Play Ball … A Blast from the Past

Part I – The Wrath of Irene

[On August 29, 2011 Tropical Storm Irene pummeled Vermont. Central Vermont, full of steep Green Mountain foothills and rushing mountain streams, was overwhelmed, suffered its worst natural disaster since the Flood of 1927. Bridges and roads were washed out, trees and powerlines were down, and whole communities were cut off from the rest of the world. Tales of disaster abounded, but so did tales of heroism and humanity. One of the names that bobbed frequently to the surface was that of the Bethel Volunteer Fire Department.

When the waters receded, it became even more apparent how ably the BVFD had served its community. In November, the disaster passed, they were to be honored at a celebrity flood relief fundraiser, but they didn’t show when their names were called from the podium. Ungrateful? No, they were out on another emergency call! SB SM]

Chief Aldrighetti directs the action

Part II – The Call

(published originally in the White River Valley Herald)

Bethel Volunteer Fire Department Headed to Fenway

Green Monstah, here we come!

The people of Bethel don’t see eye-to-eye on all issues, but they seem to find common ground when it comes to recognizing the solid (some would say “heroic”) performance of the town’s volunteer fire department. In April, 2012, that recognition will be shared with the entire Red Sox Nation when the group will honored in a pre-game ceremony at Fenway Park.

The fire fighters were gathered on Monday, November 21 for their bi-weekly meeting. Usually the agenda consists of announcements by the chief (David Aldrighetti), followed by training and equipment inspection. This night, however, they are waiting for the phone to ring.

The pre-call banter is non-stop. Everyone is wearing logo clothing–Bethel Mills, Dean’s Auto Service, Johnny’s Seeds. The white board tells the story. Their last call was on November 20th, their 59th of the year. It was a car accident on I-89. There was some fuel spillage, and the fire department was called out to make sure it didn’t turn into something worse. Routine stuff.

It has been anything but a routine year for these first responders. In addition to the usual fires, accidents, and other emergencies, there have been two floods, including Tropical Storm Irene which brought the department well-beyond the Bethel town lines.

“It seemed like they were everywhere,” says Sam Lincoln in a pre-meeting phone call. Lincoln has been in the news of late for his role as one of the principal organizers in the Going to Bat for Vermont fundraiser that netted $175,000 to help Vermont farmers recover from the damages caused by Irene. Now Lincoln, accompanied by his son in a Red Sox t-shirt, is sitting with the fire fighters, waiting for the phone to ring.

As they wait, Chief David Aldrighetti makes a few announcements (“Gilead Brook Road will be closed tomorrow. If you need to get to the upper road, you’ll have to take Tatro Hill.” “We’ve got a new set of keys to the high school.”). He also requests that when the phone does ring, that everyone keeps quiet. “Not your usual B-S,” he says with a smile.

The phone rings.

Aldrighetti answers, hands the phone to Lincoln, who–after a few pleasantries–says “Hold on, I’m putting you on speaker phone.”

“Hi, this is Sam Kennedy of the Boston Red Sox.” Kennedy is Chief Operating Officer. “I heard from your friend Buster Olney what a fantastic job you all did during the recent storm, and we’d like you to be our guests at a game next April and to be honored in a pre-game ceremony on the field.”

The call is brief, followed by robust applause. Afterwards, Aldrighetti and Lincoln add some administrative details (“We’re going to hire a bus and make a day of it.” “These tickets are non-transferable.” Wouldn’t want these showing up on eBay.) Most in attendance, however, are picturing themselves in the shadow of the Green Monstah, their faces up on the big screen. For any kid raised in New England, it’s a dream come true.

The siren wails into the November night, normally a call of alarm. Tonight, however, the fire fighters are already gathered. Tonight, the siren is a wail of celebration.

Yup, the BVFD were on the Jumbotron

Part III – Take Me Out to the Ball Game

(published originally in the White River Valley Herald)

Vermont’s First Responders Honored at Fenway

Tom Harty was sitting down for lunch with his friend Robert Gaiko at the Cask and Flagon, a popular eatery just outside Boston’s Fenway Park, currently celebrating its centennial as “America’s Most Beloved Ball Park,” as the omnipresent signs tell you. The streets were teeming fans soaking up the lively street scene. Suddenly a man collapsed, landing face down in the street.

“There were plenty of people screaming ‘Call 9-1-1!’” said Harty, “but no one did anything to help.” Harty who was attending the game as a guest of the Bethel Volunteer Fire Department for the work he did in conjunction with cemetery damage caused by tropical storm Irene, immediately jumped over the barrier separating the Cask and Flagon tables from the street and went over to the collapsed man, seeing immediately that the man was choking on a piece of sausage.

“I cleared his air way,” said Harty, “and he gasped for breath. After a few seconds we helped him to his feet and he was on his way.

Just another day for one of America’s first responders.

There are still visible piles of silt in the field across Vermont Route 12 from the Bethel Volunteer Fire Department as a contingent of ninety plus prepares to board the buses of the Purple Knights of Vermont Tech College for their trip to Fenway where they will be honored for their heroic work following tropical storm Irene.

The trip down was fun.

“It’s been quiet lately,” says assistant chief. “Too quiet and the guys lose their edge.” First responders, like athletes, need to stay in shape.

The bus is comfortable, borderline luxurious. There’s even a movie to entertain–Will Farrell as Ricky Bobby in “Talledaga Nights.” Good brainless fare. There’s no shortage of banter. Everyone is chided for the height, lack of height, age, or lack of age. Day off. Road trip. Summer day. Heading to Fenway.

Flashback … a year ago. Tropical storm Irene drops eight inches of rain on an unprepared Vermont on a Sunday afternoon. The small streams of the area–Camp, Thayer, Riford, Gilead, Ayers, Stony–go berserk, destroying roads and bridges and isolating housholds and in the cases of Rochester, Stockbridge, and Pittsfield, entire communities.

Ron Trask is making his first trip to Fenway. He is one of three fire fighters who got his baptism by fire, water in this case, a year ago when he volunteered to help out during the storm (as did two other new department recruits, Jason Ballou and Andrea Spinelli). He’s not a big Red Sox fan, but he’s not about to miss out on “once in a lifetime experience.” During the storm he found himself working in the washed out cemetery in Rochester working alongside Tom Harty doing everything from directing traffic to recovering body parts. Asked to describe the experience he says “definitely different.”

Harty is on the bus as well. He has an impressive Red Sox pedigree. He has personal memories of Ted Williams coming to Vermont for fly fishing. “We’d take him to the best beaver ponds.” He was even the batboy on the American Legion Post 37 team that included Pudge Fisk, Hall of Fame catcher.

Harty agrees with Trask’s “definitely different” description of their experience in Rochester. “Nothing prepares you for an experience like that. There’s no existing play book. Ron waded right in, but the best thing was he came right back the next day.”

“This wasn’t shoveling out a basement,” says Harty. “There’s an emotional toll you pay.” The trip to Fenway, he agreed, was at least a partial pay back.

At the rest area just outside Hooksett, NH two long time veterans of the department are stretching their legs. Bill Russell has been secretary/treasurer of the department for the last dozen or so years. “No relation to the famous basketball player,” he notes with a smile. As one of the crew’s elder statesmen, he spent his time on Irene on the radio. Jim Hart, 63, has been a volunteer fireman since he was 17. He’s seen a lot and done “a little bit of everything over that span.”`

Checking out the luxury boxes during the VIP tour of Fenway

On the other end of the spectrum is Grace Hodgdon, 14, of Bethel. Her family’s basement was flooded during the storm, and she has some harrowing tales of navigating around washed-out roads in a four-wheeler, but the strongest storm association is that her father John’s shop was washed out, robbing the family of their livelihood.

“It’s been a tough year,” John Hodgdon acknowledges. He remembers the fist two weeks after the storm “as a blur.” Like many on the department he worked 16-18 hour days helping to get the roads open and to restore basic services. His shop was filled with mud and flooded. Even now, a year later, he is operating at 25% capacity. “I was finally able to take a paycheck in July,” he says, estimating his total financial loss at $300-350,000. “At some point the actual number stops mattering,” he adds ruefully.

Finally, Boston. The two chariots from Vermont Technical College discharge their passengers on Landsdowne Street, and the group assembles in front of Gate E at the base of the Green Monster. Tickets are dispensed and, for members of the department, credential passes issued for the tour of Fenway. The tour is led by Leanne Doherty, identified by her business card as Executive Assistant and Chief Operating Office.

First stop is the “Monstah” seats that sit atop Fenway’s left field wall. Doherty says they are the “most desirable seats in baseball,” adding that even at a price of $165 each, they have been sold out for every game since they were first offered seven years ago.

Next, Doherty leads the group down a hallway festooned with blow-ups of covers of Sports Illustrated featuring various Red Sox players. They pass the corporate luxury boxes and enter the personal box of Red Sox president Sam Kennedy. The well-appointed, air-conditioned room has its own bar, leather sofa, and flat screen television, a fitting setting for discussing how the Sox are going to make up the ten games by which they currently trail the Yankees. This is more champagne and caviar than “buy me some peanuts and Crackjacks.” Peanuts, by the way, cost $4.50 for a small bag at Fenway.


After a sweep through the team’s executive office, past the luxury dining facility, past the team Hall of Fame, it is onto the field where Fire Chief David Aldrighetti shows his speed on the bases while Adam Wright and Greg Timmons play pepper with Dustin Pedroia and Brian Falzo and Justin Ballou take their cuts in the batting cage. Well … this may be stretching the truth, but many other childhood fantasies are fulfilled. This is hallowed ground and they are in the presence of gods. That is Dustin Pedroia playing catch not ten feet away. That is Bobby Valentine on the lip of the dugout.

As game time approaches, a Red Sox official briefs the group on the pre-game drill. The stands are now filling quickly. The announcer welcomes the crowd to Vermont day. Adrian Gonzalez catches a ceremonial pitch from a young Vermonter. Then, up on the Jumbotron in center field are the dramatic action shots that have become so familiar to those who experienced the wrath of Irene. The Bethel Volunteer Fire Department members, representing first responders throughout the state, hustle onto the field for yet another group photo op. Then, seemingly seconds later, everyone is behind home plate, hats removed, singing the national anthem.

It is time to play ball. The moment has passed, yet it will linger forever.

Out in the right field bleachers the pace slows considerably. In a block of seats with so many wearing their distinctive blue and grey departmental blue t-shirts, it is easy to identify the Bethel contingent. Numerous calls of “Congratulations,” “Go Bethel!,” or “Thank you, firefighters” come from passers-by in the bleacher aisles.

The weather is hot and humid, perfect for baseball. The Red Sox, for a change, acquit themselves well, riding the back of an Adrian Gonzalez home run to hold on to a 6 to 4 victory. The game, however, is a punctuation mark. The story is the ball park and a moment of well-deserved recognition for a group of first responders who came through in the clutch after Irene. It has been an unforgettable day of “lots-ofs” … lots of photos, lots of firsts, lots of kudos, lots of sun, lots of laughs, and lots of memories. It is a hot, tired, sunburned, but happy group that piles into the buses for the return trip north.

Some well-deserved recognition for real life heroes.

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