East Brainerd man turns heads with adorable fire truck that speaks Japanese

Staff photo by Mark Kennedy / From left, Sydney, Shannon and Barry Twitchell, of East Brainerd, show off their new fire truck.

Commercial airline pilot Barry Twitchell told his wife and daughter in October he was going to Seattle to retrieve a vehicle he purchased online.

He did not say it was a car. He did not say it was a truck. He just said it was a vehicle.

Twitchell's wife Shannon and 14-year-old daughter Sydney are used to such head-fakes.

"It's a very Barry thing to do," explained Shannon, during an interview at the family's house in East Brainerd last week.

Like the time Barry secretly bought Shannon a muscle car for her birthday and hid it for months in a neighbor's garage. Or the time Barry decided to turn a multicar, free-standing garage near their house into a neon-sign making operation. Or when he turned part of the house itself into a pinball arcade.

Yes, when he is not leaving jet trails in the sky, Barry Twitchell can be a tad adventurous.

And this most recent adventure was a doozy.

When he arrived back in Chattanooga after driving the vehicle cross-country in October, he dragged Shannon and Sydney -- who were packing for a trip -- down to the basement garage.

What they saw made their jaws drop.

"The garage door opens and there sits a fire truck," remembered Sydney, a ninth grader at Boyd Buchanan School. "I just went, 'What?'"

Yes, Barry had seen the imported Japanese fire truck in an online auction and thought to himself, "That's a cool little fire truck."

Most people would have stopped right there, but not Barry. He had a friend in Seattle go test drive the vehicle and measure its height to see if it would fit in his hilltop garage, which houses his Porsche sports car collection (among other things). The truck only had 2,400 miles on the odometer and was in pristine condition.

Through some magic known only to structural engineers such as Barry, he had estimated the truck's height at 95 inches based on calculations he did using an online photograph. When his friend -- who was actually standing beside the fire truck in Seattle -- measured it at 97 inches, Barry trusted his own estimate instead.

Of course, Barry was right.

Barry said he paid about $30,000 for the 1996 model fire vehicle, which began life in Kyoto, Japan, as a heavy-duty Mitsubishi work truck and was transformed into an eight-passenger, fully operational fire truck, which is about as cute as an English bulldog. Barry said he developed an interest in fire equipment as a volunteer fire fighter when he was in high school in St. Peters, Missouri.

To say the fire truck has all the bells and whistles is true.

"It has a jump seat, an air siren, an electronic siren, bells and flashing lights," Twitchell said. "It's also got a PA with a microphone so you can tell people to get out of the way."

Its oddest feature might be a pre-recorded female voice that admonishes pedestrians when the left turn signal is activated in the right-hand drive vehicle. There's no owners manual to describe what the woman is saying, but her shrill urgency is hilarious.

Of course, Twitchell had to try out all these features on his 2,500-mile trip from Seattle back to Tennessee.

He tested the air siren on a herd of "at least 500" cows beside an interstate highway in Wyoming.

"They all looked up, their ears went up and they (turned their heads to watch) me go by," he said.

Somewhere in Idaho, he pulled over for a coffee at Starbucks. As he was leaving, he hit the siren and all the employees came running out to wave goodbye.

When it comes to creating fun, the fire truck is a gift that keeps on giving.

It's been in the East Ridge and Red Bank Christmas parades. Shannon and Sydney made Christmas snacks for all the people in their neighborhoods and delivered them in the truck. A minister asked them to park it in front of his church when his sermon was titled, "God's First Responders."

The Twitchells have offered the truck as a mascot for the Boyd Buchanan band. They've even created a sign on the side that says "Band Wagon." They named the truck Maestro, to complete the musical motif.

Sydney, who is a percussionist in the band, said she might pitch the firetruck to be part of the band's half-time show next year. Any of the "Band Wagon's" sound effects could technically become part of the music, she said.

She imagines an announcer saying, "And (playing the) fire truck ... Sydney Twitchell!"

"Life Stories" is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645.