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Passion for fighting fires still burns bright
( Picture and article courtesy of the Observer Reporter newspaper, Washington, PA)

5 Houston firefighters have 287 years of experience on the job

BY TERRI T. JOHNSON

The Observer Reporter

Standing , from left, Lloyd Chastel, 77, Jack Patsch, 72, Charles Meddings, 84, and Ralph Patsch, 86. Seated is Ed Thompson, 77. The men served as parade marshals Sunday for the Pumpkin Festival in Houston.

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Photo by: Dave Grib / The Observer Reporter

They have fought fires, pumped flooded basements, worked  street fairs and watched more people play bingo than they can count. And, in terms of years of service, five men have been doing all that for 287 years with the Houston Volunteer Fire Department.
Two of the five, with 114 years of fire fighting experience between them, continue to suit up and occasionally ride the truck to the scene of a fire.
Ralph Patsch Sr., has been a volunteer fireman for 65 years.He and his nephew, 72 year old Jack Patsch, still answer the fire whistle.
" If there is nobody else there, I'll suit up.But, if they have enough, I'll wave them on," Jack Patsch said. He joined the department 49 years ago.
Ralph Patsch, 86, restricts his firefighting to the daylight calls.
" I do whatever they want me to do, like roll up hose or direct traffic. I'm physically able . I can still breathe and walk and talk and fight fires ," Ralph Patsch said.
After 65 years of fighting fires, Charles ( Lightning) Meddings, 84, is content to drive in parades, including chauffeuring his fellow firefighters when they served as grand marshals in the Pumpkin Festival parade Saturday.
Jesse King joined the company in 1951 and is a few months shy of joining the the oldtimers group.
Meddings was one of the department's first drivers for a simple reason: he had a driver's license. Clark ( Fat) Welsh was the chief when Meddings joined in 1931. Welsh did not have a drivers license so Meddings, only 19 years old, was pressed into service to drive the 1928 LaFrance pumper.
Jack and Ralph Patsch are descended from a long line of firefighters and continued the tradition when they began working at Patsch Garage. When Meddings began to work at the garage, he too joined the department.
We were open 24 hours a day and everybody was a fireman and so, we always had firemen at the garage," Ralph Patsch said.
Meddings worked nights as a mechanic and emergency dispatcher. " You had to be a fireman and a policeman and everything. Anybody would call the garage and you'd go blow the fire whistle on top of the building, or you'd turn on the red light( outside the building to alert the police officer on duty). When I'd blow the whistle, someone would relieve me and I'd go to the fire hall and drive to the fire," Meddings said.
 Driving to the site of a fire involved more than negotiating the narrow streets of Houston. As one of the oldest chartered departments in the county, Houston firemen often traveled some distance to fight fires. " We used to be the center of the whole district," said Lloyd Chastel. He has been a member for 55 years. His younger son, Jack, is president of the Peters Township Volunteer Fire Department.
"I can remember when that whistle would blow three or four times a week," Chastel said.  If there was a fire in Mt. Pleasant, they'd call a township supervisor and he'd determine if it was bad enough, and then he'd call Houston and we'd go up, " said 53 year member, Edward Thompson. Mt. Pleasant had to pay Houston $ 50 for a response. Fire fighting has changed dramatically  over the last 50 years. " We'd just turn the water on and spray it anywhere ," Chastel said. They fought fires before air packs, radios and beepers. " You put a wet handkerchief on your face and went in, " Meddings said.
" You went in, squirted the hose and then followed the hose back out.," Chastel said. Thompson remembers when the department had equipment for only nine men. There were rings at the firehall and the first nine men who responded, grabbed a ring and got the equipment. The tenth man , in the 20-man department was out of luck.
Ralph Patsch remembers his first uniform - a raincoat, fisherman's hat and boots. " It's different now," Jack Patsch said. " You have to have air packs to breathe or all those chemicals will put you to sleep. All agreed that they hated grass fires." We used fire brooms to beat it out," Thompson said. " It was too much work and too much walking and beating , and it was usually in the summer and it was too warm," Meddings said. None was ever seriously injured and none regrets the hours spent fighting fires or raising money to buy equipment. None was ever compensated financially for a single hour, let alone 287 years. All said they would join again. " I very seldom go out now, I miss going out, you want to  be there, but you can't," Meddings said. He passed on his love of firefighting . Son Charles ( Buzz) Meddings is the president . His grandson, Robb Meddings,is an active member and waiting to join in 14 years, is his great - grandson, Adam Meddings.