Fire Engines, Fighter Jets and Nannies – 1928 Ahrens Fox Fire Engine

1928 Ahrens Fox Fire Engine

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Today, municipalities and families buy elaborate jungle gyms and playscapes with professed standards of safety. When I was a child, people had a slightly broader notion of appropriate playground equipment. Something I recently saw at a car show drove that point home.

Times have indeed changed. To protect the children of my city from the dangers lurking in our public parks, city officials tore down playscapes that had been in use for two decades with nary a problem. I guess that their theory was that no playscapes were better than theoretically dangerous ones. It took almost two years for the city to replace them. For all that time children were deprived of a place to play in the only public parks in that part of the city. Two years is a long time in the life of a child. The only problem is that nothing had changed with the playscapes. They hadn’t become unsafe because something had broken or changed. What changed was that ASTM, a non-profit organization that sets standards for all sorts of things (they were originally known as the American Society for Testing and Materials), issued a new standard for playground safety and the old playscapes did not meet the new standard. Not surprisingly, the company that made the original playscapes said that they could not be retrofitted to meet the new guidelines but they did offer to show the city officials their new line of ASTM compliant playscapes.

Apparently, the situation was so urgent that the city decided to tear down the “unsafe” structures before it had funds to replace them. Perhaps city officials were worried about getting sued, or, perhaps they were genuinely concerned about children’s safety but wasn’t a case of complying with some kind of law. ASTM standards are great ideas to follow, usually best methods, but they are not the law. Compliance with ASTM standards, like getting UL certification on electrical devices, is voluntary. Mind you, no children in the city had ever been injured on the old playscapes. If the old playscapes were dangerous, they’ve been dangerous since most of the same city officials bragged about them when they were new.

Perhaps coincidentally, the playscapes were torn down just a few months before a millage vote scheduled by those same officials. One playscape was replaced soon after that millage passed. The city didn’t bother replacing the second playscape until just a few weeks ago, pretty much after the spring, summer and early fall when children would be playing out of doors. Perhaps coincidentally, there is an election next month. One thing is certain: the politicians and officials will rationalize each and every one of their actions not as self-serving but rather as “for the children”.

When the original playscapes were installed, the city also installed a then state of the art cushioned floor surface, so kids wouldn’t get hurt when they fell. With the new “safe” playscapes comes a new safe ground cover. Actually, I think they went with mulch, as some have suggested that the new “safe” surfaces, just like the old playscapes, aren’t as safe as originally thought. Those “playscapes” were supposed to be safer than those really old fashioned jungle gyms and slides. That kind of play equipment, along with swings, has virtually disappeared from public parks, replaced by “playscapes”.

People weren’t always such nannies about kids and playgrounds. When my oldest was not quite 8 years old we were camping in Virginia. I think she was trying to slide down a support pole for a tall metal slide, and ended up falling and landing on her head on the bare dirt below. Thank God she wasn’t seriously hurt, not even a concussion, because an 8-10 fall can be quite dangerous, but we didn’t prohibit her from playgrounds nor did we threaten to sue the campground, and nobody accused us of abuse or neglect. For what it’s worth, her daughter is about the same age now that she was then, and Ellie is indeed allowed to hang upside down from the monkey bars, when she can find a park that has them.

There should be a name for the phenomenon of seeing an object, sensing that there is something familiar about it, but not being able to put your finger on the exact memory it evokes. I’m not talking about deja vu, because in this case the memory is true. This happened to me recently at the Orphan Car Show. The show, dedicated to bygone marques, is held every year in Ypsilanti’s Riverside Park. With a car museum in the last remaining Hudson dealership, a factory nearby where Corvairs were made, and Preston Tucker’s home, Ypsilanti is a logical location for such a show. The Michigan Firehouse Museum happens to be right around the corner from the park, in the historic Depot Town section of Ypsi, and there were a couple of fire engines at the show including a 1928 Ahrens Fox. Appropriately fort he Orphan Car Show, Ahrens Fox itself built its last fire truck in 1977. The brand name is currently licensed to HME, a Michigan based specialty truck manufacturer that owns the domain name.

Ahrens Fox fire engines are notable for an elaborate front mounted water pump and manifold with a large chrome ball on the top. The ball contains a pressure regulator that evens out the pump’s pulsing. There was something familiar about it, but either way I was pretty sure that the octopine plumbing would yield some impressive 3D shots. I’ve liked old fire engines since I was a boy and this one reminded me of my youth. The Hebrew day school that I attended was located in a Jewish Community Center building and in that facility’s playground there were a couple of “playscapes” today’s safety nannies would never allow: a decommissioned Michigan Air National Guard F-84F fighter jet, and an old fire truck.

Most of us were content to sit in the cockpit and make jet noises. The engine of the jet had been removed and until the kids got too big the braver ones among us would try to crawl through the ducting. I can’t recall if anyone ever got stuck. if they did, nobody ever called the police or fire department. None of the teachers ever told us not to do that, or not to jump off the wings. The jet was full of all sorts of sharp edges and pinch points that would make it off limits to adults today, let alone children. I seem to recall one kid breaking his arm when jumping off of the plane. Nobody sued the JCC and the next day there wasn’t a fence around the plane. It was a different age.

A couple of months earlier Matt Hardigree, over at Jalopnik, described a F-4 Phantom fighter located at an American Legion post in a Houston suburb. That plane has a fence around it. Just coincidentally, around the same time as Matt’s post, the Jewish Center near my house had a display up about the building’s origins and in the display there were historic photos of it’s own jet being delivered by the Michigan Air National Guard and a bunch of kids playing on the fire engine. To make sure that I’d have photographic evidence for posterity, I gathered up my camera bag and performed the meta task of photographing a couple of photographs. I posted a pic of the jet in that thread on Jalopnik and didn’t think about it those photos until the other day, when Protein Wisdom‘s Jeff Goldstein posted a photo on Facebook of his young son behind the wheel of a modern fire truck. I decided to share the photos of the jet and firetruck with him. When I looked at the photo of the fire engine I played on as a child, I discovered that it was a Ahrens-Fox of the same vintage, with the same front mounted octopus-looking water pump, as the one I saw at the Orphan Car Show. No wonder it looked familiar.

There aren’t just kids in the picture of the fire engine. There’s an adult woman, probably a teacher, pointing out something to the boys, three of whom are standing on the truck’s hood and fenders. She has a smile on her face and the boys are smiling too so I doubt she was telling them to be careful about something. In the photo of the jet, the airmen from the Nat’l Guard are maneuvering the plane past the building and a light pole (it looks like they had to knock over a no-parking sign). A man is standing near the plane with a boy, probably his son, at his side. The boy is looking up at one of the airmen, who is looking back at him, smiling, perhaps answering a question. You can’t tell if the boy is smiling but I can assure you that he was looking forward to playing on that jet, and that his father was thinking how much fun that would be for his child, not how dangerous it might be.


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