The Turn Of The Century: Then And Now

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Let me begin this little story with a tip of the helmet to my good friend from Boston, retired Fire Commissioner Leo Stapleton. It is his gift for combining the real with the fictional that has made him the great author that he is. The genesis for this work came during a conference in Atlantic City in November of last year. It's a great man who can stimulate others to think. Thanks, Leo.

The time was 2100 hours. The date was Dec. 31, 1999. The place - a fire station in a large city. As Johnny stepped into the watch room to relieve Mike on the housewatch, he passed a quick remark about what a quiet night it was for a New Year's Eve. They agreed that it was too cold to go anywhere, and that the previous day's snowstorm had worked its winter magic on the city. Many folks would pass the evening at home, snug and warm in front of their televisions.

Johnny thought it was a shame that he didn't have enough seniority to get the night off. Although he loved his job very much, he also loved his wife and their newborn son, Johnny Jr. Heck, little Johnny was just three weeks old. Boy, did Johnny love that little guy. However, it was also good to be in the fire station with the gang from Engine Company 7, Truck Company 3 and Battalion 1.

Johnny had the 2100-0200 hours housewatch that evening. As he leaned back in the worn watch desk chair listening to the newly installed gas-fired heater humming through the open basement door, he spied the August 1999 issue of Firehouse Magazine. Flipping through its pages he discovered what several different writers felt would be coming in the new century.

As he flipped through the pages of the magazine, he noted that it was nice to see that people were concerned with the future of fire safety education, fire prevention and code enforcement. Class A foam was portrayed as a mainstay in the firefighting arsenal of the future. A foam line could do so much more than a standard 13/4-inch hoseline. And what would the self-contained breathing apparatus of the future look like? How would we be fighting fire in 10 years?

As Johnny set the magazine back on the housewatch desk, he noted a dusty old ledger book off to the left side of the housewatch desk. He picked it up, blew the dust off of it and opened to the date page in front of the book. It was an old department house watch journal from 1899 to 1900. Apparently, someone had been rummaging among the old housewatch journals in the firehouse attic and had located the edition that covered the last turn of a century.

The first thing that stuck Johnny was the beautiful scrolling handwriting that graced the yellowing pages of the 100-year-old tome. They sure must have spent a great deal of time learning to master their penmanship back then. The notations in the journal were also quite interesting:

8:00 A.M. Roll Call. On duty - one captain, one lieutenant, one engineer, one assistant engineer and six firemen. 8:15 A.M. - Checked steam connections to pumper. 8:15 A.M. - Checked hose wagon. 8:30 A.M. - Horses fed and watered. 9:00 A.M. - Fireman Jones out of station for breakfast trick. 10:00 A.M. - Department veterinarian in quarters to check "Old Sweety Pie" for shin problems. 10:30 A.M. - Veterinarian left quarters, no cause for concern with "Old Sweety Pie." 11:30 A.M. - Department coal wagon in quarters to deliver one ton of coal.

And on it went during the day. It soon became apparent that the firemen lived in the station 24 hours per day, seven days a week. The only time they got to leave the firehouse was for meal "tricks" with their families.

Johnny became particularly interested in one journal entry. It read:

9:35 P.M. - Fireman Knight returned to quarters. FM Knight out of quarters for four hours for birth of baby, on orders of B/C Carter. Wife and child doing well. The baby boy was named Gerald Jr.

The next journal notation also got Johnny thinking:

10:00 P.M. - Fireman Knight on housewatch duty. Checked furnace, removed cinders and added more coal.

Here he was, 100 years later, reading about a brother firefighter who had long ago gone on to his reward - a fireman who had been doing the same task as Johnny was now doing, only he did it 100 years ago.

What did that man suspect was about to happen? Could he have known about the great wars that lay just ahead? Was it possible that he might be aware of the inventions that would make the job of those who fought fire safer? Did he see all that would happen to him and his family?

Johnny's mind slowly began to drift back to that long-ago period. In his mind's eye he saw himself sitting at the housewatch desk, attired in the classic high-collared uniform of that era. And he began to think … what was it like on that cold night back in 1899? What a great night it had been! Here he was in the firehouse, just back from becoming a father for the first time. Ah, sure and what a great day it had been. On the threshold of a new century, his darling Becky had given birth to the cutest little nipper the world would ever see - his new son, Jerry Jr. He had been most fortunate that a full crew of two, two and six was on duty. Chief Bobby Carter had been able to approve a four-hour leave so that he could be there for the blessed event.

At about 11:55 P.M., Fireman Knight began to write up the housewatch journal for the midnight notation. Knight paused for a moment as he gathered his thoughts for the future. What lay in store for him, his family and his fire department?

A freshly lit cigar in hand, Knight leaned back and wondered. What would the new century bring?

He had heard rumors from the chief's buggy driver that there was talk of a radical new work schedule, one that would give every man a day off each week. What a great thing it would be to be home with Becky and little Jerry Jr. for a whole day. He might even be able to pick up a few extra dollars by working with the wheelwright on the next block.

New equipment was coming in. Last week, the department's new aerial ladder had arrived. Imagine, a stout 65-foot wooden ladder that could be hurled upward into the sky with the "sproing" of a strong spring, then extended by the mere cranking of a lever. Maybe they could do away with that beast of a 50-foot wooden bangor ladder. That would be very nice, he thought, remembering last summer's drills at the city dock.

Knight wondered whether he might someday see some form of a horseless carriage to pull his steamer. Heck, it was just a matter of time before those noisy nuisances would begin to appear all over the city. Nah, nothing could ever replace a strong team of horses for pulling the steamer through the streets of the city. Some things, he was sure, would never change.

And it was great to have his brother Hank back from the Army. The whole family had been quite worried when Hank had volunteered to go to Cuba back in '98. A number of the lads in Hank's unit had suffered from the diseases that had attacked them in training camp. Hank was delivering coal now, but with any luck he would do well on the next Civil Service test, and then he could join Jerry on the fire department.

Ah, what a great thing it is to be a fireman. It sure beats being a conductor on the trolley cars, like his wife's brother. It just doesn't seem right riding around in circles all day and all night. Knight drew deeply from the cigar and then set it into the brass ashtray. He then wrote boldly and beautifully in the journal:

Happy New Years - January 1, 1900 - Contents Read and Noted, Fireman Gerald Knight. And may God bless all in the coming years of this new Century.

Just then the door to the firehouse popped open and in came Clancy the cop. "Good evenin' to you, Jerry me boy … and a Happy New Year to ya."

"The same to you, Mr. Clancy," was Knight's happy reply. "Did ya hear, sir, that today I am the father of newborn son?" And then the two of them shared a moment's joy. Just then, the clock in the watch room began to toll the first 12 melodic strokes of the new century.

At that moment, the department radio beeped and gave the 2400-hours time test. Suddenly, Johnny was back in the present. After glancing at the dusty old ledger one more time, he made the proper notations in the station housewatch journal, and then added:

Happy New Year's - January 1, 2000 - Contents Read and Noted, Fire-man John Knight. And may God bless all in the coming years of this new century.

The answer to Johnny's question was quite simple after all. Firefighters, like everyone else, think most about their jobs and their families. How could the Fireman Knight of 1899 have known about the wars and depressions that would lie ahead? All he knew was that he loved his family and his job. The same was now true for Johnny as he looked into the future. He loved his family and he loved his job. Whatever will happen in the years ahead is in the hands of a much higher authority. Heck, if it was good enough for Jerry Knight, it was good enough for Johnny Knight.


Dr. Harry R. Carter, a Firehouse® contributing editor, recently retired as a battalion commander with the Newark, NJ, Fire Department, where he also served as chief of training. He is also a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia, NJ, Fire Department. Dr. Carter is an Associate of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (AIFireE).

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