When Fire Engines Clanged and Whinnied
Many things are certified by folks who weren't there, and I wondered the other evening when a man on TV told about prancing fire horses and the mad gallop to a blaze. It so happens that I am old enough to have fire-engine horses in my memory, and they were gentle, mannerly beasts beyond compare, trained and obedient down to the last possible detail of social adjustment. This would be from 1914 to May 1918, and now I was 6. This was in Medford, Mass., where I started school.
You perhaps know of Medford as one of the towns on Paul Revere's route to Concord as the American Revolution began. He went right by the end of the street on which my primary school would be built. Alongside my school was the sub-fire station where Medford had a steam pumper, horses, stables, and upstairs quarters for firemen. Yes, there was a pole for them to slide down when the bell rang.
Mine was named the James School. And while our teachers were properly strict, they didn't mind if we jumped from our seats when the fire bell rang and watched the engine take off, which didn't happen too often during school.
The alarm was indeed a bell, hanging in a hose tower and pulled by a rope. In those days, the police had a call-box system and the fire department had telephones, but communications were primitive, and most fires were announced by somebody running pell-mell to the station.
The firemen cared for the horses. Besides feeding and grooming, they had to exercise them, and that meant daily trips around our schoolhouse, which we could supervise during number work and spelling. We youngsters got an occasional chance to go into the fire station and visit the horses, who had nothing to do but stand and wait.
The firemen would give us each a lump of sugar, and we could hold a hand out and feel the soft muzzles of the beasts as they willingly responded. It was wonderful, too, to see the great steam pumper sitting there with all the polished brass agleam, and once a fireman went upstairs and came down the pole so we could see how it was done.
The pumper, always kept loaded with kindling and coal, was drawn by a three-horse hitch, rather than a span. Unlike most horse-drawn vehicles, it had brakes. The animals were trained to take positions when the alarm sounded, and it took hardly more than an instant to get going.
The kindling was lit before the horses were off, and by the time the engine appeared outdoors black smoke was belching from the stack. Before the engine arrived at a fire, the steam was pretty well "up." That was a brave spectacle from a first-grade window, and I assure you it is easy to recall.
I was conditioned somewhat. My mother helped, so I was reading before school. She had bought me a toddler's nursery book that had in it a story about a fire engine. A fire engine just like the one I would see from my schoolroom. I can quote it:
Clang! Clang! Clang!
What is all that noise about?
See those horses running down
Are they running away?
They are going to put out the fire!
Clang! Clang! Clang!
Without quibbling about the gait of horses, I'll offer that fire horses did not really suggest running away, or even a gallop. Trained utterly by firemen who had little else to do while the bell was resting, the beasts just about guided themselves. They were faultlessly in step, by no means excited, and they were moving a substantial load entrusted to them in a moment of emergency. It was no time for frolics. Horses may be dumb, but they're not stupid. There was a railroad crossing up the street, and the fire horses stopped for it and wouldn't cross until the policeman (Mr. Watson!) told them all was clear.
ONLY once did I get to a fire scene to see our pumper in action. I'll guess about 1915. The city of Salem, the witch city next to Medford, had a tragic fire that did great damage. At night it lit our eastern sky. Medford responded, as did other neighboring communities, and our horses had gone to do what they could. On the Saturday, my dad walked me up into Salem where the fire was now under control. We were able to get to our pumper, and there she was, smoke coming from her stack, and one of our firemen standing by to keep an eye on the gauge and oil when needed.
He and my dad spoke, and he patted my little head for me. I had never seen him in a helmet. He said the Salvation Army brought him things to eat. He was there three days in all, his steam up and the pumper attached to a hydrant and making a gentle swish-swish-swish, as steam engines did. Our horses had been disengaged and led back to their stable. They were led again later to retrieve their engine.
When my mother was about to be 100 years old, somebody asked her what she'd like on her birthday. She said she'd never ridden on a fire engine and would like to. So the fire chief in West Caldwell, N.J., where she was living with my sister, brought around the city's newest fire engine and they boosted Mom up beside the driver.
Off they went, and it was something to see. It wasn't at all like the thrill of the three-horse days when I watched the Medford pumper streak past. The only similarity would be the same old Clang! Clang! Clang! as my doughty mom yanked the bell rope. Now we were 6 again.