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Fire truck leaves Laurel learning center after 36 years

Everyone in Laurel knows the big red fire truck at the corner of St. Mary's Place and Montgomery Street that has provided an outlet for children's imaginations since it was rolled onto the playground at Pallotti Early Learning Center over 30 years ago.

Monday was moving day for the 1955 American LaFrance antique fire truck, which has a new mission now that the daycare staff and children have left the area and moved into a new building nearby. Former volunteer firefighter Dave Hilliard, of the now-disbanded Hillside Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George's County, plans to use its parts to restore a similar fire truck in his possession.

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"Our fire truck is from 1952," Hilliard said. "The reason I wanted this particular fire truck was to combine it with the one we have that is one of my favorites from growing up because I've been in Hillside since I was 6 years old."

Inside all fire trucks, Hilliard said, there is an area called the cab, where the driver and two or three passengers can sit, operating the vehicle's bells and whistles in addition to the usual gadgets, including its lights and radio. While the playground's fire truck was stripped of gauges and removable wiring for children's safety, Hilliard said the engine and transmission are still intact as well as its cast iron water pump.

"The one from Hillside has been stripped [for parts] four times," he said. "That's why we're going to swap parts. I want to put our cab on that one because ours still has the wiring, the gauges and it has a lot of the pieces that got destroyed on the one in the park."

Before its days at the daycare, Montgomery County's Hillandale Volunteer Fire Department Captain Earl Clime said he remembered the fire truck running calls back in the 1970s. The 10-year construction of the truck took place in Elmira, N.Y., eventually making its way to Hillandale's fire department.

"It operated its whole career there," Clime said. "I was born in '54 [and] this is a '55. My father joined the fire department in '52. All my life I've been hanging around firehouses."

Starting at the age of 6, Clime said he and other children climbed on the fire truck just as the kids at the daycare had done days before. Later, when he was 15, Clime's father took him on rides.

"I wasn't even a member of the fire department, but back then, we did things you really shouldn't," he said, laughing.

Councilman Michael Leszcz said his now-grown children grew up playing on the fire truck when Sister Eileen Conner brought it to the daycare around 1979.

"Soon after [two of my children], Michael and Katie, were both attending, Sister talked to another parent, Jon Schlicht, and myself about a fire engine and caboose that she had located in Montgomery County owned by a person who had purchased them for his son to play on," Leszcz said. "Now that his son had outgrown them, he was willing to give them to Sister Eileen for the daycare."

Since the caboose was too heavy, Leszcz said they managed to talk Conner out of bringing it to the daycare center, but that they loved the idea of having the fire engine. After it was towed to the daycare and sprayed with a fresh coat of industrial grade red paint, the fire truck was ready for play.

"Sister Eileen Conner was always looking for ways to enhance the experience of the children that attended the daycare," he said. "I'm glad somebody is going to be able to use components from the thing to restore another fire vehicle that they have. You want to have that reuse. That's good. That's actually wonderful."

Teaching at St. Vincent Pallotti High School since 1960, Sister Karen Lester said she was there when the fire truck arrived, exciting all of the kids.

"Little kids love fire trucks," Lester said. "Any time they came outside, there was always a group of them on the fire truck, every day, day in and day out. I think that's one of the reasons it sunk so deep in the sand. They would get up in the seat, grab the steering wheel and pretend to drive it."

To the community, the fire truck became not just another piece of playground equipment, but a landmark everyone knew.

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"For a lot of people, when you mention the fire truck, they knew exactly what corner it was on," Lester said. "We'd use it as a source of direction. With St. Mary's Church right here, we'd [give directions and] say, 'Make a left where the red fire truck is.'"

While the vehicle no longer resides at the corner of the high school, parts of it will make an appearance when Hilliard finishes the renovations on his new fire truck.

"It's definitely going to be something missing, but time moves on and people change things," Hilliard said. "I know I can't make [the fire truck] exactly like what ours was, but I'm hoping to have something between the two of them. We'll have a light, a bell, [and] a siren. It will look like it's ready to run fire calls."

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