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SLIGHTLY OFF THE MARK
In all the fuss about saving Albion’s police booth, the demise of the former Police Department building was almost overlooked. Luckily, I’m not the sentimental sort.
Who am I kidding? Of course I’m sentimental: It’s because of that building that I became a firefighter.
Originally a Ford dealership, it was already three decades old when, in the early 60’s, the neighbors started looking at it with an interest in expansion.
The Albion Fire Department was in the Town Hall, built in 1930 to contain a 1929 pumper, two hose carts, and a chemical engine (think a giant seltzer bottle mounted on a Ford pickup, which – who knows? – may have been purchased from the dealership next door).
By the 60’s, it was stuffed with 6 trucks. Luckily, there was a building next door with plenty of room, already set up to hold vehicles. There was so much office space that eventually the police department also moved in.
Fast forward another three decades to when, despite an addition put up by the firefighters, they were out of space again. Structural engineers were saying we’d someday find the trucks in the basement, which would hurt response times, so the AFD moved out and the APD, which doesn’t have trucks holding tons of water, took over.
Those darn structural engineers kept at it, though. The last one ran out screaming “Run for your lives!”, always a bad sign. I could go into detail about all the problems, but instead, I want to talk about:
In my teens, I spent summers mowing lawns. It wasn’t mentally challenging, so I spent my mowing time inventing the stories that would someday make me a rich and famous novelist. In other words, I wasn’t very good, but you couldn’t do much damage with a push mower (or so I thought).
One of the lawns was at Orange and Hazel streets, across from a building: As a Cub Scout I spent some time in its basement, but never gave much thought to what the rest was for. (I wasn’t a very good Cub Scout, either.)
Then, as I was mowing one day, a pickup truck zoomed around the corner. Its occupant got out and threw open one of the overhead doors, revealing a truck parked inside.
I’d never had much interest in vehicles – that was my brother’s thing. But I stopped to watch as he drove this red truck out onto the apron. It was old, and resembled a cross between a dune buggy and a military truck. It had reels of hose on the back, and he drove it away in a big hurry.
I didn’t know at the time that I was seeing the AFD’s grass buggy. I didn’t know fire trucks need a crew, and that volunteers were probably meeting it at the scene of some grass or field fire.
I only knew only I was in love.
With firefighting, not the guy in the truck.
During the blizzard of 1978 I followed my stepfather through waist deep snow to the station, where a command post had been set up to handle all the calls for help. (I wondered why there was a huge picture window there, not knowing it was once a new car showroom.) It was my first lesson that firefighters and bad weather go hand in hand.
The winter of my senior year in high school, I took an Emergency Medical Technician class. By then I wanted be a firefighter/medic, like Johnny and Roy on Emergency. Although still 17, I was able to run on the ambulance and get experience, before being let loose on the public.
It wasn’t where I most wanted to be. Well, actually it was, because the ambulance was housed in the fire station at the time. But I couldn’t be a firefighter until I hit 18.
At the AFD’s regular Monday night meeting, which happened to fall on July 14, 1980 – my eighteenth birthday – I walked upstairs into the fire station meeting room, feeling my life was about to change.
It was my first experience with smoke as a firefighter. Everyone on the AFD smoked, then – a lot. A haze hovered over the meeting room. Sometimes they’d set off the smoke detectors. That was my first impression of a room full of firefighters.
The Chief, Jim Applegate, looked at me with narrowed eyes and demanded, “How old are you?”
“Eighteen,” I gulped. He didn’t seem impressed. I didn’t realize it at the time, but not long before, the AFD had lowered its membership age from 21.
By the end of my summer I arrived at my first house fire in the 1952 pumper, to discover the home of my step-uncle – who was also a member of the AFD – burning. I crawled into the smoke wearing a pair of too-big rubber boots, a windbreaker, and jeans, stumbled out exhausted and soaking wet, and realized fires meant someone’s property was being destroyed.
Some days we grow up faster than others.
I had a full set of protective clothing a few years later, when the second floor of the fire station caught fire -- yes, that very same meeting room.
I still had those boots, which could be pulled up to the hips. The idea was for the boots to overlap with the coat, providing protection from heat. The fire was upstairs, and at the ceiling level temperatures were around 1,300 degrees, forcing us to lay flat on the stairway as we aimed a water stream upward.
Some of the water, heated almost to boiling point, ran back down the stairs like a waterfall, and directly into my hip boots. The lesson learned that day: you’re never fully dressed without FULL protective gear, including pants. Also, that burns hurt.
I’ve attended a million meetings, training sessions, and work details in that building since then. I became an instructor and taught there. I came up on snowy nights and slept there, just in case. I made great friends there. I was there when we celebrated the AFD’s 100th anniversary, and I was there the day we moved out.
Yes, it was falling apart. But I’ll miss it.