It’s Sunday night at the Morinville Fire Hall. The call comes in over the radio: a multi-car pile-up on Hwy. 643.
Firefighters rush from their homes to the hall. When they arrive, 73-year-old Senior Capt. Bud Rockwell is already there, asking the chief if he should suit up.
To be fair, Rockwell was already at the station to talk to the Gazette. But his readiness is no surprise – he’s been on the town’s fire brigade for 45 years, and is one of its most dedicated members.
This year alone, Rockwell has been involved in 69 per cent of the department’s 239 calls, says Fire Chief Brad Boddez.
“Fifty per cent is unheard of. How does a guy show up to every second call?”
Rockwell was recognized last week by Morinville town council for being the longest-serving firefighter in town history.
Rockwell has been on thousands of calls and is a mentor and inspiration for the rest of the force, Boddez says, himself included.
“When the call goes out or you’re called to duty, he’s always here,” Boddez says.
“Two in the morning on a Tuesday night and it’s minus 30, you cannot stop that man from coming down to the hall.”
The big red truck
A lifelong town resident, Rockwell is a soft-spoken man with a country accent and a ready sense of humour.
His real name is David, but everyone knows him as Bud, a nickname he says he got from his sister.
“She was just learning to talk when I was born, and she was trying to say ‘brother,'” he recalls, and the name stuck.
“I didn’t know my name was ‘David’ till I started school!” he jokes.
Rockwell was a child of the 1950s, a time when Morinville had wooden sidewalks and five or six grocery stores.
He remembers well the hoopla that went down when the town got its first firetruck in 1950.
“They didn’t have a fire hall yet, and they kept it (in a garage) where Bumper to Bumper is now,” he says.
He was seven, and would see the big red engine sticking out of the garage every morning on the way to school. At home on the tractor, he would hear the town’s fire siren go off every day at noon – handy, he laughs, as it meant he didn’t need a watch. His parents were also friends with one of the town’s first firefighters, and he would often watch the man rush off to a call when the siren went off.
Despite these portents, Rockwell said he never planned to be a firefighter in Morinville. It was a volunteer force, and he wanted a job, not a hobby. He became a big-rig driver, but joined the Morinville department anyway in 1971 along with three of his friends, including future town mayor Paul Krauskopf.
Maybe a month later, Rockwell says he was facing the biggest blaze of his career: the conflagration at Tremblay’s Garage (currently the site of a Sobeys).
“All I knew was to try and get the water into the area where the smoke was coming from and hope it goes out, and it just didn’t.”
Back then, all you had for protection was a helmet, a rubber-lined coat, and wool gloves that froze solid when wet – convenient, as that kept your hands warmer. (He still uses those gloves on calls.)
There were a lot more fires in those early years as the town had yet to ban burn barrels, Rockwell says. Whenever the siren went off, all the firefighters would rush down to the hall, only to find they didn’t have anywhere to park for all the fire-truck chasers.
“It was the most entertainment in town!” Rockwell says.
Mentor to many
Rockwell was eventually promoted to captain and then senior captain, but says he never tried out for chief.
“I don’t really like telling people what to do,” he explains, as he’d rather do it himself.
Former fire chief Ron Cust says Rockwell talked him into joining up as they were hanging out at BJ’s Pizza, and remembers how they once had to bust a window on the second floor of a building to avoid being roasted alive.
“He was a true Easy Rider from the sixties,” Cust says of him, in that he was a tough guy who loved motorcycles and didn’t care what society thought of him.
Cust says Rockwell is also a bit of a prankster, known for swapping random coloured tailgates onto the chief’s truck, greasing door-handles and filling a man’s truck with plastic spoons.
While he still runs a hose or a truck on occasion, Rockwell says he mostly fills air bottles and does fire inspections nowadays.
“I still get a big adrenaline rush whenever I go on a call.”
The department presented him with a custom helmet earlier this month in recognition of his service. It’s black, wreathed in flames with a big “45” on it, along with an image of his first firetruck and a bottle of black Sambuca – the infamous beverage his late wife, Bev, always challenged new recruits to drink.
“As long as I feel I’m still doing some good on the job, I’d like to be able to continue.”
Bud Rockwell Q&A
Wife Bev (deceased), daughters Tracy, Cee-Cee and Joanne, son Brad.
Retrieved any cats from trees?
“I rescued two cats out of a burning house fire one time. That was my big save in my career.”
“I don’t think I would ever jump out of a plane unless it was falling! I am a little bit afraid of heights.”
Christmas fire safety tips?
“Don’t put lights around your curtains … I’ve seen a couple of houses burn because of curtains.”