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Back In A Blaze Of Glory | Winter 2007 Out Here Magazine

Bob Vandergoot knew he was looking at something special when he first saw the 1954 Van Pelt fire engine.

Treasured fire truck is getting a second life — for kids

By Michael Nolan
Photography by Michael Burke

When the Crockett-Carquinez (CA) Fire Department decided to retire its 1954 Van Pelt fire engine, firefighter Bob Burnett couldn't stand to see the old girl go. He bought it for $200 in 1990 and moved it to his barn to provide fire protection for his rural home.

As it aged, he realized that he wouldn't be able to restore it himself, but remained committed to preserving it until someone would take up his cause.

He tried for several years without success to convince his neighbor, firefighter Bob Vandergoot, to take a look. When Vandergoot finally gave in, he couldn't believe his eyes.

"It still had its original paint. There wasn't a ding or dent on it, although the tires and upholstery were in bad shape," Vandergoot recalls. "The first time I saw it, there was a chicken roosting in the front seat."

The fire engine was fairly unusual in its day — a convertible with extension ladders, stainless steel bell, and gold leaf trim. No wonder it was a favorite at parades.

"It has a 503 straight-6 engine," Vandergoot notes, "the biggest motor of its day and it runs fine."

Because it wasn't a first alarm responder, the truck has rolled up only 8,000 miles. Once Vandergoot saw that engine, he was hooked.

And he concurred with Burnett's wish that it would, in some way, benefit children who are burn victims.

It's not unusual for children to think of firefighters as heroes. What is a bit unusual is the team of people Vandergoot has banded together to restore the engine. In addition to being a member of the California Dozier Operators Group, he works at a prison so he asked inmates if they would be willing to work on it during their free time.

"They said they would love to help burn kids," he says, "so a trucking line volunteered to ferry it on a low-bed from prison to prison where inmates will handle bodywork, sanding, painting, mechanical work, and upholstering."

A national auto parts retailer is donating parts and a chrome plating company stands at the ready to give old metal a new shine.

Burnett has preserved the original blueprint, purchase order, and pictures of the engine fighting fires — documentation that will help Vandergoot restore it to its original condition, "with a few upgrades including more chrome, nickel, and brass-plating."

Donated to the Northern California Burn Foundation for Children, the engine will put in appearances at hospitals, schools, and special events.

"I want kids to see the fire engine in the parades like when I was a kid," Burnett explains.

Vandergoot anticipates restoration to be completed in less than two years.

"It's a win-win situation for everybody — the inmates, the kids, and Bob," he says with a grin. "I can't wait to see that old girl going down the road and putting smiles on kids' faces."

Michael Nolan is a Nashville, TN, writer.