Sweeping up after the crowd

By Ed Brock

During his pleasantly solitary drives in Jonesboro's street-sweeping vehicle, Bobby Wiggins has plenty to think about.

He can contemplate all the blazes he battled during the nearly four decades he spent as a firefighter for the city and for the Clayton County Fire Department. Or he can look forward to the wild fires he is training to battle in the future, make his plans to finish hiking the Appalachian Trail or just decide whose yard he will cut the next day.

"I like doing different things."

Wiggins has spent most of his 56 years in Jonesboro, with the exception of the time when he was drafted into the Army in March 1968. The war in Vietnam was at its peak at that time, but Wiggins got lucky, in a way.

"I ended up in Alaska for two years," Wiggins said. "I was happy."

During those two frosty years Wiggins first took up the practice of fighting fires. He returned home to marry his sweetheart Sandra Seay and begin his career with the two fire departments, retiring from the CCFD three years ago and then from Jonesboro's volunteer fire department in December. He left that department because state law prohibits him from collecting his pension while being a member of the department.

Recently he was sitting around Jonesboro City Hall when he overheard someone say that the city needed a new street sweeper.

Driving the rig took a little getting used to, Wiggins said. It has two steering wheels and when he is operating it he has to use the wheel on the right so he can be closer to the curb.

"When I first started I had my head out the window," Wiggins said. "I got a few trees in my face."

Wiggins sweeps every street in the city that has curbs and he basically sets his own schedule. He likes to hit Main Street early, before people start parking in the spaces along the side.

"I've swept all the streets in two hours. Most of the time it takes me a day and a half, but when the leaves start falling it takes me a little longer," he said.

About 95 percent of the city's streets stay pretty clean, but there are exceptions. His job would also be easier if Jonesboro residents would not put their garbage cans in the street or sweep large piles of leaves into the gutter. The big piles clog the machine.

Jonesboro City Clerk Joanie Jones said she can see the difference the street sweeper makes.

"Even the cigarette butts in the gutter are less," Jones said.

Jones has also known Wiggins for a long time.

"He's got a secret side. He's got a very fun personality," Jones said. "He's a family man who loves his grandchildren and he's not above a good practical joke."

He is indeed a practical joker, said Wiggins' 27-year-old daughter Lisa Wiggins, but she couldn't recall one particular joke and Jones refused to be specific.

"But he's always willing to help people," Lisa Wiggins said.

That aspect of Wiggins' personality comes out when he's fighting fires. Not content with simple house fires, Wiggins was on a "hand crew" helping to fight the "Biscuit Fire" that destroyed nearly 500,000 acres in Oregon's Kalmiopsis Wilderness in July 2002.

Now he's training to qualify for an engine crew fighting other wild fires.

"I want to get back out there," Wiggins said.

As for the Appalachian Trail, Wiggins said he's hiked most of it but had to stop because of an injury.

And he'll keep driving the street-sweeper and cutting lawns as long as it stays fun. That's his rule for retirement.

"If I don't enjoy it I don't do it."