Patches of the world

Benny Westcott

In his 50-plus years as a volunteer firefighter with the Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District, Dave Trask, who retired in March, responded to 19,351 fire calls and 11,700 rescue and emergency medical services calls. Nice, solid figures.

But ask him exactly how many patches he’s collected from fire departments around the country and world, and he’s stumped.

Whatever the number, it’s enough to fill an entire wall – and nearly all of a second – at Main Station No. 21.

These patches, which bear unique, locale-specific designs, are typically pinned to the shoulder of a firefighter’s uniform. But alone, they comprise an ongoing work of art, and Trask has been collecting them for 30 years, adding more and more color to the station’s vibrant display.

He started the hobby during his stint as president of the Sweet Home Volunteer Firefighter Association, although back then, he was amassing another accoutrement: hats.

“I got 20 hats, and I’m thinking, ‘What the heck am I going to do with them?'” Trask recalled. “So, then I started trading them for these.”

Since then, he’s taken Sweet Home badges on every trip, looking to trade with other departments. Some 36 journeys later, he has them from all over the U.S., plus half a dozen from other places like Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, Australia and New Zealand.

“There are some that are really, really cool,” Trask said. “I enjoy doing it. It’s fun. There’s a lot of them from Oregon, but there’s a lot from out of town too.”

A couple came from 16-year-old James Swanson, a former Sweet Home resident (where he was a well-known figure to firefighters) who now lives in the Philippines.

Swanson was able to trade a Sweet Home patch at the station in Mindoro, an island off the mainland where he lives. Firefighters there literally ripped the patches from their uniforms to give him to bring to Sweet Home last summer, he said.

Initially, Trask paid for patches. But when they became too expensive, the volunteer association absorbed the cost. These days he enjoys visiting new stations and speaking with people. If, when he stops in, they have no badges on hand to trade, he gives them his card with his address.

During his travels, he’s learned that departments everywhere face similar problems.

“It’s funny, especially when you go to smaller places, they have the same issues that we have,” he said. “No money, blah, blah, blah; their engine is 50 years old – those kinds of things.”

He’s gotten some patches from other people, including another Dave Trask: his son, who lives in Florida and has aided with transportation a time or two.

“He lets me use his car, and I drive around and get lost,” the elder Trask admitted. “But I like doing it.”

Trask recalled that his biggest haul came around the year 2000, when he and one of his best friends, the late Ken Roberts, ventured to four or five states for major-league baseball games. They snagged about 10 patches then. A Missouri native, he also remembered a St. Louis trip where he sat in the fire chief’s office and received three or four patches and a shirt.

Sweet Home Fire Chief Nick Tyler is a patch fan, too. He keeps a couple on hand, as well as his challenge coins, throughout the summer in case people want to trade. He noted what a department’s patch means.

“It’s the identity,” he said. “People are pretty proud.”

Last year, the SHFAD adopted its current design, which is heavy on American-flag imagery – something Tyler likes – and includes the year that the Sweet Home Fire Department was established, 1938. Its predecessor, which the chief himself wore as a Sweet Home firefighter in 2001, featured mountains, trees, a lake and a covered bridge.

“Our older patch was very cool,” Tyler said. “It was very symbolic with the covered bridge and everything.”

Trask noted that not all fire departments have patch collections. Some, however, do. Rather impressive ones, in fact. He credits Wilsonville with the largest he’s seen. (Tyler, on the other hand, gives that distinction to Sweet Home.)

“Mine is not as big as some that I know,” he said.

Although his collection may be dwarfed by others, Trask’s is still growing. Another 10 or so patches sit at his house, ready to adorn that second main-station wall.

“I’ve probably got enough to finish this one off, or darn close to it,” he said, examining the relatively small area of empty available space.

These patches remain his only collectible. As he said, “This is enough.”

Yet, in a way, it’s not enough, as he doesn’t plan on stopping.

“I’ll keep doing them until whenever,” he said.