Chapter nine: A close shave
As if comedy and tragedy had to go hand in hand, the Secaucus suffered one of its sadness moments with Koenemund's death and one of the most bizzare in the matter of the beards.
On Oct. 3, 1985 -- less than a month after Koenemund's death -- Fire Chief George Heflich suspended eight fire fighters for wearing beards.
Seven of the men Heflich suspended were from his own fire house on 7th Street, one from the Plaza house next to the library.
One fire fighters thought Heflich meant to trim his beard, not shave it off.
Heflich announced the banning of beard at the fireman's meeting on Sept. 20, govomg an order several weeks earlier prohibiting firefighters from wearing beards, ordering his men to shave or be banned from participating in firehouse fuctions, as well as responding to fires.
The fire chief said breathing devices used when fire fighters went into burning buildings did not fit properly when men wore beards. Part of the beards hung out the sides, threatening to catch fire.
Firefighters argued that the devices -- called Soctt Packs -- fit tight over the beards without a problem.
Members of the department grumbled, claiming they were already several members short and could not afford to allenate those fire fighters who wanted to wear beards.
Two days after issuing his ultimatum, Heflich walked into the seventh street fire house, pointed at four men with beards and told them to get out.
This was not without warning. Heflich had issued a memo the previous june, prhobiging men from fighting fires with beards.
In July, the town council passed an ordinance giving Heflich power to suspend firefighters for any reason he saw fit. Previously the chief could only suspend a fire fighter on the way to a fire or on the fire scene.
Heflich had even joked during his installation diner earlier than that, saying Santa Claus would issue rasors during his Christmas visit to the fire houses.
George Heflich was hardly a man who avoided trouble. His entire career as a firefighter he said what he thought and often got himself in trouble for it. Such behavior would later land him in a load of trouble as this attribute mingled with politics and he found himself faced with snakes who eventually turned his virture into poison, and forced him to retire as the town's fire inspector late in the 1990s.
Heflich, however, came from a family of fire fighters, and was the son of a firefighter the way many of the other members of the Secaucus Volunteer fire department were. His father, John, set the record for the department when he managed to respond to every fire, meeting and civic event the fire department held in 1944. George's twin brother rose to rank of chief in the nearby Woodbridge fire department. Before taking a job with the town as the fire official in the late 1980s, Heflich worked as a truck driver, carrying him the salty language and ethnic prejudices of that postion. In the 1990s, he would get sued several times, once in connection with a police department scandal, then later, by the former town attorney who accused him of anti-semistism. But few issues so marked his career in Secaucus as did his suspending of those fire fighters over the wearing of beards in 1985.
The issue became even more muddied a week later, when the town assistant attorney, Michael Bukatman and Heflich issued a joint statement saying the men were not under suspension, they simply couldn't attend any fire house fuctions or work on athe equipment, or respond to a fire.
By this time, national media had begun to focus in on the controversy. Television cameras showed up regularly to focus in on various principle characters, reporters from prestigious publications such as the New York Times sniffed around the fire houses looking for additional dirt.
Among those suspended were men destined to take a significant role in fire department, such Kenneth Tuthill, who would later help upgrade the aging fleet of fire engines.
Tuthill, who had been involved with the fire department for 23 years to that date had worn a beard for nearly 18 of those years.
Many of the bearded men refused to budge, vowing never to shave their beards under intimidation.
Some claimed the move to shave the men would create and even more dangerous situation, forcing the number firefighters below those needed to adquately respond to a fire -- especially in the 7th Street fire house where the most men had been suspended.
Like Washington Hook & Ladder Company, the Seventh Street Firehouse had a long history in Secaucus. In fact, the company, orginally known as the Clarendon Fire Company started life the same year as Secaucus incorporated, only it remained a private company until joining the Secaucus department in 1910. When founded in 1900, however, it operated out of wooden fire house located at the corner of Front and Fifth Streets, it was later relocated to its present location, and handled many of the routine fires along the western edge of Secaucus near the twisting shore line of the Hackensack River.
While some fire officials claimed the snorkel truck operating out of that fire house could be handled by fire fighters from other fire houses, Gun Mangin -- who would become chief in the early 1990s -- claimed he'd fear to stand on the truck's elevated platform when men, unfamiliar with the machinery, operated it from below.
Indeed, at the fire house, firefighters hung a sign in window calming the Snorkel was out of order due to an air leak.
According to one of the chief officers at the fire house, the truck did indeed have a leak in its air brakes, despite recent repair efforts.
But underneath the controversy was a larger issue that only a few fire officials were willing to talk about. One firefighter told several newspapers that he believed those who supported Heflich's ban on beards were actually seeking to have the department become a paid force as opposed to volunteer, and thus had a financial motive for supporting the chief.
Over the years, town officials would on occasion debate the benefits of a paid force, especially during those moments when disappline problems threatened to rip the department apart, each time drawing back from the brink because of the massive impact such a move would have on the local tax rate. The volunteer force's biggest benefit was its cost savings to the town.
In the end, Heflich found support from the other two chiefs for his decission to make the men shave, and in a statement signed by all three chiefs, the firefighters would either shave their beards or face expulsion from the force. An attorney hired to look into the matter, also found that Heflich was within his authority to issue the order.
In the end, the firefighters shaved off their beards, but the ill-feelings remained for years, seeping into the fabric of the small town, and fueled future fueds that seemed totally unrelated.