Firefighters have earned a good night's rest
All told, Keith Gulbranson, Kevin Lempola and Chuck Rognstad have had 91 years of sleepless nights.
The trio of volunteers recently retired from the Park Rapids Fire Department. Their collective years of service add up to a whopping 91 years: Keith at 45, Chuck at 25 and Kevin at 21.
It's a young man's game, they all say reluctantly. The department has no female members.
"I could tell it was time," Chuck said, shaking his head sadly. "When the younger guys go by you like you're standing still..." his voice trails off. "We might have the knowledge but not the stamina."
"When you put on your 'turnout' gear that weighs 30 to 40 pounds, your breathing gear that weighs about the same and haul a hose, tools and a pack up five stories..." said Kevin, wincing at the recollection. "A guy could keep on but it's better to keep the department young."
Their three vacant spots were quickly filled, said Fire Chief Donn Hoffman.
"When you begin to think of yourself as a liability and not an asset," said Chuck.
Kevin remembers those midnight calls when he'd just gotten to bed, "dog tired." Then he remembers the time when firefighters were called out every single night of the week. He said that's the only thing he won't miss about leaving the force.
They recall the "big ones," the fires where they lost people or property. After all the years, they still take those memories hard.
Keith almost tears up at the recollection of two children who perished in a fire started when their father tried to rev up a wood stove by dumping some gasoline on it. He remembers most of the names of people who have died in fires.
Kevin and Chuck recall the fire at the World of Christmas building on Highway 71 north. "When a burst of water hit that hot glass we almost had an explosion," Chuck recalled of dousing the flaming holiday ornaments.
Then there was the fire at the former Shipwreck restaurant. "We didn't see anything glowing in the sky," Chuck said as they neared the Potato Lake setting in the middle of the night. "When we got there the whole place was on fire. It was an all-nighter."
Kevin said the firefighters feel sympathy for people who lose loved ones and property.
"It doesn't take much time before you know if you're going to save a building," Hoffman said.
But even when people do careless, thoughtless things that start fires, none of the retirees assign blame.
They take each event as a challenge, leaving families, gatherings and their professional lives to fight fires.
They don't get riled about the false alarms. "It's better to be turned around than to fight it," Keith said. "Sometimes you chase hazy clouds."
Directions are a frustration, however. "We'll get called from across the lake" but the exact location of the fire can be difficult to pinpoint, Kevin said.
Their wives all encouraged them to stay, the men said.
"Our wives are a part of this department as anything," Chuck said. "Without their blessing it wouldn't go far."
That's particularly apt in his case. He said for 25 years he's had an excuse to dump his dirty clothes at the bedside, telling his wife he might need them later.
Then there was the time in the middle of the night when he got the call to go. The adrenalin was pumping as he backed his wife's car out of the driveway.
They'd just moved into a new house and were deciding which trees they should eventually remove.
"I was backing out and boom," he said. "Then I went forward and boom." He'd hit two trees. They were subsequently marked for removal.
From then on his wife made sure the car was backed into the driveway, facing out, ready to go.
The men say technological changes have made the gear lighter, the breathing apparatus easier to use, and the boots heat retardant.
"We'd put on the rubber pants and rubber boots with a cuff," Chuck said. "They can melt. When you turned the boot cuff up, you knew it was a bad one."
They'll miss the camaraderie, they said in unison. Firefighters tend to form a brotherhood, a lifelong bond. They socialized with each other and their families during down time.
They said they'd still stay active in some events, and come to the fire hall on occasion to visit the squad of 26.
"For me the sad part is the realization that you're getting old," Chuck said, accepting a decorative hatchet adorned with firefighters climbing up the handle as a tribute to his service.
Keith has a wall of plaques. Kevin also received one.
They take pride in what they did for the city and surrounding area all those years and feel they've left a strong legacy for the younger guys to aspire to.
And Chuck said he's learning to use the hamper.