Old firefighting stories take me back to a different time

Something a bit different than hiking and cycling today. If you’ve been around before or you happen to know me personally, you’ll know that beside everything else, I also spend quite some time at my local volunteer fire department.

Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that there are many people who take firefighting a lot more seriously, even though it’s mostly done on a volunteer basis. We are at a point here in Slovenia where pretty much every village has it’s own department and sometimes whole families help out with whatever needs doing in the community. For some, it’s a way of life they’re born into and a village of 150 people will have 120 members in the FD. Sure, they may not all run out to help when the siren sounds, but there are fireman-based competitions, parades, meetings and educational seminars to attend and in most towns, firemen (and women) often help out other groups in the vicinity. It’s a great way to spend time and do something productive, meet new people and help them out in any way that we can. And today was one of such days.

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Public exercises offer great photo opportunities.

Enter my friend Lovro, who at about 21 years old has been a firefighter for more than 10 years. Besides not really thinking about much else in the world he also collects old firefighting items – anything from helmets, suits, badges, and documents to extinguishers, sprinklers and ladders. It has long ago gotten to a point where they’ve moved the family car out of the garage and put in all kinds of things, and even the garage is now becoming too small. I’ll have to go around and bring back some good photos.

So he talks to people and gets his stuff from all over the world. Some local, some from far off places Today he called me up and said he’s got an old ladder waiting for him and we should go pick it up. A remnant of a big industrial fire company that closed it’s doors along with the car factory it served back in the times of Socialism. The company was called TAM and employed about 8000 workers back in it’s heyday, even though half of them didn’t bother working too much. The factory produced trucks and military vehicles and sold them throughout Yugoslavia and other similarly minded countries.

Our department keeps one of their old vehicles, a TAM 125 T10 from around 1980. It isn’t used much any more, but we grab every chance we get to take it out. It requires a C-class license to drive it and luckily I have one and let me tell you – it’s a brute to drive. You need arms of steel to turn the wheel, surgical precision and much practice to actually change gears, a lot of patience and of course time. It’s painfully slow, ineffective and you have to shout over the sound of the engine. Even still, it’s the best thing I’ve ever driven and it brings a massive smile on my face.

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Though replaced with modern machinery, the old beast is still well loved and respected.
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Even getting it started is a mind boggling process. Good luck stealing it. 🙂

And so four of us took the roaring old truck and went to fetch the ladder (you can see the hook on the roof). The fun part was, there was an old man waiting there to greet us, a long-time commander of the TAM fire department and full of stories. I lived not far away from the factory grounds all through my youth and felt even more connected to his anecdotes.In a way, he looked a bit like our truck – slow and out of his time, but don’t think less of people simply because of their age. If you give them a chance and take time to listen to their stories, you might see the world around you in a completely new perspective.

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I failed to catch his name, but over a beer he told us about a housing estate 2 minutes away from where I lived for years – there were apartment blocks there now, but way back when it used to be shacks for workers. “They didn’t even have their own toilets. Everyone had to use communal ones across the street.” Imagine living in a place like that for any number of years.

One of his anecdotes confirmed how easy it was to get a job in those times. “My friend’s son just finished engineering school, so the guy asked me if I could help him find somewhere to work. I went to the HR manager at the factory. She said they’d just took on some people and didn’t have any more space. So I turned around to go and said I’ll make her life hell, just like that. I knew a couple of people. Before I even left the building she called me back and said to bring the boy’s CV. In the end they took on 12 people – 6 of them didn’t even have a place to sit at the office. They just told them to walk around the halls a bit, talk to people. Play some chess. And that’s what they did. And what’s more,  his pay was much higher than mine.”

He had plenty of firefighting stories as well. Apparently they had an old American fire truck back in the 60s and 70s which they used to bring supplies to the cottages and hotels on surrounding hills. “Winters were colder back then, and there was more snow too. We had to climb up twisty hill roads with those trucks, and nobody plowed them either. One of the trucks didn’t even have a roof – snow was up to my cabin sometimes, and it came across the windshield and onto my seat. So before long I had to start throwing it out, all while trying to see the road. It was cold as hell, but you were sweating just from the effort of steering the truck and shifting gears. We had no electronics to help you back then, it was all mechanical. Sometimes it took two people just to turn the wheel.”

Think of it what you will, but I believe the stories weren’t made up. They had no reason to be and I’ve heard many similar things before. These days, it seems like a whole other world to hear of it. And that’s what makes it so special – such first-hand accounts get lost as time goes on and sooner or later there is no one left to tell them.

So if you do get the chance to talk to someone like that – even your grandparents – take a few minutes out of your day and listen carefully. With time come many great stories and a very different view of the world.

 

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