Wickford Tales

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It would have been hard enough on Sarah anyway but what he did afterward nearly killed her. The next day he repented and went to the lighthouse and told Sarah that he was married but that he hated May and the fault was all Sarah’s. May all this time sat bobbing about in Nat’s boat, tied by a rope to the lighthouse. She had brought the license with her in case Sarah did not believe Nat was married.

After Nat left in the boat with May, Sarah fainted and was unconscious for three days. Peter had to sober up and get a doctor, and Mrs. Sherman had to help Jessie tend the light—a kerosene light in those days.

 

Just as all this was happening, of course, the government inspector had to come. He saw what a bad way things were in. Peter lost the job and all the Shermans were moved to the mainland and a new keeper installed while Sarah was still unconscious.

They found a place to live, and Sarah stayed in bed for forty years. Mrs. Sherman and Jessie took care of her. Peter died soon, but the government gave Sarah, Jessie, and their mother a small pension.

While Sarah was in bed, she did beautiful sewing and used to make all our underclothes and nightgowns. It was always so queer to have her try to fit the things on us while she was in bed.

One Christmas Eve, after she had been in bed for forty years and Mrs. Sherman had been dead some time, their house caught fire from a candle in the window blowing against the lace curtain. Jessie had gone to church and Sarah was alone.

She screamed, but no one heard her. She tried to walk but couldn’t, so she crawled to the front door and down the street in the ice and snow to the next house. The neighbors came, got the fire apparatus, and put out the fire, but Sarah in her nightgown caught pneumonia and was on the verge of death for several weeks. Everybody in town spent their savings to pay the doctor for pulling her through. It seemed so futile. Sarah died nine months later.

Jessie lived alone for some years, and then I helped to get her into St. Elizabeth’s Home in Providence, where she was contented up to the day of her death.

THE FIRST RAILROAD STATION FIRE

The old railroad station in Wickford burned to the ground in the middle of the night. It was a fine gingerbread type of building and most sturdily built. The fire came at a most inopportune time, as the annual squirt was to be the next day. A squirt is a waterpumping contest to see how far water from a given fire engine can be thrown. The pumpers are volunteers who have to train as a team for the squirt. The engines are worked singly, and the contest is to see which team can shoot the water farthest on a marked roadway. Each team has two tries. Along each side of the engine, about two and one-half feet from the ground, is a bar which is the pump handle. Twelve men, six on each side, work the bar up and down and that pumps the water.

Since Wickford has had a modern chemical engine, the old one has been used only in contests. The old one is very beautiful, made of iron and brass—the iron painted bright red, the brass polished till it glistens.

Many other towns have had pumping engines with their teams of picked men. It is a great honor to be on a team and requires lots of practice and great strength and endurance, for it is a backbreaking job. Up and down, up and down, the pump must go in perfect timing. Hiccoughs once lost a squirt. Eddie Fowler got them and threw the team off beat.

My father was on the Wickford team for a while, but a case in court (he was a lawyer) made him miss a squirt and he was dropped from the team. The other men said he lacked civic pride in letting anything interfere with a contest. As luck would have it, Taunton, I think, won the squirt my father missed, and held the championship for quite a while.

I think a team had five minutes to warm up, then the judge yelled, “Ready—on your mark—set—go!” The squirt lasted ten minutes, and the greatest distance was usually reached after six or seven minutes of pumping. Sweat poured off the men, who wore only trousers. George Cranston, the captain of our team, wore a hat, too—or, at least, he always did after the railroad station fire.

George had been captain of the squirt team for years and gave the beat for the pumping. First slow, then faster and faster, up and down, up and down, one—two—three—four, one—two—three—four. He sang a kind of chant that was mesmeric, and most of the bystanders would be swaying up and down, up and down, with the pumpers, so that when a contest was over, both the team and the audience were tired out.

The night of the railroad station fire, three flatcars were lined up at the station with their fire engines on them. Some of the engines and teams had come on flatcars, and the men guarded the fire engines day and night and spent much time sitting and gossiping together. The cars had easy ladders up to them, and food and equipment were stored on the cars under huge canvas covers. All the children in town climbed on the flats and made pests of themselves, asking questions and getting underfoot.

Engines from nearby towns were drawn to Wickford by horses. One engine had three horses abreast. Seven beautifully polished engines were quite a sight.