Tom Phillips detaches a big blue hose from the back of his truck and drags it around a house to the water tank in the back. He locks in the hose, and starts the water pumping at 100 gallons a minute. Then Phillips waits, anywhere from three to 10 minutes depending on the size of the tank.
Asked what he thinks about while he waits, Phillips replied, “Gotta pay attention. Always pay attention to what you’re doing.”
Phillips listens to the water so that he can hear when the tank is almost full. As with any craft, the touch of a master is obvious when you see it. For Phillips, it’s just another day. “I don’t know what else to tell you, this is what I’ve been doing for the past 30 years,” he said.
Phillips wasn’t filling tanks when he first started working for the city; he was emptying them. Back then, Bethel still used honey buckets.
“It was really windy, and after I dumped a bucket one tiny little drop landed right in my mouth one time,” Phillips remembered. “Ahhhh, I was grossed out, never want to do it again.”
Before Phillips started driving honey bucket trucks in Bethel, he fought fires in Aniak. The job was seasonal, and he knew he could find steady work in Bethel.
“I just came down for a few days, and I end up staying,” Phillips said.
And for 30 years, he’s worked a job where most people don’t last very long. It’s hard work climbing in and out of a large truck to drag a heavy hose around all day, and controlling a 4000-gallon tank on wheels is no piece of cake either. Phillips said that a truck rolled recently after swerving to avoid a cab.
“Somebody’s gotta do it. Otherwise, it don’t happen,” Phillips said.
When his community calls, he steps up. When the Kilbuck School burned down four years ago, they called Phillips. He remembers, “We were there for 14, 16 hours hauling water over there.”
Asked if he still feels like a firefighter, he laughs. “I’m just a water truck driver,” he said. “I’m just helping out.”
But firefighting and hauling water are actually pretty similar. Lots of water, big trucks, and being someone the community needs.
“Doing something positive, keeping people happier,” Phillips says that’s what keeps him going. “You know, it’s pretty essential to have water and sewer.”
Phillips says that he’s got at least a few more years of driving water trucks in him. He loves being outside, but his body is slowing down. Whatever he does next, he says that he wants to stay active and keep helping people.