At Cross Creek station, she's like 'one of the guys'


At a church food drive in February, Vickie May and Bill Jones, her father, distribute donated goods into boxes to hand out to the community. (Matthew Riva/Correspondent)

Published: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 5:25 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 5:25 p.m.

Cross Creek is not a very big town. And Vickie May isn't a very big person.

Among everything else you could find tucked away in cubby holes and behind seats in Fire Station 31, she says her heavy-duty “bunker gear,” worn when rushing to car accidents or to fight a fire, weighs more than she does.

But of the 11 people on the roster of the Cross Creek Volunteer Fire Department, five of whom have day jobs, she is the only woman.

About 200 paces west-northwest of her full-time job as Cross Creek's 1st assistant fire chief, May, 46, lives with her large family on a dirt road.

It's two minutes from the firehouse — a short distance that forces May to walk the line between firefighter and her other full-time job: being a mom and girlfriend.

“(Other people) don't understand exactly what it takes to keep a fire department up and running,” she said, “But our job and home life come first.”

May said she waitressed for 25 years before getting — in her words — burned out. Watching a friend's house burn down about three years ago inspired her to try firefighting.

“(After that) my dad was talking about needing volunteers down at the station and I said I wouldn't mind volunteering. He said, ‘Show up at the fire station on Monday.' ”

That was about two and a half years ago. She became assistant chief six months after that. But despite her brief career as a first responder, May feels right at home at the firehouse.

“Like (another firefighter) Francisco's fiancée says, ‘when Vickie's at the station, she's one of the guys,' ” May said.

Going home for the day doesn't mean taking the phone off the hook.

During dinner. In the shower. Outside chopping up a tree. A call can come in at any time.

One day, May said, she and her then-13-year-old daughter, Emily, were headed to Ocala for a day of shopping. About six miles from her home, her pager went off.

So instead of a mom-daughter day, May veered right on County Road 325 and dropped her daughter off at the fire station while she switched into one of the trucks.

“She just stayed there with the ladies of the station and made sandwiches,” May said. “I got stuck in the muck.”

May and her dad, Bill Jones, both dedicate time to the firehouse. So do two generations of another family, the Harrises. The fire department is, in some respects, a family business.

“I feel guilty when I go out of town ‘cause I don't want my dad to have to go out on a major call all by his self,” May said.

But when they are working around the firehouse, it operates like the town watering hole. Stopping by might snag you some fresh venison jerky or save you a trip to the dump. Or it might help save your soul — the Baptist church is just next door.

Yet sometimes days pass that May is on duty when she said it feels like someone took the batteries out of the clock. Sometimes she'll stay busy by working on the building or cleaning up, but even if they were a fully staffed and paid fire department, May is sure the number of calls wouldn't go up.

Moving fast isn't really the Cross Creek way of doing things.

One day, while checking out a controlled burn on a dirt road that slowly winds toward Hawthorne, she said, “even out in the middle of nowhere, we got our own middle of nowhere.”

After all, Cross Creek only has one road in and out. But still she said she has an obligation to be there and be ready.

“My daughter wants me to go help out with the (cheerleading) squad, and I told her, ‘I just can't commit to that,' ” she said. “I can't say I'm gonna be there from 4 to 8 on a day when there's a house fire going on.”

So she sits in the station garage, enjoying the mild weather with her feet up against Engine 31, playing games on her phone until it rings or the pager goes off. She eventually looks at the time. 3:50 p.m.

“Close enough. Time to go home.”

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