W.L. “Cotton” Vaughn was an extraordinary individual who I looked up to for a very long time. I think I knew of him for many years before I actually met him and I remember well that first meeting. It was in April of 1984, the year I turned 18 years old which, coincidentally, was the year I was considered to be old enough to join the Jackson Volunteer Fire Department.
At that stage in my life I had no clue what I wanted to do or be when I finished high school. My focus then was just to get through school and figure out what would come next. I do remember there was some faint desire to get into computers, which were just then becoming available to high schools but there wasn’t any burning desire in that direction just yet.
That same week, two of my friends who also had April birthdays turned 20 years old and when I met up with them for the usual Friday night activities on the square, they told me that they had both just signed up to join the local fire department. They described the training they would get and the things that they would get to do and of course, I was immediately overtaken with the notion that I must go do the same. They told me that I had to be at least 18 and as it turned out, I was just days away from meeting that requirement. That requirement was easy; the other would not be as much. I had to first speak with the Chief.
The W.L. Vaughn that I would meet that week was not the man that I would eventually come to know. None of the great sense of humor, the hearty laugh or even the hint of a smile was present that day when I walked up to the new Jackson Fire Station. He was sitting outside on a flower planter reading the Jackson Progress-Argus through a pair of horn rimmed reading glasses, all while wearing a full dress “Ike” uniform jacket, resplendent with gold sleeve braid, gold badge and gold insignia. He looked completely intimidating as he looked up over his half glasses at me and asked “help you?”.
I remember that I introduced myself to him and he asked if I was “Jim’s boy” and I responded that I was. The rest is a bit foggy but I somehow managed to get the words out that I had heard he was looking for volunteer firemen (which we still called them then) and I was hoping to sign up as one. He asked me how old I was and I told him I would be 18 the next day. He only asked me two more questions after that; did my parents know I wanted to be a volunteer and why did I want to be. Somehow, I gave him the suitable answers he was looking for and after a decent lecture on the perils of firefighting, he decided he was willing to give me a try. I filled out the one page application, he signed it and I was ready for all the cool stuff I was supposed to get. Didn’t quite work that way, I was to find out.
I was one of many that signed up around that time. Two more friends, with birthdays in May and August signed up along with a number of others of various ages and before we got to do much of anything, we had to do a lot of training. The summer of 1984 was devoted to fire training, taught by one of his only two full time firefighters and we spent a lot of evenings and some Saturdays learning how to run a pump, handle fire hoses, work in teams, attack fires from inside with an air pack on and how to drive the fire engines through orange cones. Along the way, we got to go on a few fires here and there, riding on the tailboard of the fire engines, another thing you won’t ever see today.
Throughout the entire summer training, the Chief was always around, making sure we were doing things right and fussing at us when we didn’t. It wasn’t that we were afraid of him but more that we feared disappointing him because he really expected us to do things the right way. Looking back over three decades and trying to see things through his eyes, I understand the Chief we saw back then. Here was a man about 55 years old saddled with a bunch of green, rookie firefighters training to do battle with one of the most dangerous forces of nature and he was responsible for all of us.
I’m sure he worried somewhere in the back of his head that a day might come where he would have to explain to someone’s mama and daddy why their son didn’t come back from that one fire call that something went wrong. He and his Lieutenants knew that they had to train us right or that just might happen and it was a huge responsibility to carry. Fortunately, despite our eagerness and our propensity to occasionally screw up, not one firefighter was ever lost on Chief Vaughn’s watch.
Once we finally graduated and became “real” volunteer firefighters, he loosened up a good bit with us and we began to see the real Cotton Vaughn. He was like a father to all of us, wiling to give us needed advice on just about anything. He wasn’t elaborate in speech nor given to long winded orations but he was full of life experience, common sense and the ability to convey it in a way that you always knew where he was coming from.
He was also a great leader of men, both young and older because he knew his business and he led the way rather than directing. He had no qualms about going into a burning house if that was what needed to be done and you didn’t usually see him standing around the fire engine ordering others to go. You followed him in, you watched his back and you came safely out afterwards. In short, you respected the man who wore that gold badge and you tried to give him the best you had when the circumstances called for it. He was the Chief and you gave him nothing less.
Back then, he worked a shift just like his Lieutenants did and over the years, I always enjoyed stopping by there in the evenings and sitting on the flower planter with him and others that would stop by. The Fire Department was more than just a building that housed equipment and firefighters; it was, in many ways, a second home to many of us, giving us a place to go and hang out with our friends instead of roaming the streets of Jackson.
We helped with station duties and did whatever needed to be done but otherwise, we just enjoyed the time there, watching TV, playing cards, cooking firehouse-sized meals and running the occasional fire call that came in. This was the environment that Cotton Vaughn created and for us young people who joined up to fight fire, he gave us a sense of purpose and became for us a man whose respect we had to earn and which we strived to keep.
When he retired in 1992, the entire fire department honored him with a group portrait and a steak dinner. It was truly a sad time for us because we respected him that much. For me, however, he was always to remain a part of my life because after he retired, he started going back to church again and he became an integral part of the Jackson United Methodist Church, serving as an usher, corralling the young acolytes and making sure there candles were lit (and that they didn’t set the church on fire) and even filling in when there wasn’t an acolyte. We used to joke that the church needed to get him his own acolyte robe for such occasions.
He wasn’t given to frills or even nice things but he did afford himself one luxury in the form of his 1985 Buick LeSabre Collectors Edition (I know that is what this was because he commented on it many times. Big, blue and well cared for, his LeSabre was a source of pride to him and for a mid-80’s full size car, it had a lot of style and class…just like Cotton did.
Today, Cotton was called home….that station bell rang one last time for him and his tour of duty on this earth ended. Knowing the lives he impacted and saved, knowing his desire to serve his fellow man and knowing the care he had for others, I know where he is today and I rejoice that he probably has a golden fire engine where he is.
Chiefs would come and go after he retired but to all of us who knew him, respected him and would follow him anywhere, he was and will always be “The Chief”. Rest in peace Cotton and thank you from a once-18 year old who needed some good direction and leadership in his life.