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Hand Ball and Memories at Fire House Nine

By Ed Fuentes
Published: Monday, October 22, 2007, at 04:07AM
After the game Ed Fuentes

Young firemen were sitting next to retired chiefs and current LAFD Captains at yesterday's 26th Annual Station 9 Skid Row Handball Tournament. Together they watched, from small bleachers, teams of two compete on a small handball court that has the words "Skid Row" fading on the worn wood floor. There's very little head room and almost no way to stand, but that didn't stop the former and current firemen who have done "a tour" at Fire Station Number 9 from cheering on the competitors.

Those who worked at what's been called "the busiest fire station in the country" are a tight group and return each year for the tournament. Even yesterday, where nearly half the players had to cancel to fight the Malibu wildfires, those who were able to attend came to watch and play, keeping the fire house tradition alive. In between matches, they bounced stories around the station like a handball.

The retired captainDowntown's Fire House Nine, located on 7th street between Wall and San Julian, answers more calls than any other station. As you might expect, retired Captain Gene Allen, 73, and retired Chief Don Cates, 79, have some stories piled up.

They told of the Vet who used to live in the streets and had trained several fellow homeless to stand in formation and salute the trucks when they left the station to answer a call. Then there was the one night that someone came to the station with a knife in his back because he had no where else to go, as the fire house is the only "emergency room" many will trust. Or how last year, both homeless and loft residents rallied behind the firemen to keep the identity "Skid Row" on the fire house trucks.

One story by Allen was how term "heard it through the grapevine" came from the Fire House Number 1 located at El Pueblo. During the 1800s, there was a vineyard in the back of the original firehouse and those in command ducked behind it to hold quick meetings. If someone heard any news, it was asked "How do you know?" and the answer was "I heard it from the grapevine."

I don't know about that last one. One has have to be careful with those crafty firemen. You can't deny, though, displayed on the walls along with t-shirts from previous tournaments, and recovered signs from skid row, are old issues of the magazine produced by the Los Angeles Firemen Association, the Grapevine.

As for Fire House 9, it's the skid row station that helped this part of Downtown get through its worst times, and firemen gather together once a year to continue a unique bond. It's been the heart of this part of Downtown.

That story will always be true.

This Friday, LAPD, LAFD, FBI, CHP and the Sheriff’s Department will be honored at the 8th Annual Appreciation BBQ from 11am to 2pm at the Ernst & Young Plaza (at 7th and Fig). Food will cost the public $5 and will benefit the Los Angeles Police Department Memorial Foundation.

Top Left: Leaving the handball court. Top Right: Game from above. Below: Gene Allen, retired LAFD, worked at the station from 1971 to 1985. Photos / EF.

Fire House 9 photo essay can be found here .

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