The phone in the old Sparks fire station on C Street at 12th rang. A young fireman named Don Young picked it up: “Come quick, it’s horrible, there’s a big fire in our garage and the whole house is going to go up!”
“Yes, ma’am, stay calm, we’re on the way. How do we get there?” said Don. From the harried woman, “Don’t you still have the big red trucks …?”
We’ll, it could have happened that way. Or not. Don’s a good friend, a retired Sparks Fire Department chief, who’s been reading this column for many years and has been a go-to guy for information about Sparks, fire stuff and otherwise. He’s a Sparks High Railroader, capital “R”, the son of a railroader (little “r”) and a railroader himself in his earlier days. His family moved in to tiny Sparks from Carlin during World War II. After graduating from Sparks High in 1952 he went up the hill to the University and studied music, and fondly remembers music professor Dr. Felton Hickman, a legend on the Hill for many years after the war. Don was a hornblower extraordinaire who later would join the Reno Municipal Band when it was under the hand of another legend, “Tink” Tinkham. We’ve read in this column of the Muni band performing in the summer each July at Virginia Lake and the following August on the Quad at the University. Don
At least, he was there unless he was rolling a locomotive for the Mighty S.P. to Carlin and back. Or traveling and camping with his bride Maddy, an activity they still enjoy. Or playing horn in the Nevada National Guard band, which — yes, there was one in the early years of the 1950s. He also competed with the Guard’s pistol marksmanship team, all over the West Coast.
But the fire service beckoned. As a dyed-in-the-wool son of Sparks, he connected with the Sparks Fire Department, small by today’s standards in 1957 when he went aboard. (He became fire chief in 1976.) We’ve read of the Sparks department’s stories in this page in years past; of SFD’s chief Frank Hobson, who died fighting a fire in downtown Reno in 1948, the Lake Street fire, probably Reno’s worst in the 20th century. Or Sparks’ chief Fred Steiner, who died in the line of duty responding to a fire in 1953. We’ve read of Sparks’ assistance in the Sierra Street fire in Don Young’s rookie year 1957, and of Sparks Fire Department’s apparatus sitting in several Reno firehouses’ bays onthe chilly evening of Jan. 21, 1985 when the Galaxy airliner crashed on South Virginia Street
Don’s recollection of the maturation of Sparks and Reno, in the 1960s and ‘70s is fascinating. Lunching in the Little Wal (which entailed actually getting a
Sparks guy out of Sparks for lunch, which I can’t do with Joe Mayer or Geno Martini), Don spoke of the early ambulance service, or lack thereof, in our valley. In the years prior to REMSA, local ambulance service was provided by the men of the Sparks Fire Department, working not for the City of Sparks but on an off-duty basis, providing service to residents with apparatus domiciled in Sparks firehouses. Ambulance service would be the grist of a column some Sunday, when, prior to the Sparks involvement and the eventual formation of REMSA, one could call an ambulance and have one, or two,
sometimes three — or quite often, none — show up. Sparks brought some organization to that dilemma.
Sparks’ men and apparatus were frequent visitors into areas of Reno outside of the downtown corridor, and particularly the far northern and southern areas of Reno — say, south of early Moana Lane and north of what we now call McCarran Boulevard. While Reno Fire ably covered the inner core of the town, a reciprocal agreement would bring Sparks Fire into the outlying areas. Notable in these logs is the story of Sparks extinguishing a nasty fire in the Big Hat Restaurant in 1953. This Moana-at-South Virginia building would last another 50 years as the Big Hat, Two Guys from Italy and La Vecchia, and finally becoming the right-turn lane of Moana just a few years ago. Logs of Sparks, Reno and later the Washoe County short-lived department, prior to Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District, contain almost daily occurrences of this reciprocity.
A point of pride evident in yakking with Don last week, and echoed in a book that he gave me – autographed! – is the attention to community service to Sparks and its residents that has been a byword of the department’s existence since 1905 – fundraising for the needy, the best-in-the-West annual pancake feed in October for Fire Prevention Month. The department takes care of its own in a strong sense. It had a “babies ride free” program for mothers in labor when the department operated their municipal ambulance, and I reminded Don that in his rookie years, Sparks Fire would flood Kleppe’s Pond so the Railroaders could go ice-skating during the winter (Reno Fire did this for us, on Idlewild’s and Lake Park’s ponds.) And the bronze
firefighter on the bench behind the Sparks Heritage Museum on Pyramid Way is
one of the few in the nation. Another point of pride for Don is the truth that Sparks has historically promoted from within when choosing a new chief.
“Did anything funny or weird ever happen on your 14-year reign over the department?” Our lunch went off in a dozen directions then; one of the beststories was of the new firehouse on Victorian Way, which we both still called B Street. The snorkel truck operator stopped midway out the door for something, forgot that the new door closed automatically after 60 seconds, resumed the trip out the door and took the door with him when it closed on the snorkel’s boom. Not, he added, while enroute to a fire…
Don retired in 1990 following a career of watching great change in Sparks, the firefighting profession and our valley. He’s remained active in the community, and to wrap this up while still including a personalized license plate squib in the text, I’ll simply say if you see a couple of young folks — Don and Maddy — in a late-model Jeep Cherokee with plate “XSFD” (that is, ex-Sparks Fire Department) on both bumpers, give ‘em a toot; tell them you read about them hereThanks for reading, and God bless America!
(Formal photo: Jeff Spicer … Little Waldorf photo: Breck)