Cordova Chronicles: Fireman’s Ball got hotter when the lights came on

Nothing is like the good old days of the Annual Fireman’s Ball

Main Street Cordova in the early 1950s. Notice the lamppost in front of the Cordova Commercial, which is the first building on the left. Photo courtesy of the Cordova Historical Society
Main Street Cordova in the early 1950s. Notice the lamppost in front of the Cordova Commercial, which is the first building on the left. Photo courtesy of the Cordova Historical Society

Another New Year is here, ushered in with fanfare all around the world. It seems like big New York-style countdowns now span the globe; and with 24 time zones, it truly is an all-day (and night) party.

I wonder if the lucky inhabitants of the Space Station get tired of watching all those dropping balls and fireworks. After all, they make 16 orbits a day. Now that’s a lot of New Years.

In Cordova, folks will set off pyrotechnics, although the big display is saved for the Iceworm Festival in February. There may be a few costume parties, either at local establishments or in private gatherings; but nothing like the good old days of the Annual Fireman’s Ball.

It was held right above the Fire Hall, which was located in the bottom floor of old City Hall, now known as the Bidarki Rec Center. A pair of small fire trucks were parked in a cramped bay where the weight room is now located.

The Cordova Volunteer Fire Department Annual Ball was a highlight of the year. People spent months creating costumes for the event, which was held in the upstairs gym.

There was live music, often provided by Ed and Ramona Kolenut; he on the drums, she on the piano; and the two of them often singing solo or duet. Ed’s drum set was emblazoned with “The Koal Nuts,” which in itself gives considerable clue as to how much fun was had by all.

There were countless zany costumes and prizes in what was a very lively fundraiser for the Fire Department. In fact, before the spirited evening was over, some of the revelers should probably have been hosed down.

No one was more enthusiastic then my dad, Don Shellhorn, who like many other Cordovans, took his turn as fire chief. I remember for an entire year he always had his fire-fighting boots and clothes at bedside every night.

During the slow winter season at the Cordova Commercial, Dad took advantage of all the hardware supplies at the enterprise, of which he was a partner, to come up with New Year’s Eve surprises that the entire community anticipated.

Perhaps none was a bigger hit than a battery-powered replica of the lampposts that lined Main Street. Remember those huge globes that lit up our thoroughfare in classic, albeit energy-inefficient, style?

Well, as it turns out, Dad’s portable lamppost lit up something other than the streets.  He and Kenny Van Brocklin would pack it up the stairs to the gym. Mom, in a can-can outfit, and Dad in a tuxedo, would then dance around it in style.

The highlight would come when Dad flipped on the light. Its golden glow was a silent signal that brought fellow firefighters faster than the wail of the fire siren atop City Hall.

For behind the sliding door of a hidden compartment within the base of the pole was, for lack of a better word, fire water.  Which got everyone fired up.  And meant the Koal Nuts needed to pick up the tempo.

Recall that this was a city facility, so technically no consumption of liquid inspiration was allowed, which of course made imbibing even more fun.

Like so many other secrets in Cordova, knowledge of this hidden treasure was rampant.  So much so that a pair of under-aged lads, cleverly disguised with masks, made it into the Ball, and zeroed in on the pole when the light came on.

Lowering their voices a notch to avoid recognition, they had no difficulty receiving a New Year’s toast from the Host with the Most.

Every year about this time I seem to run into Jim Webber, Cordova Historian Emeritus.  The CHS Class of 1951 graduate tells me the same story, and always finishes with “That was the best shot of whiskey I ever had.”

And every New Year’s Eve, when the clock strikes 12, Cordova International Time, I have the same.

“For auld lang syne, my dear

For auld lang syne

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet

For auld lang syne.”

Happy New Year, Dad.

— DS

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Dick Shellhorn, author, reporter, ref and grandpa, can be reached at Shellhorn was born and raised in Cordova, Alaska, and has lived there his entire life. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 40 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and third place in 2017.