Interview - Guy McGowan, Penfield Fire Company

May 05, 2008

Guy McGowan

The War

McGowan GuyGuy McGowan
September in Rochester is the stuff of legend. The sun is resolute, the harvest is rich, and the high air smells of mischief; a long cool waft of chill that sets the hairs on end, just for a moment, before that old radiant heat returns them to slumber. The year is 1946. George Orwell has just published Animal Farm, Joe Garagiola has finally made it to the show, and deep in the heart of Europe, the silver screens of the first Cannes Film Festival brighten the darkened French boulevards as Europe begins to rebuild after six years of crushing world war.

Guy “Mac” McGowan is just back from that wretched war; he’s survived campaigns in North Africa, through Casablanca and Morocco, Oran, Italy, and into southern France, landing on the Riviera at Saint Tropez—not thirty miles southwest of Cannes. From there he forges north, first to the port of Marseilles, then into Germany via the Rhone Valley. A brutal winter spent in the Vosges mountains, a spring crossing of the mighty Rhine, and suddenly, miraculously, the war in Europe ends.

Lieutenant McGowan has commanded the 832nd Amphibious Truck Company—the “Ducks”—everyone called them the Ducks—a fowl rejoinder of those infamous vehicle identification markings DUKW; 2½ tons each of indispensable amphibious troop and supply transport, used throughout the war for beach landings, river crossings, and for the 181 men under his command, the odd mission impossible.

McGowan’s Duck days are drawing to a close, but not before the Army ships him to the Pacific theatre as well—almost two months in zigzag transit, chasing heavy clouds and inclement weather through the icy waters of the Straits of Gibraltar, across the Atlantic, down to the Caribbean, and through the Panama Canal—a lone troop ship skirting enemy subs on a wave and a prayer. He arrives in Manila just in time to witness Fat Man, Little Boy and the surrender of the Japanese. Two theaters, six years, and already at the tender age of twenty-something, a lifetime of experience.

McGowan is finally home now, tasting the crisp Penfield air, and wondering what to do with the rest of his life. His father’s Penfield Road business beckons, but a young man who has travelled the world and seen the best and worst of men is reluctant to labor in the shadow of the pater familias. He hesitates. At length, he relents to his Mother’s insistent wishes and joins in the family insurance business, where he remains, in Penfield, for the whole of his professional life.

The Penfield of 1946 is a small rural farming community—maybe 6,000 residents—and word spreads quickly. Mac is back. The fire company needs people—no experience necessary. McGowan is approached, and ever at the ready, agrees. Spencer Punnett, an old fire hand, breaks a few rules, and corrals McGowan for some field instruction even before joining; it’s a modest 1929 Chevy truck with a small hose, tank, and pump. McGowan is hooked, and a lifetime of service begins.

The Fire Company

It is now sixty years downstream, and the summer days seem shorter. The hazards of war loom large in memory, but the particulars of hazard insurance do not fair so well, and that is as it should be. The strength and vigor of ‘presentable’ youth are now gone, but the essential vitality remains—in the soft voice, the quick smile, and the insistent sparkle in the eye. This man can spin a yarn.

Guy McGowan is speaking—about life, about war, and about fire. His relationship with the Penfield Fire Company has endured every day of those six decades, without fail, and both he and the Penfield Fire District are much the better for it. These days he only shows up four or five times a week, serving in the dispatch center when he can. His days of riding the trucks are over now; they ended in his sprightly seventies, about ten years ago.

McGowan’s relationship with fire itself is less auspicious. It first arose in France, in ’44, on the Rhone River just south of Leon. A homemade camp stove concocted by the maintenance boys had exploded, burning his face and hands terribly. Out of the frying pan, and into the fire, as it were. He had rolled out of his quarters and into the dirt, clothes and skin aflame, and noticed another unfortunate, a Lieutenant, who had stumbled into dense barbed wire, burning alive, unable to move. McGowan instinctively raced toward the man to assist, still on fire himself, before he was ordered back down to the ground.

This is not the instinct of a businessman, nor even necessarily of a soldier. This is the instinct of self-sacrifice amidst extreme personal danger, despite fear, despite pain, come hell or high water. This is the instinct of a fireman.

Fate was kind to Lieutenant McGowan; he would suffer no permanent scars from the incident, save a tiny few that still make an appearance between the fingers on cold days. McGowan speaks of the incident in stark, simple terms. “Burning is awful.”

Perhaps this is exactly the right kind of experience for the job, and it serves him well. Only one life-threatening experience surfaces in subsequent years—a large brush fire in the wild area between Linden and Penfield Road that had already trapped several firemen from East Rochester. A rapid, roaring, windblown fire advances up the hill, consuming pine trees like matchsticks, cornering McGowan and his cousin at the crest of the hill as the conflagration approaches. There is no possibility of outrunning the fire, and nowhere to turn but back. They pick a low spot and dive straight back into the fire, scrambling headlong in the hope of finding a spent patch of bare earth. It is a choice that speaks of wisdom, experience, and the incredible intestinal fortitude for which firefighters are renown. About the incident, McGowan will say only “I was a little concerned about my safety.”

McGowan rises to become Fire Chief in 1957, and his wife is appalled. McGowan remembers her as “a little feisty” in those days. He smiles.

“You won’t have a friend in the world when you get out—not with your mouth.”

“I might not have a friend in the world, but as long as I’m chief, there’s one way they’re going to do it—they’re going to do it my way.” The captain of the 832nd amphibious knows how to run a tight ship.

It turns out that his mouth has been well-trained, as the personal aide to Brigadier General John Murphy of the 7th Armored Division—a gruff, no-nonsense combat commander with a keen eye for military courtesy and forthright competence. McGowan serves under Murphy dutifully, with more than a few bruises to show for it. He learns the politics of the military, and the lines that can and cannot be crossed with a superior officer. He develops a reputation as ‘presentable’—military speak for an officer’s officer. Crisp, profane, button-down, polite, firm, yes sir. Dismissed.

A dispute arises on desert maneuvers. McGowan is furious; he can’t any longer remember why. Words are exchanged.

“Do you know why you’re my aide, McGowan?”

“No, damn it. I don’t.”

“It’s because you are so big that when I chew you out, I don’t feel any remorse.”

“Well that’s a damned good reason, sir.”

McGowan brings this razor sense of military leadership to his service as Fire Chief. Duties are assigned, expectations are clear, inspections happen daily. Shortcomings are dealt with swiftly. The Penfield Fire Company must be better than good. It must be...presentable. Presentable it remains to this day, in the finest sense of the term, following the standards of excellence that Guy McGowan set in motion decades ago.

It is perhaps a truism to state flatly that Mr. McGowan’s wife was not often wrong. But she was wrong in this case, and happily so. The friends that have come vastly outnumber those that have departed; one need only look around the fire company today to see the truth of it. But one thing more important than friendship has arisen, well-earned in sixty years of service, and it has never departed.

Respect.

 

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