Dozens gather at surprise party to bid farewell to Davidsons
As a way to say good-bye to longtime Pontiac residents and fire department stalwarts Al and Sharon Davidson, their friends and fellow firefighters Keith and Khristie Sansone Jacquin invited the Davidsons to join them for a farewell dinner Saturday night before the Davidsons move to Mountain Home, Arkansas, next week.
“We’ll get dressed up and go someplace nice,” Khristie told them a month ago.
So, late Saturday afternoon, the Davidsons put on their good clothes and climbed in the car when the Jacquins picked them up. “Buckle up,” Khristie reminded them unnecessarily. “We’ve got that 30-40 minute drive to Mountain Home.”
But a half-mile north, as they rounded the curve on W Highway in Pontiac, they spotted dozens of cars parked at the Pontiac / Price Place Volunteer Fire Department’s Station #1 next to the post office. “What’s going on there?” asked Al, who served as PPPVFD chief for more than 13 years before retiring last year.
“I don’t know. I saw the cars as we were coming to get you. Let’s stop and see what it is,” Khristie said innocently, insisting that everyone get out and come in with her.
When the Davidsons walked in, there they were – 20-some years’ worth of the firefighters, first responders, board members and friends they had served with in PPPVFD since moving to Pontiac in 1996. And not just the local fire department but friends from other VFDS too – Lick Creek, Gainesville, Theodosia and Oakland, Arkansas – along with Ozark County Ambulance crew members, Ozark County emergency manager Curtis Ledbetter and Ozark County Sheriff’s Deputy Cpl. Curt Dobbs, representing Sheriff Darrin Reed, who was unable to come. State Rep. Karla Eslinger was also there, and so was State Fire Marshal Tim Bean. Members of the Pontiac Ladies Club turned out for the good-bye celebration too.
It was quite a sendoff for this couple whose arrival in Pontiac 23 1/2 years ago had started with Al joining the PPPVFD against his will – and then fighting a house fire on the day they moved in.
But we’ll get to that later. Let’s start at the beginning.
Air Force service and ‘mantiqueing’
Al grew up in Long Island, New York. Sharon grew up in Minot, North Dakota, where Al was stationed with the Air Force in 1966-67. They met at a roller-skating rink where, long story short, Sharon’s head fell of, as Al likes to say. As the floor was being cleared, Sharon was the last one coming off and as she skated toward the edge, her wig came off and rolled across the floor. The cavernous hall was dead silent as the mortified Sharon grabbed her wig and retreated to the ladies room. And then “a big, loud New York laugh” echoed through the roller rink. It was Al, nearly hysterical because for a moment he had thought the unknown girl’s head had popped off and tumbled across the floor.
They were married 18 months later, in July 1968.
Al served in the Air Force 10 1/2 years on active duty, including several years as firefighter, and 10 more years in the Reserves. After that, the couple, by then with two children, worked various jobs, most of them based in or near Minneapolis, Minnesota.
In 1996, they became full-time antique dealers, traveling the country in a pickup pulling a trailer or in an extended van, hauling “small stuff. Things you could carry in your hands,” Al said, mentioning old advertisements, fishing lures, tobacco tins and other “mantiques” that appealed mostly to men. Later they sold colored, unused enamelware imported from India, where it had been locked in a warehouse, untouched, from 1945 until the early 1990s.
Moving to Pontiac: the first-day fire
Al loved to trout fish and hunt, and during his Air Force days he had watched a fishing show that featured the White River and mentioned Calico Rock, Arkansas. In 1971, they took a short leave and visited the area – and liked it. Twenty-four years later, in 1995, when they were doing an antique show in Memphis, they came back and looked for a place to buy. They chose a home and 8 acres in Pontiac and arranged to take possession the next year, in June 1996.
By then, “between my time in the Air Force and all the volunteer fire departments I’d served with, I had more than 20 years of firefighting experience. I had trained firefighters in the Air Force. And by the time we came to Pontiac, I didn’t want anything to do with firefighting or the fire department except pay dues. I’d had all of that I wanted,” Al said.
When he came down in April 1996 to set up a post office box ahead of their planned arrival in June, the postmaster explained how the fire department worked. She said, “Ted Gutweiler’s the chief, and he’s at the fire station now, across the road. You should step over there and meet him.”
So Al did. He walked to the firehouse and introduced himself to Gutweiler. “I said, ‘Hey, we’re moving here in June, and I just wanted to say hello,’” Al recalled. “Ted said, ‘Come on in, and I’ll get your bunkers,’” referring to firefighters’ protective outerwear.
“No, you don’t understand,” Al told Gutweiler. “I have experience with firefighting. I know about firefighting, and I’ve had enough of it. I’m not here to join.”
“Ted said, ‘Yeah, come right through here, and I’ll get you fixed up,’” Al said. “And with that, I officially got my gear and was a member of the fire department two months before we ever moved here.”
Moving day finally came in June 1996, and the next day they went to Mountain Home, Arkansas, to buy furniture.
“Our daughter was with us. We had a truck and a van, and we bought all this furniture, and we were bringing it home, and as we were coming up Highway 5, we rounded the curve there at Poe’s Feed, and I glance up and see smoke pouring out of the eaves. I said, ‘Hey that house is on fire,’” Al said. “It was our first full day here. I didn’t know anyone. But I knew there was a firehouse at Highways W and 5. We drove up there, and Butch Winslow was there.”
The next thing Al knew, he was riding to the fire with Winslow in a Timber Knob VFD truck that had a bent drive rod that made the right front wheel wobble, Al said.
“We get there and start pulling hose. Guys start showing up. I make entry to the garage. I’m in there fighting the fire with a hose and no gear,” Al said.
Meanwhile, Sharon and their 18-year-old daughter, Yvonne, continued on to Pontiac with the truckload of furniture. Then the women returned to the fire with a case of water to give to the firefighters.
“Yvonne knew if you hear a siren, you pull over. Well, we were driving there on W, headed back to the fire, and behind us, far off, we hear a siren,” Sharon said. “We keep hearing it and hearing it and watching and waiting, and finally this big old tanker truck comes chugging over the hill going about 5 miles per hour. Yvonne looked at me as the old truck went by and said, ‘Mom, I hope to God your house never gets on fire.’”
Two decades of firefighting experiences
With that unexpected beginning, the Davidsons’ work with the fire department began – and continued more than 23 years. They decided recently that they needed to move closer to medical facilities as age-related health challenges increased. Al, who has COPD, is 76; Sharon is 72. They’re moving next week to the outskirts of Mountain Home.
After Al involuntarily joined the PPPVFD, Sharon got involved too, first becoming a medical first responder and then training to drive all the trucks. Later she served as an officer for organization. Al served as chief twice – the first time after Gutweiler died, and again a few years later when then-chief Bill Richardson moved away.
They’ve seen tremendous changes in their years with the department, including the addition of more vehicles and equipment – and even a second firehouse east of Pontiac. The real changes came, they said, after 9/11, when more federal grant money became available for fire departments and first responders: “New bunkers, a new tanker, radios and pagers, new extraction equipment. Everybody who applied for grant money those first few years after 9/11 got it,” Al said. “Then, as the years went by, the government got more choosey.”
“But Al was always good at writing grants,” Sharon said. “More than 50 percent of the time, we got what he asked for.”
They’ve responded to more fires, car crashes and other emergencies than they can count – both in their own district and in mutual aid to other districts. But they do have a couple of favorites, they say. Both of them involved a former PPPVFD board member, the late Mary Beth Roberts.
Their “favorite house fire,” they say, was the chimney fire that occurred at Mary Beth’s house 17-18 years ago. “The fire got in the attic, and we got up there and put it out with very little water, and we protected the furniture and the floor and everything. The insurance agent was really impressed there was as little damage as there was,” Al said.
The funniest fire – well, they laugh now – occurred when Mary Beth was burning “a few leaves in the ditch” and a spark flew across the road and set fire to a field on Pocket Hollow Ranch. By the time it was over, more than 100 acres had burned, and “we had several other fire departments there helping put out that fire,” Al said.
At the next board meeting, Al gave Mary Beth a little gift: a book of matches with a hole drilled in it and a padlock locked through the hole. He gave the key to the padlock to Mary Beth’s neighbor, Doyle Williams.
Along with all the kidding, the Davidsons paid tribute to the woman who had served for many years as PPPVFD treasurer. “She was a go-getter,” Sharon said. “She took us from having no money at all to having a beautiful bank account so we could do what needed to be done.”
Correcting the state fire marshal
At the Saturday night good-bye party, current PPPVFD chief Art Streigle presented plaques to Al and Sharon, and others also bestowed gifts and mementoes as well.
Then Missouri State Fire Marshal Tim Bean, former fire chief in West Plains, presented Al and Sharon with challenge coins, special tokens firefighters and others in emergency service personnel share in exceptional circumstances.
Those present thought Al might have blinked back a tear as he accepted the coin from Bean.
But then there was the matter of correcting the certificates of appreciation that Bean also gave them.
Right away, Al noticed that his certificate thanked him for “more than 20 years of service.”
“It was 23 1/2 years of service,” he told the fire marshal.
“Do you want me to fix it?” Bean asked.
“Yeah,” Al said, handing the framed certificate back to him.
Bean changed the wording to thank Al for “23 years of service.”
“Twenty-three and a half,” Al barked.
As friends and fellow firefighters laughed, knowing Al’s legendary gruffness has always been a facade, Bean took the certificate back and added a “1/2” above the 23.
Al nodded, appeased.