A crusty, old four-wheeled warrior of the Tyler Fire Department may be long gone, but “Pooh Bear” lives on in the legend and lore of those who knew it best.
Pooh Bear wasn't cute and cuddly but wild and temperamental, often breaking down at the right time in the wrong place.
“Back then, you were really something if you had a grass truck,” Chief Tim Johnson said. “We couldn't afford one then.”
It was the mid-1970s. Determined not to be outdone by other cities, the men improvised, acquiring an Army surplus truck on the cheap and outfitting it with a scavenged water tank and fire pump.
To give the vehicle a little personality, then dispatcher David Sims and mechanic Mark Richie hand-painted a little bear on the door.
Many assumed the truck would be called “Smokey” for its role in fighting grass and forest fires, but no.
“One day someone called it 'Pooh Bear' and it stuck,” the chief said.
“We loved that truck,” Johnson said. “But you had to be mechanically inclined to deal with it — all the older guys were very good at fixing it.”
It seems the vehicle was so slow moving, it was often outpaced on Broadway Avenue by station wagons and Sunday drivers.
Eventually some firefighters refused to activate the lights and sirens, lest they call attention to the grass truck’s pokey nature.
But anytime there was adventure to be found, the “Bear” was there.
The gritty vehicle would roll over barbed-wire fences, small trees and just about everything in between, except high ground.
On one occasion, Pooh Bear became stuck high center with fire closing in, firefighters said.
“I smelled gas,” Johnson said. “I looked underneath and saw a gas leak. We thought that was Pooh Bear’s last fire. Somebody got a 100-foot cable, and we pulled it out before the fire got it.”
There were many, many other close calls, including a swift moving grass fire off Sutherland, firefighters said.
Apparently Pooh Bear’s pump died in the middle of the action, and firefighter James Herron disassembled it in a pasture and put it back together again.
Assistant Chief David Schlottach said on another run, the men rolled out Pooh Bear to fight a fast-moving blaze west of town.
Firefighters made their way to the thick of the action, only to realize the flames were advancing, and they needed to pull back.
“We couldn’t get Pooh Bear started,” Schlottach said. “Volunteer departments surrounded us” to keep the fire off until it could be rescued — again.
Opinions about the truck vary.
“I can remember several times being out on grass fires when I heard Pooh Bear coming, way in the distance,” Assistant Fire Chief James Pike said. “The sweet sound of the siren on Pooh Bear was something to behold.”
Capt. Bob Moon is remembered as the guy who once drove Pooh Bear into a tree, sort of.
“I always had affection toward it,” he said. “It was a real work horse, it would go anywhere.”
Moon and another firefighter were heading toward a stand of trees, rolling over the small saplings that stood in the way, when the men happened on one that fought back.
“It (Pooh Bear) could climb pretty good,” Moon said. “But it slid off (the sapling) and we hit a larger tree.”
The impact dented the vehicle and bruised the firefighters, but all affected still made it to the fire on time.
“You could rely on it,” Moon said. “You just didn’t want to go too fast in it.”
Deputy Fire Marshal Tony Gumber was just a rookie when he first crawled behind the wheel.
It was 1981 and he was instructed to drive the truck from the old Fire Station 5 at Glenwood to the shop downtown for repairs.
Gumber said he was rumbling down Glenwood, a rescue truck trailing behind, when he saw a red light up ahead at Rusk and Houston and tried to stop.
“They never told me the truck didn’t have brakes,” he said. “I wasn’t moving real fast, because it wouldn’t go very fast, but there wasn’t any stopping it.”
He rolled through Houston Street without calamity, only because the intersection was clear.
“I don’t know if it ever had brakes,” Gumber said. “It was just a rough and tumble old truck, cold in the winter, hot in the summertime. We never had a grass truck since that was as tough … if it was running or you could get it started.”
Capt. Mickey Haisten was an unsuspecting rookie when he was told to drive the vehicle to a training session on hoses.
At the end of the class, someone playfully doused a lieutenant.
“The next thing that ensued was a big water fight,” Haisten said, recalling the chaos after someone picked up a 2.5-inch hose and took aim. “Pooh Bear came around the corner about that time … it (water force) blew the windshield out.”
That’s when the fight stopped, and the finger pointing began, Haisten said, insisting he was only a spectator.
Pooh Bear’s fold down window was subsequently repaired and it returned to duty.
“I got to fight a couple of grass fires on it after that,” Haisten said. “I’m not going to say it was like riding a bucking horse, but you couldn’t let go of the rails.”
It had other quirks as well.
Faulty wiring created issues with the radio, the lights, the siren and anything else with a wire.
The vehicle also came with a warning label.
“I remember it had a sign on the dashboard that said, ‘Don’t go faster than your brakes,’” Pike said.
Pooh Bear’s crankiness eventually caught up with it and it was scrapped in the 1990s, but it seems that no tears were shed.
“I thought it was a good thing,” Gumber said. “We fought a lot of fires in that truck … but it was time.”