Randi Calderwood driving Engine 1 at the Old Home Day parade in his hometown of Craftsbury, Vermont, just hours before his death.
Photo Credit : Lynn Calderwood
Shortly after moving to Craftsbury, Vermont, I hired an excavator to dig a trench to run a water line between the house and the barn. As the excavator clawed a long hole and the work progressed, the driver’s buddy hopped in the new trench and began refining the job with a shovel, when, without warning, part of the trench wall collapsed. Dirt and gravel backfilled on the man till he was immobilized, buried to the navel with more gravelly soil poised to cover him. The excavator driver blanched and the man in the hole just looked me in the eye, and said, “I’d call 911 if I were you.”
When someone dials 911 in our remote county in the Northeast Kingdom, a dispatcher sitting in an office 60 miles away pages members of the appropriate department, which in our case is the Craftsbury Volunteer Fire Department or Hardwick Rescue or both. All 24 members of Craftsbury’s Volunteer Fire Department—teachers, farmers, a tattoo artist, mechanics, loggers, carpenters—wear their pagers wherever they go: clipped to belts during the day and set on the bedside at night.
The “tone” or “call” begins with a series of three electronic notes followed by the dispatcher’s voice requesting assistance at a physical address along with a description of the emergency. For instance, it helps responders to know if someone smells smoke or if the house is fully engulfed. When a dispatcher issues a call, 24 pagers in our town sound out its message.
Within minutes of being called to “a man in a hole,” half a dozen members of the Craftsbury Fire Department sped over, parked their trucks, and launched the extrication. Among them was Assistant Fire Chief, Randi Calderwood. Tall, bearded and bright-eyed, Randi stood above the victim and grinned at him, like his predicament was no greater than a kitty lodged in a tree. Sure enough, the man was freed in the time it takes to smoke a cigarette.
The Craftsbury Fire Station sits by the Black River at the bottom of Calderwood Hill, where Randi grew up. The station, which shares a largely windowless building with the town garage, is a no-frills affair. Its bays are unmarked; members enter by a side door with a code-lock. Inside, however, there are two gleaming engines and one rescue vehicle. Last year the department responded to 83 calls, the equivalent of an emergency every four days—if only catastrophic events were that orderly.
Randi Calderwood, as well as any other member of the department, knows what it’s like to be jolted out of sleep, interrupted at work, and summoned from dinner by a pager’s singsong tone signaling a neighbor in crisis; that answering that call will mean being gone for 1-2 hours if it’s a car accident; more like six if it’s a fire. Why do our firefighters elect to give their time away to people besides their families? When I asked Thomasina Jacobs, an eight-year department veteran, she said, partly, it’s about giving back, and wanting to offer much needed help; but another reason, she said, is that the department, especially Craftsbury’s, is its own sort of family who care for and look after each other. Fire Chief Walt Gutzmann, who has been with the department since 1969, explained, “We come from diverse backgrounds—but maybe there’s a fraternity that develops, a commonality in the fire service.” Perhaps, a loyalty that intensifies with each call they answer. Walt says of the department, “You’ll find all the help you need here.”
Once, years ago Randi Calderwood called on it when his heifer fell into the manure pit. The department rushed over and looked down at the young cow tired out from flailing in the lagoon, so they rigged a sling out of firehose and lifted her free. Walt admits that if it’d been his farm, he might have thought to shoot it instead, but Randi’s priority is family, which includes animals.
So, at 5:30 p.m. on August 13, 2016, when dispatch toned out a call for a 58-year-old male on Echo Hill Road trapped under a tractor, Walt’s stomach took a turn. He knew, everyone on the department knew, by the age of the man, by the address, it was Randi.
August 13th had been Craftsbury’s Old Home Day; the community’s once a year party. Featuring a pet show, horseshoes, a bounce house, a water slide, and a parade—it’s like town meeting day without the acrimony. And the Fire Department cooks everybody burgers. Walt and Randi and Thomasina and other members of the department spent the whole day up on the Common. As usual Walt manned the grill and Randi was “the assembler,” in charge of dressing up the burgers with all the fixings: onions, lettuce, ketchup, and then wrapping them. As they prepared for a frenzy of hungry customers, Randi took his heel and scuffed a line through the turf, and with a glisten in his eye teased the grill crew, “Don’t you cross that line.”
After the parade, the crew returned to the firehouse. By now it was midafternoon. They unloaded the remaining food, stashing it away in coolers and storage bins. A few firefighters lingered, relaxing on aluminum chairs around a folding table in the makeshift common area set up between the gleaming fire engines and rescue clothes—heavy grey coats, helmets and yellow boots, each set hanging in the doorless lockers beneath names of members: Urie, Britton, Gutzmann, Calderwood, Jacobs, McCann, Perkins, Marckres, Masse…
The members went home until it was just Walt and Randi remaining. Randi noticed one of the hoses that work the brakes on the rescue vehicle was leaking air, and grabbed a stepladder and tinkered on it till it was working again. Finally the two men left their firehouse by the side door. As they walked toward their trucks Randi said, “Well, I gotta go home now and get hay for Louise’s horse.”
Fifty minutes later Walt heard his pager tone out the call.
Randi had gone out with his 23-year-old son, Andrew, to unload a round bale on a steep hillside. As Andrew watched, Randi maneuvered, using a piece of equipment he’d been running all summer, a telehandler, to deliver the bale. Looking something like the offspring of a tractor and a dune buggy, a telehandler functions as a forklift and a crane, enabling the famer to reach over and clamp a round bale of hay, much as a hand grabs and lifts a coffee mug. Randi had been operating it all summer, using it to put up 5000 round bales. It was perhaps 30 minutes till dusk. Randi had gotten a grasp on a bale when the machinery began to tip over and feeling it go, he leapt clear of it, but then it rolled again, and it landed on him.
Walt lives next to the fire station, so he opened the pass-coded door first; Eric Britton came next and jumped in the Rescue truck—the truck Randi had just fixed, not more than an hour before; Walt took his own truck. They met department member Steve Perkins by the bridge. Collectively, they drove through the Village, turned left and surged up the long hill past the fields Randi had been haying all summer, and past the drying barn where Randi had stored all those bales. The road plateaued in East Craftsbury, and the group skirted past the Presbyterian Church—the one place Randi never wore his ball cap; and past the Care Center, the assisted living facility where Randi had served on the Board of Directors. The responders barreled straight down the South Albany Road passing Randi’s sugarhouse and his sugar woods—the broad maples shading the road, and just at the verge of reaching the dairy barn where that heifer had once fallen into a vat of manure, they turned right on Echo Hill Road.
Other members of the department were already there. Randi’s wife, Louise, came up from the field where the telehandler had been lifted off her husband with a bucket loader, and said to Walt, “I don’t think you should go down there.” But Walt went. And until the coroner came at 10 p.m., the members of the Craftsbury Volunteer Fire Department never left Randi alone. When the rain started, they covered his body, even though the drops falling on him would have been the gentlest of his afflictions.
One hundred fire and rescue squad members from throughout Northern Vermont lined up in their uniforms and formed a human corridor for mourners as they entered the gymnasium for his service four days later.
Over the 29 years—half his life—that Randi Calderwood served on the Craftsbury Fire Department, as well as a few concurrent years serving Hardwick Rescue as a medical first responder, he answered 1500 emergency calls on his pager.
As the service concluded, the department arranged for one more: a singsong tone sputtered out of the 24 pagers worn by every member of the department standing inside the gymnasium, so that collectively the thousand people gathered heard the dispatcher 60 miles away issue his final summons:
Attention Craftsbury Fire Department, this is Williston with final tone for K-2, Assistant Fire Chief, Randi Calderwood: Rest in Peace.