It’s an overcast Saturday morning in Lester, Delaware County. A kelly green pumper truck sits on a broad concrete apron out in front of what used to be an active fire station. The truck’s diesel engine is chugging away, with a vaguely asthmatic whine, and the exhaust fumes not so much fill the air as threaten to displace it. Stand close enough, and you can hear the whirr of the rotating dome light atop the cab, and the faint strobe-like clicks from the flashing strobes near the grille.
Stand even closer, and you can see that the once gleaming chrome instrument panels along the side of the truck are severely corroded, the stainless steel diamond plate along the rear bumper is badly dented and crumpled, and all of the truck’s wooden parts, from the ladders to the hose bed, are chipped, peeling and rotting in places.
This is “Big Green,” a 1975 Seagrave pumper that once raced to fires with the Garrettford-Drexel Hill Volunteer Fire Company, as a first-in piece for 21 years and as a reserve engine for nine years after that. Since 2005, Big Green has served a highly visible publicity vehicle—literally and figuratively—for Philadelphia’s Ancient Order of Hibernians 22 John J. Redmond Division—home to firefighters and their supporters. It was presented as a gift from Garrettford-Drexel Hill.
If you’ve been one of the thousands who throng to the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day Parade, you’ve probably seen the engine as it accompanies the division’s members marching up the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.
The truck hasn’t been in good enough mechanical condition to make it the past two years, but if division President Hubert Gantz has anything to say about it, Big Green will be back in the line of march in 2014.
“Maintenance was done recently,” says Gantz. “It got an oil change, new filters, new batteries, and a new starter. It kicked right over this morning. It’s all cosmetic now. A lot of the chrome plating has been taken off. One of our members in New Jersey is getting the corrosion off it.”
A t-shirt campaign recently raised nearly $1,200 to offset the cost of those desperately needed repairs. “When you have a fire truck, it’s the same as having a boat,” Gantz says with a laugh. “Whatever you need to buy for it, you have to double the price.”
For all the wear and tear, some of the truck’s original firefighting equipment still does its job. “The pump still works,” says Gantz, who rode the truck for 25 years as a member of the Garrettford-Drexel Hill company. “Believe it or not, the deluge gun still works.”
Still, with a truck as old as Big Green, any repair is not just costly, but extremely difficult. Many critical parts aren’t easily available. Not too long ago, the truck needed a rear axle. Without it, Big Green was going nowhere. The division launched a search to find an axle that could be salvaged from another old truck. The search lasted a year and a half. “Seagraves had an axle, but it was the wrong number,” said division treasurer and paramedic Bob Haley. “We needed an axle with another number. Once we got that, then it moved.”
No one expects to restore the truck to showroom condition, but with enough cash, the division can get it into pretty good shape. In fact, members are hoping to install benches in the hose bed and run a beer dispenser through the intake and discharge pipes so they can rent the truck out for private parties. To get to that point will cost even more money—somewhere in the neighborhood of $5,000, says publicity chairman Jeff Jackson.
When the division acquired the engine, Derkas Auto Body in Kensington gave it its distinctive green paint job, and performed cosmetic repairs. Tom Meehan, the division’s first president, negotiated the deal. The doors were decorated with the division’s Maltese cross logo, and “Faugh a Ballagh” was emblazoned across the front. (It’s an ancient Irish battle cry, meaning “clear the way.”)
Initially, Big Green was parked behind Philadelphia Engine 55 / Tower 22 in Northeast Philly. Then it was moved from one place to another, and spent the most recent two years in a Port Richmond junkyard. “It was supposed to go into a garage—but it didn’t go into a garage,” says Haley. “You wouldn’t believe what two years outside did to this truck.”
Even the truck’s current shelter, a red brick edifice that once was home to the former Lester Fire Company, is living on borrowed time. A new runway will run through it, if plans for the nearby Philadelphia International Airport expansion proceed as planned. Jets regularly roar overhead.
For now, members of the division are focused on the near-term goal: making it to the parade. Gantz is confident. “The worst has already been taken care of,” he says. “It’ll be ready.”