Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A fireman hangs his hat in two homes

WFD district chief Willoughby with a fellow firefighter.

Firefighters have two homes: the house they live in with their kin and the other they share with members of their fire brigade. My brother Al has hung his hat on the hook and ladders of the Windsor Fire Department for 33 years. From his roaring days as a rookie, to his glory days as a gallant captain and mentoring chief, he’s been packing an overnight bag for his second home. 

Other people may have two homes - college students have their dorm and then go home to their parents’; retirees have a home-base and maybe a vacation place.

But not only do firefighters have two homes, they have two families depending on them. It could be unclogging a sink or rocking a sick child to sleep or climbing a shaky ladder with a fire hose (that has the force of a jet engine) or running into a burning building to rescue a comrade.

No wonder they hang up their helmets at age 60.

Firefighter Joe Ventimiglia, left, with retiring district chief Willoughby.
"Today is 33 years to the day," said WFD District Chief “Willoughby,” adjusting the tie of his dress blue uniform while awaiting the arrival of his wife Sue and their children, Trisha (Frank), Dawn (Jessie), Kristopher (Niky) and first grandchild Alayna. Because it was the last shift of his career, he would not be fighting any fires. Instead, he fought a blaze of pokes and jokes from his fire-station family.

"I've got a few stories to tell," said firefighter Rob Fawcett, with a grin at the chief. "We were coming back from a run in a new truck," Fawcett said. (A new fire rescue vehicle can cost between $500,000 and $1.5 million depending on its bells and whistles.) While turning a corner near a lot in the city, Fawcett said he hollered a warning to his chief about some boards protruding into the street. The chief proceeded cautiously but took the corner too sharp and loud scraping and crunching sounds were heard. He stopped long enough for Fawcett to jump off the truck and survey the damages (pick up the pieces), then motored on.

Willoughby said nothing, nor did Fawcett when he saw his chief back at the fire hall, using rolls of Duct tape to try and fix the little white lights on the big red truck.

Other firehouse anecdotes had to do with Willoughby's cooking - his famous butter tarts (I have the recipe archived if you want it) and cabbage rolls (this one is still a secret) and infamous pig head soup. Even I remember when all of the firefighters were calling in sick after Willoughby made a pot of soup out of the leftovers from a pig roast. Although delicious (the pot was emptied), the meat was bad after being left too long in a warm car.

No soup today.

For this firehouse party the crew planned a meal fit for a chief. There were several bowls of salads, sweet corn, barbecue chicken and most importantly 20 slabs of pork ribs, Fred Flintstone-size ribs.

They were cut and marinated the night before in a special brine recipe created by firefighter Mark “Chevy” Chevalier.

“He was a great captain and great chief,” Chevalier said, turning the ribs. “A lot of guys showing up today are off duty, but they came in for Al (some like Ray Gauthier even brought Bundt cakes). It shows you how well he’s respected.”

He received parting gifts – an engraved brass fire extinguisher and T-shirt splattered with barbecue sauce.

Then at 6 p.m. the all-call paging tone for chiefs rang out and everyone came to attention as a voice over the air announced that Willoughby was officially retired. That’s when it hit home for Willoughby and Sue, who, as the wife of a firefighter had to spend many nights alone with her children, wondering if he was in harm’s way. They were both teary-eyed as they listened, following the announcement to firefighters from across the city chiming in with their goodbyes and congratulatory messages. Even the “peons” - as senior members call the rookies - hailed greeting to the chief.

Willoughby responded with his last address as district chief, in which he told everyone what a pleasure his life has been as their leader, friend and fellow firefighter.

“You are the heart and soul of the department, acknowledged by citizens every day. I will always be proud of the fact that I was a firefighter and that I was part of Windsor Fire and Rescue,” Willoughby said.

Now the chief is down to taking care of one home, but he’ll always have two families.