Sirens were part of everyday life even in the small Illinois town where I lived. Every night, you could hear the 9 o’clock whistle blow. This was intended to test the city’s fire alarm and also signal curfew. To this day, whenever I hear a fire whistle, the next thing I expect to hear is the opening to “Gunsmoke,” my father’s favorite television show that always started promptly at 9 p.m.
My father was a fireman and this was the same siren that was used to notify firefighters when there was a fire in town. When I was in junior high, he was given a special radio designed to replace the whistle. These red boxes with their long antenna made a sound like a diving submarine just before a dispatcher blurted out the address of the fire. They tested them every night and it never failed to make you jump out of your skin. I recently put a weather alert radio in our guest room and I’m waiting to hear how it compares with those red boxes.
My two biggest regrets in elementary school were both safety related. First, I was never selected to be a safety patrol boy and second I never got to slide down the school fire escape chute. I would have given anything to proudly wear that white cloth Sam Browne belt and that silver AAA badge, just like Presidents Carter and Clinton, and 21 of the astronauts, but it just wasn’t in the cards.
The year my classroom was downstairs they only picked patrol boys from upstairs. The next year when my classroom was upstairs, they only chose kids from downstairs. I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time — the story of my life.
As for the fire escape chute, this was a metal structure that fit the Midwestern profile, as it looked exactly like a small silo attached to the corner of the school. Inside was a spiral slide that only the children whose classroom was located on that corner were allowed to use. There was a small sliding door in the back of the classroom that the teacher would open during fire drills and the lucky kids in that room would get to slide down the chute. In the third grade, I was elated to finally find myself in the chute classroom. Unfortunately, this was also the year some spoil-sport fire marshal declared the slide unsafe and ordered it permanently sealed.