Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 3, 2013

SALISBURY — As they lean against Truck 645 at the Miller’s Ferry station, firefighting brothers Larry and Don Gobble can’t help but needle each other.

Don is the department’s “communications specialist,” mainly because he yammers a lot. But he views his role more as keeping things straight.

“I’m kind of like the checks and balances here,” Don declares.

But Larry Gobble knows when to step in and temper Don’s ego.

“Yeah, he over-balances everything,” Larry says.

The Gobble brothers are more “dino”-mite than dinosaurs. Though each has been a volunteer with Miller’s Ferry Fire Department for more than 50 years, they remain an integral part of their community’s firefighting and emergency responder efforts.

Larry Gobble, 71, just recently won the 2012 “Chief’s Award” from Miller’s Ferry Fire Chief Bobby Fox. Brother Don, 67, and younger brother Mike, 63, accuse Larry of out-and-out brown-nosing.

And so it goes.  But on a more serious note, the Gobble brothers represent the kind of dedication that has built volunteer fire departments throughout Rowan County.

When the Gobbles talk about the old days, you appreciate how far rural departments have come in terms of training, communications, coverage and equipment.

But you also grasp what the firefighting fraternity means to them.

“If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t be here,” Larry Gobble says.

ggg  Larry isn’t sure of the exact date he started with the department, but he puts the year at 1958, when he turned 16 and started to drive.

Don Gobble joined the department as a 14-year-old, about a year later. They came by their membership in the department honestly.

Their Uncle Ben and brothers Ben and Carroll belonged to the fledgling station, which was housed in a two-bay garage on Long Ferry Road. (Ron’s Body Shop is there today.)

Besides, there wasn’t much else to do in the Trading Ford community, where many of the adults worked at Duke Power’s Buck Steam Station along the Yadkin River.

The fire department served almost like a civic club, and whole families were involved.

“We had to find entertainment,” Larry Gobble says.

“That’s all we did — and fish,” Don adds.

Larry contends people had a different mindset in that era, too.

“Back then, it was what could we do for you,” he says. “Now it’s what can you do for me.”

  ggg    When the Gobbles started out, the Miller’s Ferry Fire Department ran two trucks — a 1937 Chevrolet and a 1956 Ford.

The station had a drainage problem. After hard rains, all the water would pool in front of the bays. In winter, it often would freeze over and require some cautious steps from the firemen to reach the trucks.

The department had only six sets of turnout gear, which consisted of rubber jackets, rubber boots and helmets.

“If you weren’t among the first six, you didn’t get anything,” Larry says.

The department also had only two air packs.

In these days before scanners, pagers and high-tech, water-resistant radios, the firemen slept with their windows open whenever the weather allowed so they could hear the station’s siren go off.

In addition, three wives of firemen controlled lists of about 12 men each to call when an alarm came in.

It might take them 10 to 15 minutes just to reach everyone.

  ggg    If you heard the siren on Long Ferry Road, you hurried, of course, to the station without waiting for a call. There was no fancy protocol.

“It was just a matter of who showed up to drive the truck,” Larry Gobble says.

For communication purposes, the department had a huge Civil Defense radio that took two men to carry.

The trucks also communicated with each other through CB radios, sharing the airwaves with truckers on Interstate 85, which had just been built.

The early trucks didn’t have many bells and whistles. The Gobbles walk into a room of artifacts and trophies and pull out one of the early truck sirens attached to a red light. It might be the only emergency signaling device a truck carried.

  ggg    Men of the Miller’s Ferry Fire Department — and their wives — had to raise money constantly through sales of chicken-and-dumplings, hot dogs, hamburgers and barbecue.

They also held regular turkey shoots and raffles.

“Anything to make a dollar,” Don Gobble recalls.

The firemen also went door-to-door collecting membership dues from the residents and businesses they served. Early on, the dues were $6 per household, later raised to $10.

If you paid, the department issued a white stake with the Miller’s Ferry logo sign on top to be placed in the front yard.

By theory, the department would not put out fires at locations where the owners were not current on their dues.

“You better have it in your yard,” Don Gobble says. But he adds this disclaimer — “I never remember not putting out a fire.”

Membership dues became harder to collect once Rowan County started giving rural departments $1,800 a year. In exchange for that contribution, departments promised to respond to all fires.

Today most rural departments, including Miller’s Ferry, depend primarily on fire district taxes.

  ggg    Things were definitely different when the Gobble brothers first joined their department.

Most of the time, if the station siren went off, the Miller’s Ferry men knew they probably were going to a working fire. They weren’t being called out constantly as first-responders to wrecks or private alarms.

Calls in the department’s early days might average 40 or 50 a year. Today it’s more like 360 to 400.

Many of the poorer houses in the 1950s and 1960s were insulated with cardboard and newspaper, which acted like kindling in a fire. In the Five Row community near Spencer, the Gobbles say, you didn’t try to save the house on fire because it already would be a lost cause by the time firemen arrived.

They focused efforts instead on saving the houses beside it.

Fewer homes today burn coal and wood for heat, another reason for many fires back then. Building standards and materials are better, down to the wiring and plumbing, Larry Gobble says.

Don Gobble doesn’t try to glorify the old days or the firefighting techniques often employed. Training is important, the brothers say, but sometimes “it doesn’t take a lot of skill to squirt water on brush and field fires,” Don says.

He recalls the first fire to which he responded — a stubborn trash fire on Dukeville Road. The guys spent several days putting water on that one, he says.

But the Gobbles and their department have fought their share of major fires, too. Examples include the Becky Hinkle fabric shop fire, and mutual aid assignments at the Salisbury Millwork, Salem Lutheran Church and Webb Road Flea Market fires.

The ribbon of I-85 going through the Miller’s Ferry district also has been a major responsibility through the years and, sadly, the site of some horrific accidents.

The department has prime or mutual-aid responsibility from Exit 76 in Salisbury to Belmont Road in Davidson County, a total of 14 miles.

  ggg    The Gobble family had five boys and three girls, and the home place was on Leonard Road, where Don lives today.

“Mamma had a rough life,” Don says. “When Mike came along, she figured it was time to quit.”

It’s another brotherly dig.  John Gobble, their father, worked at Cannon Mills Plant No. 7 in Salisbury, and he was a good carpenter on the side.

Mother Beatrice Gobble slaved at home with all those children.

After her husband died at age 58 and her kids were grown, Beatrice learned to drive when she was 64 and entered the work world, becoming a patients’ advocate through Rowan Memorial Hospital.

Larry and Don are long retired now. Larry fashioned a 36-year career with Bell South. Don claims Larry spent most of his time lounging in the repair truck, running the heater in the winter or the air-conditioning in the summer.

Don worked 35 years at Hoechst Celanese.

Both Larry and Mike Gobble have been past chiefs with the department. Larry was, in fact, chief for 20-plus years and guided the department through much of its transition into the modern era.

Meanwhile, Don Gobble has faced many personal challenges through the years, though he has refused to let them crush his spirit.

He lost a wife and daughter-in-law to cancer. His daughter was paralyzed from the waist down in an accident seven years ago.

In 1981, Don suffered third-degree burns over 65 percent of his body in a chemical fire/explosion at the Celanese plant. It’s brutal to imagine, but in showering off at the plant immediately after the accident, he could literally see much of his skin going down the drain.

Don spent months in a Winston-Salem burn center and missed two-and-a-half years of work.

  ggg    Larry and Don Gobble still man a nine-hour day shift at the Miller’s Ferry station about four times a month.

At fires, they’ve stopped strapping on air packs and going inside structures. They’re content to drive the trucks, run the pumps or ladders and direct traffic if needed.

Both are current on their medical and firefighting certificates.

At home, they keep their pagers on the night stands beside their beds.

The Miller’s Ferry Station is a lot different today. It has a fancy sign with changing messages out front. The bays hold turnout gear for all members, and the department has six trucks, a boat and a trailer.

The Gobbles marvel at how far things have come. But some things stay the same, such as all the stories and lies told at the station.

“If you want to know something,” Mike Gobble says, “this is where you go.”

Here’s where Don comes in muttering something about checks and balances.

  Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or