A social worker remembers a fire chief

I remember Jake Mattolli as a pioneer in heart surgery. He certainly didn’t wish to be one. I believe he had a valve replacement, and it was done in the early ’60s. I remember the Boston surgeon termed the operation a success, but as Jake’s lungs gave out on the table, he, the patient, died.

That sort of success most of us wish to avoid.

The thing I remember about Jake, aside from what I’ve already told you, is that he was the fire chief in the Massachusetts town where I grew up.

For Jake Mattolli, being fire chief was almost like a calling, a religious vocation. I think he was 53 or 54 when he died. He was unmarried.
The town was growing, and the department had new needs. We simply have to keep up, Jake said often.

In Freddies’ Luncheonette, where Jake hung out in the evenings, he would frequently expound on the needs of his fire department. Many nights these little speeches were heard only by Freddie or myself (the dishwasher/soda fountain clerk) or the part-time short-order cook, Arthur, who filled in for Freddie some nights. And of course the stray cat, Gretchen. I think Jake considered that cat almost a person the way he talked to it, often in a whisper as if telling it secrets.

The big deal, technologically speaking, was two-way radios for the fire trucks and for Jake’s fire car, a bright red 1951 Buick Dynaflow. Also, there were two centralized radio transmitters called the Base Stations, and receivers were in the homes of each of the volunteer firemen.

Jake knew he had no talent for public speaking, but that hadn’t kept him from getting up at the annual town meeting months earlier to plead for the money for his radios, and he got it all right, such was his eloquence that night. He said how hard his heart had pounded and how sweaty his palms were as he got up to make his presentation. But I could tell he was damn proud of himself and what he had accomplished.

One of the new base stations where the fire calls were to be received and the messages sent out, was at Freddies Luncheonette. Freddies was open seven days a week, from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., so it was the ideal place for the fire department radio equipment. And from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., one of the volunteer firefighters housed the second base station.

The immediate problem was the short-order cook, Arthur. He was an old man by then; at past 68, he was a nervous kind of fellow too. But he was a great short-order cook, a real hasher from the old school. But he wasn’t good with radio procedure.

“Thank God Arthur is only on part-time,” Jake would say to Freddie after Arthur had been particularly brutal in giving the evening test of the fire radio.

Jake was not often satisfied with how the test went out. Freddie mumbled so that no one could hear the call numbers; Jake complained Arthur, his voice would sometimes falter, almost break. Jake endlessly tried to train the man. It was a case of extreme mike fright, Jake noted with authority.

“Just say KCF251 off,” he would instruct Arthur, impatience in his voice, but Arthur often would say “KCF251 over and out.”

“Over and out,” as far as Jake was concerned, marked his fire department as pure amateurs.

The nearest city of any size to us was Haverhill, and they had had this kind of radio gear for a number of years. They were the model as to how things should be done. A full-time department they were on the air all day long. Jake couldn’t help but wish for his volunteers to be as professional as those in Haverhill.

One Saturday morning at Freddie’s, the place was jumping. Dishes were piling up, I was late getting to work, and by the time I arrived, Arthur was beside himself. He was running out of everything. Then that red phone in the back began to clang — and clang was what it did — Jake saw to that. Arthur dropped everything and sprang toward the rear. He grabbed that red phone receiver.

He screamed into it: “Groveland Fire Department!”

I should tell you that the morning crowd at Freddie’s could be a rough bunch. Mostly they were local truck drivers and construction workers, and in these moments, there was no mercy shown Arthur. Had one of their houses been on fire, I thought later; they might have been kinder.

By the time he got to the radio transmitting part of the process, he was quite incendiary.

He could not remember the call numbers, his first mistake. He just started pushing buttons. The right combination was supposed to trigger the fire alarm automatically at the fire station across the street. That didn’t happen. He pushed buttons until finally, he came to the mic button and pushed it and yelled: “There’s a fire on Uptack Road.”

He didn’t say which fire department was putting out this call. There were about seven departments on the same frequency. Arthur’s message cut off in mid-sentence some fireman in Haverhill, that model community, but in Haverhill, they were used to Arthur. They loved it when he came on the air with such flair.

“Hey, my muffins are burning! Someone, please take them out!”

There was more laughter from the front, and Jake later said he had heard all of this commotion on his set at home, which meant that everybody on the air that day had heard it too.

Jake later told me that Arthur was just too damn old to be taught good radio procedure. I could see that Jake was not happy with that conclusion, and I know for a fact he never gave up teaching Arthur.

It all seemed so important and serious then, and in a way, you know, I think it was.

Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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