Something's amiss at dinnertime at the Station 2 firehouse in Santa Rosa with the passing of Huston "Hugh" Blake.
A 93-year-old ex-cavalry soldier, train engineer, municipal yard watchman and pusher of M&M's, Blake took a place often at the station's table. He joshed and regaled the firefighters he loved like his own children, and they thinly, playfully veiled their adoration for him.
"These are the best friends I got," Blake announced during a pork-ribs meal with the crew of Station 2 two years ago.
"I never had anyone in my life treat me as good as these guys," he said. "They treat me like family."
Capt. Bob Hathaway advised Blake he was wrong yet again. Said the firefighter, "You are family, Hugh."
Blake, also a daily favorite at Page's Diner on West College Avenue, was receiving regular visits from firefighters when he died Saturday at a Santa Rosa rehab hospital. He was robust until he fell ill with cancer a few months ago.
His daughter, Janie Grosman of Mesa, Ariz., said she feared he might give up when her mother, Bessie, his wife for 62 years, died in 2005.
Instead, Grosman said, "he decided he wasn't done yet." Right up until the end, she said, "He went 100 miles an hour in the the slow lane."
Blake was born in Meyers, Ky., and grew up in Fairfax, Ohio. He and his younger brother, Kenneth, still were teenagers when they joined the Ohio National Guard's 107th Cavalry Regiment in the 1930s.
They were training with horses when the U.S. entered World War II. Converted to active status in the army, Hugh Blake was sent to the Mojave Desert to train.
His firefighter pals loved the story of how he was playing craps with fellow GIs at Camp Young, near Indio, and won about $1,300 — a mountain of money in 1942.
Then 22, Blake loaned much of it to other soldiers and also bought a car — and wrecked it within about a week.
Assigned to an engineering company, he was shipped to the Pacific to help build infrastructure such as runways and bridges.
He was discharged as a master sergeant in 1945 and returned to California and to the former Bessie Stauft, whom he'd married in San Rafael two years earlier. He found work with the Northwestern Pacific Railroad and for a time piloted the last of its steam locomotives.
Blake had worked as an engineer for nearly 30years when he accepted a promotion to a desk job, and came to wish he hadn't. A heart attack forced his retirement from the railroad more than 30 years ago.
For a while, he and his wife embraced the retirement lifestyle, motoring in their RV, wintering in Arizona and trout fishing in Oregon. But in the mid-1980s, a hankering to get back to work led Hugh Blake to a part-time job staffing the after-hours booth at the entrance to the Santa Rosa municipal yard on Stony Point Road — right next to the fire department's Station 2.
A few days a week for the next 25 years, he planted himself in the booth from 4 p.m. to midnight. He monitored the after-hours phone and he befriended the firefighters next door.
One night in the spring of 2011, a truck driver found Blake on the booth's floor. He'd fallen and hit his head.