Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

Tucked inside the Clarendon fire station on N. 10th St. is a special closed-off room. By long-standing arrangement with the county, it is dedicated to honoring the station’s decades of reliance on volunteer firefighters.

Today’s professionally staffed Fire Station 4 deploys “no active volunteers, but retains a volunteer presence,” I was told by Capt. Richard Slusher III.

The walls where longtime volunteers continue to meet are lined with photos of flaming houses and plaques that recall an era when Arlington relied on volunteer firemen to spring into action at all hours when tragedy threatened.

A stalwart of that era was Eugene Gordon, still an ambassador for the station at age 96, who has made a second home at Fire Station 4 for 77 years. When I visited him at the Greenspring Retirement Community, he greeted me in a cap and shirt bearing emblems for Clarendon Volunteer Fire Department No. 4. His apartment’s front door is decorated with model firetrucks and a Pentagon 9/11 patch.

Gordon showed me a wooden plaque honoring him for seven decades of service to the station he first signed onto on Sept. 21, 1942. A separate certificate from 2014 proclaims him as Sergeant at Arms Emeritus.

Arlington’s firehouses, though utilitarian in ambiance, have hosted historical drama. Fire Station 8 in Halls Hill played a central role in ending segregation, and the Clarendon station in 1974 made news when the nation’s first full-time female firefighter, Judy Brewer, was assigned there.

Gordon embodies the willingness of average Arlingtonians to donate their time while holding down a day job in exchange for rewards he calls mostly social. “We had no TVs, no smart phones, no computers,” he said. “But it was easy to get young people to volunteer because there were lots of dinners and dances.”

As a 19-year-old who grew up in the Clarendon neighborhood on what was Alexandria Ave. (now 9th St.), Gordon enlisted in the Navy after World War II broke out.

His goal was to be an aerial gunner. But after training in Maryland and Florida, he flunked the eye test. As a machinist mate on liberty, he began helping out at the station, where there were five paid firemen and some 20 volunteers.

Back then, “We had no radios, though Clarendon was first to get one,” Gordon said. So volunteers would hear a siren from home and hustle on foot to, say, a coal plant in Rosslyn. “There was no way to tell if the fire was out before you got there.” Many home fires were caused by someone smoking in bed, he noted, and firemen could never be sure a mattress wasn’t continuing to burn.

Gordon’s paying jobs included making venetian blinds and installing asbestos insulation. But he valued his fireman’s life for its sense of community — the fast-pitch softball leagues, the group outings to Washington Redskins games.

Chuck Satterfield, the station’s president who joined in 1962, called Gordon “a mainstay” whose “counsel we always take.”

Both men express astonishment at how neighborhoods like Clarendon and Ballston have evolved from “shotgun cottages” to high-rises, as Satterfield put it, causing both of them to occasionally get lost in their own hometown.

Gordon laments that today’s firehouses “have trouble finding” volunteers.

Though he no longer drives, he appreciates that his car repair shop honored volunteer firemen. “They gave me 10 percent off.”

Just learned that a former U.S. senator took her first breath in Arlington.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who served from 1997-2015, was born here in 1955 when her father, future New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, was serving at the Pentagon with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.

This is reported in the recent memoir “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History,” by current New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the senator’s brother.