Two weeks ago, Bruno Rahn, Mike Soden, retired Chippewa Fire District Chief Ron Salter and I made a trip to La Crosse to revisit the past and a friend long departed.
The story is not a sad one but a recognition of life’s continuing and of fire service traditions observed.
The fire service has many traditions: bagpipes, love of the Irish, the fire bell which is rung at firefighter funerals, the spraying of water over a new fire station, the ritual washing of a new fire engine or pushing it into a building and the blessing of the fire station by a clergyman.
As Bruno, Mike, Ron and I traveled south on Hwy. 93 to La Crosse on a beautiful July Saturday, our thoughts were of the late Don “Cookie” Asslein of Lafayette.
Don once owned the former Village Tap. He was also a charter member of the Chippewa Fire District Lafayette Station. I worked with him at Chippewa Area Ambulance that was run by Bill Kempe.
Don left the Chippewa Fire District to work for the La Crosse Fire Department in 1980. Don rose through the ranks to become an engineer. In fire service language, an engineer or MPO is a firefighter who drives the truck and runs the pump. It is a position that takes both skill and intelligence.
Next to the Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls Fire Department, the Chippewa Fire District has had more members go on to a full-time career with the La Crosse Fire Department than any other. Don loved La Crosse but through skillful scheduling and doing trades he was able to spend many days in Lafayette and “up north.”
When I worked for the state, my area of responsibility included the La Crosse Fire Department. I had a chance to see Don and he introduced me to many La Crosse firefighters who became my friends. Chief Croker of the New York Fire Department once said, “When a man becomes a fireman his greatest act of bravery has been accomplished. What he does after that is all in the line of work.”
I was reminded of that line when one bright October day Don and I were standing outside his station. Don told me he had not been feeling well. As corny as it may sound, the leaves rushed by but the sun was warm we discussed many things — but not firefighting or the medical calls we were on. We spoke of our kids, the people we knew and the times we had shared. I think he knew more than he told me.
Don died of cancer April 9, 1997, at the age of 47. Our group from the Chippewa Fire District attended his funeral. Our trip to La Crosse several weeks ago was to participate in an old fire service tradition; the naming of a new fire truck.
La Crosse Fire Chief Ken Gilliam put it this way: “The new engine and a memorial are dedicated to Engineer Donald Asselin, whose 1997 death from cancer was one of the cases that motivated the creation of new laws to protect the health of firefighters.” Chief Gilliam’s words rang true but there is more work to do.
I have researched federal death benefits for firefighters who have died from cancer. Currently, only the firefighters from the Twin Towers 9-11 incident are receiving anything. Exposure to toxic chemicals, plastics and the smoke from ordinary house fires are increasing and firefighter deaths from cancer are going up.
Firefighter protective gear cannot keep up with cancer. As more women enter the fire service, they too will face growing risks during and after childbearing years. As shown by the events of 9-11 legislation has not kept up. In talking with fire service leaders, most line-of-duty cancer benefits need to be traced to one single event; not a lifetime of exposure.
Coming back to the day’s events for Don: La Crosse Engine 4 was placed into service with his name on it. Author Kurt Vonnegut wrote: “I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.” Godspeed, Don, enjoy your new engine, you are remembered.