By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Hey, what are you driving these days?
A sedan, maybe? An SUV? A convertible, perhaps?
Ask Sea Isle City resident Lou Minchelli that question and you’ll probably be stunned by his answer.
Think big, shiny and red. With sirens and flashing lights, too.
The retired New York City firefighter owns a 1975 Mack CF-600 fire truck that was given to him by his sons, Joey and Michael, for his 90th birthday.
“Every pump, everything else on it works perfectly,” Minchelli explained in an interview Thursday. “This thing could be put into use at a fire today and it would work perfectly.”
Minchelli served as a New York City firefighter from 1960 to 1982, rising to the rank of lieutenant. He rode on a lot of fire trucks during his career, but never owned one – until now.
During his 90th birthday celebration lunch at the La Fontana Coast restaurant in Sea Isle on March 14, Minchelli and his guests were asked to step outside on the sidewalk.
His son, Michael, announced to everyone that a surprise was in store. Right about that time, sirens were heard on Landis Avenue and the fire truck pulled up to the restaurant behind a police escort.
“My jaw dropped when I saw it,” Minchelli said.
There was another big surprise. Arriving with the fire truck were six retired firefighters who had served with Minchelli years earlier.
“I hadn’t seen these guys for 30 years,” Minchelli said.
His sons bought the fire truck from the town of Hope, Pa. The 45-year-old truck originally had a dull red coat of paint on it, but his sons had it restored to like-new condition. His son Joey’s wife, Karen, also gave Minchelli the truck.
Astonished by his birthday present, Minchelli said he couldn’t resist asking his sons how much they paid to buy the fire truck.
“This is what they told me. ‘Dad, that was a very inappropriate question,’” he recalled with a laugh.
The truck is adorned with personal touches reflecting Minchelli’s firefighting career, including the words “Lt. Lou Minchelli” painted in gold letters.
Resplendent in brilliant red paint, it now carries the name of the New York City Fire Department and also includes the numbers of the four fire companies that Minchelli served with in different parts of the city.
Perhaps most dramatically, the truck has been patriotically decorated with an artistic emblem of the American flag, a bald eagle and the words “Never Forget” in remembrance of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Altogether, about 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks. Many of them were New York firefighters and police officers.
Before his firefighting career, Minchelli served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. After his retirement from the NYFD in 1982, he and his wife, Dolly, made their home in Sea Isle.
His family has deep roots in the resort town. His father-in-law, Sam Conti, moved to Sea Isle in 1948 and was a local barber until he died in 1981.
Minchelli is a member of the Sea Isle City AARP Chapter 710.
In addition to his sons, Michael and Joey, Minchelli has two daughters, Andrea Freda and Mary Varacalli.
Minchelli lives on 50th Street in Sea Isle, but don’t expect to see the big fire truck parked in his driveway. For now, it is stored in a pole barn at his son Joey’s house in Cape May Court House.
The next time the fire truck is scheduled to appear in public in Sea Isle is the first weekend after Labor Day at the Italian-American Club, on John F. Kennedy Boulevard, as part of a hotdog giveaway and picture-taking event. It is tentatively scheduled to be there either Saturday, Sept. 12, or Sunday, Sept. 13, Minchelli said.