Memories of My Time as a Volunteer Fire Fighter and My First Taco Candle

Tacos are one of my favorite comfort foods. I love the contrast in flavors between the juicy meat, the tangy salsa, the bite of a crisp onions, and the creamy cheese. Long before the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in Mexico, the ancient Aztecs and the Mayans ate taco like foods. Flat corn tortillas were folded around fish or offal as wraps.

The word “taco” has its origins in 18th century Mexico when silver miners wrapped gun powder in paper like taquitos to insert in rocks prior to blowing them up. Since the miners ate cheap street food of meat and beans wrapped in tortillas, this food came to be known as tacos de minero or miner’s tacos.

Tacos came to the United States around 1905 when Mexican migrants arrived to work on farms and to work building railroads. Entrepreneurial Mexicans fed these workers by selling tacos from carts. Americans who tried these tacos found them to be exotic and spicy.

By 1920, the taco had become a fusion food that incorporated tortillas with ground meat, lettuce, cheese, onions, tomatoes, and other ingredients that we now associate with tacos.

Inn at Elizabethville, Elizabethville, Pennsylvania 2005

In Pennsylvania, I used to eat tacos at Taco Bell with the volunteers of a local fire company. As the owner of a seven bedroom Victorian bed and breakfast in Elizabethville, I joined the Reliance Hose Company in 2004 after having heard the borough siren sound eleven times over the course of a single 24 hour period. Since I knew that the local volunteers were short staffed by day (because most people worked outside the borough limits), I decided to join the local fire company as a way of helping out and giving back to my community.

Training for the fire company was both formal and informal. Informal training was held at the fire station once a week where we learned how to don our bunker gear, how to put on an air pack and mask, and how to properly hold a fire hose. As an assistant nozzleman, I learned how to brace the fire fighter who was holding the hose since the back pressure from the sprayed water could cause this person to lose his or her balance.

Formal training was held once a month at the fire fighter training facility in Harrisburg. At this training facility we were put through simulations where we had to crawl through smoke filled rooms while wearing our bunker gear, air tanks, and breathing masks. We had to carry rolls of heavy hoses up a tower. We had to learn how to make a forcible entry through a locked door by using the halligan of a fire ax as leverage between the interior door jamb and the door’s frame.

On the way back to Elizabethville, we would typically stop at a Taco Bell to enjoy a late dinner of tacos.

There is nothing quite like being a firefighter. When the tones dropped on my pager and the borough siren sounded, if I didn’t have business at the inn, I close up the B&B and would jump into my car to race to the fire station. At the fire station, I’d kick off my shoes prior to shoving my feet into my fire boots. Reaching down on either side of the boots, I would grab the suspenders for my bunker trousers and would pull them up and over my shoulders. After grabbing my bunker coat, gloves, and helmet, I’d board the fire engine.

View from inside a fire truck

Per company policy, we never rolled with less than a crew of three. The engineer had to stay with the truck and keep in touch with dispatch while a two man crew was needed for the hose. Once the fire truck had a minimum crew, the automatic doors would open and the driver/engineer would slowly pull the vehicle out of the station and onto the road.

With lights and sirens we responded to everything from traffic collisions and downed power lines to carbon monoxide alerts and fires.

I served as a volunteer for two years and left the service after I took a job as a restaurant manager in Harrisburg. The comradeship of the fire service was like nothing that I had ever previously known. During the first fire call I ever served on, the chef turned from his place in the front passenger seat to regard me.

“I have three rules that you need to understand,” he said as our truck screamed down the road. “Everyone comes home. Everyone comes home. Everyone comes home.”

I nodded in understanding. One of the first things I had learned in fire training is that when everyone goes into a building, everyone comes out. No one stays behind. This was particularly important for safety purposes because when the fire chief blew the engine’s air horn to warn us that flashover was imminent (meaning the building’s interior was on the verge of spontaneously combusting due to the growing heat), we had to evacuate in an orderly manner. We had to stay together and to look out for one another.

Reliance Hose Company responding to a fire in Elizabethville, PA

Unlike the Amish dominated fire station at Gratz, we didn’t play cowboys with fires. We didn’t have competitions to see who could come out of a burning building with the “crispiest” partially melted fire helmet or the most singed and steaming bunker gear. We watched each other’s backs and worked as cooperative members of a team trusting in the fact that each of us would do our respective jobs.

In reminding me of his rule, the chief was highlighting a fact that had been taught during training. Buildings could always be rebuilt. Possessions could be replaced. Our lives could not.

The two years that I served as a volunteer fire fighter were the most rewarding and occasionally the most terrifying experiences of my life. The worst fire call I ever went on was after a group of teenagers had a collision with a school bus.

The students who were seniors at our local high school were speeding along a back country road. They came over the crest of a hill just as a school bus was making a wide turn. The driver veered and hit the front of the bus with a glancing blow. The car went tumbling into an empty field. One of the passengers was thrown free. He died when the car rolled over him. Another passenger was retrieved by paramedics. Even before we arrived we knew that there had been fatalities when we heard over the radio that the call for two medevac helicopters had been reduced to just one.

We arrived to find that the driver was okay with just minor bruising. The paramedics had one female in their ambulance. There was a dead teen wearing a varsity jacket lying on his back in the middle of a field. His eyes were closed and he looked as though he were asleep. According to the driver, one passenger was missing.

The chief had us spread out and we walked across the field in search of a female passenger. We found her in a creek bed. Since she hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt, she had been thrown clear of the car. Willow saplings growing along the creek had broken her fall. They bent under her weight prior to popping back up to hide her. The young woman had landed in the soft mud of a creek. A few feet in any other direction would have smashed her against some water smoothed boulders.

As we searched the field one of the volunteers heard her crying for help. After placing her on a stretcher, I was one of four firefighters who helped carry her to a waiting medevac helicopter. The helicopter had landed in an adjacent field on an improvised pad that other volunteers had marked with orange traffic safety cones.

As we carried the young woman to the helicopter, she gripped one of my wrists.

“Please don’t let me die,” she cried.

Since I didn’t know how badly she had been hurt, I didn’t want to lie to her. “We’re going to load you onto a helicopter. They’ll fly you down to Harrisburg and some doctors will examine you.”

After handing her over to some paramedics, the stretcher was loaded into the helicopter. As soon as all of the volunteers were clear of the improvised landing zone, the chopper took off.

Our initial elation at having found the young woman alive was muted by the fact that the woman who had been in the back of the ambulance had died.

During the ride back to our station, the chief told us that grief counseling would be available for anyone who needed it. After getting home, I sought out my next door neighbor and cried in her arms. The students who had died were seniors who had been a week away from graduating. When they came over that hill, they were thinking about their future. Although I didn’t know these students, I cried for the loss of their futures and for all of the pain and suffering that would now be felt by their surviving classmates, teachers, friends, and family.

This was one of the last calls I ever went on. After taking a job in Harrisburg as a restaurant manager I was no longer available for day calls. One year after taking the job in Harrisburg, I reentered the field of public education as a Culinary Arts instructor. I put the inn on the market and moved away from Pennsylvania.

Even though I’m transitioning as a candle making hobbyist to running a novelty candle business, I still like playing with candle wax just to see what I’m able to create. Today I decided to see if I could make a taco candle even though I didn’t have a taco mold.

To make this taco candle:

  1. I first poured a mixture of medium density candle gel and soy wax into a pancake mold. The gel made the resulting “tortilla” flexible enough to fold.
  2. I then added a filling of wax lettuce tomatoes, and what would later (after some judicious painting) would become ground beef.
  3. After adding melted wax to the top of the filling, I literally folded the wax tortilla over to form a taco. The melted wax on top of the filling bound the tortilla to the top of the taco.
  4. To firm up the taco, I painted both sides with melted soy wax. Acrylic paint was used to create the illusion of ground beef. Melted wax was added to create salsa and cheese. Once everything was dry, I used the warm tip of a meat thermometer to melt holes in the taco. I then added and trimmed a pair of wicks.

Although I could have dyed the wax yellow and added a coat of candle varnish to create the illusion (and feel) of a crispy corn tortilla, I chose to make a soft flour tortilla.

This candle smells of bread, bacon, beef, cheese, garlic, cilantro, and spicy hot peppers.

Since this was a production design model just to see if I could do it, it’s unlikely that I will continue making taco candles given how time consuming it was. If I WAS going to make another taco candle, I would likely have to do this by first making a clay sculpture prior to making a silicone mold.

Although it was fun to make this candle, given how many other types of candles I will be making to sell in the Tasty-Candles virtual store, the continued production of taco candles will not be a high priority.

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