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New London, P.E.I. man in his 90s buys two tanker trucks for fire department

Arthur Johnston, centre, among members of the New London Fire Company following a recent gathering where he saw the two new-to-them truck his donation to the company paid for. Millicent McKay/Journal Pioneer
Arthur Johnston, centre, among members of the New London Fire Company following a recent gathering where he saw the two new-to-them truck his donation to the company paid for. Millicent McKay/Journal Pioneer - Millicent McKay

Even in his 90s, Arthur Johnston vividly remembers the helpless feeling he was left with when, as a child, he watched three major fires destroy homes and lives in his rural Island village. 

"The first fire was in 1925 - it was before I can remember, but we lost a barn in Long River," Johnston recently told an audience of New London Fire Company members. 

"I remember Alma Paynter, how upset she was that we lost the barn," he said, then looking up to one of the members of the company, Capt. Carol Henderson. 

"That was my grandmother," she said with a chuckle. 

The fire company had gathered to hear Johnston tell his story and to celebrate his recent contribution that allowed them to purchase two 'new-to-them' tanker trucks.

The two trucks, with a price tag of about $70,000 – following necessary changes to meet the department's needs, are 1999 models. 

One 2,500 gallon tanker cost $30,000 and was purchased from a municipality in Quebec, while the second, coming from Ontario, cost $24,500. 

"It certainly brought us into a lot better position," said John MacIssac, the fire company's health and safety officer. 

Memorable fires

"The second fire I attended, there was an old crank telephone on the wall. That had this long, long continuous ring that would identify the problem," said Johnston.

The property was across the road from where he grew up. 

"There were three barns," he said, pointing to three different spots on the ground with his black cane. 

"Sheep," tap; "cattle," tap; "and horse," tap. 

"We got word at 4 a.m. My dad and two hired men lashed two ladders together and took off with it on the roof of the car."

By the time they arrived, the barns had been destroyed or badly damaged. But there was still the chance to save the house. 

"Being the good little boy I was I didn't listen to my dad and ran over to the fire as fast as I could. The helpless feeling I had, even as a young boy, I can picture it as clearly as I can see in front of me now."

The third fire resulted in a fatality following an explosion in a house. 

"All of this happened before I was 10 years old. It made quite an impression on me." 

Another fire he tried to fight was on Graham's Road.

"The barn was lost, but the house would be saved. But on this day was the big horse races in New Annan, and nobody was around to help with the fire."

Johnston recalled loading up a truck with buckets of water and heading toward the fire. Thankfully, a barn being built nearby had a water source allowing them to continuously dowse the flames. 

"Those hardships and helplessness of it was something you'd cry about. The work you folks do to train and get the right equipment..." Johnston said trailing off. 

Striking a deal

When MacIsaac told Johnston about the need for two tanker trucks in a casual conversation, he never thought it would mean Johnston would end up being the one purchasing them. 

"We've been friends for a while now. He asked if we had any upcoming projects and I mentioned the next fundraising project would be to help fund two tanker trucks."

In response, Johnston inquired about donating to help with the initiative. 

Then a couple of days later, he told MacIsaac he made a decision. 

"He wanted to provide us with several stock shares he had as his donation. To accept them, we had to change the level of our charitable status. Once we upped our status, we were able to accept the shares and then we purchased the trucks," explained MacIsaac. 

But Johnston wasn't finished.

"Was it enough to purchase the trucks?" Johnston asked MacIsaac. 

"It basically covered the cost," MacIsaac said. 

"Basically isn't enough," said Johnston, who then decided to donate more to cover the full costs. 

"He wanted to be able to buy the trucks, that they would be all covered by his donation," said MacIsaac. 

He said it's pretty amazing to hear Johnston's story and a great honour to recognize all he had done for the department. 

In August, the company presented Johnston with a plaque and showed him around the two tankers. 

"I knew from the beginning I wanted to be able to do something like this," Johnston said.

But not only that, he can say those are his trucks - his name has been embossed on them. 

"We wanted it there so the generations to come, know how we got them. It speaks volumes to the community we live in and the people here," MacIsaac said. 

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