'We were turned into fire wardens'

Elizabeth Thomes Hobbs ’51 wrote a more lyrical remembrance of October 1947 a few years ago, recalling how she drew the dreaded pre-dawn fire watch:

Before the fires, had I ever known how much I valued that last hour of sleep before the day’s duties?

The men of Bates were pressed into service as amateur firefighters, roaring off in ill-equipped trucks to save the state of Maine. We women, in the way of the ’40s, were turned into fire wardens. It was my own duty to patrol my dormitory inside and out for the slightest hint of a spark, an ember that might destroy us and perhaps the whole city of Lewiston. It was, in fact, a real possibility since many of the students did smoke and conditions were off the charts for danger that fall.

In any case, I drew the hour from 5 to 6 a.m. — the worst possible if one had an early morning class. I tore myself from my warm bed into the chill October dawn and prowled from room to room, feeling like a cat burglar, or a voyeur, as I watched others in their delicious sleep. Never have I felt such envy.

For decades, I have believed that the men came back to campus ennobled and soot-stained. I remember them striding into morning chapel, full of the glory of their hard fight. Especially I remember the one I married and the way my heart lifted at the sight of him, alive and well but such a hero in my view.

But the one I married informs me that I romanticize, that they were gone only one day, home by nightfall, never having got close to the inferno.

Must I believe him?