Champaign County fire volunteer steps down after 50 years

Three years ago, at age 65 and while sidelined with a broken ankle, Harold Zerkle weighed his choices.

The longtime captain of the Christiansburg Fire Company knew he wasn’t getting any younger or more nimble, and, fully aware that others might need him to come to their rescue at a fire scene, “I didn’t want to get anybody hurt.”

On the other hand, he had long since ceased to be the first person on the scene, and his experience in setting up a water supply when he arrived with the second truck meant Zerkle was still making a valuable contribution.

Largely because of a staffing shortage the company faced, he stayed on.

By last November, at 68, the passage of time had tipped the scales in the other direction, and when he was nominated for a term as a fire company trustee – a position that requires active status membership – he declined, taking many in his department by surprise.

Even after Zerkle’s retirement letter arrived on Bob Hoey’s desk in January, the Christiansburg chief didn’t quite believe the man who knew so well from so many years of serving together would do it.

That changed Monday, Feb. 1, when Hoey walked into the firehouse and saw a box filled with Zerkle’s radios, pagers and blanks of green reflective address signs the department posts around the area to make addresses easier to find.

Hoey will be among those honoring Zerkle for 50 years of service at an open house from 2 to 4 p.m. next Sunday in the village’s fire house.

Born in 1947, Zerkle was 1 when his father, Melvin “Curly” Zerkle, became a founding member of the fire company. His mother, Esther, promptly signed up as a founding member of its Ladies Auxiliary.

The family home on North Monroe Street had one of the company’s five fire phones, which, like the others, had a button attached to it for activating the siren then used to alert firefighters of a call.

In those days, late arrivals to the station would look at a chalkboard to see whose house or business might be on fire, the address often unreported since everyone pretty much knew where everyone else lived.

As a boy, Zerkle remembers his father and other Christiansburg firefighters practicing for the water ball competition at the annual Central Western Fire Convention by tying a cable to a tree near a village fire hydrant and summoning a wrecker from a Christiansburg service station to pull the wire straight so hoses could be aimed at the target ball.

Six months after graduating with the Graham High School Class of 1965, Curly’s oldest boy turned 18, the legal age for joining the department, and, of course, did so.

“I can’t really say I remember” the first fire run, Zerkle said. “I remember it was a house, because I was still living at home and dad yelled up the stairs ‘Come on, we got a house fire.’ The siren wasn’t even ringing yet.”

As with most runs, “We rode on the back of the truck,” he said, almost always with his father at the wheel.

Zerkle was at Fort Dix, N.J., where he’d finished Army basic training, on March 14, 1967, when news arrived that his father had died of a heart attack on the way to a fire behind the wheel of the 1948 Chevrolet firetruck Zerkle now owns.

Contacted by the Red Cross and flown back the next day for the funeral, Zerkle soon applied for and received a hardship discharge and returned home to help his mother and his school-age brother and sister.

He went to work at B.F. Goodrich in Troy for a few years, then moved on to P.K. Lumber in St. Paris, where he stayed until 1991, after which time he used his experience as the yard manager and in counter sales at yards in Conover and Piqua.

Although he’s lived next to the fire house since 1967, Zerkle said he and wife Mary Lee bought it not for its location but because “it just happened to be the house that was for sale in town that I could afford.”

She joined the auxiliary days after they were married.

Over the years, Zerkle used his handyman skills in a series of projects that have transformed the home, much as advances have transformed the fire department next door.

Safety equipment early on consisted of a hard plastic or fiberglass helmet and black rubber boots and a rubber coat.

“They were black and they were hot,” said Zerkle.

Although the first “Chem-Ox” masks merely filtered the air firefighters breathed, in a time when homes were mostly built of wood and furnishings and rugs fashioned from natural fibers, “You’d just stay low and keep the smoke above you,” he said.

The development of synthetic materials introduced more toxins to fire scenes, spurring the development of breathing apparatuses to protect firefighters from a carcinogenic cloud of chemical fumes.

Along the way, the risk of firefighters dropping off the backs of trucks led to larger cab space in engines, and training expanded and improved.

“We didn’t have a lot of big fires,” Zerkle said.

He recalls one at the Lena grain elevator and another at Graham South, the former Christiansburg-Jackson school.

“I went in the building and started shutting doors until I couldn’t stand it because it was so hot. We ended up saving the building.”

Only once did he have the vulnerable feeling of being in a smoked filled room unsure of how to find his way out. Luckily, the firefighter whose father-in-law owned the house emerged from the smoke and showed the way.

Zerkle’s most hazardous assignment came 10 years ago while on duty some distance from a house fire on Ohio 235. He was near the highway working on a water supply line when a driver pulling a utility trailer moved around the emergency equipment and inadvertently clipped Zerkle, who went flying into the air.

“The next thing I knew, I was laying on the ground,” he said. Luckily, he suffered only scratches and bruises.

Like his father, Zerkle’s son, Trent, joined the department at age 18, and, again, like his father, can’t recall a time when he wasn’t going to the Christiansburg firehouse.

He slept on the floor there during the blizzard of 1977, remembers people being brought to the firehouse the following winter for safety sake, recalls the arrivals of new equipment, and was always part of the family effort to manage his father’s blood sugar levels during the stresses of emergency service.

At age 4, “I can remember eating breakfast with him on the tailgate of the chief’s truck” the morning after fire destroyed a previous Cavens Meats building – breakfast brought to keep his father on track.

During an emergency, he said, the body’s adrenaline seems to keep everything on an even keel, said the boy who grew into a Christiansburg Fire Service lieutenant.

“It’s once you get all that done, that’s when it hits.”

His father’s retirement is now hitting home in much the same way as Lt. Zerkle and Chief Hoey are trying to deal with the consequences.

The retired captain was missed at a structure fire two weeks ago and at a grass fire during the recent warm spell. In the past, there was no question who would be there, on time, to establish a water supply at a scene.

“You didn’t have to think about that,” said Hoey.

It’s not only that dedicated, dependable people like Harold Zerkle are hard to replace – though that’s certainly a part of it.

Another part is that the truly motivated volunteers who attain level 1 firefighter status often do what’s required to reach level 2 — which qualifies them for part-time paid work — are hard to retain.

Their continued training not only represents a step toward a full-time job in the fire service, but is an important financial consideration during a time when families often must cobble together multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Today’s volunteers and potential volunteers also have fuller family schedules because so many of their children and grandchildren play so many sports nearly year round and need to be both driven to the games and cheered on.

Hoey said volunteers of an earlier, simpler time, like his, “had more time to dedicate” than the typical volunteer might have today.

With at least three long dedicated members of the force likely to retire in the next five to seven years, the Christiansburg Company is typical of other volunteer services – services that share another problem illustrated by Harold Zerkle’s retirement.

Zerkle’s experience as the second truck on the scene also made him a go-to guy for mutual aid runs – runs like the massive R.D. Holder fire at which he played a crucial role in establishing water supply for the units fighting the flames.

Both for their own department and for the neighboring departments, “We know somebody needs to step up,” Hoey said, “and I’m sure we will.”

None of this is lost on Harold Zerkle, who also, however, is aware of the dangers a too-old firefighter might pose – a danger at the heart of his decision.

To him, though the situation is complex, the choice is simple: “You gotta walk away.”

Even through emotion-blurred eyes, the man who has dedicated 50 years to the fire company sees it as a clear choice – one that’s based on his primary concern throughout that career: What’s best for the safety of the Christiansburg community and its firefighters.

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