November 21, 1988 12:00 PM

The gloom in the room was so thick you could strike a match on it. One night last February seven volunteer firemen in Pleasant Hills, Pa., a middle-income suburb of Pittsburgh, were searching for a solution to their perennial problem: a shortage of cash. A new pumper engine plus a truck with an aerial tower would set the company back at least $800,000, and both were badly needed. But donations were down to a dribble, and cake sales, spaghetti suppers and bingo nights would barely buy spark plugs for a new fire engine. “The last fish fry,” somebody complained, “made us exactly $200—and it was Lent!”

Then inspiration struck. Suggested fire fighter Eric Bodrock: “How about doing a calendar?”

“That’s it!” cried Fire Chief Dan Haeck. “We could sell one to every volunteer fireman in the U.S.A.!”

“Action shots of firemen at work!”

“Wow!”

Wow? Well, maybe not. But Bodrock thought he knew what was missing: sirens. And not the kind you hear in the night. Haeck agreed. So they switched from a calendar showing what firemen actually do to one that shows what they would rather do: like rescue demi-dressed cuties from burning buildings. When Haeck promised that the product would be “tasteful,” the department’s board of directors put up $31,000 for production costs, hoping beauty would bring home the booty.

Has it ever. In less than a month the department sold 3,000 of its first printing of 5,000 Blaze of Glory calendars. Price per copy: $12.95. “We’re taking in more than a thousand dollars a day,” says Haeck in amazement. But some people in Pleasant Hills are embarrassed by the calendar. “They feel betrayed,” says Councilwoman Margaret Lessman, 48. “They came here for a cultured, dignified life. But this is what we will be known for.” Local feminists claim the calendar exploits women, and Lessman is inclined to agree. “The pictures of all the rear ends,” she says, “make women look like cattle.”

In fact, the porn is not particularly incendiary. Pittsburgh photographer Robert Henshaw-Suder adorned a winsome array of professional models with just enough lace to cover this paragraph. Then he swathed them in tinted smoke and draped them flagrantly over the arms of several Pleasant Hills fire fighters—who proved, he says, “dedicated” to the work.

Nevertheless, Haeck’s ear has been fried by furious callers (“You’ll burn in hell for this!”) and his eyeballs singed by irate letter writers. “These scantily clad women should be rounded up & burnt,” wrote one agitated soul. “[You say] it isn’t any worse than what one sees on the streets. I see dog dirt on the streets, but would find a calendar picturing this disgusting.” Such talk draws a hot retort from Lori Soukovich, a bartender who posed for the May photo straddling a fire hydrant. “I don’t feel a bit exploited,” she says. “When women complain, you have to wonder, ‘What do they look like?’ They might just be jealous.”

But it’s the green of bucks not of envy that has cast its hue over Pleasant Hills. Thanks to news reports, orders for the calendar are spilling in from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii. When Haeck and his crew find time to send order blanks to thousands of other volunteer fire departments all over the U.S., Pleasant Hills could find itself the most lavishly endowed volunteer fire company in America—a prospect that may console the calendar’s critics. “It’s better to have people burned up because we made a calendar,” says Haeck, “than to have their houses burned down because we didn’t.”

—Brad Darrach, and Jane Beckwith in Pleasant Hills

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