When the fire chief who had joined the Newport Beach fire department in the late 1920s retired, headquarters captain Leo Love took over as chief; many of us were a little concerned about what was in store for us.
Being in the Marine Corps was an indelible experience for Leo; we were apprehensive that he would try to mold “his” department along the lines of the Marine Corps.
This was in the 1960s. It didn’t take long to disagree with a new policy. Although Sen. Joseph McCarthy had died a few years before this time, Chief Love instituted a regular routine of showing McCarthy-like propaganda films at the stations to make sure we were aware that the Commies were trying to take over our government.
Some other firefighters and I declined the order to watch these films. “Chief, if you want to invite us to your home to watch this stuff, that’s one thing. But to require us to watch is another matter and we refuse.”
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He backed down from the order, but didn’t understand what the big fuss was about.
When his wife died not too long after his appointment, he took time off to grieve. He returned to the department a changed man. He answered his own phone, not his secretary. He was a patient man and listened to any complaint or suggestion relating to the job — and was willing to give any suggestion a try. This was the antithesis to the former chief. He remarried in time.
He implemented several changes over the years, much to the improvement of the department. As a captain, it made you feel that you counted.
This also was the time that building domestic air raid shelters was popular — in case the commies did try taking over America. Leo built one of the first shelters in the area.
But in time, Chief Love retired. I admired his willingness to explore new routines and procedures and the sensitivity he acquired after his wife died. When I was going through my divorce, he called me into his office and offered to give me a few days off if I needed the time. His period as chief was a grand chapter in my fire department career.
A few years later, I happened to drive through his neighborhood; I stopped in to say hello and catch up on things. We chatted and laughed together as we recalled certain stories.
“Say, Leo … what ever happened to that air raid shelter you built?”
He laughed and spit a stream of tobacco juice into a flower bed. “My gosh, I haven’t looked in there in several years.” He began moving boxes and stuff that covered a big metal trap door in his garage. “Hey, it might be a good idea to make a wine cellar out of it. Give me a hand and let’s take a look at the damn thing.”
We lifted the heavy door and quickly stepped back from what we found. Brackish black water was clear to the top of the stairs leading to the room under the slab. The odor was enough to make you gag. “Quick … lower the trap door. I’ll never hear the last of it if my wife learns about this. Well, so much for making it into a wine cellar.”
E-mail John Brannon at email@example.com