The Legend of Big Bill

Those who think larger-than-life American personalities are limited to the Old West have never lived in a small town in New England. When you live in a small town, you get to meet any number of fascinating characters.

Back in the 1930’s in my home town, Big Bill was one such character. At six-feet-plus of muscle and sinew, he could have stood toe to toe with any of our modern exercise freaks, but Bill was the town fire chief, and he earned his strength from hard work farming and fighting fires. I only knew him in later years, but he was still a hulk of a man, and strong.

When World War Two arrived, the Massachusetts state government decided that a well-trained populace was going to be vital to civil defense. To that end, they sent an official to every small town to teach them how to put out the phosphorus bombs the Nazis were using to such devastating effect in London and elsewhere.

This particular government man was no fool– he knew how small town influence worked. To teach these stubborn New England yankees anything, he would need a vivid example of his own superiority. And to do that, he used the town fire chief.

For his demonstration, the government man chose a gravel parking lot near the center of town, framed to the south by Town Hall and to the north by the local Catholic church. In this lot, he set up a small wood-frame building similar to an outhouse, and placed a phosphorus bomb within it. The whole town turned out to see the event.

The plan was simple. The government man would light the bomb, then ask the fire chief to put out the blaze. A single man on a fire hose would normally have to use the standard firefighting method of spraying water on the fire in a broad arc. This would fail, because you have to suffocate a phosphorus blaze to put it out. The government man would then step in, douse the fire with sand, and thereby teach everyone how to put out a phosphorus fire.  His mistake? Assuming that Big Bill used “standard” methods.

Bill may have been a small-town fireman, but he knew there was a firebomb in that outhouse, and he knew he had to put it out.  When challenged to put out the fire, he didn’t spray water on it at all.  He picked up that hose, held the nozzle within a few short inches of the bomb, and turned it on.  Full blast.

The phosphorus bomb was snuffed out like a candle.

The reason this isn’t a standard method, though, is the strength required.  A single man should not be able to hold a hose that steady with that volume of water flowing from it. An ordinary man couldn’t.  Big Bill was no ordinary man.

After a few moments of astonished silence, the government man recovered and explained what they had just seen.  “Unless you are as strong as your fire chief,” he said, “I recommend you use sand to put out a fire like this.”

By all accounts, the people listened.

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