In his song “The Devil went down to Georgia”, Charlie Daniels’ hero Johnny plays the fiddle on a wager, his soul for gold. He plays a medley of folk songs, and begins thusly:
“Fire on the mountain!
Run boys! Run!”
The folk song referenced is nested in bygone days, a different time. It doesn’t sing “Call the fire department!”, nor “Dial 911!”. It comes from a time when there was no 911. Here on this mountain, there was no fire department. If there were, telephones do not yet exist, or perhaps have not reached the hills and hollows of sparsely populated rural areas.
It evokes a vision of mother or grandfather, one hand on a porch post, looking across the valley. Smoke is rising, not from a forest or a glen, but from John and Mary’s, or perhaps the Widow Bouck’s. The conflagration is not anonymous. We can imagine Mary’s face buried in her hands, or thankful that the winds are not blowing toward their home. We can see John, the weight of the entire world on his shoulders, face and hands blackened with soot as he beats back the burning bushes to protect his family, his farm, and every irreplaceable thing he has, no one to turn to or call on for help.
The boys arrive, perhaps on foot, perhaps on horseback, perhaps brimming from the bed of a truck we know from episodes of The Waltons, from The Grapes of Wrath. They are farmers and millhands and pastors and barbers. By twos and threes they race without orders into the fray, disregarding their own safety. With shovels and picks, axes and hoes, these ordinary men confront the beast, shoulder to shoulder. Through the night the battle rages, and at dawn they will kneel together. They will give thanks for all that was saved, or will share tears for their losses.
In the world of 2020, the majority of people live in densely populated communities. Cities and sprawling suburbs and housing developments. Most benefit from full-time, fully-equipped, fully-trained fire departments, whose heroes are no less brave or appreciated than Johnny and his neighbor boys.
According to the 2000 Census, and I doubt it has changed much, the population of the Village of Sharon Springs stood at 547 persons. I live about three miles from the village line, in the larger tract called the Town of Sharon. It is comprised of about 1,900 people, which includes the village populace. When I moved here in 1985, we had a constable. He drove around in an older Plymouth with a big, round gumball machine-looking light on the roof. Once Phil reached retirement age, the position of the constable was dispensed with. The well-equipped county Sheriff’s department would cover the village in his stead.
Our fire department and ambulance squad are all volunteers. So it is for all of our surrounding communities. One would need to drive about fifty miles before reaching a community with paid firefighters and EMT’s. In this past year, my grandson Max began his training to join the Canajoharie Volunteer Fire Department. My sister’s parents-in-law were both on the Greater Amsterdam Volunteer Ambulance Corps. My dear late friend Jim Bixby was a Lieutenant in the Middelburgh Volunteer Fire Department. He was honored, as was my daughter’s father-in-law, with a “Final Call” via radio dispatcher, at their funerals.
We had a blow-down last week at the ranch. A twenty-foot, twelve hundred pound chunk of Sugar Maple #1 along the road frontage fell across the end of our driveway. Already a miracle, it didn’t fall six feet to the west and end up blocking the road, nor did it blow over due east, the predominant wind, which would have placed its top somewhere around the second shelf of my grandmother’s curved-glass china closet in the parlor. As luck would have it, I was only three miles away, just over the village line, when my wife called me home. Unable to use my own driveway, I parked across the road at Tom & Lynn’s. Before I got across the road, Lynn was out the door calling to me.
“Tom and Matt will be here in a few minutes. They’re setting up for Paul’s funeral.”
“That’s okay,” I replied, “I’ll just hook onto it with the truck and drag it out of the way.”
I didn’t need to inconvenience Tom or their son Matt, who were doing some of the behind-the-scenes things done for funeral services. They had just enough time to come home and change in order to attend the services for the friend and neighbor.
I went into the house to don coveralls, and before I made it back to the end of the driveway, I heard Matt firing up the chainsaw, his father advising him as to the best approach for cutting the huge obstacle. We worked together, and in less than ten minutes had chunked up and removed the fallen trunk, and cleared the driveway. Handshakes and thank-yous, and they were off to get dressed. Neighbors are such a blessing.
Lester plowed my driveway until one year, at the worst of times, his plow truck broke down, and he found himself in no position to repair or replace it. Without inquiry, another neighbor, Mike, began to plow my driveway for me, refusing all offers of compensation. This year I have my own plow truck, and have had occasion in the last two storms to cross the road and plow yet another neighbor’s driveway. Betsy lives alone and is no shrinking violet. If necessary, she would clear her driveway with a shovel. It will not be necessary as long as I am “Lester of the watch”.
It must be nigh on twenty years now since we had the chimney fire. I have no head for time and find memorization of dates and years tedious. But I remember that like yesterday. Weren’t we lucky to be standing in the kitchen when we heard the rush of the draft turn to a grumbling roar, a gut wrenching and unmistakable sound. Barking orders I commanded my wife to grab the two girls, go get in the van and drive it across the road to Tom & Lynn’s. Here they would be safe. Now I called the Schoharie Fire line, there was no 911 yet.
“O’Connor’s, Box 66A, Engleville Road,” I related the data, followed by the reassurance “They all know where I live.” It seemed I had just hung up the phone and grabbed the fire extinguisher, mere seconds later, Tony (the Sheriff) pulled into my driveway, followed closely by Lester (yes, the same Lester). Then Ray, who delivered our heating oil when we had a furnace. Then Scott, the plumber son of plumber Ruben, whose family built their modest fortune maintaining the famous bath houses of the village. One after another familiar faces arrived, threw a ladder, advised one another on the safest approach, tossed a chain down into a chimney inferno from which flames were shooting fifteen feet into the air. They knocked down the creosote, eliminating the fuel, it’s flakes ironically smothering the fires at the base of the chimney liner.
They laughed with one another as they stowed their gear, called me by name as they bade good night, drove home as if it were just another day. An hour ago I was facing the utter destruction of my home, and in minutes these ordinary heroes saved it all without a drop of water.
Blue Light Flashing
The rising wail of the whistle is heard three miles hence,
It quickens one’s pulse,
fills the hills and valleys, an echoing plea,
“Help!” it’s crescendo cries “Help!”.
Leaving us to wonder and worry for whom the alarm is raised.
In an instant we see them.
Family sedans, compact cars, and pickup trucks from the farm hasten past,
Blue Light Flashing.
We see neighbors racing headlong into danger without thought
Of reward or return, offering up their own safety,
To help neighbors in the grip of calamity.
With great gratitude for one and solemn sympathy for the other,
We pray for both.
Bless you, all you boys (and now girls, too!) who respond to the call: “Fire on the mountain!”
Take care and keep in touch,