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.
By the early part of 1964, I was fortunate enough to have been able to join the Freehold First Aid Squad as a cadet member. This ratcheted up the level of excitement in my adolescent life. My buddies and I were responding to emergencies of all types. We attended car wrecks, fires, and a wide variety of household emergencies. Truth be told gang the fire calls were my favorites. Whether the fires were general alarm blazes in the borough, or out-of-town general calls, I was pleased to be a part of the whole emergency response scene. It brought me closer to the fire department I wanted to join.
I guess that it was in 1966 when things really started to change for me. I discovered an important truth which many in my generation came to understand. Booze and women do not help one to be a better student. Because of my failure to pay close attention to the academic life at the University of Pennsylvania, I was shown the door and asked to take a year off to reflect on the error of my ways.
There being a war in progress, it was not long before a fear of being drafted took over my life. Owing to that fact, I made the decision to join the U.S. Air Force. It seemed like the smart thing to do at the time. Therefore most of the late 1960's were spent traveling the globe as a fireman in the U.S. Air Force. It was my privilege to have served my country in Texas, Illinois, Alaska, the Philippine Islands, Vietnam, and Arkansas. I also got to visit Australia during my one-week rest and recuperation (R&R) leave in 1969.
You can imagine the depth and range of the experience I was able to rack up as a fireman in the Air Force. There was structural firefighting, crash/rescue response, and petroleum firefighting and the periodic motor vehicle wreck. When I left the service in 1970, I knew for certain what I wanted to do with my life. However, I will share more about that with you in a future commentary.
Let me now point out that my Freehold Fire Department and Santa Claus story has a second chapter. Over the course of time, I was able to go full circle from the wide-eyed child side of the equation to the role of Santa Claus on the Courthouse roof. I believe it was in 1970 when someone from the local fire department contacted me and asked if I would be able to fill in as Santa Claus for the annual pre-Christmas ceremony. Let me tell you my friends that I jumped on that one in short order.
I can recall reporting to the backdoor of the courthouse and being let into the building and led up through the inside stairways to the roof. It was only when I got up and out on the roof that I noticed something that I had never seen from the ground. The courthouse itself had a peaked roof however; the roof itself was surrounded by an eight-foot ornamental granite parapet. How was I to get to the aerial? That was made abundantly clear to me when one of my buddies from Good Will Hook and Ladder arrived on the roof with an eight-foot folding ladder.
My trip to meet the kids began with me climbing up the folding ladder, stepping off onto the parapet, and moving gingerly along the parapet onto the aerial. I don't want to say that it was a piece of cake, but it was sure worth the trouble it took when I got to the bottom and was mobbed by the smiling, screaming, little kids. I now knew the joy that those firemen in my youth must have experienced. Sitting there on Santa's throne, passing out candy canes, was one of the great moments in my life up to that point.
It was my good fortune to play the role of Santa for more than half of the 1970's. I was reminded of this not too long ago when John Kafka, a buddy of mine from the Freehold First Aid Squad of the 1970's, sent me an email copy of a picture of his son sitting on my lap on the steps of the courthouse in 1977. What happy memories that brought back to me: memories of a Freehold far different to the one I know today.
So there you have it. The seed for me to become a fireman was planted in the long-ago world of downtown Freehold. It was planted within me as I listened to the booming steam horns which put out the box numbers for the fire calls. It is the same Freehold where I grew up near the coffee plant with its strong aroma of coffee in the air. This would be the same Freehold about which you have heard Bruce Springsteen sing so often. It is the same Freehold where my grandfather worked in the rug mill made famous by Mr. Springsteen. It is the same Freehold where my dear friend Nolan Higgins now serves as the Mayor.
My friends, as I travel the streets of the borough I often mutter a prayer of thanks for the blessing I have received from the borough and all of my buddies in the fire department and the first aid squad. For you see, I became a firemen in part because of Santa Claus and the Freehold Fire Department.