S.C. county's longest-serving volunteer firefighter retires

WAMPEE, S.C. (AP) — James Hodge says he’s getting more sleep nowadays, even though he’s usually out of his house by 5:30 a.m.

The school bus driver sleeps uninterrupted now, but for 40 years he was woken up in the middle of the night by a series of loud beeps. Within minutes he’d be at the Wampee fire station preparing to head to a fire, car accident or drowning.

Hodges, who retired last month, was Horry County’s longest-serving volunteer firefighter. The 72-year-old started at the Wampee fire station 40 years ago with some of the other men who lived in the neighborhood.

“I don’t regret a day of my life being out there,” he said.

Wampee is an unincorporated community in Horry County along 90. It’s located near North Myrtle Beach across from the Intracoastal Waterway. The area sees occasional flooding after storms and has a completely volunteer fire staff, overseen by the county.

Hodge, also known as Bees to his friends, has lived in Wampee his whole life and in his current home with his wife for 35 years. The nickname stems from the time Hodge spent playing with bumblebees. His house sits on a dead-end gravel road, conveniently close to the station, which Hodge says he used to be able to get to in three minutes. The last few years, though, he wasn’t so quick.

“I felt myself dragging a bit ... I didn’t have the speed like I wanted to,” he recalled, saying towards the end of his career it would take him six or seven minutes to get to the station.

His wife, Jamma Hodge, says she worried about James when she heard the alarms at night.

“You could be in a good deep sleep and it’d go off,” she said about the emergency beeper. “A lot of nights he’d go to those fires, and he will be gone pretty much all night long. If I wake up, and he’s not there, then I really worry.”

The veteran firefighter always made it home safe and after 40 years of splitting his time between the station, working as a maintenance man at the Cabana Terrace Motel in North Myrtle Beach, and more recently driving school buses, Hodge decided to hang up his boots.

The couple will get more sleep now, they joke, even if James gets up pretty early for work. Although, Jamma says, her husband enjoys his midday naps.

“I don’t think he’s one that would eventually ever retire because he has to be busy,” Jamma said, joking that the only time James would stop is “when the good lord takes him away.”

HUMBLE BEGINNINGS

Hodge joined the volunteer fire station at its inception in 1979.

The small force was made up of 12 men, mostly young and all black. Many of Hodge’s family members were among the first group of volunteer firefighters, including his brother-in-law, Jimmie Livingston, who was their chief.

“We had to be very creative, we had to start learning from step one, we had no experience. The county gave us a helmet and a coat but no boots. We wore our combat boots from the farm,” he remembered.

Back then, Hodge and the crew didn’t go by street names or numbers, but instead by family names. The neighborhood Hodge spent his entire life in was small enough that he knew who each house belonged to, where the hydrants were and how to get there.

“I’d say ‘hey, dispatch, just give us a name,’” he said.

It was a team effort, with help from the other volunteers and people in the neighborhood. Hodge recalled his mother-in-law using her father’s HAM radio to call in fires that she saw burning.

“If they couldn’t get us, my mother-in-law, she was like a dispatch,” he said.

When neighbors saw their truck coming they knew help was on the way, Hodge said.

The group stayed close, holding cookouts and meetings at church, all while trying to recruit new volunteers. Hodge said he could never figure out why more people, especially white residents, never joined. They’d always ask about how much it paid and what time they’d have to wake up, he remembered.

Despite the learning curve and lack of equipment, the crew were always on call and knew their neighborhood well.

They were working out of a work shed at the Wampee school that had been renovated by the county, which also gave them a fire engine. The crew learned from its mistakes, Hodge said.

“We know we got a fire, we know we gotta put water on it,” he said laughing.

The neighborhood’s population grew after 1990, and Hodge said he could no longer navigate dispatch calls by the names of his neighbors and had to resort to street names and numbers.

HARD WORK

Being a firefighter is not an easy job; yet, Hodge left the job relatively unscathed. He knows he’s lucky. During one fire he was on the second floor and fell through the ceiling onto the first floor, uninjured.

The job can also take a psychological toll. Hodge always had his emergency beeper on him during his tenure. It would wake him up in the middle of the night and go off at work. One day his boss saw his fire pager and asked about it.

“He told me ‘When that thing goes off in your pocket you better hit the road,’” he said.

Jamma is thankful the beeper will be a thing of the past.

The couple remembered the night Livingston was killed in a car accident nearby. The emergency pager had gone off three times before his wife woke Hodge up.

“My brother ain’t answered the call,” she told him. Hodge recalled what happened next.

“Oh lord, I shook my head,” he said, letting out an upset grunt. “He’s supposed to answer that radio.”

Livingston couldn’t answer the call, as he died on the corner as Hodge stood near him.

“I had to come back home and tell her ... it was a sorrowful morning.”

Five other members of the original 12 have died, too, according to Hodge. Some to sickness, others to complications caused by chemical inhalation and another to a heart attack.

“We all paid the price ... death just hit us,” he said, noting that he isn’t in the best of health, but he can still move around. “I’m gonna take it easy for a while, spend the time with my wife.”

Hodge said he never really ran into anything he couldn’t handle. He pulled people out of rivers and children out of burning buildings. But there were things he hated about the job, mostly not being able to get to fires in time. He could always tell when someone had been stuck inside for too long, he said, by the way the air smelled.

“That’s something you can’t get outta your mind,” he said, flinching and letting out a groan. “It’s that smell that gets up your nose ... can’t stand it.”

The group of volunteers had each other to lean on and used each other for moral support, said Hodge. It didn’t hurt that the station was always manned with a cook. Hodge’s favorite meal was Roger Wood Sausage sandwiches.

“We stuck together and stood by the community,” he said.

The volunteer staff dwindled, with members either retired or dead, and Hodge remained the last Black volunteer and eventually, the only volunteer at Station Five.

“I was the only one left,” he remembered. “But I always had help on the way.”

Most of that help came from Horry County Fire Rescue. Chief Joseph Tanner thanked Hodge for his service at a retirement ceremony in September.

“Hodge has been an outstanding team member of Horry County Fire Rescue for four decades, always committing himself to excellence, answering emergencies within the Wampee community and being a great neighbor as much as he is a great first responder,” Tanner said.

Other firefighters who worked with Hodge echoed that statement.

“He would give you the shirt off his back,” firefighter Mike Baker said.

‘I MISS IT ALREADY’

Hodge and the original members of the volunteer squad joined because they wanted to help the community. Hodge’s wife, Jamma, said that while she worried about them she was happy to have a fire department close to home.

For Hodge, the decision to join was easy.

“I didn’t play no baseball, I didn’t play no football, I wasn’t no boy scout, so when they came up with the plan for a fire department it just hit me,” Hodges said, snapping his fingers for effect. “Join. Do something to satisfy the neighborhood.”

It was a sentiment that had echoed what other volunteers had said years ago.

In 1989, The Sun News ran an article titled “Wampee Fire Department volunteer always wanted to help community.” The reporter interviewed Jimmie Livingston, Hodge’s brother-in-law and at the time, the chief of Station 5.

Livingston was a self-employed farmer and would be working in the tobacco fields when the fire station alarm would sound.

“I always wanted to do something for the community, and I figured this was a way to do it,” Livingston is quoted as saying in the article. “I’ve always enjoyed helping people.”

Below the article is a picture of Livingston standing proudly in front of an Horry County fire engine, dressed in full chief uniform, Jheri curls flowing from under his hat.

“He had the curls and the girls, lemme tell ya,” Hodge said, smiling while looking at the laminated newspaper clipping he had in his home.

Hodge and Livingston worked closely together. In 1992 they made the front page of the Local section of The Sun News. The photograph shows Hodge watching as Livingston sprays a hose on the collapsed roof of a mobile home.

The caption states that the mobile home fire was extinguished in 10 minutes and that no one was in the home at the time of the fire.

Other newspaper clippings Hodge collected over the years show the two men joined by their fellow volunteers at a celebration for the station. Billed as a “ball,” at the event the volunteers handed out awards and a 5=foot trophy for the person who responded to the most fires that year.

Hodge had possession of the trophy a few times.

He has pictures in his fire rescue uniform with his small afro joined by Jamma stored with laminated newspaper clippings so he can remember the good times.

“I miss it already,” he said while looking through some of the clippings. “I’m not as strong as I was but I was still going, still showing up.”

Hodge was recently hospitalized with stomach issues and released shortly before his 50th wedding anniversary with Jamma. She is glad James will be able to rest more but wishes they could travel and eat out more. Coronavirus is preventing that.

The two met in high school after James asked her to prom. They’ve been together almost ever since. They’re looking forward to spending more time together now, but Jamma still enjoys her freedom while James is at work.

“My wife stuck by me 24/7,” James said, recalling all the times he’d be gone in the middle of the night at a fire. “She knew where I was.”

When James was honored by the county last month at a retirement ceremony at Station 5 in Wampee, he was gifted a memorial axe and other framed station memorabilia. He displays them in his home with pride.

In 1997, then-Governor David Beasley declared that every third Sunday in October would be Volunteer Firefighter Day, a way to honor the men and women who served.

At the time the station had 13 volunteers and the county had hundreds. Volunteers still run Station 5.

“Take a moment the next time you see a volunteer firefighter to him/her for the time, training and effort that is put forth by all firefighters to protect lives and property in Horry County,” a quarter-page advertisement in the October 19, 1997 Sunday issue of The Sun News read. “Without these brave men and women many more lives would be lost to fire.”