The Patchogue firefighters realized a proud era for their Forty Thieves drill team and the department as a whole was coming to an end when the village removed the metal guardrails from their track along Rider Avenue.
The guardrails are a requirement in firematic racing.
Three decades ago, Coach Jake Parris, the architect of the Forty Thieves dynasty years — from the late 1970s well into the 1980s — had secured the rails from Brookhaven Town.
Parris even somehow got the town to install the rails, the firefighters recalled proudly.
This was back around the time the Forty Thieves were shattering state records and appearing in national television commercials — one for AT&T and another for Old Milwaukee Light — wearing their widely recognized prison-striped uniforms.
This was also back when over 2,000 people used to grab a bleacher seat down by the water to watch Patchogue’s Forty Thieves dominate their firefighter counterparts each June.
In Patchogue and elsewhere, the team won 27 sanctioned tournaments in a row, from 1981 to 1984.
That’s a New York State record that the firefighters of Van Guard Hose Company — the Forty Thieves’ home base — all objectively agree will likely never be broken. The previous record was nine. No has cracked 10-in-a-row since, they said.
The Forty Thieves were crowned state champs in 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1988, and 1991.
“When those guardrails were taken down, that was the first shoe to drop,” said Tim Bigotti, 50, who joined the department in 1984 and is a former longtime Forty Thieves team member.
The second shoe will drop soon enough — when Patchogue Village, which controls Waldbauer/Rider Avenue Park, removes the aged wooden archway that spans the existing track inside the park.
An arch is a necessary component to the competitions, during which teams of firefighters seemingly defy gravity as they fling ladders and fly up and down the arch on foot — not touching any rungs.
Can’t picture it? Check out this video.
The arch in the park has also served as a memorial to Robert Cushing, an 18-year-old Patchogue volunteer firefighter and drill team member who was killed after he lost his grip on a truck and was struck by a tire during practice in 1988.
Cushing, the youngest of six children, had been a junior firefighter since he was 10 years old.
“That’s why we were so adamant about trying to hold onto [the arch],” Bigotti explained. “For Robert.”
“And because this had been such a passion here, from 1978 to 2007,” Bigotti continued. “Boy, the people who would come out…”
The length of Rider Avenue would be closed to traffic, with firetrucks lining the street.
Out in the fields to the east of the racetrack, that’s where as many as 40 teams would set up camp for the day, the firefighters explained during interviews and a trip to the park Sunday morning.
Through the sea of people one voice could be heard incessantly — that of race announcer Bill Rowse.
Rowse is a Patchogue firefighter and ex-chief of department who, as legend has it, could effectively announce a drill competition without fancy electronic amplification, if needed
Rowse started announcing in 1980.
Because he was loud and still is.
“They put me right into it,” Rowse said. “I had the voice.”
Today his “voice of New York” is familiar to firematic drill team members across the state.
Even his brother, who lives in upstate East Greenburgh and who has a similar voice as brothers often do, gets stopped sometimes and asked, “Are you Bill Rowse’s brother?”
“I’ve been all over the state with it,” said Rowse, who still announces.
an arch without a team
The arch has gone unused for almost a decade. During that time it had taken a severe beating from Sandy and other storms.
The reason it has gone unused, is because the Forty Thieves went dormant — something that began with a dispute between the team and the competitions’ governing body that resulted in litigation and, ultimately, a five-year suspension for the Forty Thieves that began in 2008.
When the suspension was lifted after the 2012 racing season, no one was still around who was capable and willing to compete.
Being a Forty Thieves member is a huge committment, the firefighters explained. It involves not only training and traveling to compete, but time-consuming fundraising. Unlike in many departments, the men explained, the Patchogue team never used taxpayer money.
Since the Forty Thieves had been on hiatus and stopped using the site, the Patchogue Village park lost its grandfathered-in status that allowed it to host drill team competitions, despite a shorter-than-mandated track.
Today the track couldn’t be used at all for racing, not without a host of pricey, unrealistic upgrades.
Still, the firefighters wanted to save the arch, mostly for Robert but also as a testament to the village’s history — of which the Forty Thieves team, founded in 1914, has played a large part.
“The [fire] district had looked into ways of repairing it, or the possibility of rebuilding it, but monetarily it was just not feasible,” said Zibrim Banse, a fire district commissioner. “We had engineering reports done in the fall. And if you were looking at tearing it down and rebuilding it to today’s requirements, it would be about $80,000.”
To which Bigotti added:
“You can’t really justify spending $80,000 to put an arch up when there is no drill team.”
When news broke that the village had received $5 million from a benefactor to renovate the village’s parks, the firefighters knew there was no way any arch was going to be left standing in the park.
But Bigotti did say it’s everyone’s hope the team gets back together.
If that happens, the Patchogue firefighters could host a competition, but it would have to be at Brookhaven Town’s track up in Ridge, or elsewhere.
Meanwhile, village officials are sympathetic to the fire department and the Cushing family, the firefighters said.
“They have come up with a plan so we can do a memorial,” Banse said.
never to be forgotten
Lonny Lettieri, 68, was alongside his brother-in-law Robert Cushing the day he died. Robert’s brothers were also on the drill team and practicing with their competition car.
They each had different roles to play as they mounted the car that hot evening on July 6, 1988, in the village’s highway department yard property off Waverly Avenue.
At some point, Robert Cushing lost his grip and fell; his head and neck was struck by a rear tire.
“I dove on top of him,” recalled Lettieri, who knew Robert had been killed instantly. “There were a lot of kids there, there must have been a hundred people watching. Joseph [Cushing] started coming over and I put my hand up and said, ‘He’s dead.’
“I remember saying that to him.”
Safeguards have since been put in place to prevent a similar accident from happening again.
Today there’s a prominent dedication to Robert Cushing at the Van Guard Hose Company on Park Street, with a black-and-white photo of the young man clutching his beloved dalmatian, Jake. There’s also a plaque on the wooden arch.
Aside from being a devoted son, brother and uncle, Robert had worked at Lal’s radiator shop in the village, and he had a passion for the craft he was honing, the men said Sunday morning.
He and the other firefighters said it was Robert’s dream to open his own repair shop one day.
“I still got all his tools in the garage,” Lettieri said.
In his honor, the village is setting aside space for a memorial park south of the racetrack.
“It’s going to be a space you can walk into,” said Dennis Smith, the village’s special projects coordinator who’s administrating the park’s overhaul. “There will be some benches if you want to reflect if you choose. It will be a neat, quiet space and it will be nicely done.”
The monument itself, according to plans that are currently being drawn up, will be a small, three- or four-foot drill team racing arch replica with one column in memory of Robert Cushing and the other column dedicated to the storied Forty Thieves team.
One thing the firefighters — and Robert’s sister, Grace Lettieri, who had pushed to preserve the wooden arch — eventually realized was that any rebuilt arch would need to come down too, be it 20 or 30 years from now.
And at that point, who might be around to properly honor Robert?
“Now this is a permanent memorial, and it’s one that will far outlive us,” Smith said.
Top photo: The Forty Thieves compete in Central Islip, likely in 1979. (courtesy)
Middle: The aged arch and Cushing plaque in Waldbauer Park along Rider Avenue. (Michael White)
Bottom: A photo of Robert Cushing in the Van Guard display case. (MIchael White)