- Historic Sites
TODAY NEARLY HALF a million men and women serve two-thirds of the country in a crucial volunteer service that began only recently—and only because a nine-year-old boy witnessed a drowning
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
This childhood memory, not just the watery death but the utter helplessness of those onshore, would haunt Julian Stanley Wise into adulthood. “Right then I resolved that I was going to become a lifesaver,” he said. “Never again would I watch a man die when he could be saved.” His resolve led Wise to a lifetime of organizing ordinary citizens to respond to emergencies. Today 450,000 volunteers, organized into squads modeled on Wise’s idea, provide ambulance and rescue service to more than two-thirds of the United States.
Wise grew up to be a slender, highly energetic young man, with big jug ears and a quick wit. During the Roaring Twenties he formed a dance band and strummed Charlestons on his mandolin in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, resorts. He held a day job as a lifeguard and a lifesaving instructor. In 1927 he returned to his native Roanoke, a railroad town in western Virginia tucked between the Allegheny River and the Blue Ridge Mountains. He married and went to work as a clerk for the Norfolk & Western Railroad. The following year he formed the Roanoke Life Saving and First Aid Crew, ten volunteers intent on bringing emergency care to those in need.
Frederick R. Johnson, of White Township, New Jersey, remembered breaking his leg as a young boy. He fell from a ladder during the winter of 1914. Because his father was away, his mother had to carry him through the snow to a neighbor’s house. Lacking a phone, the neighbor rode a horse six miles to town. The doctor came out at noon the next day, confirmed that the bone was fractured, and advised Johnson’s mother to get him to the hospital in Easton, Pennsylvania, about fifteen miles away.
Johnson recalled making the trip to town on an iron bed mounted on a buckboard. “I hollered all the way as the bumps sent pain shooting into my leg.” After a twenty-minute wait the bed was placed on the baggage car of a southbound train to the city. A horsedrawn ambulance carried the boy to Easton Hospital, where his leg was finally set.
Johnson’s experience reflected the type of emergency medical care that was to change only slowly during the first sixty-five years of this century. Improvisation was required when it came to transporting the injured. Someone hurt in an auto accident might be taken to the hospital by the police or in the back seat of a passing car. Except in large cities no organized system or authority existed to provide care. Rescue squads evolved to address these deficiencies.
As I write, I have on my desk a Motorola radio about the size of a pack of cigarettes that silently monitors the airwaves. On detecting a pair of tones designating the Milan Rescue Squad, it squawks an electronic alarm. A dispatcher recites the type and location of the emergency.
A squad member for the past seven years, I carry in my car a kit of supplies not all that different from what Julian Wise’s men used in 1928: a tank of oxygen, gauze dressings, bandages, and a blanket. Since I maintain an office in my home, I am available to help out on weekdays when manpower is in short supply. Our district, in New York’s Hudson Valley, covers a township of more than fifty-five square miles with no central business area.
The squad consists of about thirty men and women who are on call around the clock. We respond to auto accidents and diabetic emergencies; to heart attacks, nosebleeds, and sprained ankles; to the unexpected arrival of the newborn and the last moments of the elderly. Today it might be a man who’s had a chain saw kick back on him, tomorrow a widow suffering the vague malaise of terminal loneliness.