by: Tom Snethen
A summer spent as a “Sleeper,” living out every boy’s childhood fantasy…
Located where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean, Astoria, Oregon defined a blue-collar town in the summer of ‘66. The largest employers were the riverfront seafood packers and the plywood mill outside of town. Longshoremen shipped grain and oil companies stored bulk petroleum. Vietnam played out in Asia and the generation who’d fought The Great War was forty-something and supported President Johnson. I was nineteen, the local radio station was playing hits like “Dropkick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life,” and I was working a summer job building Oregon State Highway 30 east of town. I operated a sixteen-pound sledge hammer with aplomb in either hand and owned a nifty job title: Engineering Aide. I carried the designation on my resume for years.
Someone on the highway survey crew knew a lady who knew Astoria’s mayor who called the fire chief for me and asked if he could accommodate some sincere college kids for the summer. The chief obliged and a few of us became “Sleepers” in Fire Station #3, located under the newly constructed Astoria-Megler Bridge, where we had beds and a place to cook. With this, I was allowed to live out every boy’s childhood fantasy and ride in a fire truck and chase fires.
The bridge opening was a big event for a small town like Astoria. At four miles long, the Astoria-Megler Bridge, at the time, was the longest continuous truss bridge in North America. It being an election year, politicians arrived frequently to shake hands in the town’s fire hall. I promised my vote to all who asked. Too bad I was underage.
My call to adventure arrived with an alarm on early Sunday morning. Our training called for us to swing out of our bed and into our “step-ins” – boots with the turnouts draped around the ankles – throw the suspenders up and sprint to the pole. The pole provided our shortcut to the truck. Centered in a six-foot-diameter hole in the floor, you couldn’t reach the pole by merely leaning. One had to make a running leap and wrap their arms around the brass without touching and free-fall all the way down to the lower floor. Our hats and heavy coats hung on pegs near where we boarded the engine.We drove a Mack Fire Engine built after the war and it was exquisitely maintained by the firehouse. My post was on the fire truck’s rear platform with one other fellow. Waking up generally happened on the way to the fire.
The alarm went off. I followed procedure and boarded the truck twenty feet below my cot. The driver fired up the motor and we barreled out the door in seconds. People heard our siren as far away as Warrenton and the fire engine’s roaring muffler all the way in Seaside, but we could hardly hear anything as our ears were blasted incessantly with noise from our position in the back.
On this humid summer August night the air carried carried the aromas of the local seafood processing plants intermixed with the log trucks’ diesel exhaust. We roared east on Marine Drive before turning south and climbing a steep hill. We carried several thousand pounds of water in addition to the firemen so when the driver geared down and the muffler growled louder, it woke the rich folks throughout Cannon Beach.
The driver parked the engine pointing skyward near the hillcrest in a neighborhood of houses dating back to the previous century when a fire had leveled a good chunk of the city. Smoke billowed out the third-story window of a house across the street.
The lieutenant passed me an old-fashioned acid-soda fire extinguisher. The canister must have weighed over a hundred pounds but I was nineteen, and so I ran up a half-dozen stairs to the porch and through the open door with the extinguisher in tow.
I stormed the third floor and found smoke spewing under a door. The lieutenant was right behind me, except instead of carrying a fire extinguisher he hauled a monster fireman’s axe. I’d witnessed his chopper the week before taking out the front-door windows of a car parked in front of the hydrant from which we needed water. We could have run the hose over the car’s top, but the lieutenant wasn’t in the mood. A cop cheerfully added a parking ticket to the shattered pieces of glass littering the front seat. Teamwork.
We opened the hall door and a wall of oily grey smoke enveloped us. We’d had the basic training and we found an inch of breathable air next to the floor and utilized it. I stuck my nose to the boards and dragged the extinguisher toward the smoldering bed.
The extinguisher proved ineffective so the lieutenant hacked out the window. The smoke stayed inside so we held our breaths and worked on the fire. We squeezed the mattress through the window and the fabric exploded in a mid-flight orange fireball. The ground crew doused the flames immediately. A fireman brought us a fan to clear the smoke and I was free to return to the truck.
After the firefight, the lieutenant treated us to a tip to the local brothel. When I stepped into the rowdy homestead, I encountered men staggering out of rooms smelling of whiskey and tobacco and perfume – lots of perfume. The men turned their faces away as they fumbled with their pants and shirts. Ladies appeared from out of nowhere – older women, some of them at least twenty-five – wearing nightgowns with peek-a-boo holes and lipstick designs. I felt like I was in heaven. My mother would not approve.
The lieutenant took my elbow and escorted me down the stairs to the living room where the lady in charge – we’ll call her Madame – waited to answer his questions. He sat on one end of the couch and Madame sat on the other with me as a buffer. The city had a form to complete but I didn’t pay attention to the formalities – I watched the parade.
A fellow reeled in and extracted two bottles of booze he’d abandoned. Fire and police radios crackled outside. Girls giggled and slipped in and out and waved. I waved back. Neighbors yelled questions and dogs barked.
The lieutenant’s interview arrived at the issue of smoke damage and Madame suggested $25,000 should cover the lot. The lieutenant demurred. $25,000 would buy the building plus the block in 1966, maybe two blocks.
Madame leaned over me to make eye contact with the lieutenant and her knockers fell out in my lap. I was out of the room faster than the fellow with his booze. I received applause outside from our crew. A carnival of colored lights lit the night from the Clatsop County Sheriff, Oregon State Police, an ambulance, and another Astoria Fire Station rig present in case we couldn’t handle a mattress fire.
Police interviewed the male “victims” as they departed just to make sure they were unharmed and sober enough to drive back to Cannon Beach.
We replaced our gear on the truck and returned to finish our sleep.