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Monday, May 7, 2018

The Volunteers

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The Volunteers
The Volunteers

Growing up in a small town definitely has its benefits. Your neighbors are more than just faceless people you pass on the street. When a neighbor needs help digging a foundation or working in his garden, you don't just look, you go by his house, roll up your sleeves, and pitch in.

I grew up in Sutersville, PA., where the population has never gone over 1,000. For many years we had a theater that showed double-feature movies and occasionally provided live shows -- a magician or country western singer.

We had a town bookie who ran a grocery store and accepted bets on horse and greyhound dog races originating from Wheeling, WV. 60 miles away. And we had a volunteer fire department that offered poker games and tournaments several times a week.

Most of the small town communities scattered across Western Pennsylvania had volunteer fire departments. The towns didn't generate sufficient revenue to provide a paid fire department, so local citizens volunteered to provide the manpower to fight fires when one broke out.

I became a newspaper reporter working on newspapers in the area. When I was with the Latrobe News-Journal in nearby Latrobe, PA., someone tipped me off that the Rillton Volunteer Fire Department had lost their fire truck.

'I beg your pardon,' I said. 'How does a fire department lose its fire truck?'

'They couldn't make payments on the truck so a finance company repossessed it,' my source said.

That sounded like a story to me. I drove to Rillton, which was about two miles from my home in Sutersville. The firemen were not very cooperative to a newspaper reporter who wanted to publish a scandalous story about their fire truck being repossessed.

One fireman wearing big boots and suspenders was reading a newspaper in the firehouse. When I asked him about the truck, he sullenly jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

'See the chief,' he said and continued reading his newspaper.

I saw the chief, got the same treatment, and published the story. That night three volunteer firemen came looking for me. I was living in a room at the Breneiser Hotel in Ligonier, a town known for its beautiful mountains and ski slope. They didn't find me -- I hid out in the bar -- but I got the message.

The citizens of Rillton raised money by holding a series of Bingo parties and were able to get their fire truck back. I wrote that story, too.

For years the State of Pennsylvania would not permit gambling except for charitable events. Many volunteer fire departments got around those laws by hosting Bingo or Poker parties to raise money to cover their operating expenses.

Our Sutersville Fire Department started holding poker games several times a week in a building adjacent to the fire hall. My younger brother Legs told me about the poker games and I decided to see what they were all about.

I drove to the fire hall on a Friday evening around 7 p.m. There were over 50 cars and trucks in the parking lot.

Inside about a dozen poker tables were in operation for the tournament which had a $60 buy-in. The firemen had a food table set up with free food for the players. I recognized several of the firemen who had been childhood friends of mine.

The food was good -- polish sausage, sauerkraut, potato salad, beans, dessert and good coffee.

'Help yourself,' the volunteer fire chief said cheerfully. 'Welcome back to your hometown. I hear you're living in Phoenix these days. What's the weather like?'

'During the summers it gets up to 115 degrees in the shade,' I said, filling my paper plate with sausage, sauerkraut and potato salad. 'But you don't have to stand in the shade.' He smiled and shook my hand.

There are three casinos operating within 60 miles of Sutersville. Wheeling Downs is located in Wheeling, WV. and offers casino games, greyhound dog racing and poker. The Meadows operates in Washington, PA. about 30 miles from my hometown and gives customers harness horse racing, poker, slots and the usual table games. The Rivers Casino is located in Pittsburgh, an hour drive from Sutersville, and has a friendly atmosphere with all the regular casino games including poker.

I didn't finish in the money in the tournament that evening, but I managed to win a couple of hundred dollars in the cash game that followed. Best of all, I knew my money was going for a good cause. More people should be volunteers. It makes a better world for all of us.

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