Red engines

Heading southward on the M5 motorway, a fire engine was travelling north on the other carriageway. Traffic was streaming past it as it made its sedate way. A vintage engine from the 1950s or the 1960s, it must have demanded hundreds of hours of work. Presumably, it had been at a vintage fair over the weekend and was now homeward bound, or perhaps was making slow progress to an event yet to take place. Moving at, perhaps, a top speed of forty miles per hour, its journey times would always be lengthy.

Do fire engines still have a fascination for those who see them? Do they still have the capacity to beguile small boys, even when those boys have reached pensionable age?

One of my earliest memories, perhaps from the age of three, was being in a seaside town, in a van driven by my uncle, when suddenly all the traffic came to a sudden halt. There was the clanging of a bell as a red fire engine went flying down a street, in times when forty miles an hour was fast, it was probably not going so fast as I remember. There was a moment of both fascination and fear; fascination at the complexity of the machinery, the urgency with which it proceeded, and the priority it was accorded, and fear at what the firemen might have to face. There was smoke visible above a building some streets away, perhaps it was not even a serious fire.

From that age onward, fire engines have always attracted my attention. Wherever they might be going, whatever their task, the blue light and the bell, and then blue light and the siren, had a magnetic quality. Only in teenage years did an awareness grow that the fireman’s lot was not a happy one, that the emergency calls to house fires and to the scenes of motor accidents might bring encounters with horrific scenes.

Perhaps it was the very brief stories about my grandfather’s war service in London as a member of the National Fire Service that had planted a fascination; he had served through the Blitz, though never spoke of it. Perhaps there was an unfulfilled subconscious desire to  follow in his footsteps. Perhaps it was something much more basic, just a fascination with the unexpected and the unusual. 

It would have been good to have been able to ask the driver of this evening’s fire engine about how his interest arose, he’ll probably pass along the road again when the spring comes. He wouldn’t be hard to catch.

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