Long ago, a boy went for a ride and fell in love.
Just 5, he sat on the lap of his uncle, a firefighter, in a fire engine. It was his uncle’s engine, and together in the front passenger seat, they traveled for miles as wonderfully as if they flew on a magic carpet.
The boy never forgot that day. He grew up while the engine grew old. It left town — but not his dreams.
Some day, he hoped, it could join his fire engine collection. Then he and the engine would be reunited. The years passed. The flame endured.
Last May, a long-awaited moment arrived. Rick James listened to a phone message.
Sue Snyder’s voice from Fenton, Mich., spoke music to his ears. She and her husband, Gary, finally wished to sell the engine. “We want it to go home,” she said.
With that, a reunion was set in motion.
Engine 14, Alpha Fire Company’s workhorse for years, would return to State College.
The 1949 L Model Mack now resides on James’ Patton Township property, one of 32 former fire engines in a collection divided among four locations. He’s passionate about all vintage fire engines and firefighting apparatus, but Alpha holds a special place in his heart.
A third-generation member, he owns 10 former Alpha engines, the oldest a 1923 model that was the company’s first motorized vehicle.
The 1949 Mack, however, is the crown jewel.
There can be only one first.
Before that day 43 years ago when his late uncle, Donald Krumrine, showed up, James had never been in a fire engine. Krumrine, the large, deep-voiced Engine 14 engine lieutenant, took care of that.
He backed the engine into James’ driveway off Circleville Road and treated his nephew and neighborhood children to a spin.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” James said.
Other rides followed over the years, but Engine 14 mostly kept on serving the community. From 1949 to 1969, it had been a “first due engine,” responding to every call. During much of James’ youth, however, it operated in tandem with Engine 12, alternating service months with another engine duo.
In 1983, Engine 14 was retired, auctioned off and sold to one Gary Snyder from Farmington Hills, Mich., for $5,300.
Snyder picked up the engine on a snowy March morning in 1984. Along Interstate 80 near Snow Shoe, state police pulled him over on suspicion of theft. Only a radio call back to State College cleared him to proceed.
It was a black day for James. For months while driving to high school, he had passed by the engine sitting unaffordable and out of reach in the borough garage lot off Corl Street. That was torture, but nothing compared to a quirky twist of fate. By chance, he happened to be stopped at an intersection en route to school when Snyder rumbled by, taking away Engine 14.
James wouldn’t see it again for a long time.
In the late 1990s, he began searching for the engine’s whereabouts. Internet inquiries led to a reply from a fire apparatus historian in Plymouth, Mass. He believed the engine was still with Snyder in Michigan.
James called Snyder, and they eventually arranged a visit. Jennifer James recalls her husband’s reaction to sitting in the engine’s four-door cab once again.
“He comes crawling out from a tarp and says it smelled just like he remembered it,” she said.
But the leather upholstery, bell, original red paint and gold Alpha lettering would remain in Michigan. Snyder didn’t want to sell. He and his wife, Sue, a nurse, still enjoyed taking the engine to parades, rallies and museums, and also giving disabled and terminally ill children rides.
“They were very civic-minded people,” Rick James said.
He wanted to borrow the engine for his uncle’s 2003 funeral. It didn’t happen. All he could do was be patient and check in periodically.
For the next decade, James and Snyder maintained friendly ties — and the status quo.
“I never pushed him real hard,” James said. “We never talked about money. If he said he wasn’t ready, I said, ‘Well, you know who to call when you’re ready.’ ”
Snyder didn’t lose the number.
In Fenton last summer, he told James he wanted the engine to go “to the right place.”
“He looked straight at me and said, ‘You’re the right place,’ ” James said.
James had wondered about the engine’s condition. It hadn’t been seen in public for a while, and was being stored outside by then. Was it missing parts? Did it still have its bell? Would it run?
After inspecting it, he was satisfied on all counts. Engine 14 had weathered the years well, rusty but intact right down to plastic labels applied by firefighters and original “dog bone” pump caps.
He and Snyder briefly negotiated the final $2,800 price, but the outcome was never in doubt. That close to his personal holy grail, James wasn’t about to quibble about a few hundred dollars.
When Snyder said he would fetch the serial number for the paperwork, James saved him the trouble, rattling it off by heart.
On Aug. 19, 2015, Engine 14 once again pulled into James’ driveway, this time on a flatbed trailer.
In Michigan, James had been all business evaluating the engine. But at home, his dream finally true, emotion flooded him. He sat in the cab for some time, in disbelief that Engine 14 had come full circle at last.
Some day after being restored, it might join James’ other Alpha engines and go to a fire apparatus museum and educational center he’s helping create out of two former factories in Smethport and Eldred.
But for now, it’s right where it belongs.
“I’ve got five-plus decades of public servants that protected this community, and they deserve to be preserved, and they deserve to be recognized, and they deserve to be honored for those who served on them,” James said.
“This isn’t about collecting fire trucks. This isn’t about owning fire trucks. This isn’t about bragging about how many trucks you have. This is about our community. This is about the people who served on these and protected us.”
Chris Rosenblum is a freelance columnist who writes about local events and people. Send column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.