One of the anchors in my younger days, at a time when anchors were very important (and had nothing to do with the Navy, which would come along a little later in my life), was the American Hose Company No. 1 of Tamaqua. At the time, it was one of four companies in town, joined by the Citizens, East End and South Ward. All members were volunteers.
You had to be 18 to join any of the companies, and one great benefit was that you could drink even though the legal age was 21. Because the fire companies were all clubs and admission was by membership only, there was little fear of a surprise raid by liquor control board agents.
However, the real anchor was not the alcohol, but the camaraderie. And in some cases, surrogate fathers for a fatherless male.
Volunteers learned to work with others of all ages, not only in training to fight fires but in cleaning up after. I still remember one major lesson after all these years: Always be ready for the next fire. When we returned from a fire, we’d pull all of the hoses off our trucks and replace them with dry ones, putting the wet ones on the hose rack. Today, when I return from a photo shoot, I immediately download my photos to my computer and ensure that my camera batteries are charged: Always be ready for the next shoot.
I feel a great loyalty to the Hosie and was thrilled when I was asked to help write the history of the company for its 100th anniversary celebration in 1978. By that time I was a graduate student at Penn State, married with children. We made weekend trips to Tamaqua in part to see Grandma but also for me to conduct research on my master’s thesis, about The Evening Courier, where I had my first full-time newspaper job after graduating from high school in 1961. (See One Man’s Newspaper History.)
Imagine my delight in the next century when, while doing research for a book about Tamaqua, I came across an old photo of members of the Hosie posed with their three trucks (circa 1930). Because my book focuses on doing comparative photos—then and now—the old Hosie photo was perfect.
Of course, I now know no one at the Hosie, having let my membership lapse in the early 1970s. But I was able to locate a retired member who had served the community as fire chief, and he set up a photo opportunity for me.
And it was revealing. The trucks are no longer red, but blue. The Hosie houses, but does not own, the town’s only aerial truck, as it did when I was a member. The members could not afford to raise the money to buy an aerial truck, so the borough council bought one. It doesn’t say AMERICAN HOSE CO. NO 1 on its doors, but TAMAQUA FIRE DEPARTMENT. Each member now has his own gear with his name on the back, wrapped low around big rubber boots so when the alarm sounds, each can jump into the boots and pull up his trousers and jump onto the truck. No more trying to put on gear while hanging onto a truck bellowing through town to a fire.
Before we could set up the equipment for the photo shoot, an alarm came in for a propane spill at Turkey Hill (a convenience store) and the men were off. I almost—almost—jumped on the truck, but instead photographed the trucks as they pulled out. When the trucks returned to the Hosie, the captain looked at the old photograph I was trying to imitate and, on his command, drivers moved the trucks into position. Because the aerial wasn’t the Hosie’s, it was not included in the updated photo.
After the shoot, my contact showed me around. In the bar we looked at old photos of what we called the marching club. I recognized many of the people in the 1960 photo. Most, if not all, are gone. I had a hard time identifying anyone in the 1978 photo.
When I got back to Santa Fe and compared then and now photos, I realized that firefighting equipment had gotten so big, the view down the street was obscured.
You may recall my short essay about my two teenage buddies, Bud Kistler and Bill Klingaman, and how Bud convinced me there was such a thing as a woodle bird [http://rtberner.blogspot.com/2009/04/woodle-bird.html]. Alas, when we went our separate ways, I never saw Bud again, but Bill and I did stay in touch and when Paulette and I were in our last months in State College, Bill and his wife, Libby, visited us.
Bill and I have a long history. By some coincidence, we ended up in first grade together even though I did not live in the same ward as the school. We shared, first, second, and sixth through 12th grades. We graduated in 1961.
We also shared membership in the American Hose Company of Tamaqua, Pennsylvania, otherwise known as The Hosie. (I count membership in the Hosie as one of the great experiences of my life, and I know that Bill and I spent many a night there playing pinochle and drinking beer and occasionally fighting fires.)
Bill was a very intelligent person. He inherited his father’s business savvy and his mother’s intellect. He never went to college and, except for military service, never left Tamaqua. He and his brothers took over the family business from his father and ran it successfully. They had two good role models in their parents.
He served on Tamaqua Borough Council and when he decided not to run again after a couple of terms in office, a newspaper story recounted the time he served as chair of the council’s street committee. As each committee chair reported information in great detail about his domain, it got to Bill.
“The streets are still there,” Bill replied. End of report.
It was always difficult trying to extract something from Bill. It wasn’t because he didn’t know. Rather, he chose not to fill a room with rhetoric. He knew when to speak and when to remain silent, a lesson for all of us.
I remember when Bill was courting Libby. He could be subtle—and, we already know, laconic. I recall that he would show up at the Hosie and ask me if I wanted to go to some bar down country. Turns out, Libby had a singing gig there and that was the real reason he wanted to go. But he didn’t quite lay it out so clearly when he was asking me. Just, do you want to go to …? (I went. Only after we arrived did I put two and two together.)
About 18 months ago I learned that Bill had cancer, halted in one organ but showing up in another. Time was short, I was told. When we visited Pennsylvania in 2008, Bill and I tried to meet, but he was at his favorite vacation spot in the Poconos and I was locked into a schedule that did not permit me to get there. At least, though, he seemed to be beating the odds.
This week we’re headed for the Region and I tipped Bill and Libby that I was coming and would drop by to see them. I gave them my cell phone number.
One of Bill’s sons used it to call me with the news that Bill’s days were numbered.
He died at home on Monday, July 13. He was 66.
I did get to Bud’s funeral and I will be at Bill’s on Friday, filled with the memories of a great lifelong friend.
(I gave this talk to a dinner for students at Tamaqua High School, my alma mater, on May 18, 1992. The students were being honored for excellence.) … I know that you are all achievers and you have a good idea of how to achieve. I wonder, though, if I might be presumptuous enough to provide some additional thoughts on how to reach the next level of achievement. These thoughts have guided me throughout my life—in fact, I learned them in Tamaqua—and since they’ve helped me, perhaps they will help you.
• Don’t always stick with what’s comfortable. If I may relate to my classroom at Penn State, let me tell you that contrary to what you may believe, newspapers don’t have much of an impact on how people think. The research shows that people tend to read what they agree with and to avoid reading they don’t agree with.
I urge you to read books, essays and articles that you don’t agree with. Be receptive to new ideas. I didn’t say you had to change your mind; I just want to ensure that you have enough to go on when you make a decision. And you can only do that if you already read ideas you agree with.
• Don’t give up when you have a new idea to give to the world. A new idea is first a lone voice in the wilderness. As others start to adopt the idea, you will hear an echo. Finally, a choir. It takes a long time to get to the choir stage, but when you reach that stage, everybody’s on board—and it’s a wonderful feeling. Some people let life happen; other people make life happen. Always be someone who makes life happen.
• Don’t be trendy. Do things because you want to, not because everyone else is doing them. I realize that you’re under a great deal of peer pressure at this point in your life. Everybody wants to be like everybody else. Conformity is in. I would urge all of you to celebrate the differences; that’s what makes us individuals—and better people.
• Keep an open mind when meeting someone from another culture. I realize that when I use the phrase “another culture” around young people, they think I’m talking about their parents. But I’m talking about the wide diversity in our country, even just in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
It has been my great honor to have served my country in the U.S. Navy and to have met people from many countries. Morocco. Italy. France. Spain. Mississippi. I learned not to judge people by the color of their skin. I learned that gray is the only color that matters—as in the gray matter between one’s ears—the brain. And that in matters of the mind, the color of a person’s skin—for that matter, someone’s gender—doesn’t matter. The stereotypes are wrong.
So let me emphasize:
Don’t judge a book by its cover or a person by the color of her skin. Look inside, and I am confident you will meet many fine people.
Finally, let me talk about my mother and Daniel.
My mother raised me mostly on Aesop’s Fables and the Old Testament. Every story, no matter the length, had a one-sentence moral, which my mother subsequently reminded me of when I was straying or which she would cite as a way of helping me find the right path in a sticky situation.
Of all the stories my mother told me, the one I liked the best, the one I think shaped me above all others, was the story of Daniel in the Old Testament.
Daniel, you may recall, put his faith ahead of his loyalty to secular matters, ran afoul of a decree by King Darius and was thrown into the lion’s den. But rather than being eaten alive, Daniel was protected by an angel and was alive when Darius came to check on him the following morning. Darius spared Daniel and punished his detractors.
When my mother would finish telling me the story of Daniel, she would turn to me and say, “And what is the moral of the story?”
In the beginning, I was slow to answer and she would firmly tell me: “Dare to be a Daniel, Son; dare to be a Daniel.”
For many years to come, whenever it appeared I was running with the crowd instead of standing on my own, my mother would say to me, “Dare to be a Daniel, Son; dare to be a Daniel.” My mothers one-sentence moral from Daniel in the lion’s den will be forever with me. It is something I have passed on to my daughters and I hope they pass it on to their children.
And that, ultimately, is the message that I want to leave with you.
I am a freelance writer and photographer and retired journalism professor. In my first newspaper job more than 50 years ago I wrote a sports column titled The Spectator (Caslon typeface). I thought I'd resurrect the title, which was and is in honor of Addison and Steele.
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