by Tim Gilmore, 1/5/2018
In the dark morning, in the freezing rain, the dark red brick drill tower rises impervious. It doesn’t mind. It didn’t mind when Hurricane Irma blew 75 mph winds against it in 2017, nor Dora in 1964. It didn’t mind the construction of Interstate-10 in 1961.
The fire department drill tower stands sentinel in North Riverside along I-10. It’s the most visible architectural symbol of the Jacksonville Fire Department in the city.
The roof leaks on the sixth and top floor. The roof of the fourth story is blackened from decades of “fire mazes.” From the fifth-floor windows, cars seem to crawl the interstate like cold shriveled pigs.
A day as cold and wet and bleak and gray as this calls for the investigation of old structures in an old world, none of that Floridian delusion of newness.
Built in 1936 and ’37, the drill tower stands nearly indestructible. Its window casings and roof fall slowly into decay, but the beacon should stand a millennium.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration built the tower. Roosevelt started the WPA in the Great Depression to put millions of Americans back to work building public works projects.
Randy Wyse, a third-generation firefighter and president of the Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters, steps his 6’6” frame up the steps from one concrete floor to the next. JAFF—International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 122—owns the drill tower and the old station no. 8, built in 1922, next to it.
Randy trained in the tower in 1980, for this location, on Stockton Street between Phyllis and Rosselle Streets, was the fire training campus for half a century. Now he works from his office in the concrete building behind the station.
On the fourth floor, Randy tells me about the fire maze he crawled through as part of his training. We stand beneath the blackened ceiling beams as our breath mists visibly in the cold air.
He points to the floor and says, “You can still see the outlines of how the maze turned here and there.” The single room on each story is small, the floor and interior wall staunch concrete. “It wasn’t just a maze; it was a tunnel. You had to crawl through this burning wood on your hands and knees.”
Before Randy trained here, his father, Robert Wyse, was an instructor. In the 1988 class photo, Randy stands at the far left, the tallest person in the class, the tower rising behind them. In a 1969 class photo, his father stands at the opposite end, the tallest person in the group.
From the fifth floor, firefighters-in-training rappelled out the window. In the years after I-10 was built, drivers sometimes pulled off the road to call in an emergency, said they’d seen someone fall out of the tower.
Before Randy’s time, firefighters trained with a pompier ladder, or a hook ladder. It hung from a hook rather than standing on the ground and had rungs on either side of a single central rail.
From the ground, trainees hooked the ladder into the window above their heads, scaled the ladder, entered the window, then from inside, reached the ladder up the external wall and hooked it to the next window up. They climbed the 70 foot tower that way.
Remembering his training, Randy says, “I loved every minute of it.” In 1990, classes moved to Beach Boulevard, to Florida State College at Jacksonville’s South Campus, and the Stockton Street campus was abandoned. The firefighters’ union took it over in 2000.
Randy speaks of the fire department with love and pride. His eyes beam. When he shakes my hand, he calls me “Brother.” He can name each fire station by number and location. He has stories about Major, the Dalmatian who once lived at station no. 9, at West 24th and Perry Streets.
Before most people had telephones, they contacted the fire department through fire alarm call boxes on street corners. Each station heard every alarm. Supposedly Major knew the number of bings for his station and he’d stand to attention before his human colleagues did.
Every morning when Randy drives into work and parks his car, he looks up at the tower. Wyses have been firefighters since 1909, but he’s the last. His daughters have chosen different careers.
Now the rain lets up. The day is hard and crisp. The sun breaks through the sky, a relentless diamond. The air atomizes. It’s easy to imagine the imagined taking physical form in this crystal cold.
“Every now and then,” Randy says and laughs, “people say they see somebody standing on top of the tower late at night. We’ll get a call, the police have come out, and I’ll have to open up the tower. They never find anybody.”
From the fire escape near the top, I see but four cars on the lonely frozen highway, two heading east, two heading west. I’d like to write my stories on top of the tower at midnight, take the city’s pulse. Like reading tea leaves, I’d read the streets and the trees, the architectural patterns and lights, an urban divination. No one would find me, just my stories performing their lives down in the city streets.