The Blust Bros. Emergency Ambulance Service

Todd Van Beck's picture

The Blust Bros. were our sainted local undertakers when I was growing up in Southwestern Iowa.  The two brothers had operated the funeral home since their father, who had started in funeral home in 1871 had died in 1916.  In the 1960s the Blust Bros. were still doing our funerals, and on top of this they operated our local furniture store, and on top of that they operated the only ambulance service for a 30 mile radius.

Today when I say in conversation that I operated a ambulance service, and that many funeral homes across this country also operated ambulance services, people look at me like I have carrots growing out of my eye balls.  Then of course the utterly predictable, but utterly stupid remark is made concerning the “glaring” conflict of interest of the undertaker running the ambulance service – everybody except me has a great laugh at this idea.  These days I am so damned tired of explaining the history of the funeral home ambulance service that when this junk happens I usually just order another drink or maybe several.

However funeral homes did indeed operate ambulance services, and the truth is most funeral directors took the ambulance service very seriously even though it was a constant operational headache for which most funeral directors never got paid.

Today people innocently project the sophisticated notions of “emergency medical technicians” and the even more impressive “Para-medic” training and expertise to their vision of the funeral home ambulance services and this is totally understandable.  However during the period when funeral homes were operating ambulance services, the idea of specially trained professionals, let alone the idea of moving hospitals on wheels as we see today, were thoughts and visions that were relegated to the science fiction books and thinking.

In my own ambulance career, looking back the basic approach to funeral home ambulance services came, in my opinion, down to two facts:  first was let’s load and go, and second was the idea that fast speed to the hospital equaled patient care.  Yes to be sure we had oxygen tanks, we had Ace bandages, and we had Timmon splints, and I remember the most impressive piece of equipment was the “Ricco” aspirator.  We did the best we could with what we had, and the truth is the funeral home ambulance service worked well and certainly provided a much needed service to the community for a very long time, but if anybody held a card in “Advanced First Aid” they were at the top of the ambulance training system.

The Packard Ambulance
The Blust Bros. had a great 1949 Packard Ambulance sitting in their garage, and folks, it was not a combination (hearse and ambulance).  This was an honest to God, fully equipped ambulance (equipped for that time).  The vehicle  had a huge cherry red light on top, and a great big Federal “Q” siren prominently attached to the front of the vehicle.  The Blust Bros. had a cot, they had several towels, they had a pan you could vomit in, they had splints, they had oxygen, they had bandages and with no hesitation they very boldly advertised in our local newspaper that they offered “TWENTY FOUR HOUR EMERGENCY AMBULANCE SERVICE – FULLY EQUIPPED.”

Everybody in town was mighty impressed and proud of this Packard vehicle.  Even the ambulances we would see in Omaha could not compare in sheer size and sound to the Blust Bros. ambulance.

The Blust Bros. ambulance was not just a vehicle; it was, looking back, a moving signal to the good people in our little town that something had happened to somebody in our town that needed our community's attention, and more importantly, it required our attentive gossip.  And if our little town was anything, it was mighty skilled at the noble art of gossiping.

Here is a typical Blust Bros. ambulance call.  Usually when no funerals were going on, the Blust Bros. could be found laying down carpet, delivering a refrigerator, or setting up a bedroom set in a home.  In fact, the brothers had signs for the furniture store or the funeral home, some of which would read “Closed, got a funeral today”, or “Laying carpet at _______ if you need us come get us.”

There were no pagers, no beepers, certainly no cell phones, and in our little town the idea of an answering service was as remote a concept as, say, the idea that we could put a man on the moon.  The Blust Bros. communication system was simply this:  If you needed the Blust Bros. and if they were not at the funeral home or at the furniture or at their own homes, you had to go find them.  That was the way it was, and no one in town thought any different.

No question about it, when we heard the Blust Bros. siren most everything in town stopped.  Everybody went to their windows or front porches and would wait to see the Blust Bros. fly past our midst with the red light flashing, the siren blasting, and Henry Blust at the wheel going like a bat out of hell.  Then the gossip would begin in earnest.  “Who was it?” “Could it be. . . .” you know that “so-and-so is doing poorly.”  A wonderful system of community chatter would start and it was all stimulated to community life by two old undertakers flying past us in a 1949 Packard ambulance.
Today I am impressed and of the opinion that the Blust Bros. really loved their siren, because they used it every chance they got, and with tremendous bravado would crank that sound up to fever pitch and then just let it rip, moving through our streets and byways with terribly impressive speed.  All I could think of when I saw that old Packard ambulance was that was what I wanted to do went I grew up – and folks, my dream did indeed come true.

Today of course the Blust Bros. ambulance simply pales in comparison with the high tech skills and vehicles that we expect as basic, standard care.  The Blust Bros., however, possessed something with their 1949 Packard ambulance that I suspect might well be absent in today’s high tech world of emergency medical care – our people in our town knew these two men and we trusted them.

The care the Blust Bros. were able to offer the sick and injured certainly would not measure up to the impressive standards of care today, but the Blust Bros. possessed an aura and a panache about them running that old ambulance such that when our people saw these two ancient, hard-of-hearing brothers show up, we all looked at each other with the look of affirmation that “all will be well, the Blust Bros. are here.”  Looking back, I believe that was a priceless connection that we had with our local undertakers – “all will be well.”

If an injured person was screaming in pain at the top of their lungs, it didn’t make any difference to the Blust Bros. not because they were insensitive but because they couldn’t hear the screams, they couldn’t hear anything at all, ever.  But all Henry Blust had to do was to look at someone or a gathered group in our town and say the magic words “Don’t worry about this; we will take care of it” and we all went home feeling better, even if the poor injured soul expired.

If someone died in the Blust Bros. care no one ever thought to level blame at the two brothers, and suing our beloved Blust Bros. was unconscionable, and we all knew that when someone died on the way to the hospital in a couple of days the Blust Bros. furniture store would be closed because Henry and Nob Blust would be entrusted with doing the person’s funeral.

All of this was possible because, as I said in another blog, we just liked the Blust Bros.  Liking is a powerful motivator for all kinds of human behavior.  Liking, I believe, is still a real goal in life, and it seems evident that it is still one of the key parts of being effective in the art and skill of being a good funeral professional.  Being well liked is a good thing. 

Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion.  God bless the good ole’ Blust Bros. TVB


Great column, Todd.

I linked to it, (with a little commentary) on my Whenever I start to wonder if I have made the right choices with my life, I look for one or your columns or tapes and am then reminded that I should be doing nothing else besides being an undertaker. Thank you...RJV

Boy What a great writing! Yes, that was the way it was in small town America when "undertakers" provided ambulance service. Very, very good account.

Steve T