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Author of the JP Weiscarver Mystery Series
My earliest memories of my father are of a firefighter.
Any lucky young boy can take a lot of pride in his dad, but exceedingly fortunate is the lad whose father is a hero not only to him but to the community as well.
I’m not speaking of any particular act of heroism but the status we assign those who make it their job to protect others. I loved it when he came to my elementary school during Fire Prevention Week.
My dad, Alva Martaindale, had a special role when he first became a firefighter. He was one of only two paid members of the otherwise volunteer department. Except for one day off every other week, he literally spent half of his time at the station, eating half of his meals there and sleeping there half of the nights.
This was in the community of Greggton, which at the time was on the border of Longview, Texas. Before I entered first grade at Pine Tree Schools in Greggton, it had been incorporated as a part of Longview and Daddy became a member of the Longview Fire Department. They still worked shifts of 24 hours on duty, 24 hours off.
The station was then where Longview’s Station 5 remains today, on Niblick Street at the corner of Pine Tree Road. It has drive-through bays for the fire trucks and that was key then.
Calls were dispatched by Central Station in Longview, via telephone. They also sounded the fire siren affixed atop a water tower (as I remember) that used to stand across Supply Street from the station.
Whoever was at the station would write the address of the alarm on a chalkboard in the truck bay and then drive the appropriate fire truck to the scene. Volunteers responding to the siren’s call would drive through the station, note the address from the board and proceed to the fire.
Most of my memories, to be honest, came after Longview took over in the late 1950s as I was quite young at the time. In those years (my dad spent 10 years working there), a full crew was four men – always men back in those days – two for each truck. Several years later, the standard became three firefighters to a truck.
We would visit often and I loved doing so. My mother always parked in the back of the station, on Aztec Alley, usually in the large parking lot across the street that served several businesses facing Marshall Avenue. There was also a front door to the station, facing Niblick, but we never entered that way.
Getting in the back way meant entering through the garage and into an office area that held a desk and the telephone. Past that was the dining table and kitchen. To the front of the station was a recreation room with a television and ping pong table. Maybe there was a pool table, too. Through the kitchen and in the far front corner was the sleeping area.
On the opposite end of the building, the east end, was a section that’s no longer there. It was a tower that was – I’m entirely guessing now and you know how perspectives change from youth to adulthood – about three stories tall. It was in there they would hang hoses to dry.
When not on a call, firefighters had chores to keep up with to maintain their equipment. Then there were cleaning duties around the station, including mowing the lawn. Of course, there was always plenty of time for them to harass one another. My dad formed some great friendships at the fire department.
It was a requirement back then that firefighters live within the city limits. Maybe it was within a short distance of the city. The reason, of course, was so they could more easily respond to assist fighting a fire even when they were off-duty. One such alarm I remember clearly.
For some reason, in June 1965, Daddy took just me out to dinner at a café that I recall was on Marshall Avenue in Greggton. I remember it having a glass front and we sat at the counter … but I cannot pin down in my mind the exact location or name.
Of course, before we left home, he told Mother where we were going and she probably had the phone number available. Sure enough, before our food was delivered, she called. The Mobberly Hotel near downtown Longview was engulfed in fire and they were calling in all hands. He left me at the restaurant for my mother to pick up and he raced to the station to help take a truck downtown. Even though I was a self-centered 10-year-old, it didn’t bother me one bit to be stood up because I knew that was what firefighters had to do. To tell you the truth, there was some pride in the fact that he was important enough that they needed him.
The Mobberly Hotel fire might have been the one to come closest to endangering my father.
He was climbing a ladder on the side of the multi-story building when part of the wall or roof above him collapsed, showering him with bricks. Of course, he was wearing his full bunker gear, including helmet, heavy coat, boots and gloves. He may have been sore the next day but suffered no injuries.
He had been promoted to lieutenant a few years before he left, but he balked when they wanted to make him a captain. He told me he only wanted to fight fires, not oversee other people. The pressure for him to accept the promotion was enough that he just quit.
Leaving his job with the city also gave him the freedom to move a little way out into the county where he could do a bit of farming, something else that brought him great joy. He owned a grocery store in Greggton for many years and did a few other things.
However, in his retirement years, if he was asked what he used to do, he answered that he had been a firefighter.
(The journalist in me requires I inform readers that almost all this article comes out of memories going back 50 years and longer, recollections from my childhood. Additionally, some of it is derived from my father’s stories. I believe it’s all accurate, but I cannot verify it to the extent I desire.)