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The friendship at Fire Station 2

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011 | Posted by | no responses

By CHRIS SMITH

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Kitchen aromas announced it was nearly dinnertime at Station 2, the Santa Rosa firehouse

Hugh Blake talks with Engineer Mike Nealon at Fire Station 2 in Santa Rosa on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2011. (BETH SCHLANKER/ PD)

next to the city corporation yard on Stony Point Road. Barbecued pork ribs, beans and fresh corn were on the counter and there was an extra seat at the table.

The cook of the night, Engineer Vance Alkire, told frequent supper guest Huston Blake, who’s pushing 92, he’d better not be thinking he’s going to be waited on.

“We don’t cut Hugh any slack,” the firefighter said.

That’s true, to a point.

Blake, who served in World War II and worked for decades on the Northwestern Pacific Railroad before taking a job at the city yard that introduced him to the crews at Station 2, takes his share of joshing and ribbing from the firefighters.

But they also love him like kin. And they seem never to tire of his stories of the Ohio-based 107th Cavalry Regiment, based for part of the war in Santa Rosa, and of his railroad years, some of them spent working out of Tiburon as an NWP engineer.

“He’s like a Britannica,” Fire Engineer Mike Nealon remarked across the table from the station’s almost daily visitor and the source of the big bags of M&Ms on the dining table.

Blake lives a few miles to the west in the mobile home he shared with his wife of 62 years, Bessie, until her death six years ago. A man little interested in idle time, he was in his mid-60s and involuntarily retired from the railroad by a heart attack when took a part-time job manning the after-hours booth at the city yard. It’s home to much of the municipal fleet of street-maintenance and utilities trucks, buses and other equipment.

Each week for 25 years, he worked a few 4 p.m. to midnight shifts, manning the night-emergency phone. One night this past spring he fell in the booth, hit his head and lay on the floor until a truck driver discovered him and came to his aid.

Blake knew then that it was time, at age 91, to retire. One way he’s filled his days since then is to hang out more with his friends at Station 2.

He’s especially close to B Shift, one of three seven-person crews that work two 24-hour shifts, then get four days off. Blake has dinner with B Shift at least one night a week and he drops by, every day some weeks, to check in with whichever shift is on duty and to drop off M&Ms.

“These are the best friends I got,” he said on pork-ribs night. “I never had anyone in my life treat me as good as these guys. They treat me like family.”

Capt. Bob Hathaway corrected him: “You are family, Hugh.”

Hathaway and his fellows in the navy T-shirts, trousers and “Santa Rosa Fire Dept” caps appreciate Blake both as a guy who’s a kick to be around and a typically humble member of the fast-fading fraternity of WWII veterans.

Blake believes he and his younger brother, Ken, who lives still in their native Ohio, may be the last surviving members of the Ohio National Guard’s horseback and mechanized 107th Cavalry Regiment that was sent early in the war to Fort Ord, near Monterey.

“They took our horses away,” Blake recalled during a firehouse meal. In 1942, he said, “they sent us to the Mojave Desert to train with (future four-star Gen. George) Patton. We thought we were going to Africa.”

One of B Shift’s favorite stories recalls the time that Blake played craps with fellow soldiers at Camp Young, out of Indio and walked away with about $1,300. A ton of money in 1942.

Then 22, Blake was very grown-up in his handling of the cash. He loaned much of it to buddies and, he isn’t too proud to admit, “I bought a car and had a wreck within four or five days!”

Although he and his pals in the 107th thought that following maneuvers in the desert they’d be sent to meet Hitler’s troops in north Africa, they instead were dispatched to patrol the coast from the Golden Gate Bridge to Eureka.

Blake came for his first time to Santa Rosa, where the regimental headquarters were. He has told the firefighters he liked the city from the start but hated one of his regiment’s tasks.

“We rounded up all the Japanese people in town” and sent them to interment camps. “It was the worst thing the United States has ever done, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

A far more pleasant memory is his 1943 marriage to Bessie, who was a recent high school graduate when they met in San Rafael. She kissed him goodbye the following year, when the soldiers of the 107th were split up and assigned to build runways, bridges and other facilities with the Army Corps of Engineers.

“I knew nothing about engineering,” Blake said.

He learned as he served at bases and other installations on New Guinea and elsewhere in the Pacific.

The firefighters shake their heads at his recounting of the day he could easily have been killed. It wasn’t a classic combat moment; the injury occurred as he was resting against a tree.

“I was sitting down about half asleep,” he said. There was a boom and something struck him in the forehead, up by the hairline. “I didn’t really know what it was.”

The staff at a military hospital on Guam, where his treatment and recovery ran for three weeks, extracted a piece of shrapnel that could have been fatal had it penetrated much deeper.

The firefighters aren’t alone in their affection for Blake and his memories. He has tight friends among the regulars at Page’s Diner on West College Avenue, where he drives for breakfast seven mornings a week. Four of those days he picks up and takes with him neighbor Atalea Tanner, 92.

“He comes and gets me almost every day,” said Tanner, whose late husband, Dean, was a close pal of Blake. “And when he doesn’t come, he checks in on me. Isn’t that a good friend?”

The two of them agreed during a recent breakfast that their wheeled walkers — Blake’s is a new acquisition — help them get around without having to worry about falling. Blake said that after their meal he’d take his friend home then run a few errands, pick up more M&Ms for Station 2 and maybe play with Facebook on the computer the fellows of B Shift taught him to use.

“Later on,” he said, “I’ll go by the firehouse and say hello to the boys.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Chris Smith at 521-5211 or chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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