Volunteers of America
My sister-in-law is married to Scott Taylor, who grew up in Gaysville, Vermont. When he was in the sixth grade, he watched the three-story Track and Trail building—it had served in previous incarnations as the town hall and the schoolhouse—burn to the ground next door to his home. Neighbors helped to evacuate the contents of the house in minutes, and he watched awestruck as his dad strapped the refrigerator to his back with a rope and walked it outside. Then, from across the street, he saw something that changed his life. In the 8-foot gap between the burning building and his house, firefighters standing in harm’s way used pike poles to push the collapsing wall away to save his home.
Today, in addition to working at the factory in Bethel Mills, he is Assistant Fire Chief. The work is hard, especially in winter when his coat and helmet often get so frozen that when he takes them off, they can stand upright in the road, the helmet fused to the coat. A few weeks ago, one of his firefighter friends tried to get into a burning house through a locked sliding-glass door by throwing lawn furniture at it. The glass had been so hard-tempered by the fire that the furniture broke with barely a crack in the glass. But there are lighter moments too, a bit of slapstick, pranks played on the fire chief, a snowball fight, the humor found in the odd comment that keeps their minds off the long hours of waiting until sunup when they often begin the search for bodies.
In America, most of us are just a generation away from the great idyll that is life in a small town. Scott spent summers at the Twin Bridges swimming hole, jumping off of rocks 35 feet above the clear, cold water. Clarence Guy, his grandfather, rang the church bell every Sunday, and Halloween was spent mostly at the schoolhouse (there were few houses in town so the “take” was on the low side) where they dunked for apples and drank Morris Thompson’s homemade cider. The great Flood of 1927 took out the hydroelectric dam, the local factory (buttons, then lightbulbs, then clothing) and the 19-mile Peavine Railroad, which started at Bethel and ran through town, meandering up to Rochester like a pea vine. (Or, as the Yankee of few words once said, “Sir, where the railway was, the river is.”) Scott’s grandmother took the train to school as a kid.
Adrienne and I attend the annual fireman’s dinner in our town, and last year at the event I ran into Tiger Skidmore, a neighbor who volunteers for fire departments in three different towns. He has the volunteer bug so bad that on his wedding day, just as he was about to walk down the aisle, his pager went off. His friends watched in awe as he started over toward his pickup to respond, but they quickly got him turned around. (He still doesn’t see what all the fuss was about.)
Firehouses have to raise funds continually, and in Scott’s town they hold the annual Haw Hee talent show with stand-up routines and stocky men in funny costumes including Ed Bean, the fire chief, dressed in straw hat and denim overalls in imitation of Grandpa Bean. In our village, the firehouse still puts on chicken dinners, barbecues, bingo, and the annual Old Home Day parade and carnival, complete with the “Win a Cake!” contest (bet 25 cents on the spinning wheel); “Win a Goldfish!”, featuring yellow rubber ducks (almost everybody wins; then you have to buy the goldfish bowl); plenty of homemade “fast” food including fried dough, home-cut French fries, maple syrup milkshakes, and cotton candy; and a country and western band featuring a cowgirl playing the fiddle, a drum set with a Wyoming landscape, and you can bet good money that the first song will be “Okie from Muscogee.” Older folks look on, seated in collapsible lawn chairs, much like distinguished visitors at an inauguration.
In small towns across America, most of the municipal offices are volunteer or pretty close to it, considering the short money: the select board, the zoning administrator (the worst job in town), the town clerk, the rescue squad, constable, etc. In our town, volunteers organize the Town Hall Christmas Party, the annual tag sale for the church, last-minute pancake breakfasts to help with a neighbor’s medical bills, and the annual clean-up day, to say nothing of helping to get in the hay, especially last summer when it threatened rain almost every day.
In the country, it’s how you spend your time, not your money, that counts, whether you are completing the 180-hour firefighter training course or cooking for the church dinner, the one that offers roast pork, Jell-O salad as a vegetable, and pineapple fluff cake for dessert. Being poor, hungry, sick, or short a paycheck never stopped Scott’s grandparents from getting up early and doing what needed to be done. When his grandmother was stranded seven miles away in the next town after the ’27 flood, she simply walked home. Somebody had to feed the kids.
I once heard a story about a call that came in from a firebox on a street corner, and two fire stations were dispatched. When the first company pulled up, they saw a little boy standing at the firebox on the seat of his tricycle. When they went up to him, they quickly realized that he was the son of one of the firefighters on the other truck. When asked what was wrong, he replied, “I just wanted to see my daddy!” *
That boy knew his dad was both a volunteer and a hero—not heroic in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but where it really matters: in a small town, in a small state. In an age when we think that we can simply buy our way out of trouble, Scott and others remind us that Americans once built something out of nothing, that kids grew up proud, and that if you called in a fire, you would soon see some folks you know showing up in a big, red truck, and one of them, riding shotgun, would probably be your daddy.
• Story courtesy of Roland LaFrance, Redford, N.Y.