Bobbing For Fire



After three decades as a volunteer firefighter, I … hurt. A lot, especially when it’s cold. Recently I’ve been seen wearing a sling, to let my arm heal after I bent an elbow the wrong way. (I don’t really need the sling—it’s to keep me from reaching for stuff with my bad arm.)

Bob Beckley was already an old timer (or so my 18-year-old self thought) when I joined. He just hit his 40th year.

Bob Brownell was just given his fifty year pin.

Fifty years.

And that was because they missed the actual anniversary: He’s been a firefighter for 53 years. He was already doing the job for two decades before I walked into the firehouse for the first time, sucking on a bottle and wetting my pants. (Just kidding … I wasn’t sucking on a bottle. I left it in the car.)

Now, what else happened around 53 years ago? Hm. Well, 52 years ago, although I don’t actually remember it …

Holy cow. Bob Brownell has been fighting fires since before I was born.

And the rest of us still have to fight him for the friggin’ fire nozzle.

Maybe it’s a Bob thing. Maybe being a Bob gives you more energy somehow; maybe it’s one of those mystical names that keeps you young even longer than sleeping under a pyramid, or marrying Playboy bunnies.

Brownell would have started around 1961 or so. Kennedy was President. In Albion, our newest truck was a 1952 fire engine, the first engine I rode to a fire almost two decades later. It had a manual transmission with about 42 speeds on it.

And I’m tired?

Now, Brownell is a transfer, which means he didn’t start with our department. What happened was, he started on a different fire department, wore all of them out, then moved to another one. Then all the young guys on that department got tired of him making them look bad, so he left there and came to us. You know those stories about immortal people who moved every few decades so people wouldn’t notice they aren’t aging? That’s Brownell.

The truth is, Bob didn’t learn to be a firefighter: He invented firefighting. Yep. He was just sitting around with Ben Franklin one day, sipping on a Sam Adams (the beer, I mean—he’s not a vampire. I think.)

Then Ben, who later died because he’s not Bob, used his well known powers of observation: “Say … Bob, you don’t appear to have aged a day since I met you during the Frenching Indian War.” (No, that’s not a typo: Ben was quite a party animal.)

Bob had to think fast, because he’d already been kicked out of Rome after organizing slaves into the first fire brigade (which gives a certain irony to the term “volunteer”). Later he had to leave London, after he helped fight the Great Fire of the unfortunately numbered year 1666. With no buildings left to burn he couldn’t get any firefighting action, so he went over to the Colonies and met an expert at getting action, Ben Franklin.

Together, Franklin and Bob invented false teeth—sadly not perfected for George Washington—along with an early version of the Walkman, and the disco ball. These last two were not successful, as it was only afterward that they discovered electricity.

Anyone, Bob wasn’t ready to move on just yet, so he had to distract Franklin. Seeing no woman nearby, he said, “Say, Ben, you know what we should do? Form a volunteer fire department.”

“Oh, I don’t know … I’m a little leery of flames ever since we flew that kite and the lightning set my wig on fire.”

“You look fine bald. Besides, the chicks love firefighters.”

“Oh! Why didn’t you say so?”

So they formed the Union Fire Company, and both men were happy to learn the chicks did, indeed, love firefighters, and things went just great until Bob started not getting old. He moved to Cincinnati and helped develop the first steam powered fire engine, which the firefighters wanted to name the “Bob Brownell” but was instead named the “Uncle Joe Ross”, after a City Council member. Politics! But it’s just as well, because 150 years later Bob would have some explaining to do.

So we’re lucky to have Bobs on our fire department. You know, something just occurred to me: Maybe Bob Beckley isn’t one of a line of Beckleys on the AFD. Maybe it was the same Bob all along—Chief in 1959, and Chief in 1994. Maybe firefighting Bobs really are immortal …

Just like the spirit of volunteerism. See what I did there?

Now, I’m off to change my name.


Bob Beckley and Ligonier Assistant Fire Chief Jerry Sprague debate which of them is closest to being as old as Bob Brownell.



“Give me my service pin, you whipper-snapper; I’ve been doing this so long that we had to invent fire, just so we could put it out.”
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13 thoughts on “Bobbing For Fire”

  1. I just loved this post! I know many Bobs so I can really relate. My dad is a Bob, though he goes by Jim. He is no more than twelve years old but tells people he’s 77. Two years ago, at 75, he taught himself to play the harmonica and now he tours. I’m certain he will be around long after I’m gone, because I tell him often, whatever alien species he is somehow isn’t affected by the ailments of humanity. Tell Bob this chick wants to hug that particular firefighter.

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