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Fire in a small town

‘John Begert was never paid to do any of the things he did as a Gaston volunteer, and he certainly wasn’t paid to crawl around in sewage investigating a chimney fire at a stranger’s home’

Editor’s note: We’re pleased to present an excerpt from Ken Bilderback’s book, “Fire in a Small Town.” Bilderback spent five years a volunteer PIO for the Gaston Rural Fire District and four years as a board member of the Gaston Volunteer Fire Department. The book provides an insider’s look at the heroism, humor, heartache and hypocrisy of volunteer firefighting.

By Ken Bilderback
Fire in a Small Town

John was with Alfred Wells in a crawl space,” Marilyn Begert says, referring to a memory of her husband’s long career with Gaston Fire, “when Alfred turned around and said ‘I smell s-h-i … ‘" Mrs. Begert smiles and looks around her meticulous dining room as if checking to see if any of her precious grandchildren are present, then continues: “Well, let’s just say Alfred never was one to mince words.”

“It was a chimney fire,” former Chief Ron Hoodenpyl says, looking back at that memorable call. “The chimney pipe went down into the crawlspace, so they went down to check. … They never thought they would find what they found.”

“We were knee-deep in shit,” says Alfred Wells, never one to mince words. “Toilet emptied right into the crawl space.”

Marilyn Begert picks up the story again from there. “Oh my, if you don’t think John smelled to high heavens when he got home that night. And he was never paid to do that sort of thing …"

John Begert was never paid to do any of the things he did as a Gaston volunteer, and he certainly wasn’t paid to crawl around in sewage investigating a chimney fire at a stranger’s home. But the reality is that being a firefighter in a small town never has been as simple as just “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.” The things rural volunteers do rarely involve coming home smelling of sewage, but they can range from humdrum to humorous to heroic. Some of what they do doesn’t even involve answering calls. Often what they do involves attending community events or celebrations, and showing up for such functions smelling of s-h-i- just wouldn’t be right. Showing up smelling of soot, on the other hand, sometimes is unavoidable.

Celebrations in small towns nearly always involve two organizations: the schools and the fire department. Of course, depending on the occasion many other groups join in, but schools and the fire department are constants. Take Wednesday afternoon, January 4, 1961, when Gaston proudly dedicated its new Post Office on Front Street. The schools were well-represented by the Gaston High School Band and the Laurelwood Academy Color Guard. The women’s club of the Congregational Church made refreshments, but the highlight was the presentation of the town’s first 50-star American flag to the town’s longtime Postmaster, Thomas Roe.

The 50-star flag was unveiled in Washington, D.C., exactly six months earlier at a July 4 celebration of Hawaii’s admittance to the union, but the flags in Gaston all still were of the 48-star variety. Of course the fire department was scheduled to attend, but the volunteers almost didn’t make it that day.

The Post Office and the fire department had a very special bond in those days. Long-time volunteer and assistant chief John Thorne had worked as a mail carrier for decades, and was as well-known for that role as for his service as a firefighter. Not only that, but Postmaster Thomas Roe’s son, Bob, a volunteer firefighter, was scheduled to be part of an engine crew along with Thorne to join in the ribbon-cutting. Bob became a volunteer in 1951 at the age of 14. He left to earn his degree at Pacific University, then joined the Army. He was home on a two-week leave and wanted to be part of this celebration for his father. Even more than most celebrations, this one was important to the Gaston volunteers, and they showed up early at the station to shine the engine and don their dress uniforms.

Any volunteer firefighter will tell you that calls come at the most inconvenient times: In the middle of family gatherings, on their way to work, or even while preparing for a celebration with half the town in attendance. Sitting in their best clothes, buffing out spots on Engine 1170, Bob Roe and the other volunteers were jolted by the siren atop the station. A house was on fire, and the celebration suddenly became the last thing on their mind.

Racing to the scene, the crew found flames shooting from the second floor of a house owned by Bjarne Moe. The crew battled the flames and managed to save the first floor of a home owned by a family they all knew. The volunteers knew that Bjarne and his family were safe, because they were away on an extended trip to Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. That’s the kind of detail rural volunteers tend to know about the people they serve.

So the fire was out and the family was safe, but the roof of the house was burned away and the downstairs had water damage. The rural volunteers were not about to leave things in such disarray, even with an important event they wanted to attend. They set about salvaging the family’s belongings and securing the house the best they could. Ordinarily in such a situation, half the town’s population would turn out to help, but this was no ordinary situation, because half the town’s population was headed to the new Post Office for the dedication. That turned out to be a lucky break. Bjarne Moe’s house was directly behind the new Post Office.

The volunteers and townsfolk got all of their work done securing the house and made it to the dedication on time, even if Bob Roe’s homecoming celebration with his father didn’t turn out to be memorable for the reasons he thought it would. “All I remember,” he says, “is sitting on the tailboard of that truck, covered in soot. The truck, all of us, just covered in soot …"

Nature often plays a part in unusual calls in a rural area. Sometimes those calls involve farm animals and wildlife. We’re not talking about your garden-variety cat-stuck-in-a-tree call, either. Just ask Clay Davis, who had to dive chest-deep into an icy stream on January 5, 2010, to rescue a horse that slid down a steep embankment. There also was the day in 2006 when volunteers rescued two horses from precarious situations in separate incidents. Usually, those rescues go unnoticed, even by people around town, but sometimes they can draw national attention, such as a call of a trapped horse on June 1, 2011.

The 28-year-old horse was on his back in a creek. The wet grass was slick as ice, preventing the horse from regaining his footing and volunteers from getting the traction necessary to pull the horse to safety. As neighbors rushed to help, some suggested that the firefighters should leave the horse where it lay until a veterinarian could arrive and put him out of his misery. Such a suggestion is anathema to a rural firefighter, however, and was ignored as volunteers concocted a plan to save this supine equine patient. Using a roll of hose as a makeshift sling, the firefighters secured the horse as a neighbor cradled the animal’s head in his arms to prevent drowning. Another neighbor arrived with a tractor to pull out the horse if necessary, but the first choice was to use manpower rather than horsepower to complete the task, and to have more control over what could be a bumpy ride for the exhausted horse.

After a number of horse rescues, the Gaston crew knew that lifting an adult horse, too weak to help his own cause, is not a task for two or three people, especially when the footing was as slick as it was this day, so the tractor might have turned out to be the horse’s only hope. The tractor wasn’t needed that day, however, because neighbors started calling other friends who raced to the scene, and passersby stopped their cars and joined the fray, all to help save the life of a stranger’s horse.

A picture of that rescue, with firefighters and townspeople working side-by-side to help a horse, was picked up by The Associated Press and ran in news media across the country. Photo editors in big cities, including Phoenix and New York, were struck by the rural spirit captured in the photo, but also by one volunteer, barely visible in the photo. That volunteer, Michael Stephens, was chest deep in the creek, stuck with the hapless job of ensuring that the hose did not slip off the horse’s haunches. Stephens, now a former volunteer, a mild-mannered software engineer by day and amateur beekeeper on weekends, was directly in the danger zone if the huge horse slipped or kicked, but stood his ground throughout the ordeal, doing the kind of work volunteers do on a regular basis.