Bring back the fire horn

The single scariest thing in my childhood, scarier than the Wicked Witch of the East’s winged monkeys, was the Cotuit Fire Department fire horn, especially when it sounded in the middle of the night.

It was the trumpet of Satan himself: a horrible, low blast followed by a shrieking siren: an air raid horn powered by a blast of compressed air somewhere on the roof of the Fire Department on High Street.

When it went off every day at noon, it wasn’t so scary. It was expected. It was a nice noise. A reminder of lunch. And when you were on the water, furling the sail on your skiff after the Wednesday morning junior series, you would hear the fire horns all along the southside of Cape Cod go off in a weird rolling synchronization like time rolling to the west – first Hyannis, then Hyannisport, then Centerville, then Osterville, Waquoit ….all seeming to call to each other to say, “Yep. Cotuit is reporting in for lunch.”

The bullrakers in the quahog scows would set their rakes in the bottom mud, tie off to the handle and sit on their culling boards to eat a PBJ and drink soup from a thermos.

But when that horn went off at 2 am, me and every kid in town would slam awake, stare wildly into the darkness, and start to count.

Two signals meant a rescue emergency. An ambulance was needed. Someone was hurt. A car had crashed. When two signals sounded during the day, the rule was every kid had to book home as soon as possible to report in. The sirens would light up in the garage of the fire department and we’d go out into the yard to watch the intersection of Main and School Streets to see which way the fire trucks and ambulance turned. To the south, towards the Highground meant someone was in trouble on the beaches. Straight ahead to the town dock meant a boating accident, to the north meant a car accident on Route 28.

Five blasts meant a fire and the volunteers would get in their pickup trucks and stick the red bubble light on the roof and drive like maniacs to the fire house.

It isn’t a volunteer fire department anymore.

There isn’t a horn anymore.

I want the horn to come back.

In a closet in my house is an old “guide to the horn” published in 1960, right during the heart of the Cold War. Otis Airforce base is five miles to the northwest and my house is right on the landing path. Back in those days there was a ton of air force traffic as the Otis squadron were the pilots who challenged the Russian Bear bombers testing our DEW line defenses off the Atlantic Coast. I fully expected to be incinerated in a flash of light at any second as there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Otis was an A-1 priority target. The last line of the guide freaked me out in the mid-60s. An air raid would be signaled by a “wailing” (my own, no doubt) followed by a series of short sharp blasts (and one really big one).

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

0 thoughts on “Bring back the fire horn”

  1. We had one of those horns, too, in the little town in which I grew up in NJ. My Dad was a volunteer ambulance corpsman and had a device called a plectron on top of Dad’s bureau. Every Tuesday night he would lay out his slacks and shoes and shirt so he could jump into them if needed as Tuesday was his night on call. Any night of the week when the plectron would sound (jeez, I can hear it in my head as I type). my mother would run to the town directory to see who was in trouble (our directory was, handily, organized by street … that’s how small my town was).

    Now the town is a forest of McMansions because it’s so close to NYC, and the fire and ambulance squad are professional now. I’m sure they’re great, but boy was my Dad proud of being able to do his civic duty. He birthed babies and gave the kiss of life and used steel jaws to pry people out of crunched-up cars. I’m not sure why I’m rambling on here except you really took me back to that time when the 8:00 fire horn went off meant it was time to go home. I miss that little town.

    Thanks for letting me reminisce.

  2. I remember the horn well. It was our lunchtime bell. We could hear it anywhere in town and knew to get home to eat. I’m sure my parents remember as well as they did have a fire in the old homestead years back. Came close to ravaging the whole house. My poor mother ran back into the house to safe her quilt (hand made by her and took forever to create).

    Do you recall when they stopped using the horn?

  3. Yep, remember it well. At one point the firestaion in Osterville was used as the school buss stop. One kid, on a dare, yanked the cord and blasted off the horn. No more bus stop.

    In elementary school we would have the siren wail away while we walked to the basement of the school and curled up in a fetal position. The Cuban missle crisis was the one time I saw adults around the village really look scared. I even remember when my dad built a fall out shelter under the driveway. By the end of the 1960’s it became the perfect party pad.

    There was still a volunteer fire department when I worked at Marney and Lahtein. The horn would blast (other than noon) and the carpenters would drop their tools and drive to the fire house.

    When the fire department went professional – no more horn. I miss the “noon whistle”, too.

  4. I still remember the younger cousins running away from the swingset, yelling out their lunch orders as they ran into the house after hearing the “Bonk whooooo”.

    Technology killed the horn. Beepers only scare the beejeesus out of the wearer, not every 10 year old kid in a 3 mile radius of High Street.

    I take it you only miss the noon horn. Cause if you miss it all the time I bet Cousin Pete could come over with a boat horn some night at about 2 am, blow it in your ear and then go “whooooooooo”.

  5. Tom, it was “Bronk whooooo”. Peanut butter and fluff please. Is Pete running for Fire Commish? He could also count on the pro firecracker vote.

  6. Some of these posts dredge up the oddest memories…Joe Pouliot(?) and Sceeter once threw a lit fire cracker at me and it went off right on my thigh leaving a little blister i think. Funny think now is I am sure I deserved it.

  7. To me the sound of the horn is very sad…

    I’ll never forget one sunny summer afternoon when the horn went off.

    My grandfather had a police scanner so whenever the horn blew more than once, the next thing we did was listen to the scanner.

    I remember hearing them talking over the crackling airwaves about a body off of Riley’s beach.

    My mother and I started walking down expecting it to be some old timer or some toddler.

    I think his name was Chris Berry and I remember that he was living across the street from you next to the library. His friend Pat Reirdon found him when he arrived at Riley’s for their regular afternoon swim.

    As my mother and I had been making our way down to the water, Chris’ mother was hurrying down herself because she didn’t know where Chris was and something didn’t seem right to her.

    Chris was an instructor at the CMYC and was a very good swimmer.

    As far as I know, they never did figure out how he died, although the rumors ran the gamut.

    Since then, whenever I hear a horn like that, I always think of him and his poor poor mother who I can still picture sitting on the beach next to us when they pulled him up and worked on him.

    The look of terror and sadness all rolled up into one expression will forever be etched in my memory and I can still remember how the only way she knew for sure that it was her son, was because she recognized his bathing suit.

  8. I honestly did not know that.

    My deepest apologies if I have recalled an event that perhaps I should not have.

    The event made a huge impact on my life and although I was a not close friend of Chris, I remember what a nice person he was.

  9. no apologies need John.

    That must have been a very traumatic scene. I was working in Boston when my wife called from Cotuit with the terrible news. Chris is still sorely missed today by his family, the CMYC, and a lot of Cotuit. That was probably one of the last times the fire horn blew in Cotuit, because sometime in the late 80s I think it was turned off for good.

  10. Growing up in Gloucester City N.J. during the 1950’s and 1960’s the fire horns were a way of life for us kids. Then in the early 1970’s as a volunteer member of Engine Co. 2 GCFD (we had paid drivers) they were a call to action. But unlike the coded number of blasts described here, the horns in Gloucester would blow the box number. Not just once, but four rounds. Gloucester had four fire houses then and they each had the horns on the roof. Fire headquarters had three or four of them. I can remember being inside the station or on the front apron when they went off and literally feel the ground vibrating under my feet. If a second alarm was struck they blew four more rounds.

    A funny – I remember one time I was driving down Broadway which ran parrelle to the railroad tracks and thought I heard a train horn. But then I realized the train horn was blowing 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 1-2-3 (box 73 Washington Ave. and Cumberland St.) LOL

    Today the GCFD is mostly paid and the fire horns are long gone. I believe they blew their last round in ernest around 1992.

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