way, way over the top. I’ve gotten a lot of new readers since then (well, some -- possibly replacing the disgusted old readers), so in honor of Fire Prevention Week I’m going to reprint this two part column and let you decide. Does it help further the cause? Is it funny? Was I on drugs at the time?
I must warn you – there are some nasty puns ahead. Here goes:
Fire Prevention Week is approaching, and so is the new millennium – both, coincidentally, at pretty much the same speed. To bring attention to this, I thought I’d present a two part look at the history of the fire service, and what its future might hold.
Fire was originally discovered by Adam, who was kicked out of the Garden of Eden because of an apple – making it the first core-pral punishment. Adam discovered that it gets darn cold out in the real world, but he could only find one stick, so he made a fire by rubbing it against a Cain. This led to emotional problems with Cain later on; he tried to cope, but wasn’t Abel.
The ancient Egyptians experienced fire protection problems when a column of fire led the Jews out of bondage. The Jews were followed by the Pharaoh and his army, who were sore about being plagued. This particular Pharaoh was a very tall man, and when he discovered the pillar was actually shorter than him, he defied it and took his army to the Red Sea even though they had no engineers, pontoon bridges, or even rubber duckies.
The soldiers drowned, much to the sorrow of their mummies. To this day, when someone measures the intensity of fire, they speak of degrees in Pharaoh Heights.
The first effort to fight fire came during the Roman Empire. Romans invented the first fire extinguisher, which was a big syringe. Shortly afterward they started licensing medical professionals, and after that the doctors wouldn’t let any other profession use syringes, or make house calls.
The emperor then employed thousands of slaves as the world’s first firefighting force. When fires broke out, the slaves would be thrown on the flames until the fire was smothered, and everyone was satisfied with the arrangement. Except the slaves.
Benjamin Franklin helped found the earliest organized fire company in the New World. He also flew kites in thunderstorms, thumbed his nose at the most powerful empire in the world (that would be the British), and had indiscriminate, unprotected sex with dozens of women. And so, to this day, firefighters are assumed to be crazy.
(About that indiscriminate sex: It turns out Franklin was literally a founding father.)
The original fire engines were pumped by hand, which worked fine until employers decided not to let their people leave work to volunteer at fire scenes. That worked fine, until businesses started burning down, and the employers couldn’t figure out where the volunteers were.
So steam powered fire engines, which needed only a few firefighters, were developed. They were pulled by horses, which solved the problem of huge crowds following the engines to emergencies. Running behind three excited horses can be very hazardous to your shoes.
The Albion Fire Department was founded in 1888. After a major fire burned down an entire block, townspeople were disturbed to learn they couldn’t find a decent cup of coffee – all the restaurants had cooked. After a week without a decent cup of java, the entire town voted to form either a fire department, or a coffee house. If the vote had gone the other way, we’d be forming coffee cup brigades whenever an alarm came in.
The department consisted of a chief, an assistant chief, three foremen, a designated Coffee Rescue Team (they just couldn’t get over the infamous “Week Without a Cup”) – and the entire population. They had three apparatus, a Latin word which means “wagon sounds boring”.
It took a dozen people to pump the water by hand, and another dozen to make the coffee. In an emergency the coffee would be pumped onto the fire, if they felt they had the grounds.
When the volunteers ran to their first call and found they had no hose, they purchased a hose cart. Luckily, it was only the courthouse burning, not the coffee house. Just the same, today’s fire trucks carry pumps and hose together, along with modern necessities such as instant coffee.
The third apparatus, a hook & ladder, carried hooks ... and ladders. The hooks could be used to pull down flaming roofs, walls, and Pharaohs. The ladders were used to rescue sacks of coffee. (No Pharaoh was harmed in the writing of this column.)
The equipment had to be kept on three different wagons, because it was drawn to late night fires by people on foot, who hadn’t had their first cup of coffee. Today it’s all on the same truck, a truck which rarely if ever leaves horse droppings behind.
Next week I’ll look at firefighting present and future, and might even touch on fire prevention, which is what this column was supposed to be about. Sorry for being so long-winded; it’s possible coffee kept me going too long.