By Joe Burchell
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
For 25 years retired firefighter Frank Tamayo flew down Tucson streets, often perched precariously on the running board of a truck, in response to a stranger’s cry for help. All that ended when he retired from the Tucson Fire Department in 1986.
But Tamayo would like to take one last ride on the back of one of those old pumpers, although it’s a trip he’d like to put off for as long as possible.
The truck he has in mind is one restored to carry departed firefighters “with red lights flashing and sirens wailing, on to the eternal station,” fellow former firefighter J.R. Russell said in his poem “Last Alarm.”
Tamayo is a driving force behind a Tucson Retired Firefighters Association effort to restore an antique firetruck for “Last Alarm” duty. The association completed the first step last week, buying a 1954 Mack pumper truck it found at a salvage yard on the far South Side, where it’s been parked for 20 years.
Now the members need money and manpower to restore it to a condition befitting a final tribute to those who dedicated their lives to helping others in emergencies, Russell said.
Tamayo and Russell, along with association President Ed Montaño, and fellow retirees Bill Martin and Dave Spaulding, are the core of a group committed to getting the truck back on the road. Among them they have more than 134 years of Fire Department service.
A few months ago, Tamayo was talking to City Councilman Jose Ibarra, trying to drum up support for a fire museum, and decided to make a pitch for the Last Call truck, too. “He told me, ‘You find the truck, I’ll find the money,’ ” Tamayo said. They looked at trucks in half a dozen cities around Arizona and Northern Mexico, along with some on eBay, before finding one right in their own metaphorical back yard. It was at a salvage yard on South Nogales Highway, which Russell had seen when he drove past.
“Of all the ones we looked at, it turned out this is the one the honor guard really liked,” he said. The honor guard is 21 active-duty firefighters who serve as pallbearers and otherwise help with firefighter funerals.
Jerry Hammond, the truck’s former owner, brought it with him from Long Beach when he retired to Tucson in 1984 and parked it at the salvage yard. Ten years ago, Hammond moved to San Carlos, Mexico.
Once the firefighters found the truck, tracking the owner down in Mexico was another challenge, but they pulled it off. Ibarra was called on to negotiate with Hammond, who was asking $4,000. “After he realized what it was going to be used for, he was very generous,” cutting the price to $1,200, Ibarra said.
Ibarra recruited Neil Capin of Capin’s Car Washes to put up the $1,200, allowing the firefighters to use their money for the restoration. “It just sounded like a good cause that I wanted to support,” Capin said.
Russell said 20 years in the desert sun and a pack rat infestation have taken a toll on the truck. But if the association members can line up the right contributions, either cash or goods and services, they hope to have it running within a year.
“We have a lot of retirees who are in poor health who’ve told me to ‘hurry up and get that truck done ’cause I might need it,’ ” Tamayo said. Tucson has about more than 300 retired firefighters, although not all are active in the association, and five or six die each year, Martin said. Active firefighters and those from surrounding fire districts would also be welcome to use it, he said.
The space in back of the truck that would normally be filled with hose will be converted into compartment to hold a casket.
The group also envisions the truck appearing in parades and antique car shows and being used to promote fire safety.
The retirees have the paint and chrome plating they need, but they lack a paint bay large enough to handle the truck. They also need upholstery, tires, emergency lights and mechanical work.
Spaulding said having their caskets transported to the cemetery in a firetruck instead of a regular hearse would be an important symbol for a lot of firefighters. “We’re a family, more than most,” he said, “because of the time we spend together.”