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Dicy McCullough: Fighting fires side by side

Iíve known Sue Gray for about two decades now. Not only have we attended many of the same community functions over the years, but I also taught her great-granddaughter, Kara Skinner, piano lessons. Kara is now a sophomore in college. Even though weíve known each other for many years, only recently did I discover Sue was one of the first women volunteer firefighters in North Carolina.
During the late í60s and early í70s, most of the men had jobs that didnít allow them time to serve, so Sue volunteered out of necessity. She was a firefighter at the Mount Ulla Volunteer Fire Department at the same time her husband, Hill, was chief. As a matter of fact, Hill and Sue fought fires side by side. Sitting at the kitchen table in their charming house on Back Creek Church Road a few weeks ago, Sue and Hill shared stories from those days.
Other women besides Sue also volunteered. Just like the men, they had to go through training. They took classes at Mitchell Community College and used their knowledge for hands-on experiences. Sometimes they had to climb up a ladder and go across the roof of a building in back of Mount Ulla Elementary School with a fire hose on their backs.
A retired nurse, Mary H. Darrell, probably in her late 60s at that time, was one of the women. Sue said even though Mary was older than everyone else, she could climb the ladder and go across the roof better than some of the younger women. Itís hard now to imagine them fighting fires, but itís true because Sue has pictures to prove they did. The women wore boots, a helmet and coveralls over their clothing as their equipment. In a way, Sueís glad thatís all they had because the menís equipment was hot and heavy.
The community worked together in those days to raise money to remodel the Mount Ulla fire station and pay off one of the trucks. They sold hot dogs and served meals after church. Money also was raised by charging hunters a fee for dove hunting on local farmland. Sometimes hunters would pay more than the required fee knowing they were helping the fire department.
I asked Sue how many fires she had fought and she looked at me over the top of her glasses and said, ěLots.î One fire sheíll never forget was the one at Baron and Nan Sloopís house, which sat just over the railroad tracks near Mount Ulla School. She remembers the firefighters saving as much as they could of the family possessions from the house. Baron and Nan were especially grateful to Sue for saving the Sloop family tree which had been hanging beside the front door.
Even though fighting fires was a hard job and one to be taken seriously, there were also times that were funny. One such time was on a cold night when Hill was still fire chief and the alarm went off about 2 in the morning. Sue told Hill she wasnít going on the call that morning because she had to get up and go to work at 6. He said OK and went on next door to the fire station. By the time Hill got the fire truck out and ready to go, Sue slid in the seat beside him and said, ěIf I hadnít stopped at the bathroom, I would have been here sooner.î They both laugh about that now.
Sue looks back on her experiences as a volunteer firefighter to be some of the most rewarding and fun times in her life, with friendships she has even today. Itís easy to understand why little boys and girls dream of fighting fires when they grow up. What could be better than helping others on a job you love?

Dicy McCulloughís second book, ěTired of School,î is available on amazon.com, dicymcculloughbooks.com. and at local bookstores. Contact her at 704-278-4377.

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