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A birthday party for two in Swampscott

By Gayla Cawley | April 6, 2020

SWAMPSCOTT — Meabh Tuttle was ecstatic when she heard a siren indicating the town’s Big Blue fire engine was approaching for her drive-by birthday celebration on Sunday afternoon. 

Meabh’s parents, Paul Tuttle and Denise Murphy, had given her a heads-up about the special occasion, so she had come prepared. 

Standing outside, clutching her homemade “thank you” sign, Meabh eagerly watched the fire department’s newest engine, which was decked out with “Happy Birthday” banners on either side, a Swampscott Police cruiser, Department of Public Works truck and the Animal Control Officer’s vehicle drive by her Foster Road home. 

Meabh heard the sounds from the approaching town vehicles before they arrived, as the emergency vehicles had deployed their lights, sirens and air horns for the birthday procession. 

But her favorite part was when firefighters used the engine’s public address system to wish her a “Happy birthday.” 

“It was really, really cool and I was freaking (out),” said Meabh, who turned 8 years old on Sunday. “I’m not going to forget it.” 

“It was great,” Denise added. “Obviously, it’s hard having your birthday now with everything going on. It was wonderful and she was very excited about it. It definitely made it a big occasion so it was great.” 

The town started the celebrations last Friday as a way to brighten kids’ days who are missing out on a typical birthday party due to the stay-at-home orders and other coronavirus restrictions. And it’s already been a huge hit, according to Fire Chief Graham Archer. 

Within an hour of the post going up on the town’s Facebook page at noon last Friday, there were about 30 requests for drive-by birthday celebrations. There were two held that same day at 1 p.m.

“I was shocked,” said Archer. “I’m really surprised at how much interest there was. I thought maybe we’d have about a half dozen a week and we did 10 (on Saturday).”  

Archer came up with the idea when he learned his son’s friend would be missing out on a birthday party, but the drive-by celebrations are open to all ages. 

“The champion so far is 88,” said Archer. “I think it’s just as much good for our guys as the people (we’re) going by.” 

Once the trucks reach the house, they’ll pause so the birthday celebrant can have some socially distant pictures taken alongside the Big Blue fire engine. 

In some cases, like Maebh, the person knows about the celebration ahead of time and is waiting outside with homemade signs. 

But others, like the second drive-by on Sunday, have been a surprise. 

Owen Zalanowski turned 5 on March 28, so he wasn’t at all prepared for the unique, belated birthday celebration. 

“I didn’t like the loudness,” said Owen, although he loved when the yellow DPW dump truck “pumped” its horn and thought the whole experience was pretty cool.  

His mother, Stacey, said the family had a “Harry Potter” themed birthday party for him, but she felt sad that Owen couldn’t have his friends over and wanted to do something special. 

“It was so nice,” said Stacey. “I can’t believe the town is offering to do this for kids who have missed their bigger birthday parties.”

Archer said residents interested in having a drive-by birthday party should contact him via email at garcher@swampscottma.gov. The town departments do not need a lot of advance notice. 

“I just think the stay-at-home advisory in our town is really nothing that we’re used to,” said Archer. “It can be difficult, being that closed in and not being able to celebrate special days the way we’re (used to) doing it. If we can all pull together and think of ways to cheer us up, it’s going to help us all get through this.”