Organizers ostensibly billed their June 29 event as an open house to highlight services offered by and renovations to the Bono Volunteer Fire Department. The open house went as planned, with the addition of a surprise aspect known to everybody but Fire Chief Ralph Vaquera.
“I got there and there were a lot of people, people from the department and other departments around,” Vaquera said. “But there were a lot of my kinfolks there too, and I was thinking what are they doing here? How the hell did they know about our open house? But I just thought maybe my wife told them about it or something.
“There was even an old high school buddy I hadn’t seen in 42, 43 years. He told me at first he’d seen the open house announcement on Bono’s Facebook page.”
Bono firefighters and board members did want to hold an open house for the community, but they also wanted surprise Vaquera and honor his 30 years of service with the department.
Cleburne Assistant Fire Chief Keith Scarbrough — who served as a BVFD volunteer before hiring on at CFD, and still runs calls with the department in his free time — was among the 150 or so attendees that night, and in on the secret.
“It’s funny,” Scarbrough said. “We showed Ralph the invitations for the open house for him to approve. What we didn’t show him is that we put another card in with the regular invitations we sent out. That card said, ‘Shhh. This is a surprise party for Ralph’s 30th anniversary.’”
Scarbrough said Bono firefighters began planning the surprise about six weeks beforehand.
“We all got a kick out of this,” BVFD Assistant Chief Eddie Pahl said. “The board had pushed for holding the open house and Ralph was up at the station every day about a week before cleaning up and getting everything ready for that. We were all trying not to laugh because basically he was getting everything ready for his own party, but we couldn’t tell him that.”
Vaquera said Friday that he’s still not sure whether his fellow firefighters remembered it was his 30th anniversary with the department.
“I know last April I was up there and mentioned to someone that I just realized it was a couple of days after when I started, the first Tuesday in April of ‘83, which I hadn’t even realized until I looked at the calendar,” Vaquera said.
Vaquera moved to Bono in 1982 and officially joined the department, which founded in 1978, a year later. He served as chief through 1986 at which point he said he was happy to hand the job off to someone else. Apparently he missed it, however, as he resumed the post in 2000 and has remained in place since.
Vaquera laughed and said he’s seen a lot of change over the years from the days before 911 when the separate departments had their own telephone numbers. He remembers the department’s first truck, basically a Jeep with a water tank, and the days of holding dances to raise money for another truck.
“We were professional beggars back then,” Vaquera joked. “Going around the county getting donations wherever we could.”
Vaquera said it’s been sad to see the dairies around Bono disappear.
“The West Dairy is the only one still operating,” Vaquera said.
But he’s also proud of the growth and progress of his department over the years, growing from about eight volunteers when he started to about 20 now, in addition to several expansions and renovations through the years.
Plans to surprise Vaquera went off without a hitch, Scarbrough said.
“He was looking around amazed to see so many people there,” Scarbrough said. “But Bono had never done an open house before so I guess he didn’t know what to expect and just thought all the people showed up to see all the work done at the station.”
Vaquera said he was promoting just that early on in the evening.
“They just told me earlier we have to have this open house,” Vaquera said. “So I was doing that, just showing some of the people there our trucks and equipment. The next thing, they yank me up front and that’s how I found out about it.
“It was a surprise, but I appreciate it and was touched. Hard to believe I’ve been doing this this long. There’s not too many of us dinosaurs left around.”
Vaquera said he plans to stick around for a while.
“I guess I might as well,” Vaquera said. “It’d be nice if we had more people to draw volunteers from, but we don’t have that luxury.”
Pahl joked that he and fellow firefighters don’t plan to let Vaquera retire anytime soon.
“He’s always saying he’s going to retire as soon as we get caught up on projects,” Pahl said. “So we’re always coming up with more projects for that list so he can’t retire. Ralph’s one of the founding fathers of the department and we’re going to keep him around another 30 years if we can.”