THE SAGA OF THE “REAL” GAMMA TAU FIRE ENGINE
By: Ted Mirczak ‘66
As far as we know from history, Gamma Tau never actually owned a fire engine until the mid 60’s. Since it was expected that chapters had fire engines, we needed to improvise to show that we were adhering to that tradition and could stand proud with the rest of the national chapters. 2256 Burdett, the chapter house at the time, had a fairly large patch of woods in the back of the property and we would start a small fire there to get the Troy Fire Department to come and extinguish it. When they did, we would jump on the truck, unfurl the banner, and take pictures of the brotherhood on “our” fire engine.
After a few of these incidents, the TFD gave us a stern warning to never do it again or face dire consequences. So, we started to put out feelers to see if maybe we could actually acquire a real fire engine for the House. In early 1966 parents of one of the brothers reported that a fire engine was going up for auction in a small town near Utica, NY – my home town. A special meeting of the House was convened to discuss the prospect of bidding on the truck. Alas, the majority were not interested in spending chapter funds to acquire it.
However, undaunted by this rebuff, a number of us Seniors in the class of ’66 decided to sell shares in the “fire engine” to raise enough money to make a bid.. Denominations were $5, $10 and $15, and $25, and we raised enough money to put in a bid. Our strategy was thus: we felt the truck would go for $150, so we added $1 to the bid to be sure we would get it and another 50 cents in case someone was thinking like us. We bid $151.50 and we won! (We never knew how much we might have left on the table).
It was a 1932 Brockway pumper/ladder truck located in New York Mills, NY, and we were faced with the task of getting it back to Troy. Since my parents home was still in Utica, and we would need to have a place to stay while we did the deal, Bob Buchanan ’66 and I went to New York Mills bought the fire engine, and drove up to my parents’ house to stay over before our journey back to Troy.
The thing ran like a top, was in very good shape, had only about 1500 miles on it (it only went to fires and parades). However, as we prepared the next morning for the trip back to Troy – a journey of about 100 miles – we discovered that the mechanical braking system was “iffy” – actually, not very good at all. However, this vehicle was equipped with a large lever that engaged a disk brake on the drive shaft and that seemed to work pretty well. So we decide we would take a chance and head back to Troy where we could deal with the brakes. We opted to not take the NYS thruway, but to use route 20 instead. We had several reasons for this decision: breaking down on the Thruway would cost a lot, we wanted to avoid tolls, and we weren’t sure about the brakes. One thing we agreed on was that if we were moving through a small town and couldn’t stop very well we would just light up the siren and boogey on through. The trip was rather uneventful, although we had to swap off driving every 25 miles or so because of the open cab and the rally rough suspension.
Well, we made it to Troy without incident, bad brakes and all, and parked it in the back of the House. One of the things that concerned the fire engine “shareholders” was the issue of registration and liability. Conversations with the NYS Department of Motor Vehicles assured us that we did NOT have to register it as it was an antique, and we only used it for parades and other “ceremonial” occasions. We supposed trips around the campus were, indeed, ceremonial. Because of that status, we were able to obtain a $1million dollar liability policy. And, as a bonus, we always were able to park it at fire hydrants. Most importantly, we now had “official” pictures of the brotherhood posing with “our” fire engine to send to the National.
The fire engine proved to be a real asset. We used it in parades, for GM week, and to take parents on a tour of the campus on Parent’s Weekend. We never figured out how to repair the brakes, but between the large lever breaking the drive shaft, and the 20 or so pledges holding a very sturdy rope as braking back-up we were able to drive it pretty much wherever we desired. There was one time we even took it down Sage Ave into the City. There was one downside to whole thing, however. It seemed that at various times in the middle of the night, some “happy” brothers would crank up the siren and terrorize the neighborhood. That resulted in us taking the battery out until such time as we needed to make a trip.
I’m not sure exactly when it finally met its demise – some time in the early 70’s, I think. Besides the brakes, other things went wrong, particularly with the transmission, and that was a time when there was little interest in maintaining it. Eventually the House gave it to the Poestenkill Fire Department, and I have never been able to find out what the final disposition was. However, before that happened I was able to secure the siren, light, and hose nozzle. And have had them ever since, hoping that some day they might be incorporated into another “real” fire engine owned by the House.