Fabulous Philippines > Yesterdays in the Philippines > Chapter 6(e)

An American Fire-Engine and its Lively Trial

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August 11th.

The steamers have just come in from Hong Kong and are tied up in quarantine down at Mariveles, at the mouth of the Bay. The mail ought to be here in forty-eight hours, but two days is a very short time to give Manila postal authorities, for they really are slow enough to desire four--one in which to make up their minds to send a launch, two in which to go, three in which to come back, and four in which to distribute the results of their camphorated fumigation.

The most noteworthy thing that has happened in the way of excitement since the last mail was the operating of the New American fire-engine, which we imported from the States for the wealthy proprietor of our hemp-press, who is part Spaniard, part native, and part Chinese. It seems he was up in our office one day, and on the centre-table saw a catalogue containing pictures of a collection of our modern fire-fighter. He asked what those things were, on, being told that they were used to put out fires, said he wanted one at once, the biggest we could get him, in order that he might reduce the insurance he was paying on his large store-houses and still go on collecting the premiums from those whose goods were in his charge.

Although ours is an exporting business, and we do not know much about fire-engines, yet the occasion seemed auspicious, the prospect of payment, and the outlook interesting. The result was that we forwarded the order to New York by the first mail, and the other day, after four months of waiting, the pieces of the big engine came over on Esmeralda, in big cases. They were very heavy, and the natives began the exhibition by nearly dropping the boiler into the river as they attempted to hoist it into a lighter. To skip over the difficulties which were encountered in hoisting the cases onto the quay in front of the offices of our well-to-do purchaser, we come to the mental hardships that were encountered in putting the machine together; for no one in Manila had ever seen a Yankee fire-engine before, and although we had a full description of the complicated mechanism with drawings of the parts, and numbers where each piece was to fit onto some other piece, there was no one in town who could help us much in getting it into working order.

Fortunately the hemp business was dull and my colleague and I were thus enabled to give more attention to this Chinese puzzle than if the fibre market had been booming. the red wheels with gold stripes were the first thing to be adjusted, and the eyes of the onlookers who happened to be strolling up and down the quay opened to large dimensions as the covering was stripped from the nickel-plated boiler and the process of establishment went on. At last the big machine was on its feet, with valves and gear adjusted, and with the slight assistance which we got from a Spanish engineer who knew something about marine machinery, we found out that the whistle ought to be screwed onto the safety-valve.

Several Englishmen who happened to come by in the early stages of our efforts made sarcastic comments on the appearance of our new toy, and could not see how an affair with so much gold paint on the wheels and so much nickel on the boiler was going to work successfully. But we did not say much, since we were well occupied in trying to find out the proper way to fill the broiler. Someone suggested pouring the water down the whistle and so, mounted on a step-ladder, one to us began the interesting experiment. The water seemed to run in alright, as it gurgled down through the pipes, and did not leak out of the bottom. As there did not seem to be any other loophole to the boiler, we concluded this must be the right method, and took turns for an hour in emptying the contents of an old kerosene tin into the whistle-valve.

Next, with great trepidation, we started a fire in the gate, and were rejoiced to see that the new engine was soon fuming away like an old veteran. It quite spruced us up to hear the fire crackle under the boiler; but our heads became even more swelled when steam enough was generated to tickle the feed-pump into taking care of all the vacant lots in the boiler tubes.

When our friend Don Capitan found that the engine was going to work and knew its business, he said we must have a big trial and let all Manila see the show. To this end he sent around printed programmes of what was going to take place, to all the prominent people in the city--for he was an Alderman, by the way--inviting them to inspect the working of the engine and partake of a collation afterward in the spacious building of the hemp-press.

Wednesday, the fatal day, arrived, and the great American fire-engine stood out on the quay glistening in the sun, the centre of an admiring crowd of open-mouthed natives. The Englishmen in the background rather put their heads together and shook them the wrong way, as they often do at anything American, but the natives allowed their lower lips to drop from overwhelming admiration. Everybody was curious, and all were expectant, from the small kids dressed in nothing but the regulation Philippine undershirt, who played shinney with the coal for the boiler and looked down the hose-nozzle, to Don Captain himself who went around shaking by the hands all the high and mighty officials who had come to see his latest freak. My associate and I felt fairly important as we gruffly ordered the police to clear the ground for action and blew the whistle to scare the audience. The huge suction-hose was run into the river, and our hose made his pet servant jump in after it hold the strainer out of the mud. Ten natives were stationed at the nozzle of the four-inch hose, which was pointed up the small plaza running back from the quay, and while I poked up the fire to give us a little impressive smoke, Rand rang the bell and turned on steam.

The affair worked admirably, and the big steam of yellow water went so far as to gently soak down a lot of baled tobacco that was lying on a street-corner at the next block, supposedly beyond reach. The owner of the tobacco, thinking that a thunder-storm had struck the town, came to the door of his office, just behind, to see what was up, and, as the engine suddenly began to work a little better, the stream of water somehow knocked him over and played around the entrance to his warehouse. At the rate things were going it looked as if the exhibition would prove expensive and, to avoid diplomatic complications, we shut off steam long enough to shift the hose over for a more unobstructed spurt along the river.

In a few moments after the change had been made an open throttle made a truly huge torrent belch from the long nozzle with such force as to make as to make the ten hose-men feel decidedly nervous, but it did not stop them from turning the stream toward a lighter which was being polled down the Pasig by two Malays, The foremost was washed backward into the lighter, and the hindmost swept off into the river as if he had been a cockroach. A Chinaman who was paddling a load of vegetables to the Esmeralda in a hollow tree-trunk suffered the same fate. He and his greens were swished out of the banca in an instant, and he found himself sitting on his inverted craft floating helplessly down-stream.

Then suddenly, as we opened the throttle to the last notch, the hose-men, in their excitement to wet some coolies loading hemp, far up the quay, tried to turn the torrent back onto the pavement, but, with its force of fifteen hundred gallons to the minute, it was too quick for them, and with one mighty "kerchug" broke away to send the nozzle flying around like a mill-wheel. Before they knew what struck them the ten men holding the nozzle were knocked prostrate, and two small boys in under-shirts, who were playing around in the mud-puddles near by, were whisked off into the river like so much dust. A dozen lightning wriggles of the hose, and the frenzied cataract shot a third boy through the wire door into the office of our friend, Don Capitan. Inside the door a wooden settee, were sitting some of the family servants holding their infants, and the same scream on which the boy travelled through the door washed the whole party, settee and all that, across the hallway into a heap at the foot of the stairs.

Outside, the audience stampeded, and the man in the river, holding into the suction hose, had hard work to prevent being drawn up through the strainer and pumped out the other end in fragments. All this took place in a quarter of the time it takes to tell of it, and events followed each other in such quick succession that the hose had started to turn over on its back and charge on the engine before one of us rushed in to shut off steam. The two boys washed into the river were fished out more dead than alive, but more frightened than hurt, and the native policeman on duty at the front arrested them promptly for daring to be drowned. The boy blown through the screen-door had his ear badly torn, and was likewise arrested for not entering the house in a more civilized manner. The natives nurse their bare feet stepped on in the rush; the Englishmen, who had been sarcastic several days before, said nothing; but the Spaniard asked where the collation was, and, waterlogged though they were, began to eat like good ones. The policeman marched the three boys in undershirts to the station-house, and, next morning the daily newspapers devoted more space than was usual in describing the wonderful machinery that came from America, for the benefit of their readers, who, like the English dude of old, "didn't weahlly dweam that so much watta could come out of such a wehwey diminootive-looking affaiah."

Otherwise, in Manila we are now enjoying the so-called veranillo, or little summer, which every year comes along about the middle of August, and which consists of two or three weeks of cool, pleasant weather, that comes between the rains of July and the typhoon season of September. And fine weather it is , with a jolly breeze blowing in from the China Sea all day, with delightful afternoons, moonlight nights, and fresh mornings.

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