Thoughts on an Old Fire Truck of North Caldwell: Time, Ambition, Rust

 

My friend and childhood friend Ande sent me a while ago a snapshot of an ancient fire truck rusting in a snow-covered field of weeds.

Photo by Janet Jessel

The hood has been removed and the left front wheel as well; the black blob of the engine sits above the chassis, naked. There is a windshield but no cab: a convertible fire engine! (Who would have designed or bought such a thing? Didn’t they have fires to fight during rainstorms (snowstorms!) back in whatever far-away times this machine was used?) The truck itself is still red, though faded. The town’s name and fire department emblem are still clearly readable on the door. All equipment has been stripped save the hose on a roller, which looks to be scarcely thicker than a garden hose. (Were fires tiny back in those days?) Behind the truck you can see a fence, and beyond the fence some trees and a power line. The photo was taken by Janet Jessel, the sister of Ande’s late first wife Judy, whom I never met.

The photo doesn’t show the back of the truck so you can’t see if there is a platform where firemen could have stood holding on to a rail en route to a fire like they do in old movies. (Note I said ‘firemen’, not gender-neutral ‘firefighters’. There were no women on the North Caldwell, NJ, Fire Department when this truck was in service, I can assure you of that.) Yet I know that that platform is there. For when I was a lad of fifteen I stood on that platform en route to a brush fire on Mountain Avenue. It was April 6th, 1968, two days after the Murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That was my first fire as a volunteer firefighter. My most recent fire was two weeks ago.

If you have heard of North Caldwell at all, you probably know of it as Tony Soprano‘s home town. His North Caldwell is a lot different from the one I grew up in. Tony’s North Caldwell is a prosperous suburban town. Sopranos creator David Chase is also a North Caldwell boy — older than me; he graduated college when I was a sophomore in high school — and his local references are accurate. But the town of 1999 -2007 in The Sopranos is a far cry from the suburbanizing but not yet fully suburbanized town where I grew up in the 1950’s. Now it’s all houses and parks, but I grew up on a farm with two cows and eight sheep and sixty chickens and peach and pear and plum and apple trees, and lots of vegetables that needed weeding in the summer. No farms like that in North Caldwell any more! The walk from my house to Ande’s house went through woods long since cut down. (In fact, the fictional Meadow Soprano attended the quite real West Essex Regional High School, which was built on our farm, taken by eminent domain for that purpose.) As to where that photo was taken, Ande doesn’t know, and it’s not clear that his sister-in-law does either. She came upon the truck by chance and snapped it because she knew it was from the town Ande grew up in. I like to imagine it’s in Wyoming or someplace like that, far away from the place of the travails of its youth.

In the basement of my father’s new house in western New Jersey there’s a lovely and quite large porcelain beer mug, protected from dust in a clear plastic bag. It’s white, and has on it a picture of a North Caldwell ladder truck, and under that my father’s name (which is also my name) and the date 1982. My father was a volunteer firefighter in North Caldwell for 25 years, so it’s appropriate the guys there would give him a mug on his retirement from the service. (During much of that time he worked in Manhattan and traveled a fair bit to Europe on business, so was only able to respond to calls on nights and weekends.) But what’s really touching about that mug is that my parents moved from North Caldwell to Ohio in 1977; to Connecticut in 1980. So the mug was not given to him on his retirement; he had been retired from firefighting for five years and had twice moved before it was given to him. I wonder what the occasion was? I’ll have to ask him at Thanksgiving.

That photo of the old fire truck found by chance has been nagging at me for many months now. It’s been telling me to write here on Wetmachine, to work on my various other writing projects, to capture the essence of something or other about time and meaning and rust (and firefighting? Who knows?).

Some time after having sent me the fire truck photo, Ande happened to be driving down Grandview Avenue past the farmhouse I grew up in. It looked abandoned, and there were “No Trespassing” signs all about. It’s certainly not the kind of house you see in North Caldwell today, so it occurred to Ande that it was likely to be knocked down soon so that something more modern could be put in its place. So, Fred bless him, he stopped his car, took out his camera, proceeded to trespass all about the place, taking photos of the little house I used to live in.

Little House I Used to Live In

Sure enough, the next time Ande drove down that street, just a few days later, the house was gone.

For months and months I’ve been planning to start a little photo-memoir here on Wetmachine, “Little House I Used To Live In,” telling stories from my childhood evoked by those pictures. Of course I’ve procrastinated and procrastinated (why?  This is why). Maybe now that I’ve written this, I’ll actually write that photo-memoir. Maybe I’ll finish all those other writing projects too. Maybe I’ll get my act together and learn how to be as productive and as prolific a blogger as Harold Feld.

So many memories, going back forty and fifty years, invoked by that one photo of a fire truck in a field! Memories of fires I went to with my father, memories of hanging out at the firehouse, of the annual Fireman’s Picnic, of playing baseball on Fireman’s Field. . . I could go positively Proustian on you right now.

But I’m not going to, for that would only be more procrastinating, & I have promises to keep and many virtual miles to go before I sleep. But at least I’ve started my North Caldwell Nostalgia Blog project, and now can cross this post off my to-do list. (Whether or not spending any time & effort on such an undertaking is a wise use of my time will be left unconsidered for now. . .)

As for the deeper meaning of time, ambition, rust, and so forth, your own thoughts on those subjects are probably just as good as mine.

 

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5 Comments

  1. mary ellen kuist says:

    I don’t often look at facebook, but this was, for me, certainly the right day. I so remember the fire alarm going off, what seemed at the time, heavy foot steps coming from all over the house, it seemed often at dinner time, to Nana’s dismay. Happy Thanksgiving to all, and thanks, Johnnie, for a memory lane excursion. Peace, Mary Ellen

  2. Joe Abate says:

    i am on the North Caldwell Fire Department where this old engine came from there are pictures of this old engine in the firehouse. from looking at the old pictures and now this picture i beleive this was one of the 1965 mac’s the department used to have. its pretty cool that i came acrosse this.

  3. I remember John sundman very well. i saw him last at Ken Bechtold’s 60th Year Celebration.
    That was a beautiful piece of fire apparatus. however, I might that several parts were removed from it to be placed on the Newark Fire Department Historical Piece of apparatus which serves as the State Casson for Firefighters Killed in the Line of Duty. where is it today?

  4. John says:

    Joe, John:

    Thanks for your comments.

    I’m proud & happy to hear from some North Caldwell firefighters! Although it’s been 40 years since I last responded to a North Caldwell call ( with my dad) or played a game of pool at the fire station with other sons of firefighters, I still feel a connection to your department. I remember many names of the guys I looked up to as a kid. Kenny Bechtold, of course. Also Carl Ruprecht, Joe Matarazzo, Pete Gatto and Meddy Barton. Those guys would be in their 80’s or 90’s now, if they’re still with us.

    As to the photo of the truck, it was taken of by my friend Ande’s sister-in-law, and I believe she’s not quite sure now where she saw it. (I’ll see what I can find out.) If indeed parts of that engine were salvaged for the apparatus used in Newark for honor guards, that is extremely cool. Any further information about that would be greatly appreciated — and at some point I may post a follow-up blog entry.

    I was visiting my Dad last weekend. He’s getting on in years, but still remembers his 25 years on the North Caldwell FD. He now lives in Oldwick, in western NJ.

    As for me, I’m a volunteer firefigther in Tisbury, MA, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. This is the rig I’m assigned to:

    http://www.capecodfd.com/Pics%20Appar%202/Pic%20TS%20L651%20060206%205735.jpg

    I didn’t go to West Essex after 8th grade, left North Caldwell for college in 1970 & then went into the Peace Corps for 2 years; shortly after I got back to America in 1976 I stayed in N.C for a few months, then my folks moved to Ohio. So I began to lose my connection to that town in the late 60’s, and that connection quickly attenuated. I have seldom been back to North Caldwell since then. I only keep in touch with 1 childhood friend (who lives in Caldwell now). (I’m also friends with Rob Burnett, another North Caldwell guy ten years younger than me. He’s David Letterman’s partner and producer of The Late Show.) But I would be happy to hear from any of my former classmates who still reside in town. I wonder if any of them are still around?). My connections to North Caldwell are all in memory, but I would be happy to renew a real connection to the town of my childhood. Other than my Dad’s friend Dr. Fred Cushmore, I haven’t spoken with a soul in North Caldwell since I was a young man.

    In case you’re curious, my family moved from the (now gone) house at 31 Grandview Ave in 1965 or so to the house at 93 Grandview Ave. My father built that house — with some forced help from me and my older brother Mike. Mike & I mixed a lot of cement that went into that place, and did a fair bit of other help around the construction site. I was 13 or so at the time. I built the back retaining wall & planted many of the fruit trees that used to be, and maybe still are there.

    My uncle Harry Seebode is approaching the 50-year service mark in the Little Falls FD. He’s been FF, LT, Captain, Assistant Chief, and (I think) Chief in Singac. I believe his current rank is Firefighter, and he plans to retire when he hits that 50 year milestone a few months from now.

    If your vacation plans ever bring you to Cape Cod, please consider a day trip over to Martha’s Vineyard. I’d be happy to show you around.

    Regards, stay safe, and thanks again for your comments.

    jrs

  5. Bill Moore says:

    Hi John,
    My name is Bill Moore and I grew up next door to you at 35 Grandview Ave. I remember the firemens picknicks well. My dad was also a NC firemen during the 60’s. Dad retired as the North Caldwell Police Chief in 83 and passed this past May 1st. I went through NC last week and stopped at the PD. My wife, doughter and I went in and got to talk to a silhouette through a dark glass on a wall with a slot. Just not the same old town. Take care.

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