Tisbury’s Legion Pumper figures in a Christmas story

This year, as he has for many decades, Santa Claus got a ride to Vineyard Haven aboard the Legion Pumper. — Photo by Kathy Retmier

It is the kind of Christmas story you never forget, the kind of story that makes you laugh like Santa Claus with every retelling, years and years later. It’s the kind of story that makes you glad to live in a small town where you know your neighbors, and good cheer is the order of every season.

For many Vineyard Haven children, Santa didn’t come secretly at night in a sleigh and slip down the chimney. He came right up to the front door on Tisbury’s Legion Pumper, a big fire truck with lights flashing and sirens wailing. That Santa, he’s a mysterious guy.

When Island native Nick Townes was a boy of four, he saw Santa’s fire truck pull up to his grandparents’ house on Bernard Circle. He bolted from his waiting perch at the top of the stairs… well, like he was on his way to a fire.

The front door opened, and there stood Santa with his fluffy white beard and his red suit. Beside him were merry elves holding Nick’s Christmas present.

At the landing halfway down the stairs, the youthful exuberance of the Christmas season grabbed the boy. Young Nick took a flying leap out the door and landed in the arms of a very surprised Mr. Claus.

“This kid came flying out of the house and flew in my arms,” Mr. Claus said this week as he remembered the story. “He just flew. It’s a good thing I caught him.”

His grandmother, Marion MacKay, still lives in the house, and the story brings a smile to her face and a lightness to her Scottish brogue.

“If Santa hadn’t caught him, he would have been gone,” she said. “It was quite funny. Everybody just stood there with their mouth open.”

Company line

The Legion Pumper began its long history as the focus of a fire company at American Legion Post 257 in Vineyard Haven. Veterans who belonged to the post made up the entire company.

World War I veterans formed the company. When they retired, World War II contributed a new generation of volunteer firefighters.

“I was on the Legion Pumper for 40 years,” Eddie Colligan said. Mr. Colligan is now the commander of the American Legion Post. He served for many years as the captain, and always played a leading role in the company’s Christmas activities. Mr. Colligan retired from firefighting in 1981.

In recent decades, fewer and fewer men were able to serve on the Legion Pumper.

“I was the last one to leave as a Legionnaire,” he said.

The post had a strong desire to keep the traditions alive, so they invited others to join the company. But first, they went to town meeting with a special request. Voters overwhelmingly approved a measure ensuring the truck would always be called the Legion Pumper.

Among the first non-Legionnaires to volunteer was John Schilling, who rose through the ranks to become captain of the company and served in that job until selectmen appointed him fire chief, his job today. Right beside him was Nicky Fullin, who has been the captain of the Legion Pumper company for the past eight years.

Christmas has always been a big deal for the company. Mr. Colligan remembers one time when the company took Mr. Claus around to deliver presents, but had to interrupt the holiday festivities to respond to a fire alarm. Mr. Claus sat in the truck while the company fought a fire just down the street from where they were delivering presents.

“It was just a car fire,” Mr. Colligan said. “It wasn’t that bad, it was no problem. All we needed was one truck.”

To this day, the Legion Pumper sponsors a big Christmas celebration for kids of all ages at the firehouse in Vineyard Haven.

Tree time

This time of year, the Legion Pumper company is familiar to many for its Christmas tree lot on Beach Road in Vineyard Haven.

The company began the tradition in the 1950s, selling trees to merchants along Main Street. “We used to put holes in the sidewalk and put the trees in and light them,” Mr. Colligan said. “Each person that owned a store would buy one.”

Then they began selling trees to the public. His memory of the tree sale meanders along a short trail of local history.

“It started on Main Street,” Mr. Colligan said. “It used to be a taxi stand. We moved down to where the post office is now. It was the First National Store. We went from there down to Hinckley’s.”

Now, Capt. Fullin helps organize the sale each year, with the help of many local organizations.

It starts with the Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, which lends money on generous terms to purchase the trees. It continues with John Keene, a local excavation and trucking contractor. He donates a truck and a driver. While most of us are sleeping off a turkey dinner or lying on the couch watching football, the driver and Legion Pumper volunteer Darren Welch make their annual trek north.

“The two of them take off on Thanksgiving afternoon, and return the next evening,” Capt. Fullin said. “We start selling trees that weekend.”

In past years, the company picked up 400 trees from a grower in Sutton, Vermont, 272 miles away in the heart of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom.

More recently, while the Sutton grower’s latest crop grows to Christmas tree size, the Island volunteers traveled all the way to Canada for the holiday cargo.

Over the years, the Legion Pumper company has donated a sizable portion of the proceeds from the sale of trees to local charities, including the Red Stocking Fund, and for an annual Island trip for kids with muscular dystrophy.Some went for equipment to help fight fires, including protective clothing for firefighters, in the day when the town supplied only helmets and boots. Some went to uniforms and jackets that reflect its members’ pride in the company.

And that four-year-old who flew out the door into Santa’s arms? Nick Townes is 24 now. He still lives and works on the Island. Like dozens of kids over the decades, he carries a cherished memory of the Legion Pumper pulling up to his door.

Mr. Claus still marvels at his luck in catching the excited boy that evening.