By John Burtis
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
For many years I tried to write an article for Reader’s Digest about Ernie Youngs, the fire chief in my home town of Port Crane, New York.
But by the time I was ready, the Digest had changed from a conservative magazine to another softball send up to Hollywood glitterati and it was no longer the forum for the description of a real compassionate conservative. And Ernie wouldn’t have wanted to be wedged in between the likes of cover girls, left-wing agitators and fellow travelers.
Thanks to Clinton W. Taylor and his terrific blurb, Hard to Digest, in American Spectator, I was transported to an earlier and clearer time in my life — a Reader’s Digest time — where Ernie was the most clearly defined and most colorful character.
My family had two currents of public safety running through it, with mother’s side taking care of the police angle, and my father’s side being devoted to firefighting. And I was privileged to try my hand at both.
Throughout my youth I heard of Ernie Youngs, the chief of the Port Crane Fire Department, the County Fire Coordinator, the operator of his Department’s ambulance service, insurance man, radio dealer, and deputy sheriff. Everybody, it seemed, had a favorite Ernie story.
In those years, the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s, before the 911 system, consoles and computers, Ernie operated the entire County fire network out of his general store, except for the paid city departments, with the help of his family and other volunteer firefighters, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, for a dollar a year — a level of service unheard of today, until his death in the early 80s.
When I reached 15, my old man decided it was time to meet Ernie. And one night we trooped off to the store, where I was introduced to Ernie, his son, Dean and spent two hours going over all the gear in the attached control center, watching Dean dispatch the companies, ring out the tones and call the hospitals ahead of the ambulances. Later, on a few heady occasions, I would do the same.
When I reached 17, I immediately applied for membership in the fire department, a rite of passage, and was accepted on the first vote. Long afterward, reading the secretary’s notes, I saw that my name was put forward by Ernie.
My journey began with weekly training, first aid, and fires. We had a string of mammoth house fires, that first year, way out in the country which stretched our resources and manpower to the limit — with other companies coming to our assistance — all under the direction of Ernie, who stood as he always did, garbed in a green hunting jacket, a red plaid cap and fire boots, issuing his commands in clear steady voice, devoid of emotion, honed after years of experience.
But as inconspicuous as he seemed, everyone knew he was the chief and patiently waited for his orders. Never rattled, never mistaken, always pulling his men outside at the proper instant, or off a roof, he never had a serious injury under his command.
“Better get off that ladder now,” he barked to Don Shelley and me. And when we pulled the ladder away from the front of the house, it all fell away into the flames.
Ernie operated the local ambulance service out of his own pocket and the donations he received for the service were applied to the fire department.
Coming home from school one day, I was surprised by the phone ringing. When I answered, it was Ernie, who told me to meet him next door, where we transported a seriously ill neighbor into General Hospital. While he drove, I had the oxygen and the gear. And as we motored along, he went over all the procedures to make sure I was following the book.
Another night, when I came in late, I took another call from him. He told me to meet him at the store. There had been a fire earlier in the evening while I had been away and we were going back to the house to cover the windows with plywood and lay plastic over the holes in the roof, where he had been forced to ventilate. And we did, in the flurries, by the lights on his automobile.
Ernie was a lifelong Republican donor, a businessman, a believer in small government, an enemy of the welfare state, a law and order man, a Christian gentleman and therefore everything the left would like to hate.
But he was also the kind of guy who would drag you out of bed with his alert tones, pay for ambulance service in a small town to keep the taxes low, to answer the doorbell if someone needed directions before the interstate went through, gas up the fire engines on his own dime, sit up all night dispatching someone else’s fire, and to teach a kid like me the true meaning of community service.
And as the caretaker, every Memorial Day, he’d get up early and drive to the Port Crane Cemetery and put out the little flags of honor, to mark those who had paid the steepest price for maintaining our way of life.
Ernie’s store was always open, as was his heart, to all and sundry, and he’d cash your paycheck, too.
It seemed to take no courage to enter burning buildings then, Ernie was behind me, Dean was on the radio bringing help, and most likely Don Shelley or Tom Vroman was on the line with me.
I could ask for no more save the hoarse hurried prayer whispered in my SCBA.
Today, Ernest S. Youngs sleeps in the same cemetery he cared for, surrounded by his family and friends.
But I can still hear his voice, urging me on, “C’mon, John, let’s get in there, now, move it along…”
They also serve, those small bespectacled men in hunting coats and caps, whose calm and clear commands steady the nerves of lesser men in the face of fire and flames, when people scream for help, before the water fills the hoses and the ladders climb the house.
John Burtis is a former Broome County, NY firefighter, a retired Santa Monica, CA, police officer. He obtained his BA in European History at Boston University and is fluent in German. He resides in NH with his wife, Betsy. John Burtis can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ernest Youngs, Port Crane Fire Founder