The story went viral across social media in a matter of hours. Before it was over, Bud Baughman’s emotions would range from faint hope to bitter disappointment to overwhelming joy, a Christmas story for the ages a couple of weeks early.
“It restored my faith in humanity,” said the former Doylestown volunteer firefighter.
Two decades earlier, that faith had been shaken. Enroute to a fire prevention presentation at a private school, the 1968 Haun fire truck Baughman had been riding in hit a pothole. His traditional leather helmet, recently customized to represent his firefighter career, bounced out of the open jump seat. They circled the block hoping to find it but by then it was gone.
“I figured someone would return it to the firehouse,” recalled Baughman. “A lot of time, equipment would be left at a fire scene but someone always returned it. I was disappointed no one did that in this case.”
Eventually, Baughman gave up hope of ever getting his prized helmet back. He went on to earn Fireman of the Year honors in 1996 and became a life member of the department before moving to Newport News, Va., about six years ago. But he never stopped wondering what happened to that helmet.
And then about 10 days ago, Baughman got a text from some of his friends from Doylestown. They sent along a couple of photos of a battered leather helmet they saw for sale at 2nd Life Antiques in Quakertown. Could this be his missing helmet, they wondered?
To Baughman, there was no doubt it was his, from the Fighting Irishman painted on one side to the brim that had been bent while fighting a house fire.
“It was in rough shape,” said Baughman. “But I could tell it was mine.”
But then came another round of disappointment. By the time anyone could make it to the store, the helmet was gone, he was told, purchased by a guy wearing a fire company T-shirt with the number “91” on it.
Baughman was devastated. Once again, his cherished helmet was missing. He took to social media in a desperate attempt to find out who had bought it. As soon as he posted the frustrating details on his Facebook page, word started spreading.
Firefighters from as far away as California and Florida passionately shared the story in their circles, more than 3,000 shares in all, hoping to reunite one of their brothers with the helmet that meant so much to him. Amateur sleuths suggested ways to track down the buyer, including calling in the police to investigate. One stranger even offered to pay double to get it back.
“It was amazing,” said Baughman. “I couldn’t believe what was happening. I didn’t expect that kind of reaction. I was just hoping there was some way I could get my leather back.”
Meanwhile, up in Coopersburg, Baughman’s cousin, Karl Ross, was biting his tongue as the story took on a life of its own. It turns out he was the one who visited 2nd Life Antiques in Quakertown after seeing his cousin’s post. He was the one who explained the backstory to shop owners Phil and Ruthie Shubert, who graciously agreed to return the helmet to Baughman at no cost, with only a request to have a happy holiday.
He was the one who concocted the story about the mysterious buyer to buy time while he shipped the helmet the Baughman’s wife, Dianna, who planned to give it to him as a Christmas gift.
Which is exactly what happened, albeit two weeks early. There was no way Dianna and others could keep a secret that long.
When he opened the box, Baughman burst into tears of disbelief as he cradled the leather firefighter helmet he never thought he would see again.
“I can’t say enough about everyone who was involved,” said Baughman. “It really was a Christmas miracle.”