Person of the Week
Adrian Bassett Shares Stories from the Last 100 Years
Adrian Bassett is a 100-year old Madison resident who served as chief of the Madison Fire Department. Adie, as everyone calls him, still does his own grocery shopping, mows his own yard, and recalls world events with vivid detail. (Photo courtesy of Clay Bassett )
When Adrian Bassett was born, the League of Nations was just in its infancy. Its successor, the United Nations, was still a few years away from being created.
In the United States, mass production of the Ford Model T was in full swing. The price of silver reached a record $1.37 an ounce. And the New York Yankees announced that it had acquired George Herman “Babe” Ruth from the Boston Red Sox for the sum of $125,000.
All of these were events that took place in 1920, the year Adrian was born.
Last Aug. 13, Adrian—or Adie, as he is known to everyone—celebrated his 100th birthday.
Despite the pandemic, family and friends found a way to commemorate his birthday with a motorcade that included several fire vehicles and at least 50 current and former Madison firefighters stopping by to pay tribute to a former fire chief. The Madison Fire Department was happy to honor one of its own.
With his keen memory, Adie recalls events and details with clarity and accuracy.
He remembers the early days of firefighting when the only way to know the location of a fire was to listen to the giant air horns blast in Morse code the part of town that had the fire.
Then came the Plectron, a single-channel radio receiver named after the company that made it. It was used to activate emergency response personnel and every firefighter had one at home and place of work. When it sounded the alarm for a fire, a dispatcher relayed the location over the speaker and off the fireman would go.
In the summer, Adie would keep one of his convertible cars with the top down and leave the key in the ignition. When the alarm sounded for a fire, he would jump over the car door and, almost before hitting the seat, the engine was running and in gear.
He served as a Madison firefighter for more than 20 years and retired when he was in his mid-50s. His service spanned from 1952 to 1974 as an active member; from 1974 to the present, he has retained exempt status.
Following his professional retirement, Adie and Marie, his wife of 77 years, spent winters in Florida and returned to Madison in the summers. Today, they reside full-time in town, where Adie still does his own grocery shopping, mows his own yard, and does minor repairs on his car and around the house.
Together, they have three grown children, Clay, Leslie, and Adrienne. They also have 8 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
The couple also shares a love of music that allows them to reminisce about their favorite big jazz bands. At a young age, they would travel to New York, hire well-known professional musicians, drive them to Madison, and put them up for the weekend for parties.
Today, even though Marie is bedridden, she and Adie find themselves singing along when the jazz music starts. They would sometimes play the game Name that Tune, which often ends up in a draw.
Adie can also recall with vivid detail some of his experiences that were part of world events.
He talks about a sight he beheld as a teenager that today is etched in his memory: the awe-inspiring Hindenburg flying over the Connecticut coast. The dirigible was known to have flown over New England on a number of occasions and on the day that he saw it, he was at Hammonasset Beach State Park. It was flying at a low altitude, he says, and that “it literally darkened the skies.”
The dirigible was on its way to the Naval Air Station in Lakehurst, New Jersey, where it normally docked. It was there when, on May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg caught fire and was destroyed while it was attempting to dock; the disaster, which resulted in 36 fatalities, was captured on film for a newsreel.
Because of a back injury he sustained from a car accident at the age of 17, Adie was unable to serve abroad during World War II, but he did serve in the U.S. Army as a guard on domestic prisoner trains.
He remembers that many of the prisoners from overseas were transported to Staten Island. Trains then took prisoners to camps in different states across the country.
On one trip taking German prisoners to Utah, Adie recalls talking to an English-speaking sergeant who asked him what city they were passing.
Adie responded, “That’s New York City.” The officer was surprised and answered, “Oh no, it’s not. We have leveled New York City!”
He corrected the German officer, “That’s propaganda from your High Command. What you’re looking at is New York City.”
Adie also remembers how during the war, Marie had regular shifts looking for enemy aircraft from a tower in Killingworth. She and another individual would climb the tower ladder and constantly search the horizon. There were other such towers along the coast. People at the time were not allowed to use cars after dark; the intention was to keep the landscape dark to deprive enemy aircraft of any visual guidance.
It was also a time when gasoline was rationed and the only way to purchase it was by using coupons; once the coupons were used up, car owners had to wait until the next month to get gas.
Many people feared the war but there was also palpable dread over a disease much like COVID-19. Polio could affect lungs and motor skills, and its method of transmission was unknown at the time. The symptoms were frightening, but people had to continue with their normal lives.
In the mid-1950s, Jonas Salk developed a vaccine and soon, both polio cases and the fear of the disease subsided.
It was also in the 1950s when Adie was asked to drive the town’s ambulance. Having owned and raced a stock car, he felt he could do it.
“It was a brand new ’52 Pontiac. It was a real nice ambulance,” he says. “My first call was at Hammonasset State Park. When I got there, it was a woman in a two-man pup tent having a problem with childbirth.”
Back then, the ambulance had a driver but no other emergency personnel with him.
“We finally got her in the ambulance and I drove like the hammers of hell to Middlesex Hospital. She and the baby survived,” he recalls. “I drove back to Madison, parked the ambulance, and never went out again. It was horrible. I couldn’t deal with it!”
Owning and managing a gas station was also part of Adie’s professional life. He explains that times were tough after the war and many customers purchased $1 or $2 worth of gas, which would last a week. In those days, there weren’t many car owners who filled their tanks with gas.
Drivers didn’t pump their own gas. Rather, an attendant served the customers, the windshield and rear window were cleaned, the oil and coolant checked, and tires and lights were inspected.
He adds, “During hurricanes, my station was one of the few places pumping gas. There were no portable generators then, but with a little Yankee ingenuity, we adapted a lawn mower engine to run the gas pump.”
Aside from his resourcefulness, Adie is known for his integrity and sense of duty.
When he had his snow plowing business, it would sometimes require him and those he employed to work 36 hours nonstop.
“I have contracted with all these customers to have their driveways cleaned so they can get out. I made a commitment. We have to do whatever it takes to get this done in a timely fashion,” Adie recalls.
His son, Clay, explains, “There is no gray with my father, only black and white—you make a promise and you keep it. If someone says they’ll be there at 7 [a.m.], they better be there—whether [it’s] one of his kids, an employee, or a customer. There’s no difference. There are no excuses, no ‘positioning’ or ‘spinning.’”
And yes, it is this unshakable sense of moral duty that stirs him to do the right thing, even to this day.
Recalling a short conversation with his dad after the birthday motorcade ended, Clay says, “I said to him ‘You know you should send a letter to the fire department thanking those guys.’ Dad said, ‘No, I’m going to go down to the next monthly meeting and thank them properly.’ I said, ‘Do you think you can get up those two flights of stairs? They’re pretty steep.’ [He replied,] ‘Yeah, I think I can do it. I’ll just have to be a little slower about it.’”
And, as always, he did it. It was the right thing to do.”
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