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 â€“ first Hyannis, then Hyannisport, then Centerville, then Osterville, Waquoit â€¦.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).