Sheldon Aubut on the Lexington Village Fire Department, 1972-1978
I was always quite strong, in spite of my having Polio, and in 1972 I joined
the Lexington Village Fire Department. We were an unusual department at
the time as we were "Paid Volunteers". Because Lexington was a suburb of
Minneapolis and we contracted as the fire department for communities around us
who did not have their own departments we were paid for all of our time,
including all training. They cut us a check once a year, two weeks before
Christmas which we thought was just great. I was mostly a driver. On
brush fires I would drive an old WWII jeep that had been modified with a 300
gallon water tank on the back. It moved very slowly because of all the
added weight but I could knock down trees up to about four inches thick with the
front plate steel bumper. We once had to fight a brush/forest fire for 48 hours
straight without a break. During that fire one of my tasks was to keep the
fire from a barn full of dozens of horses while the owners tried to get them all
out. The flames were licking at the sides of the building while I tried to
keep water on them. I and my partner were able to eventually beat the fire
back and it then moved off around the barn. Several sheds were lost but
the barn was saved and all the horses were evacuated safely.
Never noticed it before but in that picture you can just make out the rear corner of my 1968 Plymouth GTX. I drove it on the street and drag raced it on weekends, and even held some track records with it. Sadly that is apparently the only photo I have of that car as upon my divorce in 1976 my wife burned everything of mine. Divorce can be so terribly messy. So seeing it as I was typing this brought back a flood of old memories.
Pictured above is the pumper truck that I drove to structure fires. Usually upon arrival at a fire I would start up the pumps, pull hose and attack the fire. I had many extraordinary experiences as a fireman, including dropping through the floor of a burning mobile home. I had entered the home with the "high-Pressure-fog" nozzle that gave off a very high pressure mist which was meant to cut the oxygen to a fire. It was good for fires where chemicals, gases or things that normally weren't easy to put out were burning. We sometimes used it on mobile home fires as some of the materials didn't always respond to water. That time as I entered the home with the fog in front of me, the floor gave way and the next thing I knew I was on my knees on the ground with my arms outstretched on the floor with the high-pressure hose whipping around the room like a loosened snake. I was afraid I would get whacked in the head by it but luckily my "buddy" saw what happened and had the water pressure cut, pulled me back into the room and we went on to fight the fire.
Another time while cutting a vent hole in the roof of a burning house the roof gave way under me and I fell into the attic of the home. Luckily the attic had a plywood floor that hadn't completely burned through and I was able to climb back onto the roof of the house.
Another time I had a very close call while fighting a fire at a bar/dancehall/liquor store in Lino Lakes Minnesota. Lino Lakes was a huge area that had a fairly large population and contained a medium/minimum security prison and no fire department of their own. We were often called to fires at the prison but this time one of the biggest bars around was burning. I only lived a block from the fire hall so when the call came in I was the first one there. I fired up the pumper and pulled line to the door to wait for others to arrive but only one other firefighter arrived before the maximum wait time hit and we had to roll. Any others arriving after that would have to roll out on one of the other trucks or in their private vehicles. We got to the fire, I set the pumper truck and got out and fired up the pumps while the other guy unrolled the hoses. The building was pretty well engulfed and just then a barrel of beer shot through the roof of the liquor store and maybe a hundred feet in the air before dropping back to earth. I'd never been in that building except from the back side which faced a lake where we used to snowmobile so I had no idea of the layout of the front entrance but after getting things going we both started to enter the front of the building. The other trucks were just arriving as we stepped into the building and moving ahead we could see flames in the basement and the stairs were directly ahead of us. I went to step onto the top step to pour water on hot spots in the basement when all of a sudden my partner's arm went out and pushed me back out the door. I'd noticed it at the same moment and did the same for him. Funny that both of us thought of the other before we'd reached for anything to stabilize ourselves. If I'd have taken that step that might have been the end of me as the steps had collapsed into the basement and there was no other entrance. The building ended up burning almost to the ground and I'd surely have been trapped in that basement. We did manage to salvage about a dozen cases of beer from the liquor store side of the building though and took them back to the fire hall on one of the trucks for safekeeping. Over the next few days we managed to get away from our wives for some heavy duty "training".
While fighting a fire in the burning basement of a house I had another scary experience. The guy had been working in his basement shop when he accidentally ignited some rags. The shop was filled with paints, greases and other chemicals and toxic smoke was billowing from the basement so I went in with full gear. There was so much smoke that I could hardly see anything. We had gauges and warning bells on our air-packs but unfortunately back in those days they didn't always work and I ran out of air. I tried to make it back to the stairs but in the smoke I got disoriented. I got on my belly to try to get below the smoke and thought it looked much more clear down there and I was near the end of the air in my lungs so I pulled my mask to see if I could get a breath of air. Unfortunately I passed out and the next thing I remember was sitting on the back of an ambulance with an oxygen mask on. We almost always went in in pairs and my "buddy" had practically tripped over me and dragged me from the building. Good thing that in those days I only weighed about 150#!
In 1976 I qualified as one of the first EMTs in Minnesota and at that time we purchased our first rescue rig and I moved to that. We were called upon many a rescue run and I've had to experience other's death many times over, but also had the opportunity to save lives that would not have been had we not been there. I always hated seeing death and saw it time and again. The worst experiences were picking the frozen guts of an accident victim up off the January pavement in order to lift the guy onto a gurney, and carrying a year old baby from a burning trailer home only to learn that he died the next day. Most of the times we were called out it was because someone was in distress, but knowing that we had the opportunity to make a difference was so very important to us..
Being "handicapped" and being able to perform on a fire department was an incredible experience that certainly had a life changing effect on me. I was on the fire department until 1978 when I chucked my high paying job, the fire department and my former life and went to live at a non-denominational training camp where I'd hoped to become a minister. But that was another life and another story.
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