Most any day, a shiny green John Deere lawn tractor with cab and yellow doors is parked near the New Windsor firehouse and carnival grounds, a friendly beacon to residents that "Johnny" is on duty.
John George O'Brecht, 59, known as Johnny, has been on duty at the all-volunteer New Windsor Fire and Hose Co. No. 1 for 40 years. He recently received a certificate of recognition and a patch from the state fire marshal's office for his help solving an arson at the carnival grounds in June.
"Some nights, I just stay here on the davenport and don't bother going home," O'Brecht said Monday, proud to share his love for fire service in the community where he has lived since infancy.
"I used to live right across the street from the firehouse," he said with a smile, which he flashes easily.
"Yup, I'd watch the guys go out on a fire at night and stay up until they came back, sometimes as late as 3 a.m.," said O'Brecht, recalling when he was about 10 years old.
"Johnny's right about that," said George "Bud" Petry, a charter member of 51 years at the New Windsor station. "The guys would come back and tell him it was OK to go to sleep."
One of the `guys'
O'Brecht became one of the "guys" in 1959, about the same time he quit school, ending his formal education at the old New Windsor School, where students in grades one through 12 attended before Francis Scott Key High School opened in 1960.
At that time, the county had no special or vocational schools to accommodate challenged students, and his parents preferred that he remain in town where everyone knew and understood him.
After working at a few odd jobs, he was employed as a crew member with the county roads department for 25 years before heart trouble forced him into retirement.
Dick Fox, a longtime fire service member, recalled that when O'Brecht worked for county roads, O'Brecht would always take his vacation to coincide with the annual carnival week in June.
"Johnny was up at 4 a.m. every day of his vacation, picking up all the debris on the carnival grounds so it was ready for collection when the trash truck arrived every morning," Fox said. "And in the winter, he is always plowing snow around town with a blade he puts on the front of his little tractor."
His concern for others in his community was most evident soon after firefighters responded at 5 a.m. June 16 to the carnival grounds in New Windsor, where they battled fires that were deliberately set to a large trash container, restroom doors and pavilion.
The damage was estimated at $2,000 and, according to Bob Thomas, deputy chief state fire marshal, information provided by O'Brecht helped K. Arthur McGhee, a deputy fire marshal, to investigate and charge a juvenile with the arson.
"Many of these kinds of random acts of juvenile vandalism are very difficult to solve because people in the community have information and don't come forward," Thomas said.
O'Brecht is the type of person who takes pride in his community, and he apparently "had a strong interest in this arson case because of the damage it caused to his community," Thomas said.
Thomas was reluctant to specify what information O'Brecht provided McGhee, aiming to limit any chance of retaliation.
`A wonderful help'
"We're very proud of Johnny's helping the state fire marshal," said Chief Ronnie Blacksten. "Johnny is a wonderful help to the fire company. He doesn't go on fire runs, but he is the assistant truck foreman on a brush unit, responsible for its maintenance and keeping it clean. He does a good job."
Most of his work at the station house involves cleaning and polishing equipment, removing trash and, in colder weather, preparing coffee for firefighters when they return from a call.
He enjoys country music and allows himself a nonalcoholic beer or two on Saturday nights, listening to others sing during karaoke night in a local pub.
"Johnny has a basement full of fire memorabilia, toy trucks of all sizes, belt buckles, things he has bought at flea markets or received as gifts from firefighters," Fox said.
But the pride of his life is a miniature 12-horsepower replica fire engine, which he drives in the annual firefighters' parade during carnival week.
Insurance on his engine is costly, but well worth the joy it gives him and the smiles it brings to parade-goers.
Next year, when the fire company retires its 1969 Ford brush truck 105, O'Brecht said he will buy it.
"I already have the money in the bank for it," he said. "And, if anything happens to me, I'm going to leave it to the fire company so they can sell it and use the money right here in the community."