Retired firefighters fry fish, fan the flame of good times
Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 21, 2008
They fought fires in the days when oxygen masks were an uncommon luxury. They responded to calls far outside Warren County without hesitation. They even delivered babies. Perhaps most importantly, they forged lifelong bonds through working long hours together and putting their lives in each others’ hands.
On a sunny and warm afternoon, nearly two dozen retired Vicksburg firefighters met for a fish fry at Robert Pierce’s home in Bovina on Saturday to catch up those lost years and recall their days of fighting fires.
Pierce has been trying to organize a get-together with his former colleagues since he retired in 2003, after 32 years of service, and said he was more than pleased with the turnout for the first of such gatherings.
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“We don’t see one another as much as we used to — and when we do it’s usually at a funeral, unfortunately,” said Pierce. “I just decided it was time we get together for something a little more fun. We all worked together, but it was more than just working together — we really became like family.”
Like family. The sentiment was echoed by all those who showed up Saturday. The other sentiment the men most emphasized was that of change.
“They don’t fight fires now the way we used to,” said Bobby Raines, who served the Vicksburg Fire Department from 1957 to 1977. “We didn’t have a third of the equipment they have today. In our day, you had to eat that fire and breath that smoke. We didn’t even have oxygen masks.”
Raines largely credited Doris Sprouse with modernizing the fire department in terms of getting more and better equipment for the firefighters under his command. Sprouse served as chief of the fire department for the final 15 years of his 32-year career, of which he retired from in 1997.
“I loved it,” Sprouse said of his career with the department. “Back then, we used to go everywhere to fight fires. If they needed us, we’d go down to Port Gibson, over to Tallulah and up to Eagle Lake. Really, we’d go anywhere in a 100-mile radius.”
The six volunteer fire departments in the county — Bovina, Culkin, Eagle Lake, Fisher Ferry, LeTourneau and Northeast — were created at staggered times in the early and mid 1980s, thus slowly ending the era of long-distance runs for the city’s fire department.
The Vicksburg Fire Department has one of the most storied histories of departments in Mississippi. In 1902, it became the first fully paid fire service in the state. Vicksburg was also the first in the state to have its fire department run the city and county ambulance service. The first two ambulances were delivered in 1969, and the Vicksburg Warren Ambulance Service was thus birthed.
Bill Field Sr. — whose son Bill Field Jr. is also a retired firefighter — recalled the early days of the ambulance service with J.V. Sanders, both of whom drove ambulances and fought fires through their 20 and 27 years, respectively, with the department. Sanders’ partner for many years on the ambulance service, Charles Orman, was also on hand. Many still call Orman “Doc,” a nickname given to him due to the 21 babies he delivered in the Warren County area while with the department.
“In those days, we were all brothers. You lived with those guys, you hung out with them on your days off and saw more of them than you did your family,” said Rickey McMullen, who counted himself as the youngest of the retirees, having retired in early 2007.
Through his 30 years with the department, McMullen said he personally saw that brotherly bond lessen among the firefighters. Turnover among employees in the department increased, and those who remained saw less and less of each other on and off the job. Some of the change was undoubtedly due to a change in the shift cycle over the years from 24 hours on followed by 24 hours off to a schedule of 24 hours on followed by 48 hours off.
“Nowadays they do it for the paycheck, and when they’re done with work you don’t see them again until their next shift on,” he said. “Everybody here did it because their primary goal was to be a firefighter. We wanted to be in that group of men who trusted each other with their lives.”
McMullen said he misses the fire department, but not because he particularly liked rushing into situations and disasters that people are taught to flee.
“It’s not so much I miss fighting fires,” he said. “I miss the camaraderie. I miss being a part of that big family.”