TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS.
Whilst there have been many nights for me to remember in my fire service days, big fires rescues etc, this night likewise is indelibly stamped in my mind. One Christmas in the early 1980s at Hammersmith fire station, the white watch were on night duties on the 23rd and 24th of December. Night duties entailed starting duties at 1800hours (6pm) in the evening, and finishing at 0900hours (9am) the following day. Whilst to some people having to work on Christmas Eve and on into Christmas day might have been deemed an imposition. In the fire service this was in fact considered a good throw of the dice in shift duties. It meant in fact that all being well one would be able to spend the majority of Christmas day and Boxing day (the 26th December) off duty and undisturbed with one’s families. White watch duly reported for duty on the night of the 23rd of December and made ready for a busy night. It had been decided that on this the first of two night duties, we would have our watch Christmas dinner, which entailed quite a lot of work and preparation. We had chosen this first night for we knew from experience that Christmas Eve, the 24th of December could be quite a busy night fire call wise. The Christmas dinner itself went well enough. It was actually a steak and all the trimmings meal, which made a change from our usual cheap and cheerful fare of hamburger egg and chips or spaghetti bolognaise etc. Then most unusually for we were seated around the mess table for around two hours, not a single fire call was received. Once the table had been cleared and washing etc all done the evening reverted to a typical night duty routine. The inevitable card school of contract whist starting play at one end of the mess room. The rest of the shift passed off uneventfully we possible had some of fairly routine fire calls of which I have no memory. We would have watched the Hammersmith Palais dance hall next door to the fire station turn out till around 2-30am then gone off to bed. The next day was the 24th December, Christmas Eve. Very few of the firemen would have been working at their part time jobs on this day, some hurried away from the station at the change of shift to no doubt help their wives with last minute shopping. Those firemen that had long distances to travel to work and staying over for the day would be keeping out of the way up on the third floor of the rambling old Hammersmith fire station. Another fireman and myself went to the local market at Shepherds Bush in a final last ditch and desperation burst of Xmas gift shopping. Those staying over in between shifts had arranged to meet in the Laurie Arms the pub along from the fire station for a lunchtime drink. This was not to be the usual Christmas Eve works lunchtime grand piss-up, but instead merely a convivial couple of pints for we were back on duty at six o’clock that night. At 1800hours (6pm) on the command ‘for duty fall out’ in the appliance room the line of fully booted and spurred white watch firemen turned smartly to their right, and were once again back on duty. This being Christmas eve the firemen carried the usual routine checks of appliances and equipment, then I stood them down for the evening, to use an old naval term, they were given a make and mend session. The evening passed routinely, perhaps half a dozen calls but nothing of significance that I could remember. Now for most of my service life I had been sleep deprived, a combination of late nights up, and night time fire calls. You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I had gone to bed to sleep in the daytime to recover. Even after an early morning four-hour attendance at the 30-pump fire and multiple rescues at Leinster Towers on Paddington’s fire ground, I set off after duty for my part time job as a hotel maintenance man. Like so many of the other stalwarts at inner city stations, I was always going to give it five more years then transfer to a quieter outer station, but of course we never actually get around to doing it. So at 1230 (0030hours) this night I made an unusual decision I was actually going to go to bed early and try to get some sleep. This really was a forlorn hope for my biological clock did not start to wind down till 2-30 at the earliest. The reason for this dramatic change of routine. So many Christmas days at home with my wife and family after coming off shift, I had been sleep lagged. The kids all full of excitement and bounce, a mountain of potatoes and brussell sprouts for me to peel and prepare, and myself wandering around the house in a soporific daze, trying my hardest to partake of the Christmas spirit. Glasses of Sherry and mince pies, my wife is a great traditionalist. Then the Christmas dinner itself, plates piled high, turkey and all the trimmings, cans of beer glasses of wine, very rarely did I make it to the queen’s speech at 3pm. I never heard the words for I was ensconced in my favourite armchair, but I could imagine them “Mum Dads gone asleep again” then Mum replying “every Christmas it’s the bloody same”. So the foregoing is the reason I was at least going to make the effort to get at least part of a good nights sleep this Christmas Eve. It was a forlorn doomed effort though, for I was battling partly my biological clock, and partly the raucous Christmas Eve street noise from our immediet neighbours the Hammersmith Palais dance hall and the busy road outside. Sometime around 1-30am I must have dozed off, for I was awakened and startled by the ringing of the teleprinter bell, I waited for the clamour of the big station fire bells to follow, but they never sounded. For long serving experienced fire officers this sequence of events in the early morning is very worrying, for it could denote one’s attendance being required at nasty hateful, relief duties on some far distant fire ground. The intercom buzzer on the telephone on the table beside my bed sounded my heart sank. I hoped against hope it would merely be message from the Metropolitan water board, informing of a water main shut down. Wearily I answered the phone “station officer”, and the voice of the duty man down below informed me “you have been ordered on to a relief guv”. Now if you were to ask me to mark out of ten, which relief would be the most hateful relief at 1.30am on a dark and dismal Christmas Eve to be ordered on to, the full ten points would be awarded to a barn fire on the outer edges of the London fire brigade. Down in the watch room as I looked at the teleprinter ordering slip, this was exactly where they were sending us. D23 Hammersmith one of the busiest working fire stations in inner London was being sent, to some crappy smouldering barn at the outer edges of nowhere. To say I was upset would be a gross understatement. The duty man standing by my side was currently in a romantic liaison, with one of the fire control room girls, I snapped at him “you haven’t fallen out with your bloody girlfriend again have you, and she is taking it out on us”. Sensing my mood he blurted back “no guv honest we are as sweet as a nut honest”. Up in the first floor mess room as the vacuum flasks were being filled with tea and coffee, I decided to sort out the riders on the pump which had been ordered onto the relief. The driver was the mess manager; a senior fireman with young children, so another unattached driver replaced him. I said to a couple of more junior firemen “have you ever been to a barn fire before” they both replied “no Guv”. “Get your kit on the pump then you are both coming”, adding tersely “it will look good on your CV” thus relieving more senior married firemen with children of the nasty relief. At around 2.0am we left the station to resounding ironic cheers of the tipsily merry patrons of the Hammersmith Palais, leaving early, quite a few of the young ladies were trying their luck in trying to hitch a lift with us. With a crew of four on the pump we set of somewhat subdued, in the general direction of outer London and nowhere. After driving for along for 10 minutes through the quiet and almost deserted roads we went past Willesden fire station, two fire engines snugly in the bays all darkened and quiet, not a light to be seen (lucky b*stards). We wound our way through West London eventually joining the North Circular Road, a broad main highway that leads from West to North London. Once again this usually busy road was devoid of all other traffic as we glumly made our way out into the back of beyond. After around 10 minutes on this dimly lit road, the fire engines full beam headlights picked what appeared to be three young ladies tottering along in their high-heeled shoes on the pavement miles from apparently nowhere. They upon hearing the fire engines road engine began vigorously trying to thumb a lift, the driver’s right foot came of the accelerator, and he looked at me enquiringly, I in return shook my head. As we drew level with them all three demur young ladies turned their backs to us and raised their skirts showing us their bottoms. Strangely all three young ladies appeared to be wearing boxer shorts. Weird and wonderful things can happen on Christmas Eve, father Christmas and his reindeers trundling overhead etc, but there is no logical explanation as to why three strapping men all dressed up in ladies kit and high heels, should be wandering down the North Circular road at 2-30 in the morning. A further ten minutes driving and we entered what appeared to be the end of the Metropolis, green fields and trees scattered all over the place. According to our Geographia we should turn off to the left somewhere along here, but the night was as black as yer hat, “wonder where they keep the on/off switch for the street lights”, mused the driver. We came upon a turning to the left, which according to the map should be the one we must take. It was about now that I fully came to understand the meaning of the word Rural, as opposed to Urban. Now the countryside may be a green and charming place in the daytime, sun shining, birds twittering, but at night there is absolutely nothing to see. Nothing in this case definitely means nothing, other than the beam of the fire engine headlights everything was as black as Newgates knocker. We were driving down a narrow meandering country lane, with only occasionally passing scattered house lights. Something now occurred which even now after all these years, has never ceased to amaze me. We were driving down this narrow winding lane with great caution when in front of us; at the edge of the headlight beams appeared an apparition. Something flittered briefly to and thro in the distant white glare of the headlights, “what the bloody hell was that” exclaimed the driver. What ever it was it was showing up white in the headlights, and flittering from side to side in the road, and occasionally disappearing from sight into the darkness. Even more mysteriously, from time to time a shimmering red light would glare back at us. Now personally I am not overly impressed with tales of fairies and Hobgoblins, witches in the night etc, but I had my fingers crossed just in case. When we finally cautiously came up upon it, it was almost beyond belief. There in this dark satanic country lane at 3am on Christmas morning, was a young boy of around seven or eight years of age screeching around on one of the must have toys at the time, a chopper bicycle, the red eye that glimmered back at us being his rear reflector light. He cheerfully waved to us as we carefully made our way past him. I am sure his mother and father must have been tucked up snugly in bed, and thinking that little Johnny was likewise. We came across a fork in the road, I felt we must be close to the address given but had no clue which direction to take. I knew that two machines had been ordered on this relief, so I radioed control to ask the second machine to turn on its blue lights, then guided by the flickering blue lights in the far distance we finally arrived at the incident. The officer in charge of the second pump already on the scene was a very young acting leading fireman. So it would appear that the officer back at his home station had also decided that he could only but benefit, by the attendance at a barn fire on his CV. The young leading fireman lead me forward to show me the extent of the duty. It appeared that this was not a farm, but quite a large equestrian centre. With stables and a large indoor ménage, or exercise area for the horses. Then there was the source of all our woe’s and troubles, a very large heap or stack of gently steaming hay. Normally on a farm fire, the farmer with his front loader tractor would have sorted this lot out in half hour, sadly this was an equestrian centre and they have horses not tractors. It was deemed the stack was close to, and a danger to the ménage building, thus the two pump relief ordered. As I looked gloomily at the heap of steaming crap that they had ordered us right across London, and into never never land to stand guard over, I was even more depressed. I started barking orders at the young leading fireman “right get your crew together and start making up the spare hose and equipment lying around”. His crew also mainly youngsters with the exception of the driver, must have thought just our luck a barn relief on Christmas Eve, and now a bloody miserable grouchy station officer, taking advantage of our young leading fireman, and making us do all the hard work. I waited for the half expected mutiny, but it never came, so I gave them the good news adding “then when you have done that, bugger off back to your station it does not take two pumps to nursemaid this heap of crap”. I think the whole of his crew twittered off overcome by an attack of the O-be-joyfuls, they were going back to their station shortly. Now despite all my whinging and prevaricating about attending this relief I am actually quite fatalistic about it. Perversely I am an optimistic fatalist, thus if although convinced that the worst is about to happen, always to make the best of it. Thus one of the young firemen riding in the back of the machine, a lad with about one year’s service was promoted to officer in charge of the fire. He was given sole command of a heap of about 50 tons of steaming straw and hay. Complete control to make sure that the heap did not do a Phoenix trick on us, and burst back into a raging conflagration. The odds against this actually happening were judged to be so small, that even the young fireman himself, was not overly impressed with his new promotion to officer in charge of the fire. I myself went back to join the driver at the pump, poured myself a cup of coffee from the thermos flask, and produced my mouth organ (harmonica). Many many moons ago I used to commute to London in an old Rover 80 saloon car, these motorcars when they first came out were quite upmarket. They were the type of car that lawyers and bank managers would drive. In their time they had every up to date device and equipment, overdrive, leather seats, fitted radio, and even an ashtray designed especially for pipe smokers. Now the first owner of this vehicle must have been an exceptionally staid and conservative person, for he opted not to have a radio fitted. So on my hour-long journeys into London down the M4 motorway I became quite bored. Thus I decided that if I had no in house entertainment (radio) I would provide my own. I would henceforth learn to play the mouth organ or harmonica to occupy my travelling time. After a period of time I actually became quite good at it, and had built up quite a repertoire of songs. This habit of driving and at the same time playing the mouth organ sometimes gave rise to some amusing incidents. When being overtaken by army lorries, motorway coaches and suchlike where passengers can see out of the rear of the vehicle (especially young children), this would often brings smiles, and sometimes cheers. On another occasion when pulled over by a (I suspect bored) motorway policeman, then watching him pull up in front of me open the door of his car, then walk slowly and ponderously towards me in that manner that all traffic coppers seem to have. I was expecting the time-honoured challenge of “hello hello what have we got here then”. Instead he just went on to then enquire “why was I proceeding along a 55 miles an hour in the inside lane of the motorway and allegedly playing a musical instrument” My simple reply of “cos I haven’t got a radio in the car officer and I was bored” strangely and unusually this seemed to placate him. It subsequently transpired that one of his ambitions in life was also to learn to play the harmonica, so I gave him a quick rendering of Danny Boy played with great panache and feeling. He then departed gently humming the melody to himself, leaving me to continue my journey unmolested. Thus I whiled away my time on the relief, drinking coffee, playing my mouth organ, and chatting to the pump driver, with an occasional soirée off to pat the horses on the head. From time to time the young officer in charge of the heap of straw would report back that every thing seemed cool at the scene of the fire/smouldering. I even accompanied him back once or twice to visit the event, and concur with his decision making. Never the less I was totally fed up, what a totally useless way to spend an early Christmas morning. Looking at my watch I saw that breakfast time back at the fire station 8am was only two and a half hours away, so I made a snap decision. I turned to the driver saying “right send a message to control, from me at here, where ever we are, closing down this relief, recommend a visit by local station at 0800hours”, the drivers face broke into a big smile at hearing this. My facial expression would perhaps be a sardonic grin, as I thought that the local fire station that had caused us all this grief, would have their own breakfast time somewhat mucked about by the visit. So once again we all clambered aboard the fire engine to yet again negotiate the dark and winding lanes, thence to the bright city lights, and the warmth and comfort of Hammersmith fire station. Although we kept a look out for him, there was not a sign of the young lad on his new Christmas bicycle on the return journey, possibly his parents had awakened by now and found him missing. After a journey of around half an hour, we found ourselves stationary at red traffic lights opposite Willesden fire station. The station was yet again serene and all in darkness still, not a single light to be seen (lucky lucky b*stads!). The traffic lights changed, the driver engaged gear, and we moved forward about one yard and the engine stalled. He turned the ignition key to start the engine, and nothing happened, he tried again, and again nothing happened. Oh sh*t I intoned to myself, don’t say we have broken down it would take forever and a day, for the breakdown vehicle manned by civvies to get to us at this ungodly hour on Christmas morning. The fault cannot be the vehicles batteries, for the engine has been running continuously for around three hours now. Never-the-less we turned off all lights and power usage and tried again, again absolutely nothing. I was now thinking to myself look on the bright side of life; at least we are outside Willesden fire station, where we can get succour and perhaps a cup of tea, whilst we wait the arrival of the breakdown wagon. Great men allegedly say, think the impossible and it will happen. The impossibility that I was currently considering was of three puny firemen pushing and bump starting, a ten-ton diesel powered fire engine. I dismounted and walked backwards from the machine. I saw there was a very slight just discernable, downward gradient in front of the fire engine, so I thought to myself right we will give the impossible a try. The driver engaged third gear and depressed the clutch, whist we three at the rear pushed with all our might, and managed to attain a mere road speed of about half a mile per hour. The driver I think out of sheer desperation, let out his clutch, there was a slight almost imperceptible bump as the clutch took up, then wonderful, wonderful Oh-be-Joyfuls, the engine roared back into life. We were still about three miles away from Hammersmith fire station, and I was not going to chance this engine stalling yet again. So I carefully adjusted the hand throttle that regulates the fire pumps speed via the main engine so that whilst the vehicle was stationary, we had a thousand RPM on the rev counter. Once again into the fray we set off for Hammersmith. This time the journey was a bit noisy, due to the clanging and crunching of gears, caused by the over high engine revs, BUT WE MADE IT! Back at Hammersmith we enjoyed a much appreciated full English breakfast, then handed over the station to the oncoming Blue watch at 0900hours. I then set off to drive the 50 miles home down the M4 motorway with the driver’s window fully open. I well knew from experience that motor way driving was especially soporific to sleep deprived drivers. Strangely although I remembered the night well enough, I recollect very little of the following Christmas day. I very much doubt that I made it much past the Queens speech at 3pm without falling asleep though.
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