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Who Started the Fire

Chuck Kimmel was halfway across the street, his white butcher’s apron flying from his hand. George and Earl McCormick were right behind him, all pell mell for the fire station just west of the Vashon State Bank, where US Bank is now. The fire siren on the wood awning of the Vashon Hardware Store went off and the whole town erupted.

    Volunteers, that’s what they were. The proprietors of commerce and in a way, serving their customers by being available to fight fire. We felt safer because of our volunteers. We liked them for the 1950 Halloween when they put the horse buggy on top of the Vashon Hardware Store. The marks are probably still there and I’m sure that there are a few of the old volunteers around. The 10 or 15 home, party-lines gave the operator the chance to open the line to all the customers on the line and call for volunteers or report conditions.

David Church was trying to reach his grandfather through the operator in the old telephone building. Church’s phone number was BLACK 845 when there were only two colors on Vashon Island, RED and Black. Our phone number was RED 56. Mrs. Bremmer, the operator, told David that his grandfather had just driven by and that he was on his way to a grass fire on the south end of the island. The Vashon grape vine was our version of 911.

We lived down at Cove on the West side and got most of the smelter smoke coming up the West Passage or Colvos as we know it now. When there was a fire, town was too far to go to join the volunteers because it took too much time to get there and the fire truck was gone by the time you did. The volunteers carried shovels to build fire lines or throw dirt on the fire to hold it down.

As kids we were fascinated by fire. We didn’t know how dangerous it could be, and played with it incessantly. We searched the dry driftwood for willow roots that had been in the tide for awhile and were white from the salt. The ends of the sticks we broke off, were full of little holes and we could draw on one end of the stick and light the other end, like a wood cigar; hence we called it smoke wood and sold small bundles of it at school for a dime. As Boy Scouts, we learned Uncle Bruce’s paperless way to start a fire at Camp Thunderbird. A knife and a good piece of cedar kindling was all you needed. Stroking the knife down the kindling produced a fan of thin shavings which were easily lit and built into a fire.

Dale Bates is no longer with us, but he was the first fire victim that I can remember. He had a pocket bulging with firecrackers. We were throwing the lighted fire crackers at each other when one accidently landed in Dale’s pocket and all hell broke loose. Dale’s pants exploded in smoke and noise, burning Dale’s leg; but that didn’t stop us from trying to make gunpowder from three secret ingredients, which weren’t permitted to be sold together at the drugstore. Failures were the rule as the balance of the ingredients was crucial and fizzlers were common. We also tried to build rockets with fuses made from gunpowder rolled up in toilet paper, that mostly didn’t fly but sat on the ground and smoked or fizzled themselves in circles. At 8 or 9 years old, we had lots of design problems.

“There is smoke coming from Portage,” Brother Mike called out. He was in the suicide seat with his elbows locked against the jockey box, Papa Jim was driving his old Plymouth coupe and we were coming back from catechism at Dockton on a Saturday morning. The smoke column was black and we were afraid, since so many of our relatives lived at Portage. We soon knew that it was Uncle Jerry’s house that was burning and all his ammunition was going off in the fire, so the fireman couldn’t get close enough to try to put it out. “Bang, bang, pop,” went the shotgun and rifle shells and pretty soon there was nothing left of the house, only the faulty oil stove was left standing, which is how the fire started.