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In Case of Fire, Call the City Cafe

Corky Cummings


Many years ago there was a columnist for the Houston Chronicle named Leon Hale who wrote an article about the procedure followed for reporting a fire in Somerville. It’s been many years since I left Somerville, so I’m not sure if it still works the same way, but back then it was somewhat unique. 

The telephone number at the City Cafe was 596-4321 which made it easy to remember. Anytime a fire broke out in town, one of the residents would call the cafe and tell one of the waitresses where the fire was located. Outside the cafe by the highway there was an alarm attached to a large post, which was connected to a siren on the water tower. Whichever waitress answered the call would go to the post and pull the alarm which would notify the volunteer firemen to leave their work or homes and head to the fire station. The alarm handle was up high to prevent kids from pulling it so the waitress would climb up on a large round concrete block surrounding the post to sound the alarm and then wait there until the fire truck arrived to tell the responders where to go. 

One of the waitresses was an older lady that everyone called Miss Ethel. Since she didn’t move that well, it was always better if another waitress named Vivian Lewis answered the phone because the response time improved significantly. 

Many of the men who were volunteers worked at the tie plant, so it would take a little time for them to arrive. I was quite young back then, so I was always a  bystander, but one of the times I remember always brings back a funny memory. On one occasion, Robert Wayne Thomas, who was also known as “Beatnik,” was the first to get to the fire station, so he decided to take off by himself rather than wait for others to get there. I think at the time he was about 16 or 17, so he hadn’t been driving that long. I don’t think his intention was to fight the fire single handedly, but rather he was out for the thrill of driving the truck. 

I’m not sure how many gears the truck had, but Beatnik made sure that when he shifted everyone in hearing distance knew he was coming. Since he was alone when he was told the location of the fire, the other volunteers also had to go to the post outside the cafe to find out where to go. Keep in mind that communications back then were somewhat primitive. I’m a little foggy on all the details, but I don’t think this particular fire was contained in time to save much of the building. 

It was fairly easy to understand that “Beatnik” did not receive an award for Volunteer Fireman of the Year. In fact, if memory serves me correctly, that was his last experience at driving the truck, but I’m sure it was one he never forgot.