Born in 1927 on what was then 20th and College Avenue, in North Philadelphia, Eugene Fleming has the mind of a tinkerer and the heart of a soldier. He carries around a list of more than 50 invention ideas, including ways to clean up oil spills and clean energy-powered military equipment.
Sitting in front of a wooden desk on a chilly day in March, the 89-year-old unfolded blueprints for his many projects.
"I have so many ideas, it's not even funny," Fleming said.
He said one of his ideas, called the "Hurricane Spray Shield," could change the way firefighters approach fires.
"When you have an inferno, when you have that great force, you have to fight force with force," he said.
Fleming has been his own type of force as the youngest of seven growing up in North Philadelphia. He first worked on a farm, then later got a job working on machinery in a factory that produces medicines. He once delivered Philadelphia Tribune newspapers in the 1930's, making one cent for every paper he delivered.
The idea for the spray shield came to Fleming in 1965 while he worked on a car engine. He had accidentally put the car's radiator fan in backwards, causing it to blow air all over him.
"That's when the idea came in for the hurricane spray shield," said Fleming, who now lives in Springfield, Delaware County.
He did not pursue the idea of his spray shield until 1984 when he retired from Cheyney University as a campus police officer. He worked on creating his prototype, a nozzle that fits over hoses and disperses a stream of water or flame suppressing chemicals. The nozzle rotates 360 degrees and reaches a wider area than current nozzles. The device has a remote control feature, which helps firefighters keep a safe distance from a blaze.
"In 1992, I scraped a bit of enough money to have a patent," Fleming said. He traveled to Washington D.C., and has an official patent certificate stamped Dec. 1, 1992.
After getting the patent, Fleming worked with engineer Ray Savage to create a prototype. Together they were able to turn a hydrant on and test their nozzle. Savage and Fleming were able to make it work after a few adjustments. Now Fleming said he is working on a nozzle with a double fan system.
Fleming joined the military in 1946. Noting the military was segregated at the time, Fleming said he and other recruits of color worked as military laborers. He was sent to various mechanical schools to learn how to maintain military equipment.
"They sent me to a vehicle electrician school, artillery school and vehicle mechanic school," he said. "In each one, I came out with flying colors."
Fleming and his unit were responsible for inspecting various military equipment during World War II, including Ford tank engines. It was through this experience that Fleming learned how to tinker and make things work. He said two other members of his unit are alive in Pennsylvania today.
Fleming said he owes his inventive side to the Black teachers he had in school as a young boy.
"There was this one teacher I had from kindergarten to first grade," Fleming said. "She said, 'class, I'm going to teach you one thing ... the most important word is think. Whatever you do, you've got to think."
And thinking is exactly what he does. When he wakes up, his mind is swimming with new ideas. He thinks about ways to re-purpose old fire trucks, new ways to transport nuclear waste and new railroad safety units. Fleming wants to prevent disasters and help save lives.
"The ideas that I have are tremendous," he said. "I do two or three drawings a day. I've been blessed."