Many times over the years, people have asked me exactly why it is that I decided to become a fireman. What was my motivation? It is a simple question and I guess I have given any number of different answers through the years. However, I needed to devote some more thought to this because of an upcoming project which involves me. So because of this venture I recently decided to devote some serious front porch, cigar-smoking thought to just why it was that I chose to enter the fire service oh so many years ago.
As I paused, puffed, and pondered, the answer came to me. The answer was as simple as it was obvious. It was all about the Freehold, NJ, Fire Department and the role they played each December into bringing Santa Claus to the kids in Freehold (yours truly included). I recall the event as though it were just yesterday. It was my exposure to that annual event that set the wheels in motion within my mind's eye.
Each year back in the Freehold of my youth, the local business people held a ceremony to kick off the annual Christmas shopping season. It was this holiday event that began the run up to that glorious day when Santa magically made a kid's dreams come true. This annual ceremony involved the arrival of that jolly old elf on the roof of the Monmouth County Courthouse in the center of downtown Freehold.
Like most of the other kids, I never questioned how Santa got there. He just seemed to do it every year every year without fail and what standing did any of us kids have to question dear, old Santa. At the appointed hour, Santa would appear at the edge of the courthouse roof and wave down to us.
It was at this point that the members of the Goodwill Hook and Ladder Company would come rolling up Main Street with their 1935 American LaFrance city service ladder truck with all of the heavy, old, wooden ladders. I can still recall the seemingly loud explosions which popped off whenever that old warhorse would fire up in the Borough fire station across the street from St. Peter's Episcopal Church, the parish in which I grew to adulthood.
I can still see the image in my mind's eye of the men who would dismount from the truck and go to the rear of the vehicle to drag out the old 50-foot wooden Bangor ladder with the long tormentor poles attached to each side. With practiced precision, these men would carry the ladder near to the courthouse and raise it up to where Santa was waiting. One of the firemen would ascend the ladder and assist Santa down to his throne on the front steps of the courthouse. What a great time to be a kid in Freehold.
My best guess is that it was at this time the seed was planted in me. It was my dream to become one of those men who brought Santa down so that he could share a candy cane with us and hear of our desires for a which would end up under the tree in our home at 142 Jerseyville Avenue, across from the Nestles coffee plant.
Unfortunately, as I grew to a less innocent age, my trips to the courthouse ceased. You know why, so I shall not commit the reason to print on the screen in front of you. However, Santa Claus or not, I still really wanted to become one of the guys riding the fire truck. To this day I have the guts of that dream within my soul.
At some point after the Great Freehold Fire in 1962, which laid waste to a large part of the commercial and mercantile area in the center of town, the Borough Fire Department decided that the time had come for them to trade in the old city service ladder truck for a modern aerial ladder. The replacement was a 1963 American LaFrance 85-foot aerial ladder. Not only did this new vehicle change how fires were fought in the borough, it changed how the fire department brought Santa Claus down from the Courthouse roof. Santa now appeared on the Court Street side of the courthouse and came down the aerial device to the cheers of the young children.