1928 - Alderson High School - 1968



The Chief
H. R. Ayres 4-24-07

      Richard Ford and Marguerite Rowe stood on either side of one of the large tables, quickly and quietly separating a montage of letters, packages, newspapers and advertisements, poured from the faded green bags, marked   “U. S. Mail,” which had just been delivered from the C & O Railway Station, across the street from the Alderson Post Office.  The bare concrete floor beneath their feet was discolored and marred from the constant shuffling of feet over the years.  They were postmen, those who had inherited, by employment, the principles of the Postal Service which had existed for more than a century - principles which dictated an unusual discipline and dedication to the identification, distribution  and delivery of mail, promptly and properly.  And, none were better at their job than Richard and Marguerite.

         Together, they knew everyone within a fifteen mile radius of the post office, knew most of their family members, knew  what they did for a living and sometimes knew a secret or two from the handwriting or smell of an envelope or package.   Richard, in particular, could read the most unintelligible hand writing and prided himself on identifying each piece of mail within a maximum time of two days, sometimes delivering the mail to the addressee himself.

         Richard was rather austere.  Maybe stoic is a better word.  In any case, there was little room for laughter in his life.  The Postmaster, Duncan Johnson, on each performance report, described Richard as determined and dedicated.

         This day was like most other days.  The quick eyes and deft fingers sorted the mail for the post office boxes and sent the mail carriers on their several routes.  Then, suddenly, the shrill sound of the siren, atop the old Woodson & Prince Wholesale Grocery building, a block from the Post Office, summoned the men of the Alderson Volunteer Fire Department. 

         Richard, without hesitation, dropped the mail in his hands, sprinted from the rear of the building and down an alley to the City Hall, opened the garage door to the stall that  housed the old fire engine, a vintage late 20's or early 30's A-Model Ford, customized to carry the necessary fire fighting equipment.  Charlie Lobban, proprietor of Lobban’s Funeral Home directly across the street from City Hall gave Richard the needed information on the location of the fire, between his intermittent  coughs, which were a trademark, then ran to his ambulance to follow the fire truck - just in case there was someone injured, or maybe dead.

         Richard drove the ancient fire truck  from it’s bay to the center of South Monroe Street and waited for the other volunteer firemen, running from all directions.  The adrenalin rushing through his body, his rising blood pressure and the sounds from the sirens changed his personality.  He was alive again.  He was Chief of the Alderson Volunteer Fire Department - at this moment in time, the most important man in Alderson, West Virginia. 

        This scene was reenacted, time and time again, throughout the years.  Richard Ford earned his living as a postman; yet he was only alive, really alive, in his role as The Chief.

         Richard’s off days, vacation days and holidays were usually spent at the fire hall, cleaning, waxing, folding the hoses, tuning the engine of the old fire truck, reading about the latest fire fighting methods or just hanging out, waiting for the next sound of the siren.  He used a part of his income from the City to purchase new equipment or to satisfy some other need of the fire department.  The Mayor always used the terms “determined” and “dedicated” to describe the Chief.

         As the Chief, Richard assumed other city duties.  For example, he assisted the city’s policeman or policemen (sometimes there were two), especially during Halloween, removing lawn furniture and other property from the railroad tracks, just prior to the destruction of the property by collision with a passing train.  The culprits who lay in the weeds to wait the train wreck, always escaped in the darkness, and the lawn furniture and other property was later delivered to the owners.  Richard likely knew the names of those involved; however, no suspects were ever identified.

                In fact, Richard knew the names of those who turned over the outhouses, stole the watermelons and rode down the fodder shocks in the fields, but he never disclosed a single name.  He even knew about the Halloween night that Lonnie Shires and a couple of friends were turning over an outhouse near the First Baptist Church, when Lonnie fell head first into the murky hole.  He looked terrible, like some prehistoric monster, and he smelled worse.  Lonnie ran to the river bank, discarded all of his clothing, and jumped into the cold waters of the Greenbrier River.  He remained in the water for the longest time, while one of his friends ran home and retrieved clean clothing, a towel and a pair of oversized boots.  Richard knew the entire story but kept silent.

         In my teens, sometimes suffering from extreme boredom, especially during the summer months, I would stop by city hall and help Richard - cleaning the fire engine, cleaning and polishing the fire axes, folding hoses and doing other tasks, as directed by the Chief.  One day when I was 17, or thereabouts, Richard said, “How would you like to be an apprentice fireman.  At first, you would be an observer.  Then, you could assist with the hoses, and in two or three years you would fight fire with the seasoned firemen.  Besides, it pays five dollars for each fire call.”  I was ecstatic. 

         It was a little more than three weeks, at exactly 11:07 p.m. on a Saturday, before the siren announced the next fire.  I had just returned home from the end of the bridge.  Like Richard, I felt the adrenalin rush, as I put on the old clothes set aside for fighting fires and ran to the fire station next door.

         The Chief had already pulled the engine from the bay, into the middle of the street, and had already received notice of the location of the fire from the funeral director, when I jumped on the running board of the old fire engine.  I was the first to arrive, besides Richard and Charlie.  “I am finally a firefighter,” I thought, as we waited for my fellow firefighters, running toward the truck.

         To my surprise, I saw Wire and Axe Head headed toward the fire truck in a running stagger.  As they got closer, it was apparent that they had just come from one of the beer joints nearby.  I couldn’t understand why Wire or Axe Head would be welcomed by the Chief.  Then, it dawned on me that this was a volunteer fire department and that I was probably the only one on the truck who had been invited by the Chief.

         Men were still jumping onto the fire truck as the old truck sputtered and gasped, moving across the railroad tracks, the bridge and up the hill toward the burning house.  As we approached the house, I could see flames from an upstairs window, followed by the billowing smoke.  A crowd had already gathered at the front of the house, as the Chief began issuing orders.  I was assigned to help with one of the hoses.

         One of the men immediately removed a fire axe from the side of the truck, ran to the front door and began to chop on the door, when out of the crowd a voice yelled, “No, you dumb S. O. B.  The door’s unlocked.”  The energetic fireman stopped chopping and turned the door knob. The door opened.  Some shook their head in total dismay.  Others simply laughed.

         As the front door opened, Wire and Axe Head rushed into the house.  At first, I had been skeptical, but seeing the dynamic duo enter the house, with the fire still blazing, totally without fear, I was impressed.

         Richard was giving instructions about using safety, when one of the firemen yelled, “Richard, come quick.”  Richard ran to the fireman, and after a short conversation, the Chief scurried up a ladder toward the belching fire, without his safety belt, used to remain on the ladder and direct the hose.  When the Chief turned on the hose, the water pressure of the hose literally threw him backward and off the ladder.  Richard  fell to the ground, breaking a bone in his left arm.  Someone put a sling on his left arm, but Richard, in obvious pain remained at the fire, giving orders to everyone within the sound of his voice, until the fire was finally extinguished.

         I rode back to City Hall with Richard and two or three others.  Most just walked home, fatigued after a night’s work.  I commented, to no one in particular, that I had not seen Wire or Axe Head after I saw them running into the house.  Richard didn’t seem concerned.  In fact, he almost smiled.

         The following night, at the end of the bridge, the subject was the big fire. By general consensus if your house caught on fire in Alderson, West Virginia you had two choices:  you could watch the house  burn to the ground; or, you could have it chopped down by the Alderson Volunteer Fire Department.

         I then discovered what happened to Wire and Axe Head.  Someone reported that after rushing into the house they found the location of the whiskey cabinet, emptied all of the liquor they could carry and ran out the back door toward the river bank.  Supposedly, they were still passed out on the river bank, somewhere between  Markley’s Pool and Camp Greenbrier, with  sufficient  whiskey for at least two more days.

         I never responded to another fire call.  At 17, I didn’t have the determination or dedication to be a fireman.