THEY used to call him “the old smoke eater” but at 86, Paul Sperber still feels like a young man – although he may be the oldest still playing in badminton tournaments.
Mr Sperber spent 51 years as a volunteer firefighter and attended his 70th Sebastopol Fire Brigade annual general meeting this month.
He wears many hats, including motor mechanic, birdkeeper, dancer and badminton player, but his firefighting hat takes pride of place on the wall of his shed, “ready to go”.
He has a rattle in his throat from inhaling smoke, especially the smoke of green stringybark which “is like a wire brush in your windpipe”, and by his own estimates should have died five or six times.
“I remember quite a few occasions down on the ground pushing the leaves away like this and jamming your nose into the ground to try and get fresh air,” Mr Sperber said.
“A couple of times I’ve thought ‘This is it, well I’ve had my chips, but I survived just like I did many other times.”
He recalls one of his most significant fires, an LPG tanker with burning tyres and “flames licking up around the tank”.
The driver had emptied his extinguishers on it and Mr Sperber was left to face it with 110 gallons of water.
Luckily, his mate Jack Ryan came in to give him a hand with the hose and he gradually got it out.
“I said ‘Well if it blows now Jack we’re not going to know anything about it’, and he looked at me he had this funny look on his face and I wouldn’t have blamed him if he’d dropped it and run,” Mr Sperger said.
“I used to look at a fire when I pulled up and I’d think ‘bloody thing I’ll fix you’. You’d take an aggressive attitude, put it in a boxing ring and take it as an adversary in your mind.”
Mr Sperber says he is the same weight as the day he married his wife Joan 60 years ago.
“I don’t feel any different now than I did when I was 30 or 40,” he says.