It was a beautiful spring day, with clear skies and a pleasant breeze, when the big blue Victorian house on the street behind ours caught fire.
The house was a three-bay Georgian, a match to the red one next door to us, and it had seen better days. When we moved into the neighborhood in early 1979 it was owned by the sort of family that the local police would routinely visit upon notification of any property crime in the township, on the not-unreasonable assumption that one or more of the family members living there was behind it. It was simply a matter of figuring out which one. This could often easily be resolved by asking which one was out of jail at the moment. Their back yard and ours were separated by a chain link fence and a steep hill that ran down to our house – the base of the fence was maybe twenty yards from our house and sat higher than our rooftop – so despite the many parties they threw they didn’t bother us too much. We were sort of relieved when they moved, though.
The new owners set about trying to renovate the place. They put a lot of money into fixing up the interior, redoing the roof, repainting the outside, and so on. But one of their contractors left something hot next to something that had a low ignition point, and there was no way that was going to end well. In the end the fire damaged a couple of rooms but the house was saved and repaired, and it stands to this day.
I was still in high school at the time, and my dad and I were both members of the local volunteer fire company. We were out running errands that day, the two of us, when the alarm came in and we went dashing off to the firehouse.
We made the last truck out – the old red pumper – and aside from the driver we were the only guys on it. Not that we needed to worry about manpower, really. When we got to the scene there were men and equipment from two companies in our township already there, and men (and women) and equipment from the next county over there as well. The county line ran maybe twenty feet to one side or another of the big blue house, and we didn’t quibble too much about which side it was on. We were just glad for the company.
When we got there we were told to lay a supply hose back to the hydrant up the block on the corner. That way they could use the water from that hydrant for the fire.
At the corner my dad and I jumped off the truck and grabbed the stiff eight-foot-long connector hose that would link the hydrant to the truck. The pumper could then be used to regulate the flow of water down to the fire scene. That connector hose was a bear to handle – it was heavy and you could only flex it about a foot either way, so lining it up with both truck and hydrant was a tricky task. It was wide, though, so you could get a lot of water through it in a short period. We quickly got it aligned and ran up to the hydrant to hook it on.
And there we discovered that we had two female ends! Horrors! We ran back to the truck, grabbed a female-to-female adaptor and got everything connected up nice and snug.
We moved to the other end to attach it to the truck and discovered we had two male ends! More horrors! So we quickly found a male-to-male adapter and got that end taken care of.
And the water began to flow.
We sat there on the grass for a moment, idly watching the sidewalk buckle as the old water main supplying the hydrant cracked and blew water straight up (but kept supplying water to the hydrant, which was all we cared about at that moment – the water department could figure it out later, once the fire was extinguished).
“You know,” said my dad eventually, as the obvious solution of just turning the connector hose around had occurred to both of us by then. “You can think your way out of anything if you’re fast enough.”
And we walked down to the burning house to see what else we could do.