The Dutchess Junction Fire Company
All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
I remember that historic first gathering as clearly as if it took place yesterday. Jim Pappas alerted me that there was a meeting at the Manor, and everybody must attend. I knew Jim, because he was my next door neighbor, and I also knew Kurt Savinsky, but the others were all new to me.
Dutchess Junction, at the time, was caught between a rock and a hard place, Beacon and Cold Spring, without any fire protection, because the Beacon Fire Company who, up until then, had been protecting us, was suddenly no longer willing to do so at a price our taxes could afford. This left us not only without fire protection, but more importantly, unable to obtain fire insurance. Therefore, our only recourse would be to form our own fire company.
Although, I was 34, I was, nonetheless, the youngest of the 13 able-bodied men who gathered there that evening. I was also the most reluctant. In fact, I was in total SHOCK! I had grown up in Detroit, Michigan, where being a fireman was a "profession", something one did for a living. Then, Eunice and I spent 10 years in New York City, and in all that time, I had never even heard the term, “Volunteer Fireman”, or knew that such a thing existed! I didn’t realize that clear across this nation in small towns and rural communities thousands of ordinary citizens volunteer to be firemen for free. All of this was “News” to me!
For those ten years in NYC, I had been struggling to invent toys, and finally when one called, “The Outer Space Men” began to sell. Eunice and I took the entire tiny royalty and put it down as a deposit on the enormous old brick schoolhouse in Dutchess Junction. The very moment we walked through the door the toy stopped selling, and there we were stuck in the country, camping out in the world’s biggest “fixer upper”, without any funds to fix it up with. As if that wasn’t bad enough, one night, while we were eating dinner, a brick came crashing through the window. To make things worse, a week later, someone set our front porch on fire. And then, when winter came, I went to turn the heat on and discovered that there wasn’t any. And, now, on top of all of that, I had to do WHAT???, become a FIREMAN!!! You’ve got to be kidding me!
But my problems were small ones compared to those of Mike Coris, the proprietor of Dutchess Manor. Imagine Dutchess Manor without Fire insurance. Of all the people at the meeting that night, Mike had the most to lose! He also had the most to give! And give, he did! It was because of his sponsorship and generosity that the Dutchess Junction fire company came to be.
Although, Mike’s health would not allow him to fight fires, if the Dutchess Junction Fire Company ever had a hero, it was he. And Mike's generosity, and that of his wife Helen, and the entire Coris family continued, throughout the years, in the form of numerous celebrations, events, and anniversaries, right up to the wonderful one, last Saturday.
Even with Mikes sponsorship the whole idea of Forming our own fire company sounded a lot like “Let’s put on a show in the barn!” to me. And, ironically, that’s sort of what we did. The Slocum Family allowed us to use an old barn on their Craig House property as our firehouse. And then, from someplace over the rainbow, I could believe, we obtained a most beautiful old red fire truck, circa 1953. That truck was in itself a miracle to see. And bit by bit, piece by piece, this crazy dream of creating our own fire company was becoming a reality.
Joe Shebanie and Jim Pappas were heroes, too. Joe was elected to be our first President, and Jim became our first Fire Chief. Jim, especially, rose to the occasion in an extraordinary fashion. I believe that being Fire Chief gave his life a whole new meaning. He threw his heart and soul into the role. And, in a wave of inspiration and enthusiasm, he even went out and bought a Dalmatian puppy to sit beside him in the fire truck, and, thus, complete the perfect image of the perfect Fire Engine, driven by the perfect Fire Chief with his perfect Dalmatian Fire Pup, "Checkers", sitting in the passenger seat.
After dinner, the other night, upon receiving the commendation, I offered up a brief acceptance speech. As I had already had 3 gins, I’m not quite sure just what I said. But I recall that it was my intention to correct a widely held misconception, and give credit where it was long overdue. So I hope that I explained that, contrary to popular belief, it was not I who brought Mickey Mouse to the Dutchess Junction Fire Company. In spite of the fact that I avidly collected Mickey, the thought of adopting Mickey as our mascot never occurred to me. The whole Mickey Mouse thing was entirely Jim’s idea!
One day, Jim came over to my house and shared with me his Mickey vision. And he asked if I would be willing to paint Mickey’s image on the fire engine. I think he also thought that It might help boost my enthusiasm. And he was right; it did!
I’ll never forget the evening I painted Mickey, on the fire engine. The image had to be repeated twice, once on either side. Therefore, the job took many hours, and continued late into the night. And, all the while, Jim sat there, on a metal folding chair beside me, watching every brush stroke, mesmerized. He was so pleased, so proud of his beautiful big red fire truck. There was a kind of Magic in the air that night, and when the painting was completed, the Fire truck and Jim, alike, had been transformed. They both became something just a little more than they had been before. Jim and his Enchanted Fire Truck began to glow, as Mickey worked his timeless Magic.
Now, close your eyes and visualize Jim Pappas, Fire Chief of the Dutchess Junction Fire Company, impeccably attired in full uniform, with his polka dotted puppy by his side, proudly piloting his Magic Fire Truck in every Firemen’s Day Parade, where it never failed to steal the show! And so it was that thanks to Jim and Mickey, the Dutchess Junction Fire Company, the smallest humblest little upstart of a fire company in all of New York State, became an overnight Celebrity.
Mickey on the fire truck was followed by handmade embroidered Patches, and after those came Mickey Badges. Only a few of these were made, and they were given to the members, only. They are exceedingly rare, today. Meanwhile, the concept of Mickey Mouse as a Fireman has become quite popular. And Fireman Mickey memorabilia is now a category on eBay.
The paint was barely dry on the fire truck, and The Dutchess Junction Fire Company had only been “Official” for two days, when we were called upon to fight our First Fire. And like the perfect ending to a fairytale, or, perhaps, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, it took place in Dutchess Manor.
Thankfully, there were fire hoses on all the landings, and we turned on every one. Dragging all the hoses through the building, we focused them on the same place, and doused the flames, and doused the flames, and doused the flames, again. Thanks to our skill and quick thinking, Dutchess Manor was saved!
Unfortunately, the water damage was far worse than the fire. Everything was sopping wet. Water was seeping through the ceilings, and showering down on the floors below. Fountains were spouting from light sockets and walls, and rivers were surging through the halls. A raging torrent of rushing water came cascading, down the central staircase, like a miniature Niagara Falls.
In spite of the collateral damage, we, nonetheless, had saved the Manor. And thus, our very first fire proved to be The Dutchess Junction Fire Company’s finest hour! Afterwards, once the Manor was restored, Mike and Helen Coris thanked and rewarded us with a glorious dinner party, the first of many such celebrations that were to follow, right up to last Saturday.
And at every one of these events, it was not unusual to find our most famous member, Pete Seeger singing and entertaining. Thanks to Pete, even the simplest occasion, was transformed into a rousing celebration. I know it is easy for you to imagine this. Who hasn’t seen Pete, bringing an audience to its feet on waves of song, and inspiring even the most shy among us to join in? And we inhabitants of Dutchess Junction were blessed to experience this in person, time and time again. And we are proud to regard Pete Seeger as our friend and neighbor, as well as a Founding Member of the Dutchess Junction Fire Company.
But, can you also imagine Pete Seeger, dressed in fireman’s gear, running through a burning building; a hideously ugly cinder block structure, several stories high, in which a raging fire had been set, on purpose? This is what we all had to do at the Dutchess County Fire Training Center in Poughkeepsie. And Pete was up to the occasion, addressing the task, as he does most things, with eager enthusiasm. George Mularadelis, Bill Paylor, and I, on the other hand, were anything but enthusiastic. We tended to hang out together, mutually unhappy, and asking repeatedly, “What the Hell are we doing here?” Fireman’s school seemed like pure Hell to me. And I failed the tall ladder test, most miserably.
I was pleased to get to speak to Pete, the other night. I've known him to wax poetic on ecology, and rhapsodize on subjects like chemical toilets, but on Saturday, he treated me to a fascinating morsel of music history. When I mentioned that “This Land is Your Land This Land is My Land”, ought to be the National Anthem, Pete treated me to some facts about Woody Guthrie. Then he discussed Francis Scott Key, and told me something fascinating. He described the circumstances in which Francis Scott Key wrote the poem that became our National Anthem. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he added that the music was actually adapted from a then popular bawdy ballad.
After we completed Fire School, we were ready for Fire Number Two. I’ll never forget that one, either. Our second fire was less of a success than the first had been. An expensive sports car was on fire, along the road beside the river. We went tearing down there with the sirens wailing on both of our new old fire trucks. One was a pumper full of water. When we got there, I remember Joe Shebanie, who was driving the second truck, frantically fussing with the equipment. Soon, everybody joined in to help him, but nobody could figure out how to operate the pump. In the end, we had no choice, but to just stand there and watch the auto burn. And burn, it did! The body, being made of plastic, melted, and when the flames finally subsided, there was nothing left, but a charred metal frame.
Needless to say, we got much better, over time. Perhaps, that was because we got a lot of practice! I’ll skip over the mysterious fires that, for a time, happened in the Junction every Saturday night, and go on to briefly boast about my own two Heroic moments. On the first occasion, I saved Mickey Mouse, and on the second, I saved the Fire Chief’s house.
Eventually, there came a time, when Mickey was in danger. The Fire Company was growing, and we were getting some actual gung-ho able-bodied members, the kind who volunteer to be firemen, voluntarily. And not all of them were sold on Mickey. “What kind of a Mickey Mouse Fire Company is this?” some new members were heard to say. They were ashamed; and wanted to get rid of Mickey. This group was led by Bob Mahone, a man who himself resembled a comic character. He was the spitting image of Jiggs of Jiggs and Maggie fame. He was also a good fireman, and continued to belong to the Fire Company, and attend fires, even after he moved away. But, when It came to Mickey Mouse, Bob was not a fan; and he led the campaign to vote him out.
So, Jim came to me, again, and asked if I would come to the next meeting at the firehouse, prepared to rescue Mickey. I arrived with a book that had a picture of a Mickey Mouse insignia on the nose of a World War Two fighter plane, and proceeded to plead Mickey’s case: Who better symbolized the spirit of our Fire Company than heroic little Mickey Mouse? Often the underdog, his bravery and determination made him strong. And although he was small, like our Fire Company, his fighting spirit enabled him to overcome all adversity! To finish, I disclosed the fact that “Mickey Mouse” had been the secret code name that the Allied Armies used on D Day. That final touch won them over, totally. And, they voted Mickey in again, unaniMousely, convinced that he had, singlehandedly, won the Second World War. Even Bob Mahone became a true believer. And So, our Mickey Mouse was saved! And I am pleased to say, he still remains with us today.
My second heroic moment happened, one afternoon, when I was home alone. The plectron suddenly announced that there was a fire at the Fire Chief’s house. Being that I live right next door, I walked over. Jim’s wife and the Dalmatian doggie were running around in the driveway, panicking. And smoke was bellowing out of the kitchen windows. The kitchen door was open, so I entered the building. There, in the middle of the kitchen floor, was a wastebasket on fire; smoke was pouring out of it, and there was a hint of flame. Spying a dog bowl on the floor, I casually picked it up and carried it over to the sink, where I filled it, half full, with water. Then, I walked over to the wastebasket, and, with a simple twist of the wrist, tipped it out, onto the flames. And, that was that! When the fire truck finally drove up, the Chief’s house was already saved.
That was the highlight of my fireman career. It was all downhill from there! Eunice, on the other hand, as the first president of the Ladies Auxiliary, continued to be far more active in the Fire Company than me. The Ladies Auxiliary held many memorable events. Who can forget those pancake breakfasts?
And, so it was that, over time, thanks to the Dutchess Junction Fire Company and the Ladies Auxiliary, what had once been merely a haphazard conglomeration of scattered homes, many of which were of the mobile variety, was transformed into a true Community. And a vastly diverse group of people, who had formerly been strangers, became good friends, and good neighbors.
Many of those good friends are gone now, Jim Pappas 1987, Joe Shebanie 1985, Bill Paylor became a Lottery Millionaire in 1986. He won 3 million dollars and moved to Florida, where he passed away in 1997, George Mularadelis 2004, Mike Coris died in 1987. Those are just a few I can remember, Kurt Savinsky 1981, Tom Bull 2011, and my special buddy, Tommy Kotzias, who had become the Fire Chief, and, sadly, left this World at the young age of 43 in 1990. I was studying a plaque on the fire house wall, last election day. It lists the names, above, as well as those of many other firemen, now deceased. I see that there is ample space remaining there for me.
Speaking of Tommy, in later years, as I became less active, he became my final link to the Dutchess Junction Fire Company. One day, he dropped in, as he often did, and asked me if I would like to have the fire truck. He explained that, with two brand new fire trucks, the Fire Company really had no place to keep the old one, and they planned to donate it to South America. But if I wanted it, I could have it for a small donation. “Would a thousand dollars do it?” I asked. He answered “Absolutely!”
An employee had been smoking in his upstairs room, and it was engulfed in flames. We all came roaring up in our handsome new old fire truck, and rushed into the burning building, eager to fight the blaze.
The toy collector in me couldn’t pass it up. A perfect Mickey Mouse toy fire truck with all the equipment on it was irresistible to me. The fact that it was 30 feet long was merely a technicality. Although, getting it into my garage required the combined help of my friend and carpenter Bill Maxwell, Tommy, himself, and a Miracle.
In order to fit it through the garage door we had to remove the wooden trim, down to the brick. This left an eighth of an inch clearance on either side. And to enable it clear the height we removed the siren and the warning lights, and let the air out of the tires. Then, Tommy, in the driver’s seat, slowly backed the fire truck through the door. Phew! There wasn’t a fraction of an inch to spare. Once inside, we filled the tires up with air, and for the next ten years, it just sat there.
One day, several years later, Tommy came over, and very politely did me a favor. Ever so tactfully he suggested that my plectron might be put to better use in the residence of a younger fireman than me. I gave it to him, gladly, because its constant beeping and chattering about every happening in Dutchess County had become vaguely annoying to me. I gave it to him, sadly, because its departure told me that my days as a fireman were over, once and forever, officially. Soon after that, Tommy’s days came to an end as well, tragically and prematurely.
Meanwhile, in the garage below, the fire truck was also growing old. Rust had begun to appear, here and there, and eventually I realized that it was deteriorating in my care, and really had no business being there.
So I offered it to my friend and fellow Mickey Mouse collector, Bernie Shine in California. I told him he could have it free, provided he would cover the cost of reverse carpentry to get it out of the garage, and pay the shipping fee. He accepted, gladly. And so, one day, Bill Maxwell and his son Craig took the garage door apart again, let the air out of the tires, and removed the lights and siren. This time, with Bill in the driver’s seat, miraculously, even after sitting there ten years, the engine started easily. And slowly the Dutchess Junction fire truck emerged once more, into the light of day. Later that afternoon, a huge flatbed moving van backed up our driveway, and carried it away.
And, from that day forward, the Dutchess Junction Fire Company was no longer an active part of my life; that is, until last Saturday night. Ever since then, a raging torrent of memories have continued to wash over me, like that waterfall, cascading down the central staircase of Dutchess Manor, so many years ago.
I don’t go out much, these days, but every so often, I venture into Beacon. And when I am returning home again, I never fail to look up at the Mickey Mouse, displayed high above the doors of the New Fire House. The sight of him, up there, always brings forth a sudden rush of mixed emotions. Sometimes, they are tinged with melancholy, a wistful longing for better days, and friends, long gone. But always, and foremost, among the feelings that magic Mickey image elicits in me is something that resembles happiness. I’m happy that the Mickey is still there; happy that I am still here; happy to be a member of this community, and proud to be a member of the Dutchess Junction Fire Company.
Dutchess Manor is a stately manor house that overlooks the Hudson River. My wife Eunice and I attended a Gala Celebration there, last Saturday evening. The Occasion marked the Fortieth Anniversary of the Dutchess Junction Fire Company.
Pete Seeger, John Shebanie and I, each received a commendation for being “Founding Members”, the only three surviving of the original thirteen who met there at Dutchess Manor on a similar evening, some forty years ago, to form a fire company. And, thus, on Saturday, we were presented with impressive trophies. I regard mine as a sort of birthday present, an award for merely living longer than many better firemen than me.