As a young boy growing up on a North Dakota farm, 79-year-old John Ringdahl always knew what he wanted to be.
"I wanted to be an ambulance guy," said Ringdahl, whose family-owned ambulance service in Fergus Falls marks 50 years this week. "I just thought it was kind of cool to take care of people."
In the 1960s, many small-town ambulance services were run by funeral homes because a stretcher fit in a hearse. And it was at one such funeral home in Valley City, N.D., that Ringdahl got his start at age 19.
"That was kind of a weird deal, you know, but back then that was the norm. They'd take the red light off when they used it for a funeral," explained Ringdahl.
In 1967, Ringdahl was working as a paramedic in the Twin Cities, when he read an article about dozens of funeral homes getting out of the ambulance business. It prompted him to buy the ambulance service in Fergus Falls.
Ringdahl ambulance service started with one full-time employee and four part-timers. They averaged one ambulance run a day, but had to be on call 24/7. His wife was the dispatcher, answering emergency calls at their home.
In those early days, if a call came in while he was at the grocery store, someone would call the store and have employees track him down in the aisles.
Directions were sometimes fuzzy — like, "Turn at the big red barn on Highway 18," recalled Ringdahl.
It was a big deal when he got a radio telephone installed in the ambulance around 1970.
"You push the button a few times and it would be a telephone operator out of Detroit Lakes. And I'd say, 'This is Fergus Falls ambulance, give me Zenith 7000.'" Ringdahl said. "That was the direct line to the highway patrol dispatch.
"A lot of time we'd be the first to be called for like a car wreck," he said. "And then we would notify the sheriff's office or the highway patrol."
And the two-person ambulance crew was often the only emergency response. Ringdahl recalls once recruiting a farmer from a nearby field to help extricate a victim from a car wreck using his tractor and chains.
"We carried a crowbar and some tools," said Ringdahl. "A hacksaw and this and that. That was challenging."
When Ringdahl needed a new ambulance soon after starting the business, he was shocked by the $12,000 price tag. So, he ordered a new Chevy Suburban and built his own ambulance for about $3,500. That led to a second business, outfitting emergency vehicles for other ambulance companies.
"A call came in, you wiped the sawdust off and went on the call. Came back and went to work putting cabinets in an ambulance," said Ringdahl, who also developed and marketed a cold-weather blanket to protect patients.
Those ventures helped bring in extra income.
Today, his sons Bjorn and Tollef run the ambulance building company, four ambulance services in Minnesota and North Dakota, and a paramedic training course. The company now has 90 full- and part-time employees.
Tollef grew up hanging out with his dad at the station, washing ambulances, running errands, waiting for the phone to ring.
"So it's been in the blood, or my lifestyle for as long as I can remember," said Tollef.
"You would say, 'Can I go with you dad, can I go with you?'" Ringdahl recalled of his son. "'Yeah, sit in the front seat, don't let anybody see you.'"'
And emergency calls were always the priority.
"Heck, I remember that one time, it was Christmas, mom sat there alone because you, Bjorn and I were all on different calls," Tollef remembered.
John Ringdahl said training, technology and communication have dramatically improved emergency medical response.
Ringdahl said he planned to stay in the business for 25 years and then take a low-stress job.
Asked why he stayed in the business so long, he's silent for a minute. His chin quivers and tears trickle down his cheeks.
"Very rewarding. I don't know how else to put it. Rewarding, I guess that's about the best word," he said.
It hasn't always been easy, but for more than 50 years, he's been doing the only job he ever wanted.