City Paper is not for tourists
On a deserted dirt road in southern Maryland, the 1949 fire engine idles impatiently. Its paint is faded from scarlet to maroon, its chromed spotlights sparkle, and its motor growls behind the waterfall grille. Passenger and driver share a bench-style leather seat, and the steering wheel’s diameter reduces the driver’s hands to childlike proportions.
Larry Fisher, standing on the driver’s-side running board, explains the arcane skill of double-clutching needed to get this firetruck—like most large trucks—into gear. Between first and second, there’s some grinding, but the truck finally eases down the road, its V-12’s power barely taxed at 10 mph. On the floor of the cab, in a circle of red paint, is a foot switch for the siren: Pressing and releasing it produces a short gasp of sound, but keeping it depressed unleashes a full-fledged alarm. This feature once enabled the vehicle to stop traffic, run lights, and get dogs agitated for blocks around.
Although there’s no burning house to extinguish and no Dalmatian running alongside, driving this red leviathan is a kid’s dream come true. Larry Fisher, of Silver Spring, and Rob Fisher, of Arlington, understand that thrill. Although both are lawyers, Larry, 43, and Rob, 40, have worked as volunteer firemen; Larry still serves one night a week near Owings Mill, Md. Since the ’70s, they have collected fire engines.
And they’re far from alone in their burning passion for firetrucks. Old-time engines survive among a network of enthusiasts, many of whom are firemen. Devotees can join SPAAMFAA (Society for the Preservation & Appreciation of Antique Motor Fire Apparatus in America) and subscribe to the firezine Enjine!-Enjine!. Locals can show off their equipment at “musters,” which take place in Frederick, Md., every May; Bowie, Md., in October; and in Baltimore during the summer. It is at these meets that the Fishers confer with other fire buffs and seek truck parts. Other Washington-area residents have become enamored of firetrucks; Larry Gaddis of Rockville, Md., has built a replica of a fire station next to his house, which can handle up to six vehicles. Gaddis, a retired volunteer who serves as the chief of the Glen Echo Fire Department, has owned by his estimation 18 fire-related vehicles over the past 20 years.
The Fisher stable includes four trucks—three Seagraves and a Mack—though only the ’49 Seagrave pumper cruising along this country lane, its siren wailing shrilly, is in running condition. Larry is particularly proud of this addition to their brood, which he and Rob purchased in January from a retired fireman in Great Falls, Va. “I had a chance to buy this 10 years ago,” says Larry. “….I was determined not to miss it again.”
Inside the cab, old and new collide. The windshield, divided down the middle like a WWII bomber’s, forms an aerodynamic wedge. A vintage tachometer needle vibrates, ready to sweep through its circle of art-deco numerals. But among the original dashboard dials are incongruous, retrofitted switches that control the truck’s flashing red lights. Such upgrades, though viewed as necessary, clash with the old-fashioned design. “Today’s fire apparatuses are just thrown together,” Larry laments. “….Back then, maybe there was indulgence, aesthetics were important. Different manufacturers spent a lot of time and effort making what they thought was a beautiful piece of equipment.”
And a complicated piece of equipment as well. So that the truck is able to start at all times, redundant ignition systems have been installed; this translates into 24 ignition wires, 24 spark plugs, four coils, four distributor caps—and a major headache come tuneup time. Although the odometer displays a low 11,000 miles, Larry points out that this means highway miles alone. A second odometer, which reads 35,000, registers engine mileage. The truck’s engine runs the water pump for the hoses, and while road trips are commonly short for a community truck, the engine gets a lot of use. During its Long Island service, Rob says, the Mack once pumped water for two days nonstop.
The Fishers have inherited this fascination with firetrucks: Their father and uncles were once members of the Mount Rainier Fire Department in Prince George’s County. In the early ’60s, after the Fisher family moved to rural LaPlata, Larry and Rob’s father recognized a ’35 Seagrave outside the local firehouse; it was the same engine he’d trained on in Mount Rainier. “When we got old enough to be members of the fire department…, they were getting rid of the truck,” Larry remembers. “That’s the first one we bought, the fire engine our father used to drive.”
But it’s not an investment—it’s a legacy. “We bought the truck in 1972,” Rob explains. “Our father died in 1970, so there is a great emotional attachment.”
The engine was roadworthy until 1991, when Rob and Larry decided to restore it from the ground up. The project won’t be complete for at least another five years. “[It’s] much harder than working on a car,” Rob says. “It’s a question of scale.” The engine, for example, holds 52 quarts of oil, compared to the average car’s four-quart capacity.
Today, the Seagrave’s stripped, bright-red carcass fills a small garage. Leaning against one wall is the hood of the truck, painted with ornate gold-leaf cardinals and an image of the real Mount Rainier in Washington state. Most of the exterior pieces are garnished with gold trim, which forces a delicate decision on what has to be sacrificed in order to be repaired. The Fishers aim to preserve as much of the original work as possible, but rust has caused some paint to bubble. Spare parts are also difficult to find, but at least they’re replaceable—Larry fabricates them on a lathe in his workshop.
The same year that restoration began on the ’35, the brothers bought their next machine, a 1950 Mack ladder truck from Long Island, N.Y. Larry spotted it when his unit was looking for a reserve vehicle, and though the Mack was too old for the department’s needs, it suited the Fishers’ growing appetites (and gave them something to drive while their other wheels were in the shop).
Acquiring the Mack posed a new problem: how to shield a 45-foot-long showpiece from the elements. Firetruck collections, unlike stockpiles of stamps or salt shakers, have three very large dimensions, so the siblings spent a year of weekends constructing a barn. “We used this to put each of the trusses up,” Rob says, gesturing toward the Mack’s ladder, “but of course we built room for expansion.”
When inspecting the Mack, you can’t help but notice that most of its equipment—ladders, pikes, and hoses—are still onboard. “Well, it sort of goes with the truck,” Larry explains.“These pike handles are made of wood and new ones are fiberglass, a little tougher, making the older ones mildly obsolete. Also, NFPA [National Fire Protection Agency] came out with new standards for the ladders….[so] now you have to buy new ladders if you have this old stuff.
“It’s been good for collectors and bad for fire departments,” he laughs. “Part of it’s also an ethos. People…want to try to keep equipment on a truck because it does look good.”
Situated next to the Mack is a final item, a ’32 Seagrave ladder truck, also from Long Island. It’s strictly used for spare parts now, but Larry plans to revive it someday; he’s kept all of its components, no matter what their condition. Firetruck reconditioners don’t like to throw anything away.
As for why he and his brother chose this unconventional hobby, Larry explains, “I like the mechanical aspect….Some people get these to restore them and stick them behind glass in some museum, but I like to put them through their paces.”
“My answer would be simpler,” Rob responds. “On an immediate level, they are just really cool. It’s a connection with the history in our family; not only is our father a fireman, all our uncles and cousins are paid or volunteer firemen. They also represent an era, a certain attitude about the world, and there is something beautiful in that.”
In regard to future acquisitions, Larry says, “I think that’s about it, four is enough.”
Rob interrupts. “If I had to place a bet…I’d like that the other way,” he says. “See, Larry believes these things have souls. So if one is out there and lost…and we have the opportunity to reclaim it and help it, then we have a moral obligation.”