Jackson set a standard for service

In describing the late Arnie Jackson, the first word that comes to Dave Hannon’s mind is “gruff.”

Hannon recalls a time years ago when Jackson led “Arnie’s Army,” a crop of young fire services recruits, through hard-nosed drills designed to toughen their skin.

Practice burns of decrepit buildings were the norm, and cub firefighters would be garbed up and assembled in a room that would then be set ablaze. Sometimes, the room was torched before the firefighters were even ready; Arnie Jackson was ready, and that meant it was time to start. The flames rose, smoke filled the room, but as Hannon tells it, the water didn’t flow until Jackson decided it was time for that, too.

Firefighters: “Can we extinguish it yet?”

Jackson: “No, not yet.”

Firefighters: “It’s getting pretty hot in here...”

Jackson: “No, not yet.”

“We’d be kissing the ground and getting as low as we could, and he’d be sitting up there with his helmet melting,” Hannon recalls. “Finally he’d say, ‘okay, go ahead.’”

Gruff. But at the end of the day, Arnie would put his army up against any other firefighters in the department. The island was the safer for it.

Arnie Jackson died Jan. 2 at age 72. Services will be at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Madison Avenue fire hall, and the family asks that memorial donations be made to the Bainbridge Island Firefighters Association, and the department with which he was affiliated for 48 years.

Pause for a moment to consider that legacy. In our lifetimes, how many of us will devote 48 years to anything? A few marriages will be so blessed as to survive that long; most careers won’t come close, as we change professions midlife or hit retirement age long before. Tastes change, and avocations; most of us won’t even spend 48 years in the same community, let alone in community service.

Jackson ran a repair shop at his home in Eagledale, and served as caretaker at the historic Port Blakely Cemetery up the road. He was also a longtime coordinator of the Grand Old Fourth parade in Winslow. But it’s his career as a fire volunteer for which he will be best remembered. After he was past the age to be hauling hoses up ladders or into blazing buildings, Jackson prided himself on his role as “water boss,” managing the flow from the trucks as others battled blazes on the front lines. He stopped responding to incidents seven or eight years ago, but was still involved with equipment purchases and facilities development. For years he championed purchase of an aerial ladder truck, anticipating the day when downtown Winslow would be growing more up than out. The aparatus went into service in 2002, with “Arnie Jackson” emblazoned on its doors.

And he was, colleagues say, more bark than bite.

“It didn’t matter what situation you were in,” said Hannon, the Arnie’s Army veteran whose tenure with the fire department is a relatively modest 31 years. “It could be a sit-down formal situation, but he was still Arnie Jackson, rough and gruff. But if somebody came for his help, he’d drop a hat and he’d help them.”

We spent a lot of time in this community dwelling on change. Arnie Jackson’s legacy reminds us of the constants, and the degree to which we can define them ourselves.

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