Interview of Pete Ellerman of the Union Fire Company by Randy Watts on March 21, 2016. The interview focuses on the Union Fire Company in Carlisle, Pennsylvania as well as fire fighting in general.
Randy Watts: Good morning, Mark. Today is March 31, 2015, and just to verify, we do have your permission to record?
Mark Goodling: Yes you do.
RW: Okay, thanks. [We have] a couple of quick questions just to get started. How old are you?
MG: I'm seventy-one.
RW: Okay, and what did you do for a living? Where did you work, or what was your career?
MG: I was mostly a mechanic all my life. [I] worked at Arnold Motors for ten years, worked at Sam & Jerry's [Garage] for one year, and then for thirty-two years, I was a fleet mechanic for the United Telephone Company, which became Sprint.
RW: Okay, great. When did you join the [Union] Fire Company?
MG: It was in--late of 1963.
RW: Okay, and what got you interested in the fire company? How did you end up there?
MG: Well I grew up on a farm, and during my time on the farm, I saw some of my neighbors and family had lost barns or houses to fires, and it kind of struck my interest in firefighting. Then later on, a lot of my friends started to join the fire company, and probably through them is how I got into the Union [Fire Company].
RW: Did they work with you?
MG: No, I went to school. Bob Wise was the guy that signed me up. [Pete Ellerman??] was my neighbor. Randy Adams, [who] is now my brother-in-law, he was--I graduated with him, so we were all the same age and friends.
RW: How active were you in the fire company, would you say?
MG: Well when I joined, I immediately became active because probably after about six months of joining, I became one of the bedroom gang.
RW: So you lived at the firehouse?
MG: I lived at the firehouse for about four years.
RW: What was that like?
MG: Chaos, fun, yes. It was different. Like I said, I came from the farm, so I didn't--I wasn't a town guy, and I never understood the firehouse life. Some people in town grew up around the firehouse, which I never did. But it was quite different, quite different. I had to get used to a few things.
RW: What were some of those things that you had to get used to?
MG: Well I was always taught to be very polite. One of the things I remember when I joined the fire company was you only spoke when you were spoken to from the elderly, the seniors that were there. When they were talking, you kept your mouth shut unless you were spoken to. That wasn't hard, but one of the things that took me a while to learn was--Shirley and Merle [Nace] were the husband and wife that lived next door, and he was our driver. Their home was open to everyone, and I was not used to that. I was not used to just walking in somebody's house and making myself at home, getting in the refrigerator, [and] getting something to eat. And that kind of lifestyle was what I had to learn at the firehouse because that was the life of the firehouse back then. Everyone was family.
RW: Did you hold any offices while you were in the fire company?
MG: Yes I did. I was on the Apparatus Committee for quite a few years, and I don't remember what they called the offices. Host Director, I think it was, [I was] a Host Director for a while, [and] Assistant Chief for a good many years, yes.
RW: What years, roughly, were you Assistant Chief?
MG: Probably around '67, '68 to about '70--I think I had the office about nine years.
RW: What all did that involve? What was involved with that position, and what were you responsible for as an assistant chief?
MG: Well Charlie Boyles was the chief mostly at that time. Sam Otten was first, and then Charlie Boyles [was chief] later. It was just [that] you were in charge of a fire. You were in charge. You were the man; you're the man with the white hat. So you had to control the men, you had to make sure that the right apparatus was there; there was quite a bit of responsibility. [00:04:41.04]
RW: What was it like around the firehouse when you were there? Even during the day, what would happen? Who would be around? What would go on?
MG: There was--a lot of people would stop in at the firehouse just to say hi. Everybody knew everybody in town. There were some locals that stopped in, and that was their center point when they came to Carlisle. The Food Market was right next door at that time, and they'd go into there, but they would set all their personal belongings at the firehouse, and then they'd go shopping uptown and so on, so you would see people like that. There would be just--elderly people would stop in, just chat and talk. A lot of the police department at that time would stop in, and everybody talked to everybody. During the time that I belonged there, most of the police in Carlisle belonged to one of the five fire companies anyway, and it was just a big community. Everybody knew everybody.
RW: Do you remember anybody from that time period, anybody that sticks out?
MG: Oh there was Danny Hodge. He was a black gentleman; he was probably, as far as I know, one of the first black people that ever became a member of the Union Fire Company. I think he was [associate??] member; I don't remember what they call honorary members, [associate??] members, something like that. Gibson, Mr. Gibson and his wife would walk the whole way from Meadowbrook, and they were the people that would set their personal belongings in there and so on.
RW: Anybody else that sticks out, characters?
MG: You mean like members of the fire company? Well there was Joe Faller, there was Red Ball, [and] there was [Pap Spidle??]. They were the older guys, gentlemen that didn't have regular work or were retired, and they would sit around at the back of the firehouse and play cards.
RW: Who was Red Ball? I've never heard that [name].
MG: Red Ball, his name was--was it Ziegler that owned the Red Ball?
RW: Fred, was that Fred Ziegler?
MG: No, not Fred Ziegler. I don't remember what the guy's first name was, but Ziegler, I think, was his name, and they owned the moving company that was there next to where Knisely's Feed Store is. They were in that vicinity, right there. They had a big red ball on the side of their truck, and we just called him Red Ball.
RW: Did a lot of the guys at the firehouse have nicknames? Was that pretty common?
MG: Not a lot; a few, but not too many. Not too many, no.
RW: What did you enjoy most from your time at the fire company? What do you think back on now and think was really the most fun?
MG: Just the friendship, the camaraderie that we had with everyone. There was the pool table downstairs. A lot of times we would go up to the store, and we would buy food and come back, and we'd just have a supper. We'd go downstairs and cook and do things like that, but we were always--we would go fishing, we'd go swimming together, we did a lot of things together. It was just like a big family.
RW: Was there any part of it that you didn't enjoy, that kind of stretched you out or kept you away?
MG: No, not at all.
RW: What's the funniest thing? Is there anything that sticks out as the funniest thing in your fire service career at the Union?
MG: Well I guess it wasn't funny at the time, but it was afterwards. I remember we went to a barn fire. Joe Bishop and I were on the engine, and we were both carrying a shoulder-load of hose, and we were crossing a fence to get around to the back of the barn. We were probably about fifty feet apart from each other, and we both crawled over the fence together, and Joe disappeared. What we didn't know was there was a fence between us after we crossed over, and he fell into a manure pit. So I had to dig him out and we hosed him down.
RW: He survived and was okay?
MG: Yes he did. [00:09:09.12]
RW: Anything that would stick out as the most interesting call you ever responded to?
MG: I don't know if I'd call it interesting. What I remember so much about the early days of the fire company was--why I really, really wanted to continue on with the fire service was the night that we got an elderly lady and two children out of a burning house. And I was always told that whenever there's blood coming out of the ears or nose of a person that they would never make it, but these two boys and this elderly lady are still walking on this earth today because of what we did that night. And that really was a turning point in me, when I really had to learn more to be a better firefighter.
RW: Where was that call? Do you remember?
MG: Yes I do. It was on the corner of Harmony Hall--no, not Harmony Hall--Heritage Drive and Trindle Road, the little gray, shingled house that's right across the street from Sheetz.
RW: And there was fire in the building, or smoke in the building?
MG: When we got there--we got a call that the house was on fire. When we got there, it was black. The windows were black; it was like there was nobody home. And I remember looking in the front door window and burning the end of my nose. The glass was that hot. What had happened was the fire smoldered and burned itself out because of lack of oxygen; the house was that tight. But when we walked in the house, it was just black smoke everywhere. It was that hot in there that the telephone in the kitchen actually melted into the sink.
RW: And the people were in the house?
MG: They were in the bedroom.
RW: Okay, upstairs?
MG: No, it was a one-floor [house]. They were in the back bedroom.
RW: How about the worst call you were ever on? Is there anything that sticks out there?
MG: Yes there was. There [were] a couple times when you've got to put people in a bag and carry them out, and that's not easy, and I've done that occasionally.
RW: How long did you stay active in the fire company then?
MG: Probably to about 1985.
RW: What made you get out?
MG: I had other interests. I had other things to do. My children were growing up, they were becoming teenagers, they were involved a lot in school, I was missing out on their activities, and I knew I couldn't do both.
RW: Did any of your children get involved in the fire company?
MG: My son did for a short time, but then he went off to the Navy, and that was pretty much the end of it. But his whole life, he grew up at the firehouse. From probably the time he was a year and a half to two years old, when he could walk, he was with me every time I went in.
RW: But [he] still didn't get the interest to become active or stick with it?
MG: No--well, he was involved so much with sports afterwards that he didn't have the time to go into the fire service.
RW: Were there any major changes you recall while you were there? How did things change or stay the same?
MG: No, there was a huge change. I remember--like I said, when I first started, I was only eighteen years old. There [were] a lot of older men in there, and after a couple years, whenever I became an officer, it was hard to be around the older people because--I wouldn't call it resentment, but I could tell that there was a little tension because I'm a young fellow taking their job like that. It was hard to be in their world, starting to take over some of their responsibilities. When I joined, there was not very much in the line of equipment. We had helmets; we had old raincoats and some bunker gear, but not very much, not very good. But then around the early seventies, things really changed where it became mandatory [equipment??] that you had to wear. So there was a huge change in that.
RW: How'd that go over? Was that pretty much accepted, or was it resisted?
MG: I think what the problem was--it would have been okay had they not demanded it or put it in law, and I think some people resented that because they said you could not ride an engine unless you had your full gear on. I think there was some resentment there with some people, but all in all, I think most of [us] understood, because most of us guys that [were] in the bedroom--we all had our gear anyway. So it was okay for us, but a lot of the people that weren't near as active and would come around occasionally, go to occasional fires, and then if they didn't have their gear and they couldn't ride, I think there was some resentment there.
RW: And the training got more intense, I guess, at that point?
MG: Yes, well, it was probably a little prior to that when the training really got started. Yes, it just kept escalating from there on, the demands on the people. [00:14:49.25]
RW: To kind of double back a little bit, how were you trained when you joined? Was there a training program, or how did you learn?
MG: Yes, there was a training program. [On] my first major fire, Sam Otten was the chief, Charlie Boyles was the assistant chief, and there was a three-story building on fire. Sam Otten said, "Follow that man right there," and it was Charlie Boyles, and we went to the third floor with no Scott Air Packs or anything on, so that was basically your training. You taught yourself or you watched, and it wasn't always good, but that's basically how you learned.
RW: Do you remember where that fire was?
MG: I do. That was on the corner of College and Louther Street, where the--is it a science building, I think, now?
RW: Yes, was that a fraternity house fire?
MG: It was, it was a big fraternity house, yes.
RW: That took a while to get under control, as I recall.
MG: Yes, it did.
RW: It was a pretty [extensive??] fire. Were you at the Bowman's fire?
MG: No, I was not.
RW: But you were at Brandtsville [for the train??]?
MG: No, I was not at Brandtsville, either.
RW: Okay, I thought maybe--what was the biggest fire you remember being at? Are there any that stick out?
MG: The biggest fire was probably the one downtown at the Savings and Loan, the bowling alley--I don't remember what other buildings [were] there, but that was probably one of the most major fires that I remember.
RW: Yes, I think that was an all-night and into the next day kind of fire.
MG: Oh yes, I think it started around eleven o'clock, and it was in till late in the afternoon.
RW: Do you remember any of the equipment from those days, the apparatus, what that was like? Did that change with time?
MG: It did; the original tanker that we had was just an old truck with a tank on the back, and while I was there was when we got the big International, the big, square tank, International. [It was] quite a--probably the biggest tank truck in Cumberland County. At that time, it was twenty-six hundred gallons, and that was kind of unheard of at the time because most of them were anywhere from five to a thousand gallons, so yes, that was kind of a new piece. The other trucks that we had [were]--the [borough piece?] was the 1961 American LaFrance, and then our rural truck was the old '56 that was in the accident. That was what we ran with at the time when I started.
RW: You speak of the accident; that was August of 1969 when--
MG: Fifty-nine--sixty-nine, yes. August of '69.
RW: Were you on the engine that night?
MG: No, but I was at the call. I was on that call.
RW: I believe you have a story about that?
MG: Well I do, yes. I was in at the firehouse about ten minutes prior to that. I passed Pete--Peterson was the driver--I had passed him as I was leaving, said, "Hi, good bye," [and] walked out the door. Before I got home to my house, we got the call, and it was a brush fire at Fetrow Acres. I took the back way to Fetrow Acres [and] got there. When I got down to Fred Ziegler's garage, he flagged me down and said, "You'd better get back to Carlisle. Our engine was involved in an accident." When I got back there, the first person I met was Sam Otten, our chief. When I [came] walking up to him, he was about as white as a ghost and wanted to know where I came from and how I got there, and I explained it to him. What I found out later was that they thought that that was me that was under the engine.
RW: That was Vince [Vincent A. Mahoney, Jr.]?
MG: That was young Vince.
RW: You knew Vince, I'm sure?
MG: I did, yes.
RW: And he was a fairly active member?
MG: He was. I don't remember how old he was; I think he was eighteen maybe.
RW: Eighteen or nineteen?
MG: Something like that. Yes, [he was a] very active kid, very active. He would have probably really, really went--made a real good firefighter, and probably a good officer later on.
RW: How did the company handle that? How did they react to it? What was it like?
MG: I think it brought everyone together. We were never around something--we went to a lot of accidents, but it was never one of us, and it gives you a different perspective of life when that happens.
RW: And Vincent's father was the president of the fire company?
MG: Yes he was.
RW: He remained active afterwards?
MG: Yes he did, quite a few years afterwards. [00:19:52.23]
RW: Mark, is there anything else that you remember that you think would be significant to people in the future, to remember about the Union Fire Company or your experience there?
MG: I know that no matter where you go, when you see a member of the Union Fire Company, you're a brother. It even is so with other fire companies which used to be around Carlisle; you still are. But when you see an old member of the Union Fire Company, there's a lot of pride. They recognize that, and you're just a brother forever.
RW: And you've kept in touch with the fire company and are still involved, at least a little bit?
MG: Yes, yes.
RW: Anything else from your memories of Carlisle and the fire department that would be of interest or that stick out in your mind over the years?
MG: It's sad to see five fire companies go through what they did over the years and become what it is today. I guess it's a good thing; I don't know, but it was sad to see those companies that I knew almost everyone in all those other four companies that were in Carlisle, and it was sad to see them go.
RW: Was there rivalry between the companies?
MG: Oh yes there was. Even though you were best of friends, there was rivalry there, yes, whenever the bell rang.
RW: But everybody managed it, and it was still a pretty positive environment between the fire houses.
MG: Pretty much so, yes. It was kind of bad for a couple years until the chief just put a stop to it.
RW: Well we appreciate your time, and again, if you have any other comments before we wrap up, feel free, but otherwise, thanks very much. Thanks Mark.
MG: Thank you. [00:21:55.22] End of interview