Tag Archives: volunteer firemen

The Sirens of Summer

4 Jul

Although we would go up to the Catskills for Memorial Day Weekend to get our bungalow ready for the summer, we would not begin our true summer stay until Fourth of July weekend. On the east coast, school usually did not finish until the end of June, making the beginning of July the true start of summer.

What a great time it was to be finally up in the Catskills. The weather in the City was already getting too warm, especially without air conditioning. All we could think about were the cool mornings and evenings of the mountains; the endless days of outdoor fun, swimming, boating, and just having fun with friends and cousins.

But there was one sound of summer that we all dreaded. The sirens of summer were a portent of something bad happening.   Whenever we heard the sirens go off from Kauneonga Lake, and saw the cars and pick up trucks carrying the volunteer firemen rush to the station, we knew something horrible had happened.   It was not usually a fire. It was usually a boating accident or a drowning.

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My nephew waterskiing in a boat driven by cousins. Kauneonga Lake 2013.

I remember the look on my mother’s face whenever the sirens went off. It was a mask of anguish. When I became old enough to go out on a boat with friends, she always told me to wear my life jacket; to be careful; and not to fool around.

Every teen who drove a boat was supposed to take lessons and pass a driving test. The office was near the fire station.   I remember going with friends as they went for the test.   But I also know that many times, knowing the rules and following the rules were not the same.

For instance, several of us were canoeing one day, when friends came by in their motor boat. They thought it was great fun to swamp us and make our canoe overturn and fill with water. Luckily we were not too far from the edge of the lake where we could touch bottom. I still remember lifting the canoe over our heads and walking it out of the lake.

But honestly, the young adults I hung out with were usually very careful when out on the lake. We never had an accident or caused one. We might have done a few foolish things in our time, but we also knew that safety was important on the lake.  They never cut off a person who was water skiing or got too close to another boat, unless we were going very slowly and met to meet up.  Yes, we went fast sometimes, but in our day during the week, there were not that many boats on the lake.

Unfortunately, not everyone follows the rules.   And each summer, the sirens would go off.   We knew that someone was in trouble. Eventually we would hear about a drowning or near drowning.  We were thankful for the volunteers who took the time and effort to try a water rescue.  Many of them were friends of my grandfather and father.  So we often heard the entire story of what stupid fooling around caused the tragedy.

With the Fourth of July here, I wish everyone a safe summer. Enjoy your time on the water. Boating is much fun.  I still love the thrill of riding around the lake in a boat.  I love the thrill of hitting the waves produced by other boats.  But I always have a life jacket near by. I know that my cousins will take no unsafe risks.

I pray that this year, no one has to hear the sirens of summer.

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Autumn Memories of the Great Fire

26 Sep

This is a memory of a Catskills event that could have been a disaster. It is about the day my brother and I almost set the entire forest on fire. I still get a cringe in my stomach when I think about it. But to be absolutely truthful, I also have to tell the not so happy stories as well.

My grandparents had purchased the ‘big house,’ about 1/3 of a mile up the road from their bungalow colony in Kauneonga Lake. When the purchase was made, the house and the bungalow behind it were a bit neglected. They were still livable, but there was much maintenance that had to be done to bring the property back to life.

Among the issues was that the brush and trees had grown up around the bungalow. This had to be cleared out … eventually.

It was September, probably around 1963, the year after they had bought the property. We had spent our first summer there, living in the bungalow, instead of at the colony.

My brother believes it happened in the spring. All I remember was the grey. 

That summer one of the boys, who lived in the house next to the ‘big house,’ shown my brother and I how he made fire circles in the forest behind our homes and set fires. He was a few years older than us and seemed very sure of what he was doing.  We were intrigued. It was fascinating and scary at the same time. We never made the fires, we just watched him.
That fall, when we went back up to the Catskills for my Dad to help my Grandfather close up the bungalows, my brother and I went into the woods behind the bungalow at the big house and made a fire circle.

I hate to even say what happened next. But compulsion for the truth is making me.

We were young. I was 8 and my brother was 9. ( My brother thinks we were a bit older.) We did not make a very good fire circle. The rocks did not completely form a circle. The leaves were all around. It was now autumn and the leaves and brush were dry. Even though we had water with us, we did not have enough. And, yes, the fire escaped from the circle.

My brother said the problem was the wind. When Billy taught him to make the fires there was no wind. He had started two or three that were no problem. He had me come out to see the last one, which escaped. 

My brother and I were frantic. We tried to put it out. We threw water on it. We stomped on it. But it would not go out and it was getting bigger.  We got our sister out of the bungalow. 

We ran to the house and told Grandma and Mom that there was a FIRE. We had no phone and no car there. They told us to run to the bungalows and tell Dad and Grandpa. I don’t think we ever ran as fast in our lives. My brother was ahead of me.   We screamed when we got to the bungalows, “There’s a fire at the house! A fire!”

Grandpa and Dad came running!

I honestly do not remember how they called the fire department. Except there was a phone in the laundry house, perhaps it was still connected. Or perhaps one of them drove into town. It is a blur in my mind.

My brother said that Grandma ran to Finks and they called to report the fire. 

They drove back to the house. I think my brother and I walked back. As we walked, we could hear the loud noise as the volunteer fire department sirens went off. When we arrived at the house , Grandpa and Dad were already at the bungalow. It seemed as if dozens of cars were their with all the volunteer firemen. Then the fire engine arrived and drove up the long driveway to the bungalow.

We were lucky. The firemen put out the flames before they reached the bungalow or any other buildings. The fire never made it to the woods. The forest was safe as was the bungalow colony (Top Hill) that backed up to the side of our woods.

The brush and small trees to the sides and behind the bungalow were brunt and now filled with water.

The fire chief and my Dad and Grandpa talked for a while. My brother and I were scared. We knew we were in BIG trouble.

They came to talk to us. “We think it was spontaneous combustion,” they told us. “There were lots of bottles and rags hidden in the brush. We think that is what caused the fire.”

“What is spontaneous combustion?” I wanted to know but I kept quiet. They think that is what started the fire? I felt a sense of immense relief. We were not going to go to jail!!!

My brother and I nodded our heads. Of course they all knew the truth. But that is what the volunteer fire chief was going to put in his report. He knew us and our parents and our grandparents.

The firemen cleaned up, packed up their gear and left our property. They told my Dad to keep a hose near the scene of the fire, and keep checking it to make sure there were no flare ups. I think he watched it through out the night.  But there were no problems. The fire was OUT!

My brother and I walked back with our parents and grandparents to see what had happened. Grandpa and Dad sort of smiled at each other. “Well at least you cleared out the brush,” we were told. “But do not ever light a fire again. You could have set the entire woods on fire!!!’

We were told not to ever touch fire again. This was said to us multiple times for the rest of the weekend.  I think because we were so scared, they decided our fear was punishment enough.  Our only punishment: my brother and I had to help clean out the brunt brush, grass, small trees and junk that was left behind the bungalow under the watchful eye of my grandfather.

My brother says he had to dig out all the burnt blueberry bushes and clean out all the brush and plant the new grass. I did not have to do as much. 

We never, ever set another fire!

I have been scared of fire ever since. I always worry that it will get out of control. I don’t own a fire pit. I never light my fireplaces. I keep fire away from me. The memories of the Great Fire have stayed with me forever.

 

Bungalow Life was Ruptured When the Water Heater Blew Up!

26 Feb

Bungalow colony life in the Catskills was peaceful. Each day we knew some of the basics of what would happen.

The mothers played cards and mah jonng on a set schedule. The grandmas played canasta. All the women knitted and crocheted during the day. We went swimming. We played. We picked blueberries. We rode our bicycles. We just had fun. On the weekends, the dads came up. It was simple and quiet, except for the sounds of childhood and the sometimes yells of the moms.

The moms had several important needs. One was hot water.

We needed to shower and the moms needed to do laundry. Without hot water, life at the bungalows would come to a standstill. Children got extremely dirty with all the outdoor activities in the summertime. We could wash off in the lake, but not our clothing. So the moms were always busy with laundry.

People did their laundry on certain days because there were only two washing machines in our colony. I think they might have had a schedule, but I cannot be sure. I do know that the laundry room often had loads of laundry waiting to be done. People would put their baskets in the laundry room, with their detergent on top of the clothes, and as one person finished her load, she would load up the next person’s laundry in the machine and start it.

The wet laundry had to be hung on lines. We did not have dryers at our colony. I am not even sure if clothes dryers were available when I was little. So the clotheslines were always in use. Clothespins were important. I still have some I saved from the Catskills!

This meant that rainy summers were a disaster for the moms. Children would sometimes have to wear the same dirty clothes for another day, if they could not be washed and dried. During rainy summers, we often had laundry hanging all over the bungalow during the week. And it really did not dry that well because it was all so damp. Sometimes my Mom would put the oven on to try to dry out the laundry.

We would visit our friends during rainy summers, and walk through layers of drying laundry! Clean clothes, clean linens, clean towels were important!

So imagine the aggravation it caused when the water heater went out. It did not happen very often. But once in a while the pilot light would go out and the heater would stop making hot water. Usually one of the men would go and light the heater. It usually was no problem. The heater lit easily.

Except for one time. The time my best friend, Vicki’s, Dad went to light the water heater. I cannot remember if someone tried to light it before him. I do not remember if he was the only dad up there, so he got to do it. I do know that usually my dad did all the chores since my grandparent’s own the colony. I do not know why it was Normie who had the job on this particular day. But he did.

Normie and his wife, Wini, in matching sweaters in the center. My grandfather stands behind my grandma.  Wini's parents are the women sitting on the left and the man standing on the right.  At the bungalows in the Catskills in the 1950s.

Normie and his wife, Wini, in matching sweaters in the center. My grandfather stands behind my grandma. Wini’s parents are the women sitting on the left and the man standing on the right. At the bungalows in the Catskills in the 1950s.

His in-laws and my grandparents were best friends. My Mom and his wife were best friends. (A friendship that continued till my Mom passed away.   And still continues with us.) And his daughter, Vicki, and I do not know life without each other. So it made some sense that Normie would take on this responsibility if my Dad or uncle was not there.

But we are not sure why it was Normie who went to light the water heater pilot.

I was just a little girl. But I remember what happened next.

Normie went to light the water heater, it was behind a bungalow.

A moment later there was a big “BOOM” explosion and a blast of fire shooting into the sky.

It was so scary!!! Everyone was momentarily stunned. Then there was chaotic movement.

I vaguely remember Normie walking out from behind the bungalow, dazed. Perhaps burning. Or maybe not! Maybe it was just people rushing towards him to get him away from the fire. There was a lot of screaming; a lot of running around. It is so confused in our memories. But there was good new, he was alive.

Then the Moms gathered the children and made us go inside. I am sure Vicki went with me. All I remember is that we were quickly moved out of the way.

Next thing came the fire engine and ambulance and the volunteer firemen and ambulance/EMT crew. It was amazing how quickly they got to the colony. The fire was soon extinguished. Normie was taken away. The children, me included, were terrified.

My friend Vicki remembers, “I remember going to see him in the hospital. He smelled like A & D ointment or some kind of burn cream he had on.

“I was so devastated that happened to him. I thought he would never come home!”

But Normie did come home. He had no eyebrows or eyelashes, but the fire did not reach his face. He had no chest hair; the fire singed that off. The main damage was to his legs. They were burned.

I remember before the explosion, he had large varicose veins on his legs, but after the fire, you would not really see them.

He often wore a bathing suit in the summer time. And we all got used to seeing his burned, scarred legs.

It was a summer event I cannot forget. To this day I hate when someone has to light a pilot light.   I know that it can explode because of my memories of the day the water heater blew up.

 

Come to the Firemen’s Festival! At Kauneonga Lake!

1 Jan

Anyone who stayed in White Lake and Kauneonga Lake in the 1950s, 1960s and early 70s remember the excitement that led up to the Fireman’s Festival. Even as I write these words I can hear the cry of the volunteer firemen as they drove up and down Route 55 and West Shore Road calling out: “Come to the Firemen’s Festival. This weekend! Come support the Firemen’s Festival.”

I still hear how they drew out the words “Fi- re- men’s – Fes-ti-val!” It was a lovely chant! And gave us so much joy when we heard it. The Firemen’s Festival was a highlight of the summer months.

Each year the volunteer firemen hosted a fundraiser on the empty lot in front of the elementary school that bordered the towns of Kauneonga Lake and White Lake. I was always so excited to go!

First were the signs around town telling us when the Firemen’s Festival would be held. Then the week before, the firemen on the truck would go through town letting us know exactly when. We all knew where.

It was an important fundraiser for these very important men (mainly men then) who helped so many!

At the Firemen’s Festival were all sorts of festival games like ring toss and hitting a weight to make it go to the top of the tower. There was a man who guessed your age.   There was food. There were prizes. There were so many people. It was a great time for all. I remember walking around with my parents and meeting up with friends, at which point we deserted our parents.   With a few dollars in your pocket you had enough money for activities to last the day.

The volunteer firemen had a significant role in the community. Now only did they fight fires, but they also came to the rescue of anyone who was in peril of drowning. At least once each summer the sirens would go off and the many trucks and cars of the volunteers headed toward the lake and the fire station. The volunteer firemen stopped whatever they were doing to help. They could not always save the person, but they tried.

They also had the firemen’s beach, which was located next to the ramp where people could put their boats in the lake on the Kauneonga Lake side. It was close to the fire station, just at the edge of the lake. It was where the firemen and their families could come to enjoy the lake.

The Firemen’s Festival was a way for them to raise the money to keep the station going and upgrade equipments as needed. They took no pay. It was just community members coming together to help. The way it is in many small towns.

Their coming together saved my father’s life in the early 1990s. There was no longer a Firemen’s Festival. The fairgrounds are now covered in knee-high weeds. But there is still a volunteer fire department.

In 1991 my Dad decided to cut some branches off the trees lining our driveway. At first my Mom and sister and her husband, Jerry, helped. But after a while, my Mom and sister decided to walk down the road to visit family. By that time the bungalow colony was closed, but people, including some family members had purchased all the bungalows. Jerry, who had poison ivy, took a nap.

Even though my Mom told my Dad to stop cutting while they were all busy, he did not listen. They are high trees. My Dad fell off the ladder and was knocked unconscious with a fractured skull.   When he did not show up to pick up my Mom and sister as planned, they called the house. They woke Jerry, who went outside and found Dad unconscious under a tree. He called 911.

The volunteered firemen responded. My sister said they saw cars flying past the bungalows and knew something was very wrong even before Jerry called them back. My Mom knew it was my Dad. My aunt or perhaps my cousins quickly drove them up to the house, where by this time many firemen and EMTs had gathered to stablize my Dad and get him to a hospital. Their cars lined our driveway.

Although he was first taken to the regional hospital in Harris, near Liberty, where he was further stabilized, his condition was so dire, he had to be taken to another hospital by ambulance. He was unconscious for a week. But he survived for another 18 years. Thanks to the firemen.

So whenever I think of the Firemen’s Festival, I always think of the firemen who years later were still helping those in need. I feel badly that the event to raise money for the firemen is no longer held. The Firemen’s Festival was a wonderful way to raise money and provide a wonderful summer activity. But with the changing nature of the bungalow colonies it was no longer feasible.

The work and the importance of the Volunteer Fire Department should never be undervalued. They deserve our thanks and high praise.