MONTVILLE, NJ – When you’re a newbie firefighter, you don’t want to make a mistake. So when the other firefighters tell you to “foot the ladder,” or hold on to the base as the other firefighters climb up, you hold on tight and don’t let go, despite cascades of water pouring down on you in sub-zero weather.
It was Towaco volunteer firefighter Spooner Peer’s first house big fire response when he started with the department in 1967.
“I held on tight and didn’t let go – but the water froze to my turnout coat the minute it hit,” he recently told TAPinto Montville with a laugh. “My arms froze stiff! They had to hit the ice with a hammer to get my arms off. I’ll never forget that!”
Peer, his brother Robert, Joe Gretkowski and Robert Grey were recently honored for their many decades of service with the Towaco Volunteer Fire Department at the department’s annual banquet May 12.
Spooner remembers being able to see the fire station from his bedroom as a boy growing up in Towaco.
“When the whistle blew, I would jump out of bed to watch the garage doors open at the station,” Spooner recalled. “It got me excited to join later.”
Another fact that got him interested in joining the fire department was Montville schools didn’t have enough room in Towaco for all the students, so the fourth grade was held in the fire station.
“They curtained off two classrooms upstairs,” Spooner recalled. “When the whistle blew, the teacher would let us go to the window and watch the fire engines leaving. That was exciting for us. That got me interested in joining, too.”
Spooner joined in 1967 and was recently honored for his 50 years of service. He also served as captain from 1973-1978 and assistant chief from 1979-1988. He worked for the Department of Public Works for 38 years and has since retired. He is married to Susan and has three sons, James, Michael and David.
Spooner’s brother Robert Peer joined the department in 1962 and was honored for his 55 years of service.
“I joined back then because there wasn’t much to do in Towaco,” Robert said. “There was no place to hang out but to volunteer and help out the town. I joined to do a service and help out the town’s people.”
Robert was chief from 1974-75 and again from 1986-87. He also worked for the Department of Public Works. He is married to Diana and has two sons, Robert and Mark, and five grandchildren.
Joe Gretkowski was honored for his 40 years with the fire department.
He was born and raised in Jersey City, he said, and didn’t know much about volunteering until he met his wife.
“My father-in-law was a very active firefighter in Wallingon, and I saw what he was doing, so when we moved to Towaco I applied here – and I’m still doing it,” he said.
Gretkowski said he was president of the department for two years and treasurer for 27. When asked about anecdotes regarding his time in the department, though, he won’t share.
“What happens in Vegas…” he said with a laugh.
Gretkowski was in the Army from 1966 to 1968 and served as a supply sergeant. He worked for United Parcel Service until he retired in 2002, and worked at a golf course for 13 years following that.
“I told them at the golf course two years ago, ‘I’m turning 70; it’s time to have fun’ – which I’m doing,” Gretkowski said.
He said he is still very active with the fire department and even responds to calls in middle of night. He visits retired firefighters at the New Jersey Firemen’s Home in Boonton every week, too.
“Some of them have no one,” he said.
Gretkowski is married to Joan and they have two daughters, Kelly and Nancy, and two grandsons. The couple still lives in Towaco.
Robert Grey was honored for his 40 years with the fire department. Grey was chief from 1990-1991.
Firefighting runs in the family, because Grey’s son Robert, Jr. is a firefighter in Virginia, he said, and son Bill is assistant chief with the Towaco department.
“And I still respond to calls,” he said.
Grey still lives in Towaco. He has a daughter who lives in Branchville.
It doesn’t sound like any of those honored are going anywhere, either, because the firefighters are a close-knit group.
“You really have a camaraderie in the fire department,” said Spooner Peer. “It is so special. We are so close. You get together and they become your good friends - it’s like your own family.”