Retired firefighter's son surprises him on 90th birthday with restored apparatus

The Virginia firefighter's son restored the 1950s antique fire truck his father used to operate


Lisa Vernon Sparks
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

HAMPTON, Va. — A loud boom echoed above in the sky on June 20, 1966, disrupting the peaceful evening calm near Buckroe Beach.

As Robert J. Smith, a Hampton firefighter at the time, retold the story Saturday, he knew exactly what that sound was — an airplane crash.

Retired Firefighter Robert Joseph Smith Sr. dons his firefighter's helmet at his 90th birthday on Saturday January 25, 2020 in Hampton, VA. Smith's son surprised him on his birthday with the restored antique apparatus he used to drive. (Photo/John C. Clark, Daily Press)
Retired Firefighter Robert Joseph Smith Sr. dons his firefighter's helmet at his 90th birthday on Saturday January 25, 2020 in Hampton, VA. Smith's son surprised him on his birthday with the restored antique apparatus he used to drive. (Photo/John C. Clark, Daily Press)

That evening, an A6A Intruder aircraft crashed shortly 9 p.m. into a crowded residential neighborhood near the beach, according to Daily Press archives. At least two people died.

Robert’s son, Bob, also remembered that night. A slew of firetrucks pulled in front of the family’s house, and whisked his father away, he recalled.

“This line of fire trucks stopped in front of my house and he jumped on the truck ... on the back,” said Bob Smith, 64. “He jumps on there with a T-shirt on and shorts, put his gear on and he was gone down the road hanging off the back of the truck. And that’s when I knew my dad was important.”

Smith was among several fireman called that evening, he said. He served as a paid firefighter with the Hampton Division of Fire & Rescue, often called a “career fireman,” from 1953 to 1988 and is the oldest still living in Hampton, spokesman Anthony Chittum said.

Smith turned 90 on Saturday, enjoying a modest celebration with family and several old friends, many of whom are retired Hampton firefighters.

Bob Smith wanted to mark the occasion with a bit of nostalgia — to reunite his father with the restored 1950s antique fire truck he drove and used during many rescues.

“I am an amateur photographer and I wanted to have a picture of my dad in front of the truck he actually drove,” Bob Smith said.

Frank Blake, 85, a friend and volunteer firefighter who worked with Robert Smith, drove the truck Saturday, siren blaring, into the cul-de-sac outside Bob Smith’s home near Gosnold’s Hope Park.

A faint smile crossed the elder Smith’s face as he walked over to inspect the truck.

"Kind of looks a lot better than when I drove it,” he said, adding often he was in the truck alone. “It had a few nicks in it.”

The Chevrolet Oren and 500-gallon pumper has a side ladder, a space for the hoses and beam lights. It has an open cockpit — no roof. The truck, which is stored in Buckroe, has been a restoration project that began five or 10 years ago, Blake said.

The antique truck gleamed in the afternoon sun, with fresh red paint and polished wheels. Robert Smith climbed into the truck and mugged for the camera. Soft spoken and modest, he shared a few details about his time as a firefighter. In those days, firefighters did not have oxygen tanks and other turnout gear, he said.

Instead they went to an open window, took a breath and went back inside a burning building.

“You do what you got to do and put the thing out and go home — I mean, that is your job,” Smith said.

Smith, who also served in the Air Force, spent 12 years at the Buckroe Beach Fire Company and other stations around the city for 35 years with the division.

The Buckroe Beach station originally was established in 1949 and known as Buckroe Fire Department No. 1, according to Hampton Division of Fire & Rescue website. The department went through three reorganizations during from 1940-1950.

Following the last reorganization, the company opened with the 1950 Chevrolet Oren 500-gallon pumper. The restored pumper is housed near the current Buckroe station on Pembroke Avenue and is used in parades and other events.

Many old friends came to the afternoon party on Saturday.

“We get together the first Thursday of every month at the Golden Corral,” said Brian Eubanks, 65, who retired in 2000.

Eubanks said the group of retired firefighters shares old stories — such as rescuing cats from trees — and post many on a private Facebook page.

“Eventually if we (aren’t) going to continue to tell these stories, eventually they’ll die off ... and nobody will ever know about it,” Eubanks said.

Robert Smith attended the party, which drew a couple dozen people, with his wife Mary,85, to whom he has been married 54 years.

“It’s nice to have some place to go other than a funeral,” Robert said.

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©2020 the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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