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Members of the Alexandria Fire Department Honor Guard served as pallbearers at Chris McCabe's funeral last month at St. Mary's Church. (Contributed photo courtesy of the McCabe family)

A first last call for the new honor guard

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He was always first to the fire station when the alarm would sound. Befittingly, Chris McCabe was commended for his service to the Alexandria Fire Department with its Honor Guard's first official tribute at his funeral.

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On April 2, 2012, members of the Alexandria Fire Department Honor Guard (AFDHG) stood by their brother's side as his family said goodbye and he was laid to rest at St. Mary's Cemetery in Alexandria. Two guardsmen at a time stoically held golden axes beside McCabe's casket.

"It was an honor enough to have the guard at the funeral," said Jim McCabe, Chris' son. "To have them at the church also, was something extra."

True to the AFDHG's mission, the men served with honor, respect and dignity and provided comfort and compassion to the McCabe family.

"Everyone was in tears," said granddaughter Brianna McCabe. "It was just amazing to see [the honor guard service]."

AFD'S FIRST HONOR GUARD

The Alexandria Fire Department (AFD) was founded in 1883 - 128 years later, the brotherhood formed an honor guard squad.

The AFDHG has seven members: Danny Sieve, Lieutenant Jason Schmidt, Chief Engineer QJ Warrey, Captain Joe Kuperus, Mark Erickson, Nick Koos and Kris Pierce. Aaron Zollner serves as an alternate. Fire Chief Jeff Karrow was in attendance for Chris McCabe's funeral service.

"It all goes back to respect," Karrow said.

As chief, Karrow made the call for 15 seconds of lights and wails at McCabe's funeral.

Honor guard training was held in collaboration with the Minnesota Law Enforcement Memorial Association (LEMA) at the National Guard training center at Camp Ripley.

Sieve, Schmidt, Warrey and Kuperus began training in September 2011 at the camp. The four original members have trained the others on honor guard drills and details. The group meets one Saturday each month at the station to practice. All time dedicated to the squad is voluntary.

In addition to funeral services, the honor guard also provides ceremonial details at functions. LEMA Honor Guard will be present at the Minnesota State Capitol on May 15, Police Memorial Day. The AFDHG will be wearing their fire department class A's at a parade in June.

"It's completely self-sufficient, funding comes from contributions," Karrow said.

Donations from the community are used to purchase ceremonial flags, poles and uniforms and to pay for travel and training. A separate honor guard account was created to support the AFDHG. The AFD budget does not pay for honor guard operational costs.

LEMA is the first honor guard in the nation comprised of statewide volunteer officers. To qualify for LEMA membership, full-time law enforcement officers, or firefighters, must complete a written application process, oral review, physical test and background investigation.

NO. 12'S LAST CALL

Fire truck alarms resounded through the cemetery before it was proclaimed that firefighter Number 12 would not be answering any more calls. He was called to duty one last time to the firehouse in the sky.

Retired Alexandria Firefighter Chris McCabe was dedicated - always in the right place at the right time. He lived a few blocks from the station and the shop he ran with his brother, John, McCabe Brothers Camera Shop, was near the old fire hall (where city hall is now).

Jim recalls his father donning a rugged metal helmet, No. 12, and heavy rubber coat and boots heading out to a fire. It didn't matter if there was a tornado or if it was 20-below-zero, Jim said, his dad was there.

Jim kept the helmet that was given to his mother, Bobette, at his father's funeral, dents and all. Military personnel presented Bobette with an American flag, honoring both his military service and dedication to the fire department. Chris served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and the Korean Conflict. The AFDHG stood behind Karrow as he handed Bobette Chris' helmet during his funeral ceremony.

Granddaughter Brianna remembers walking around in her grandfather's helmet as a young child. His life continues to inspire her; she is considering a future in veterinary science, sharing Chris' love of animals, or possibly firefighting herself.

"Equipment is so sophisticated now," Jim said. Back when Chris was fighting fires, the men would barnstorm into a burning building to save people and property. "It's all different now."

Modern advances, like breathing apparatuses, help prevent firefighters from being overcome with smoke these days. Even the way grass fires are exterminated has progressed. Clunky metal cans and squirt guns were used previously; now, backpacks filled with five gallons of water combined with brooms and rubber slappers help get the flames out more efficiently. Chris saw, and experienced, the evolution of firefighting equipment.

"Papa was the first to volunteer to use the cherry picker," Brianna said proudly.

When the alarm would ring downtown - a siren activated by a switch at the station - McCabe was one of the first to respond. Being first to the station meant you didn't have to hang off the back of the truck - and possibly fall off like Roy Wicken did once. Chris tried to catch him, Jim said, but missed, so the joke became that Chris pushed Wicken.

Jim said his dad was a jokester and always ready with a story to tell. Whether it was firefighter initiation involving wearing potato sacks or how he broke his collarbone in the 1970s when roaring up to the stationhouse on a motorcycle - and flying off because of a "brake malfunction," Chris always entertained.

Times were different when Chris served. When long hours were required to fight flames, auxiliary wives brought food to the scene to help keep the men going. It was a community battle.

"It's a brotherhood," Jim said. "They always helped each other out, took care of each other."

Chris served the department for 19 years from 1960 to 1979. In 1970, he co-sponsored a young firefighter named H. Dan Ness, who later became fire chief and then mayor of Alexandria.

Follow #AlexMN @EchoPress reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter at @CrystalDey_Echo.

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Crystal Dey

Crystal Dey is a staff reporter for the Echo Press. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey worked for newspapers in North Dakota, Florida and Connecticut before returning to her home state to join the Echo Press in October 2011. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Staff Reporter Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.

(320) 763-1233
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