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By Janie Hall
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 Janie Hall
All right reserved.
September 25, 1972
When John first went to work for the fire department in 1904, he learned fire fighting the hard way, by fighting the fires. Now they had a new Fort Worth Fire Department Training Center. A picnic was being held today for all firemen and retired fire fighters at the new training facility.
It would be interesting to see the training center and how they train the men these days. John wondered if he might run into some old retirees he knew, but he believed they were all dead by now or wouldn't remember him. John's daughter and son-in-law talked him into going and they would take him, as he no longer drove his car.
They arrived on time to find about a hundred people already there. One by one they came up to him.
"Hi, Chief, remember me? You trained me in '32 when I joined the department."
"Hello, Chief," said his ex-driver. "I'm retired now. You need me to drive you anywhere, just call."
"Hello, Chief, remember me? I was one of the neighborhood kids that played ball in the vacant lot next door to the fire hall."
"Chief, meet my son, Joe, Jr. He's a fireman now, too."
"Glad to finally meet you, Sir. My father has spoken of you often."
John couldn't believe so many people had remembered him, after all these years.
After they made their way to their designated table, the present City Fire Chief L.R. Hines walked up to the podium to make an announcement.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we are here tonight to honor a man who worked diligently for better equipment and better training for the men during the early years of the fire department development. He taught most of us here today when there was no fire school. He taught us not just how to fight fires, but how to live a life of integrity, dedication and honesty. He earned the nickname of being the 'daddy of all North Side firemen.' After forty-three years on the fire department, he retired in 1947, as Battalion Chief of the four stations in the North Side District Three."
John thought, "That sounds familiar."
Chief Hines continued. "We are here today to honor this man for his dedication and service, but also to celebrate his birthday. At ninety-two years old, he is the oldest living firefighter in Fort Worth. Ladies and Gentlemen, Retired Battalion Chief John Whittenburg."
"What? That's my name. He was talking about me?"
The sound of applause rose and John's mind began to reminisce. "Me? This can't be for me. I was just doing my job. Look at all those faces, faces of the men I trained and worked with and their families. Has it really been seventy years since I joined the fire department? What happened to all those years? Jennie, my love, why aren't you here with me?"
* * *
September 24, 1880
Elmos helped Cornelia climb into the seat of the covered wagon. Grandpa helped Ida and Clemmie into the back of the wagon threatening each with a spanking it they got into the picnic basket of food. Grandma handed little Charlie to his big sister Fannie. Grandpa waved and Grandma wiped tears with her apron and the children yelled "Goodbye" till the wagon rolled out of sight. It had been a good visit, taking the children to see their grandparents and the rest of the family in Dublin, Texas. Now they were heading back to their farm close to Stephenville, an all day trip in the wagon.
The rutted, dirt road was bumpy, so Elmos reined in the horses to a slow walk, trying to make it easier for Cornelia, who was carrying their fifth child. Time passed slowly and the further they went the worse Cornelia felt. "Surely, I can make it home", she thought, "I don't believe the baby is due for a few more weeks. It must be something I ate." A few more turns of the wagon wheels on the bumpy road and suddenly, Cornelia had to lean over the side of the wagon to throw up her breakfast.
"Whoa!" Elmos called as he pulled on the reins to bring the horses to a stop.
"No, keep going," Cornelia replied, "I'll be alright now. Let's get on home."
"You sure? You want to lie down in the back with the children?"
Cornelia felt a slight cramp, "I think I will."
Elmos wound the horse's reins over the hook and set the brake on the wagon.
Retrieving the step stool out of the back of the wagon he brought it around to the side and helped Cornelia get down. Moving the stool he helped her climb into the back.
"You children move over and sit on the quilts and let your Ma lay down on the bed. Fannie, tend to your Ma, a drink of water and a wet rag to wipe her face. Clemmie, you watch over Ida and Charlie."
"Yes, Pa." they answered as they did as they were told.
Elmos climbed back on the wagon and flicked the reins, signaling the horses to start pulling again.
A few minutes later, Cornelia felt another little cramp. Oh, dear, she thought, we are too far to turn back now. Maybe I can make it home. But within an hour, she was grimacing in pain. "Elmos!" she yelled. "We have to stop. The baby's coming. I can't make it home in time!"
Elmos looked over the countryside, "We're almost to Green's Creek. That will be a good place to stop. Can you make it a few more minutes?"
"Yes, I'm guessing.....Oh,h,h,h,....maybe......about an hour or two to go."
"Oh, no, that doesn't even give me time to go back for help and I don't know where the nearest farm is and there may not be a woman there to help," Elmos thought. He could see the creek now and started looking for a level piece of ground. He guided the horses into the shade of some big Scrub Oak trees and jumped down to tie the reins to one of the trees. Helping the children out of the wagon, he told them, "Stay close and stay together. Fannie, get one of those quilts and the picnic basket. You and Clemmie take care of the young'uns and ya'll get something to eat, while I help your Ma."
Getting the children settled down to eating, Elmos climbed into the wagon and began helping Cornelia get undressed and into a nightgown to make her more comfortable. Cornelia instructed him where to find her sewing scissors, the handmade diapers and everything else they might need. Remembering one more thing, he called, "Fannie, gather some wood to start a fire. We're going to need some warm water to wash the baby."
After gathering the wood, Fannie went to sit with her mother. Elmos grabbed a bite to eat and made sure the rest of the food was put away for their supper. He unhitched the horses and walked them to the creek for water, getting a bucket full for the family as well. They would have to spend the night out, so he secured the horses to the trees, so they wouldn't run away if they heard a predator. His gun was under the wagon seat and could be reached easily. While setting up camp, he checked on Cornelia every few minutes. It was getting close to time now, so Elmos told Fannie, "You go take care of the other children and set the bucket of water on the fire to start heating. When it's warm bring it here. Watch it doesn't get hot." He took over letting Cornelia squeeze his hand with every pain. Elmos was nervous. When the other children were born there was always a lady family member or a midwife to help. He wondered if he was capable of the situation. All he could do was pray nothing went wrong and Cornelia could tell him what to do.
September 24, 1880, mid-afternoon, a baby's cry echoes across the rolling hills of central Texas. A boy with thin locks of blond hair and fat little arms and legs, sturdy build like his German heritage has been born in a covered wagon. "Like a lowly manger," Cornelia thought. Elmos and Cornelia sighed with relief as Elmos held the baby over the warm water, rinsed him off and wrapped him in one of the hand sewn diapers and thin summer quilt. Elmos went to the back of the wagon and called, "Fannie, I need your help now." Fannie quickly ran to Pa. "Big Sister, meet your new little brother. I need you to hold the baby while I help your mother clean up."
Fannie took the baby and looked at him, "Oh, Pa, ain't he cute?" Fannie loved little babies. Clemmie wanted to hold him too, but Fannie said, "Wait till Pa or Ma say it's alright."
After Elmos had finished helping Cornelia, he left her to rest for a while. He and the children sat on the blanket, each taking turns holding the baby. After a while, Elmos took Cornelia some food. After supper, Elmos started helping the children get bedded down for the night. When all was settled and quiet, Elmos asked Cornelia, "Have you decided on a name for him, yet?"
"Yes, I like the name John Lee. He's not going to be named after anyone. I have a feeling this baby is going to be somebody. He needs a name of his own, because someday, John Lee Whittenburg is going to make it on his own."
John grew to be a healthy, strong boy and well-mannered for his age. By the time he was ten years old two of his sisters, Fannie and Clemmie had married and moved away. Just he and his sister Ida and brother Charlie lived at home now, helping Elmos and Cornelia with the farm. Elmos was a good, honest man and hard worker, but just never could make a farm pay off and barely kept the family fed. As the years went by, he sold the farm near Stephenville and bought one closer to Dublin. John couldn't understand why, as that farm wasn't any better than the others, except it was closer to his grandparents.
One time John went to visit his grandparents. He and grandpa had just finished checking on the animals for the night and were heading back to the house when Grandma came out on the porch and called to them, "Ya'll wash up for supper, now."
"Grandpa," John tugged at Grandpa's sleeve. "Look, there's somebody on horse back riding up this way."
"Hum-m-m, sure is. Don't look like anybody I know."
They stopped and waited for the rider to come to them. John was intrigued with the stranger who wore a gun on his hip and had a rifle in a holster on the side of his saddle.
"Howdy, stranger, what can I do for you?" Grandpa asked.
"Have you got a place I can bed down for the night?" asked the stranger.
"As you can see my house is small, but you're welcome to bed down in the barn."
Grandpa told him. "We were 'bout to go in for supper. Would you care to join us? Or I can bring you some food out here."
"Thank you, Sir. I'll take it out here, if you don't mind. I ain't much for socializing." The stranger rode on toward the barn and started taking the saddle off his horse.
"Who is he, Grandpa?" John quietly asked as they headed on to the house.
"Don't know and it don't matter, Son. The Lord says do unto others as we would have them do to us." Grandpa opened the door, "Divide the vittles, Ma and fix another plate. Got a stranger bedding down in the barn for the night."
John, curious for another look at the stranger, asked, "Want me to take his food out to him, Grandpa?"
"No, you stay away from people like him. I'll take him the food."
John knew better than to disobey his grandpa.
The next morning when they went out to the barn, the stranger had left his dirty plate beside where he had bedded down and had already left. Grandpa and John hitched up the horses to the wagon and they all road into town. While Grandma went in the General Store, John went with Grandpa to the post office. While Grandpa was getting their mail and talking with the clerk, John looked at the portrait drawings posted on the wall. One of the pictures, of a wanted criminal looked just like the man that had slept in the barn. The poster read, "Wanted, John Wesley Harding, for Train Robbery."
"Grandpa, look," John pointed out. "That's the man that slept in the barn last night."
Grandpa looked at the poster. "Well, it sure could be. Anyways, best not to get involved. He didn't do us no harm, so let it be."
By early spring, Elmos heard there was good money to be made making railroad ties and barrel staves. John, almost twelve years old now, and his brother Charlie nearly fourteen were big enough to help. They got up one morning and while eating breakfast Elmos told them, "Boys, you and I are going to East Texas. There are lots of trees over there we can cut for nothing. We'll cut a wagon load and come back through Ft. Worth and sell 'um to the railroad company. We'll be gone maybe a month or so. We are going to be getting the wagon ready today. I traded the horses for a pair of Oxen. We go get them soon as we have breakfast and we'll be pulling out in the morning."
"But what about school, Pa?" John asked.
"You know how to read and write don't ya?" Pa asked.
"A man don't need to know more than that to work hard and make a living."
"Yes, Pa." John, although disappointed, obeyed his Pa. He had completed the fourth grade, but there were eight grades of school and surely more to learn. He could not only read and write, but add, subtract and divided. The rest of his education would come from hands-on experience and he would have plenty of that.
Elmos and the boys loaded up the wagon with only the basic needs: a couple of quilts and one or two changes of clothes, besides their tools. Food items included dried beans, salt, pepper, coffee and cornmeal. They basically would live off the land, camping by a river for water.
John shot a mess of squirrels with his Pa's muzzle loading, double barrel shotgun. Sometimes, a deer, rabbit or if the hunting was lean they took what they could get, like frog legs or opossum. Opossum stew was greasy, but when you're hungry, it sure tastes good. The Trinity River had plenty of alligators. Once in a while, he and Charlie would catch a two or three foot long 'gater and cook the tail. John thought they tasted a little like chicken. John also cut a straight thin limb off a small tree and tied a long piece of cotton string on one end and a hook on the end of the string for a fishing pole. Bait was primarily grasshoppers or other bugs, or minnows if he was lucky enough to catch some. It didn't matter what kind of bait, as long as the fish were biting and he caught supper.
On one trip they camped out beside the river. Across the river from them was a nice clearing with tall grass. "John," Elmos said. "I want you to take the oxen up the bank to that bridge we saw a mile or so back. Take them cross the river to the other side over there and let them graze that good grass for a while, then bring them back."
"Yes, Sir." John said. As he walked he thought, "It's at least a mile or more up to that bridge, then another mile or two back down the other side to that grass. Oxen can swim and so can I. Why walk all that way?"
As soon as he was out of sight of his father, he mounted the biggest ox, held the reins of the other one and started swimming across the river. But John didn't think about the currant being strong enough to carry them down stream. They floated down the river faster than they crossed. He began to get scared. But the ox finally made it across to the other side, out of the water and 'to a grassy clearing'. John turned around slowly and sure enough they had been washed down stream, right across from their camp. There stood his father with his hands on his hips looking mad. "Oh! No!" John thought. "I'll be getting a whipping tonight." John let the ox graze as long as he could. He didn't know how long it would take to walk all the way to the bridge and back to camp, but he would have to do it sooner or later, like he should have done in the first place.
John, Charlie and Elmos made a couple of trips a year for two years; once in the spring and once in the fall. It was coming up spring and John already dreaded making the trip. But, to his surprise his dad traded the oxen for a pair of horses and was looking for some other dream to follow.
One Saturday, when John was fourteen years old, he drove the horses and wagon into Dublin with Elmos for supplies. On the town bulletin board, outside the general store was a notice, 'Hiring Workers, Thurber Brick Factory, fifty-cents a day.' John thought about that as they headed back to their farm. He was tired of being a poor, dirt farmer. He wanted to make some money of his own and make something of himself.
"Pa, I'm going over to Thurber and see about getting a job at the brick factory."
"Why?" Elmos asked. "I got plenty of work for you here, boy. Besides, you don't know anybody in Thurber. Who you going to stay with?"
John was pleased his Pa hadn't come right out and said no. "I don't know, yet. But I gotta' give it a try. You still got Charlie to help you and he likes farming. Mr. Taylor takes a load of supplies over to Thurber every Monday to sell. He spends the night and comes back next day. I could hitch a ride with him. If I can't find work when we get there, I'll come back with Mr. Taylor the next day. Pa, you're a farmer. I'm not. I gotta' find what I want to do and I know it ain't farming or making railroad ties."
Excerpted from Duty-Honor-Courage by Janie Hall Copyright © 2010 by Janie Hall. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Contents1. Reminiscing (September 1972 and September 18801 )....................1
2. On His Own (May 1896)....................17
3. Job with a Future (1904)....................27
4. Basic Training (1904)....................35
5. Courting Days (1907)....................49
6. Taking Care of Family (1908)....................67
7. His Own Horses and Wagon (1908)....................79
8. The Devil Steps In (1908)....................101
9. More Delays (1908)....................121
10. Married Life and Promotion (1909)....................145
11. Opening Number Twelve Fire Station (1909)....................159
12. New Baby and New Home (1910)....................175
13. Family and Motor Vehicles (1915)....................199
14. Realities of Life (1920)....................213
15. Working toward Retirement (1935-1947)....................231
16. Retirement Years (1947 to 1973)....................243
Sources of Information and Acknowledgements....................253