At 3:30 p.m., on Sunday, Aug. 10, a fireman stepped up to the temperamental intercom system that had sat for almost 20 years on the pockmarked watch desk at Station 9 of the Nashville Fire Department and announced “At ’em.” This was the signal, peculiar to that firehouse, that dinner was ready.
On any given evening at Station 9, typically anywhere from 11 to 18 men would respond to the call by meandering to the kitchen from the bay, or from the bench out front of the station, or the television room in the back. They’d line up beside the triple-basined sink, get a plastic plate from the cabinet with the broken door, help themselves from the decades-old heavy black cast-iron pots and pans on the stove, and find a place at the station’s long Formica-topped wooden table. The wall-mounted television overhead would keep conversation to a minimum; unless it was interrupted by a call, the meal was generally a 20-minute affair.
But this Sunday was not a typical day for the men of Station 9, better known as “The Bottoms,” named for the neighborhood just south of Broadway where it’s located. Situated at the corner of Fourth Avenue South and Demonbreun Street, the station would soon be closing for good, and this dinner had been billed as The Last Supper, a gallows-humor poke from men facing the sad and undeniable truth of their own fate: After more than a half-century of firefighters living, working and eating together on this piece of property, this would be the last dinner ever cooked in The Bottoms. The next morning, work crews would arrive to take away the sink and dismantle the stove, yet one more painful marker in the protracted and inevitable closing of this infamous downtown station and the dispersal of its 50-odd firefighters, who’ve collectively tallied a couple hundred years of service in this hall.
Every fire station in Nashville consists of three rotating 24-hour shifts, dubbed A, B and C. Last Supper at The Bottoms happened to take place on the B shift, but the B guys were joined by men from A and C shifts, by other firemen who had logged some years there and by the men who worked in the maintenance shop next door, which was also closing. Some of the firefighters’ wives and children were on hand; so were members of the Fire Department brass, including Fire Chief Stephen Halford, all of them distinguished by their white dress shirts. Politicians, never ones to miss an opportunity to solicit the support of the department, had dropped in. Former Nashville fire chief and newly elected at-large Metro Council member Buck Dozier was shaking hands, slapping backs and telling stories.
Invited, but notable in his absence, was Mayor Bill Purcell, who was instead at the First Day Celebration a block away at the Gaylord Entertainment Center. Perhaps he thought better of coming. After all, it was Purcell who, in response to a formal request from the Nashville Symphony in February 2002, recommended that the city donate the increasingly valuable ground beneath the fire hall for the future Schermerhorn Symphony Hall. With the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Gaylord Entertainment Center and the Hilton Suites Hotel already in place on the ambitious square of culture and commerce revitalizing the area south of Broadway, the city weighed the merits of scruffy fire hall vs. neo-classical symphony hall and, not surprisingly, voted in favor of Beethoven over wailing sirens, black ties over blue shirts. Now, as the Nashville Symphony prepares to build its 197,000-square-foot, four-story, $75 million structure, scheduled to open in 2006, the city is taking The Bottoms out of The Bottoms and moving it up the hill to Hermitage Avenue.
On this Sunday night at The Bottoms, there was no need to call anyone to dinner, because everyone was already shoulder-to-shoulder in the kitchen, with spillover down the hall as people crowded into the pantry and peeked in from the exterior kitchen door. Tim Holmes, engineer on Truck 9 and a 12-year veteran of the department, stood on a chair to speak. “It means a lot that you have come down here today to share this dinner with us,” he said, beginning to choke up.
Bobby Connelly, one of three District 9 chiefs based at The Bottoms, came to his rescue. “This is a special place,” the 44-year fire department veteran began, his rough-edged voice carrying over the heads nodding in agreement. “When I was a rookie and was assigned to The Bottoms as part of my training, I loved it right away. I could tell the men here were different. I was glad to get to come back here, and honored to have spent the last 18 years here. There has always been a feeling here, a brotherhood and pride that is unique to The Bottoms. We just hope we will be able to stay close to downtown, and be able to stay together.”
The moment was particularly poignant given the nature of firefighting culture. Sons, brothers and nephews often follow in the footsteps of the elder men in their families. Firefighting here and everywhere is very much a family affair, which means the memories and the ties that bind run especially deep. After Connelly’s heartfelt comments, the assembled group broke into applause, and then, as the men of The Bottoms have done for more than 50 years, they grabbed a plate for dinner. At the stove, 17-year veteran Roger Melton of Utility 9, a frequent B-shift cook, dished up big helpings of spaghetti with meat sauce and garlic bread sticks. It took a while before anyone would pick up a knife to cut into the dessert: a large sheet cake in the shape of a tombstone, inscribed: “RIP Bottoms; Over 50 Years of Service; Gone but Not Forgotten.”
The Nashville Fire Department, which employs 1,258 people (900 of whom are firefighters), operates 39 fire halls. Station 9 was not the oldest among them; that’s Station No. 14, the small Holly Street station in East Nashville, built in 1914. Station 9 wasn’t the largest fire hall, either; that’s Station 19, located at Charlotte Pike and 19th Avenue North. But The Bottoms was one of only two Nashville fire stations commonly referred to by name, rather than numbera testament to its unique character and its storied history. (The other is The Rock, or Station 2, at 500 Second Ave. N., home of department headquarters.) Mayor Richard Fulton used to call the hall “a necessary evil.” A veteran captain described the men of The Bottoms as “tolerated renegades.” At the Last Supper, Buck Dozier, who served as fire chief under the Bredesen administration and briefly into the Purcell administration, laughed when he confessed that he used to say of The Bottoms, “They put the fun in dysfunctional. And I meant that as a compliment.”
Chief Halford, who was recruited from Maryland by Mayor Purcell in early 2001 to replace Dozier, described it another way. “I know that there is a lot of tradition here,” he said. “It is one of the busiest companies in the city, within the central core. In every city, you’ll find that 'It’ company, the one that runs the most, runs the hardest and the fastest. In Nashville, The Bottoms has always been the It company.”
For years, by virtue of its size, its location and the territory it covers, The Bottoms has been one of the busiest, and often the busiest, company in the county. In Firehouse magazine’s annual survey of the busiest stations in the nation, the publication ranked Station 9 at No. 23 for 2002, with 9,693 runs tallied last year; no other Nashville station showed up in the top 100.
But for the men who have put in time at Station No. 9, the value, the worth and the personal meaning of The Bottoms are measured not just in the historical significance of the building, or in the numbers it racked up, but in the intangibles of brotherhood, camaraderie and pride, as well as shared experiences and memoriesthe kind that most people only accumulate through their families. They are the ties that bind 83-year-old Roy Hatcher, who counts his service to The Bottoms all the way back to the early ’50s, to Eddie Felts, the last rookie assigned to The Bottoms.
According to city records, the corner of Fourth Avenue South where Station 9 sits was first occupied by the Old Volunteer Fire Company, known as “Broadway Fire Company No. 2” in 1846. The city bought all rights to that property from the Broadway Fire Company in 1860 for $1,300. It was a two-story building, with a single horse-drawn engine, smack in the middle of a neighborhood of warehouses known as Black Bottoms, both because it was the lowest area of the city closest to the river, and because of the large African American population there. Later, the name was shortened to The Bottoms. The Farmers Market and Haymarket were behind the fire company; some time after arose the Sparkman Avenue Bridge, the structure that came to be known as the Shelby Street Bridge.
Assistant Chief Wayne Vick, who most recently oversaw the 26-man NFD maintenance shop next door, slept many nights at the old Bottoms when he was a kid, bunking with his dad Bill, who spent 15 years on Engine 9. (A brief primer on all these different “companies”: Engine companies carry water and hoses, and attack the fires; truck and ladder companies are equipped with ladders and carry ventilation tools and other equipment used in fighting blazes; and utility companies carry air tanks and other supplies needed at the scene of a fire.)Vick came on in 1969 and is widely acknowledged as one of the best sources on fire department history. According to him, the original single-engine house was probably a working house for another 40 years, if not longer; but after that, the history of that house is almost nonexistent. Beginning in the 20th century, the department grew rapidly along with the city, modernizing equipment and methods, adding stations as different areas of Nashville developed and became more populated.
The “modern” era of The Bottoms began with the dedication of the building commonly referred to as the old Bottoms, by then-Mayor Ben West on Sept. 28, 1953. The long two-story building had been a vehicle inspection facility, which made it ideal for housing the three pieces of equipment that were assigned there for the next 32 years: Engine 5, Engine 9 and Ladder 2. The building was reconfigured for living quarters, with storage space for turn-out gear and equipment, bunk rooms, a rec room and a kitchen. The three bunk rooms on the second floor were each placed directly over the equipment that each group of men was assigned to; two poles in each room dropped down 22 feet to their respective vehicle. They were, the men liked to boast, the longest poles in the city.
“If the bell rang in the night, you’d be half-asleep going down those poles,” recalls Roy Hatcher, who put in more than 30 years at the old Bottoms. “If you didn’t get down and out of the way fast enough, somebody else would come crashing down on top of you. There were a couple of men who got their disability pension from those poles.”
In the old days, men were assigned to their hall in 12-hour increments, split into a.m. and p.m.; they worked two weeks of consecutive a.m. shifts, followed by two weeks of consecutive p.m. shifts. In 1976, the department went to three rotating 24-hour shifts. In between runs, time in the station is occupied by housekeeping duties, maintaining equipment, performing tests. But being on duty for such long stretches confined to one place also left plenty of downtime to fill.
“Back then, we didn’t have cable TV, so we found ways to amuse ourselves,” Hatcher explains. The men bought a pool table and Ping-Pong table for the rec room and played countless games of poker and dice. In a small room off Engine 9’s bunk room, firefighter John Christmas set up a little barber shop, charging 50 cents a haircut. But much of their entertainment was found outside the firehouse walls.
“We liked to stand outside of the hall and let the girls see us, of course,” Hatcher says with a wink. “When they designed this hall, they didn’t put in a place to sit outside, so we built our own. There was a lot of construction going on downtown, and we flagged one of the cement trucks down one day and asked what they did with their cement at the end of the day. They said they just dumped it, so we asked if we built a frame, would they dump their cement in it. The guy said sure. So we framed up a patio out front, and every day, they dumped their leftover cement in it till we had us the nicest little patio. One of the old superintendents at the shop raised heck about it and went to the chief to complain. The chief was one of the ones who came down here to sit with us, so it didn’t go anywhere. Lots of the brass would come down here to eat, then go out to the patio. We’d just sit and watch the world go by. We saw plenty, believe me.
“There was a single-occupancy apartment building across the street from us,” Hatcher continues. “Every kind of character in the world stayed there, and everything you can imagine went on there. We had a spy glass to keep up with what they were doing. One night, this gal came over with a shotgun. She asked us to hold it for her because she said if she had it when her man came home, she’d kill him. We put it in a corner, and the next morning she came over and took it back. I guess we saved that old boy’s life.”
The Grand Ole Opry was still at the Ryman Auditorium then, and Bill Hunley, another retired Bottoms man from the ’50s, remembers that Saturday nights were the best time to work. “We let people who were going to the Opry park their campers and trucks back there. After the show, there were always some of ’em who would pull out instruments and play late into the night. Back then, there were also a lot of working girls in this area. We knew a lot of them by name, but they kept their distance across the street.”
There was no air-conditioning in the earliest days, so on hot summer nights, the men would raise the bay doors and hose the floors to cool off. After every fire, Hatcher remembers, there was a water fight back at the hall. “If you weren’t used to being here, you might be standing outside, just checking things out, then someone would drop a bucket of water on your head from the second floor. There was a motorcycle cop that used to pull into the bay every morning at 5 and wake us up. We got so mad that we were waiting on him one day. He pulled in, we shut all the doors, turned on the hoses and almost drowned him. He never did it again.”
The men checked the safety nets by jumping out the second-floor windows, and Station 12 learned to rappel in the stairwell of the old Bottoms. “No one ever wanted to take a day off,” Hunley says, laughing. “You were afraid you would miss something.”
The new Bottoms, built right next door to the old Bottoms, was dedicated on April 14, 1985, with a ceremony led by several department chiefs and then-Mayor Richard Fulton. The new building had four bays, which housed Utility 9, Engine 9, Engine 5 and Truck 9. There was nothing fancy or particularly eye-catching about it, and some of the men who worked in the old Bottoms were reluctant to move even as close as next door. “That old place had been their home for a long time,” Connelly says, “and they hated to leave it. They felt things would change.”
Over 50 years, the names and faces at both buildings of The Bottoms have changed, but those things that earned the fire hall its reputation have remained consistent, dug deep into the heart and soul of Battalion 9. Years ago, when Hunley and Hatcher were assigned to The Bottoms, the hall’s motto was “Welcome to Hell.” More recently, one of Station 9’s pride patches, worn on the firefighters’ uniforms, updated the hell theme with a flaming skull wearing a No. 9 helmet and four words: “First In, Last Out.”
“The Bottoms has always had the best firefighters in Nashville,” Hunley says. Doug Van Tassel, hired in 1978 and once assigned to Station 9, remembers that engines used to carry their flag with them to put in the ground outside a fire, so the next equipment crew in would know they were there. “We used to fight like dogs to get there first, to get our flag in the ground. When I first came on, I used to drive the chief. Anytime we had a big fire, he’d yell, 'Send me The Bottoms!’ That was the reputation they had. I knew that’s where I wanted to be.”
“Everybody in this department knew that when The Bottoms showed up, they would get the job done,” says Randy Uselton, engineer on Engine 5, B shift. (His brother Richard was on A shift at The Bottoms.) “The chiefs would tell other companies, 'You’d better get this fire out before The Bottoms comes and shows you up!’ ”
Travis Ford is another of the three District 9 chiefs based at The Bottoms; he first came there as a rookie in 1985. (There are seven districts in the department, with a chief for each shift; Station 9 is one of five halls in District 9.) “The Bottoms got lots of fire calls, and they were big fires,” Ford says. “A warehouse fire with flames shooting 300 feet in the air is a whole ’nother ball game from a house fire in the suburbs. Your experience level grows pretty quickly. Nashville has a lot of good firefighters, but lots of the really good ones came through this station. A lot of the captains and chiefs in the department spent time at The Bottoms. The Bottoms likes to brag, and that makes some people mad, but that’s OK. If you’re not bragging about your shift or your hall, you shouldn’t be there. I’ve worked all three shifts at lots of halls, and they all have good people. But there’s always been something special about The Bottoms; they have always had a reputation for pride and experience.”
Not long after the move in 1985, the Sanders Manufacturing warehouse, situated barely 200 feet away, caught fire; employees smelled smoke and notified the firefighters next door. Units were on the scene for nearly 12 hours before they were able to bring the fire under control, but the interior was almost totally destroyed. About a month later, on Sept. 11, a passerby spotted smoke coming out of the same building and alerted the men on duty. Engines 5 and 9 and Truck 9 responded first, and a second alarm was called in less than 10 minutes later. Forty minutes after firefighters had arrived, the men working the side of the building facing The Bottoms were ordered to move away. Minutes later, the three-story wall came crashing down, sending bricks flying onto the Shelby Street Bridge and all the way to the kitchen door of the fire hall. Four men were injured and taken to the hospital.
Another downtown warehouse fire on Chestnut Street in December 1991 injured Connelly, then a captain at Station 9, and then-rookie Stan Bailey, who had only been on the job six months. Again, a wall collapsed, trapping them under the rubble for several minutes until their colleagues pulled them to safety. Bailey suffered a broken pelvis and tailbone, a sprained leg and a cut that required 30 stitches, but he didn’t think twice about going back to the job. “I couldn’t wait to get back,” he recalls. “The Bottoms is where I wanted to be. It’s where the action is, it’s Nerve Central.”
Capt. Terry Secrest, whose father was a 34-year NFD veteran and also a captain, came on the department Christmas Eve, 1975. He served at The Bottoms from June 1992 until its closing. He was there in 1997, when The Bottoms responded to a fire call at a small building on Eighth Avenue South, next door to Dawn’s Whirlpool. Unknown to the firefighters, the building housed an S&M parlor called The Chamber; like most businesses of that nature, the building was broken up into small rooms and cubicles. Amid the smothering smoke, Secrest became disoriented and lost. With his air tank running out, he lay down on the floor. “Well, I pretty much figured I was going to die,” he remembers. “I was about out of air, and had no idea how to get out.” Fellow firefighter Tony Glover, who had been desperately looking for Secrest, finally found him; he shared his tank with Secrest, and somehow they found their way out.
For his action, then-Chief Dozier awarded Glover with the Medal of Honor, but neither Glover nor Secrest talks much about the incident or the award. “He saved my life, no doubt,” Secrest says. “I would have died in there if he hadn’t found me. But we both know other firemen who have done the same thing, and they never got a medal for it. The thing is, everybody would like to think that they would lay down their life for another person if the need arose. But your strongest natural instinct is to save your own life. So most people never know what they would really do if they were faced with a decision like that. I know what Tony Glover would do, ’cause he did it.”
Says Uselton, the Engine 5 engineer, “I’ve never for a minute felt that I couldn’t count on the men I work with at The Bottoms. If something were to happen, and maybe I couldn’t get out of a bad situation, I might not get saved, but I bet I wouldn’t die alone.”
The Bottoms firefighters were first on the scene of the NASCAR Cafe fire on Broadway that killed one and critically injured two on Oct. 11, 1997. They were first on the scene of the spectacular downtown thermal plant fire of May 24, 2002. And they were first to respond to the medic call on Feb. 18, 2001, when a botched robbery attempt behind Séanachie Irish Pub two blocks away resulted in the death of Patricia Barker and critical wounding of her husband, Gulch developer Joe Barker. “That was a terrible day,” Uselton remembers. “I was holding her hand, telling her she would be all right. I thought she would, but later I heard she died. That stayed with me a long, long time.”
The First Response program was initiated in 1983, requiring every firefighter to be EMT-trained. With more fire engines than ambulances, the idea is to dispatch both an ambulance and an engine whenever 911 receives a medic call. The firefighters nearly always get there quicker than ambulancesas they never tire of pointing outand, as Assistant Chief Wayne Vick puts it, they “get the patient packed up and ready to go” for the paramedics.
The sense of duty and determination was especially strong at The Bottoms, due in large part to its location and its size. “There was always something going on at The Bottoms,” says Travis Ford. “I made 17 calls on my first shift there. Right out of school, that’s what everyone wants, being busy, making calls. That’s what you got at The Bottoms.”
The go-go pace of the large triple company created a camaraderie that Bottoms veterans say is unique to their hall. “With that many people in close quarters, working 24 hours together, people will clash,” Truck 9 engineer Jeff Piercy explains. “But that’s OK. If I get tired of talking to you, I can go talk to someone else, or go to another room, or go do something else. In a single engine company, you might just have three people. If you don’t get along with one of those people, there’s not a lot of other people around to take the edge off or very many places to get away. You don’t do things together as much, or hang out together. Single-engine companies don’t cook as much, and don’t sit down to eat together as much as bigger companies.”
Many Bottoms veterans acknowledge that the hall wasn’t for everyone. But for a certain type of personalitythe bigger, the betterit was a coveted assignment. The Bottoms was the first hall that Bubba Derrick, a large, exuberant personality, was assigned to as a rookie in 1996. “My first run was on Truck 9 at 6:10 a.m. I was there long enough for them to say, 'There’s your truck,’ and I was making an alarm, crossing the old Shelby Street Bridge. I fell in love with this place from the first day because there were 14 other people here like me: They enjoyed life, but were dead serious about the job. When I left here for my next rotation, I knew I wanted to get back, but there was always a wait for The Bottoms. I finally got back down here in 1998. They treated me like I had never been gone.”
Steve Johnson, a five-year NFD veteran who has served on Engine 9 the past year with Derrick, was also determined in his effort to get assigned to The Bottoms. “I knew the reputation here, that the guys at The Bottoms were very aggressive, they wanted to be the best,” he explains. “I always heard that a year here was like five years somewhere else. I wanted that experience; I knew I would learn a lot here.”
It was no secret that as the area south of Broadway began to develop, the piece of property on which The Bottoms sat became a prime piece of real estate. Beginning in the mid-’90s, various corporations began submitting proposals for development, but the deals always fell through; the Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency, which handles downtown redevelopment, continued to field inquiries on the property, considered to be worth anywhere from $3 million to $5 million. None of this was lost on the men of The Bottoms. At one point, someone posted a sign that read, “For Sale, Bridge Included,” over the door to the hall. Chief Dozier saw it and was amused, but not pleased. “To punish them, I would have had to move everyone out because I knew no one would tell me who had done it,” he says. “So I just told them to take it down.”
Shortly after Metro officials made the decision in February 2002 to give the land to the Nashville Symphony, all three shifts were called into the hall to receive the news. What followed was fairly typical of the stages of grief: shock, denial, anger, sadness. Adding to their emotional burden was the reconfiguration that would split up some of the men as a new fire hall was being built. The shop would close, and those men would be sent to other Metro maintenance locations. Utility 9 would go to Station 19, and Engine 5 would move in with Engine 8, a paramedic unit, on the outskirts of the burgeoning 12 South neighborhood. Engine 9 and Truck 9 would relocate to temporary quarters in the old ambulance center at 63 Hermitage Ave., across from the old General Hospital. Plans are for a new Station 9 to be built on what will be the Hermitage campus, which will include the hall, a parking garage and a new administration building. When that is completed, the plan is for Engine 5 to move back into Station 9. No decision has been made yet on where Utility 9 will go.
Throughout last year, the actual closing date of The Bottoms changed often, but by the fall of 2002, the men were pretty certain they would be out of the hall by sometime in 2003. What followed was one “last” after another, duly noted on each occasion: the last Thanksgiving, the last Christmas, the last New Year, the last Titans season, the last Predators game, the last Old Timers Lunch (which, on April 15, annually reunites all the veterans of The Bottoms), the last Memorial Day barbecue, the last Fan Fair and then, finally, the last summer.
As soon as the weather warmed enough this spring, the bay doors went up, and the men began to spend lots of time sitting on the benches on the front ramp, watching the world go by, just as the men at the old Bottoms once did. As always, passersby stopped to chat. Not a day or night went by when tourists, or firefighters from another city, didn’t come by and ask if they could show their kids the truck, or get a photo with the firemen in front of the station. “I know there is a picture of this hall on refrigerators in 50 states and probably 15 different countries,” Johnson says wryly.
Motorcycle cops dropped in for a piece of cake, a cup of coffee or glass of tea. Firefighters from other shifts or halls visited for a few minutes before going to a Predators game or show at the Ryman, or a night on the town. At least a dozen times a day, Bottoms men gave someone directions, helped start a car or change a tire, gave a plate of food to a homeless person, offered some spare change to someone in need. “I have always felt that because of where we were, we were like goodwill ambassadors for the city,” Capt. Secrest says. “We have represented the city in a positive way. We’ll all miss that part of it.”
Standing on the ramp out front of the station on a clear, balmy summer night a few weeks back, Captain Ken Wilkinson and some of his cohorts admired their view, albeit in bittersweet fashion. “It’s been a great location,” Wilkinson said. “It’s always exciting, being in the shadow of the Hall of Fame and the Arena, Lower Broad, the Ryman.” Truck 9 engineer Jeff Piercy agreed: “I’ll miss the scenery here. From here, you can see the old buildings on Broadway and the roof of the Ryman; at night, when the Arena and the Batman building are lit up, it’s beautiful.”
The day after the Last Supper, C shift completed their final shift at The Bottoms, as movers took out the lockers and began taking furniture up to the temporary quarters on Hermitage. At 6 a.m. Tuesday, Aug. 12, they reluctantly walked out of The Bottoms for the last timesome kidded later that Capt. Secrest had to be pried out of the halland A shift walked in for their final 24-hour assignment there. About mid-morning, Deputy Chief William Curran came down from headquarters to check out the situation. Because of the disarray caused by the move in progress, and because the Hermitage site was ready for occupancy, he told the men to go ahead and get their gear and their belongings and make the move immediately. It was a practical decision, but still the men were dismayed at having their last shift at The Bottoms cut short. The last call made out of The Bottoms was at 1:18 p.m., a house fire at 2203 Lindell Ave. By 4 that afternoon, it was over. The bay doors were shut, the front, back and side doors locked, the flag taken down from the pole.
On Wednesday, Aug. 13, B shift reported to their respective new halls. At the temporary Station 9, things kicked off with a literal bang, when small propane tanks began exploding at the Volunteer Welding Supply at 815 Fifth Ave. S., hurling billowing fireballs into the area. Engine and Truck 9 were first to arrive and found an extremely dangerous situation: three huge propane tanks on the property that would have blown the block to kingdom come if they exploded. At that point, firefighters say, it’s a split-second decision of fight or flight. With no time to evacuate the area, and fully aware of the great personal danger they were in, they chose to fight, spending more than three hours on the scene until the fires were out and the tanks were safely cooled. Two days later, on A’s first full shift at the Hermitage Avenue hall, Engine 9 made 16 calls, a new record for them.
“Everybody who was at The Bottoms long before us made it what it was and is,” Uselton says. “All anybody who comes after tries to do is live up to what they did before you, to honor that reputation.”
In the fall of 2006, Nashville Symphony conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn will lift his baton and signal the start of a new season in the magnificent hall that bears his name. Almost 2,000 people will fill the seats of the acoustically perfected auditorium as the classical music of violins and oboes and cellos and flutes fill the air.
But for the men of The Bottoms, from September 1953 to August 2003, the sweet sounds of a scruffy old building at the corner of Fourth and Demonbreun were these: a basketball bouncing off the concrete bay; darts thumping against cork; mops slapping against the floor; pots and pans banging in the kitchen; the splash from a bucket of water dumped on an unsuspecting head; the squeak of the swing in the yard; the groan of the small wooden bench under the weight of three big firemen; an impromptu bluegrass concert set up on the bed of a pickup truck in the back parking lot; loud, spirited debates over politics and sports; the call of familiar nicknames down the bunk hallSpuds, Nuts, Ichabod, Funks, Skunks, Woogie, Squirrel, Stick Around, Rookie and dozens of Bubbas; crackling intercom calls summoning someone to come to the phone, or to the front, or to the chief’s office, or to dinner; the three loud, short bursts of the sharp tone announcing a fire call and the momentary silence as everyone waited to hear the location; the brisk run to their vehicles, the slam of engine doors, the piercing sirens announcing that The Bottoms was en route. This was music to the ears of the men of Station 9.
“The Bottoms was just a building, you know, bricks and mortar,” reflects Bobby Connelly, standing out front of the hall on one of its final days, already speaking in the past tense. “What made The Bottoms was all the men who lived and worked here. From the first days of this hall, there has been a group of men here so single-minded in their purpose that they became a unit and built a brotherhood that I have never seen anywhere else. We’ll get through this, like we get through everything else. They will rebuild that in the next building, I’m sure of it. The Bottoms will always be The Bottoms, wherever it is.”
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