Bill Weitzell, 82, stands in his basement with firefighting… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
No one knows how many bull-and-oyster roasts they've held at the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company in Severna Park. After 92 years, it can be tough to keep track.
Even Bill Weitzell scratches his head at the question, and he knows as much about this kind of thing as anybody.
"To be honest, I'm not sure," says Weitzell, a Severna Park resident who joined the company when Franklin D. Roosevelt was president, gas cost 10 cents a gallon and a fireman was lucky if his rescue ladder reached the roof of a two-story house. "I do know they're still going strong."
On Sunday, Weitzell, 82, will be tending kegs, spinning game wheels and handling other bull-roast tasks at the familiar firehouse at Ritchie Highway and Earleigh Heights Road.
It will be his 60th such feast in the past three decades, he says, or something close to that.
Now in his 68th year of service, Weitzell has been everything from a junior firefighter to an assistant fire chief and bingo caller. He's the longest-tenured person in one of the county's oldest firefighting organizations, and, in many ways, the personification of what it does.
"I can tell you there's just great respect for [Bill] around here," says Charles Disney, president of the organization otherwise known as Anne Arundel County Fire Company, Station 12. "I've been here 10 years, and in that time, he has been [at the firehouse] almost every night. That's amazing for a man in his 80s and a big bonus for a [company] like ours."
The story of Weitzell, a two-time Anne Arundel County Firefighter of the Year in his heyday, offers parallels that of firefighting itself, at least in the county he has called home since he was 8 years old.
He rubs the grayish beard that runs below his jaw line. "The basics haven't changed," he says. "You see fire, you squirt water on it. But a lot of things are different, when I think about it."
An emergency responder is nothing without good timing, and when it comes to his favorite pastime, Weitzell has had that from the start.
Born in 1928 in Baltimore, he was too young to serve when World War II broke out. By the 1940s, his family was living in Severna Park, then a mostly rural enclave.
Most healthy young adult men were in the armed services, which left the fire company near his home in need of help. He joined the Earleigh Heights unit, then based on Truck House Road, at 15.
"There was really nothing else to do," Weitzell says. "There were only two movie houses nearby. There weren't any stores. We'd socialize [at the firehouse], help out on bull roasts and so forth. Of course, it was exciting just to be a fireman."
For the most part, the thrills back then were few and far between. There were no more than about 200 homes, he says, from one end of Severna Park to the other, which meant just a handful of calls per week.
When there was action, it was a snapshot of mid-20th-century firefighting.
The firehouse had only a party phone line, and when operators called in with emergencies, it triggered a succession of events. First came the siren blasts: two if the crisis was to the south, four if to the north, six for the west, eight for the east. Those on duty jumped on the back of the company engine, standing on the bumper as it roared to its destination.
They wore the garb of the time: black coats and pants, not today's visible bright colors. They lacked the protective gloves, air masks and hard-soled boots that are standard now.
When they arrived, they had to find water sources — creeks, inlets, ponds.
"Anne Arundel hadn't heard of hydrants," Weitzell says.
The weeks tended to blend together for the junior firefighter, but they helped him develop a feeling many firefighters describe — that of belonging to something bigger than himself.
But he did get one unforgettable look into how far his craft had yet to go.
At home one afternoon, Weitzell heard the wailing of what sounded like a thousand sirens. Looking outside, he saw a sky filled with smoke. A brush fire was roaring across the countryside.
He rushed to the fire line, where he found himself alongside firefighters from all over the area, squirting water from the best gear he could get his hands on — a five-gallon pump tank he wore on his back.
He could only watch as the blaze jumped Ritchie Highway and raced toward Baltimore.
"When it got to Curtis Bay [six miles away], there was nothing left for it to burn, so that was it, thank goodness," he says. "A lot of the time there wasn't much you could do."
Growth of a company
As an emergency unit, today's Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company Inc. — an independent, public-supported corporation — is a far cry from the one for which Weitzell signed up in 1943.
It has 140 members, according to Chief Ed Detwiler, 20 of whom are career firefighters employed by Anne Arundel County. Nearly 40 are volunteers.