The Silent Killer

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Dear Readers,

I’ve taken a few weeks off from writing or blogging for my own peace of mind. I have summer courses starting on Monday, so I wanted to enjoy a bit of my summer. It does put me behind a little in where I’d like to be with Molly’s Song, but I’m close enough. What’s on tap for today isn’t writing related or history related, but its an important one.

This morning I read a post shared on Facebook. It was from the wife of a firefighter who’d recently lost her husband, not in a fire or a roof collapse, but from the culmination of a thousand fires. He was lost to our most dangerous enemy in the fire service; cancer. It stalks firefighters, both active and retired, and it can kill with surprising rapidity.

When I was a young man, new on the job some two decades ago, I thought it looked salty as hell to have a scorched helmet and gear. We rarely cleaned any of  our gear. When arriving at a house fire, we’d take the time to mask up right at the door, taking in some carcinogens in the process. There was no ventilation system for the exhaust on our trucks back at the station. Later, as an arson investigator, I never once, not a single time, wore a respirator while digging through fire scenes. It’s little wonder that today I suffer from breathing difficulties and I do know from my twice a year chest x-rays that I have scarring on my lungs.

Back in the day, we didn’t know better. No one gave much thought to cancer, yet it seemed like every retired firefighter I knew died of either cancer or a heart attack (our other killer). Today, there is a much greater awareness of the dangers of job related cancer and also steps that can be taken to lessen (but not remove) the risk. The fire service as an organization can be, at times, resistant to change. But this isn’t something to play around with. There’s nothing “cool” about salty gear if that gear increases the odds that you might die of cancer in your 30s or 40s. Take the proper measures to ensure that you’ll be around to enjoy your whole career and to be with your family when they need you.

I’m a lot more aware now myself, but I’d be lying if I said I never worry about it, late at night when I’m lying in bed staring at the ceiling. But I’m retired. And that’s why I worry that maybe, for me, it might be too late. That’s a worry you don’t want.

L.H.

Diaries of the Great War

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“We had traveled from the Atlantic to the Bosphorus in just a few days. The railway brought together the most distant pieces of Europe. Distance didn’t matter anymore. Anything seemed possible. All we had to do was just wish for it enough. As children, we were thrilled by the rush of speed the new technologies gave us. The future was within our grasp. It seemed so bright, but we had no idea just how shaky the foundations of that future were. Not until the summer of 1914.” (From 14: Diaries of the Great War)

Dear Readers,

105 years ago today, a sickly teenager fired two bullets on a street in Sarajevo and in doing so, changed the world. That summer, Europe found itself swept up in an enthusiastic embrace of a coming conflict, one that would usher in a new and more terrifying age. To understand the modern world, one must understand this great calamity of the early 20th Century and the peace which followed. So how does one do that? You can spend a lifetime reading, of course, and you should read as many books about the Great War as you can. You can also enjoy a splendid documentary series.

14: Diaries of the Great War is hands down the best documentary series I’ve ever seen on any subject. It is done in a docudrama style, wherein you have a narrator, but also actors who play historical roles and voice their own lines in their own languages. (It is subtitled/dubbed for the non_English parts). This is not a story about kings, prime ministers, and generals. It is the story of everyday people rather like ourselves caught up in the war. All statements attributed to them are directly from letters or diaries they left  behind. It covers the Western and Eastern Fronts and also the Russian Revolution. Sadly, the campaigns in Sub-Saharan Africa are not included but that is the only criticism I can levy. Some of the characters are soldiers. Others are civilians. They range in age from children to the middle aged. This is nine hours of your life that you won’t mind spending with a documentary. I assure you that.

Now the bad news. It was on Netflix for a few years, but they pulled it a while back. It has never been released on DVD in the United States, and is unavailable on Amazon. If you have an all region DVD player as I do, you can find it on Ebay. My copy is an Australian DVD release if memory serves me. So why I am telling you about it if it is so hard to find. Well, Dear Reader, you can watch it here, though for how long I cannot say. Why not take the time to give it a watch this weekend? You’ll be spellbound, amazed even. That I can tell you.

If you prefer books to television (and honestly, who doesn’t?), many of the people quoted in this documentary can be found in what is one of my favorite World War One books, The Beauty and the Sorrow: An Intimate History of the First World War by Peter Englund.

So there you have it, Dear Reader.

L.H.

 

Firefighting in a Doomed City

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Dear Readers,

This week I had the opportunity to binge watch a six episode series on Netflix called Charité at War which focuses on the lives of the staff at the famed Berlin hospital during the Second World War. The final episode stood out to me the most, as it dealt with how the hospital coped, and indeed continued to operate, despite the Battle of Berlin raging around them.

As my novel So Others May Live touches on the fire brigade in the city during the months in which the areal Battle of Berlin brought a nightly rain of fire to the city, seeing how a civilian hospital functioned despite shortages of almost everything was interesting to say the least. During the research for my own novel, I learned that the fire protection police in Berlin continued to operate up until the absolute end. Even while Soviet troops battered their way into the city, firefighters still answered calls.

On April 22, General Goldbach, the commander of the fire protection units in the city, ordered their evacuation. For this, he would be executed just a few days before the war ended. Over 100 firefighting vehicles and their crews made it out before the Russians cut the last road out of the city. However, some companies remained behind and continued to work in an increasingly deadly environment, as evidenced by their casualty lists. Others turned into soldiers, and defended their stations from the Soviet forces until they were overrun.

What follows are the Berlin firefighters killed in action during the last month of the war, though the list is not complete as record keeping was difficult to say the least, given the circumstances.

21 April 1945

Erich Malodystach and Werner Böhm drove into a Soviet ambush while returning to quarters after a responding to an emergency and were mortally wounded by machinegun fire.

24 April 1945

Herbert Wiesenthall was in a tow truck attempting to recover a stalled fire engine when he was caught in an artillery barrage and killed.

25 April 1945

Wilhelm Brand was in a column of fire protection police vehicles which came under areal attack and was mortally wounded.

Karl Pohlmann was killed while attempting to remove traffic obstructions near the Brandenburg Gate in either an artillery or an air strike.

General Walter Goldbach, the commander of the firefighter forces in Berlin, was executed by the government for previously ordering all fire protection units to evacuate the city on 22 April. Some did, but others remained behind and continued to work.

26 April 1945

Arthur Nieber was killed while attempting to re-locate some vehicles from Spandau.

27 April 1945

Gustav Merta was struck and mortally wounded by shrapnel from an artillery shell. He died later that day in the hospital.

28 April 1945

Herbert Zimmermann was killed by enemy fire while fighting a building fire.

30 April 1945

Otto Doerks was struck in the back by grenade fragments while fighting a fire in the city.

Richard Hackbarth and Otto Hall were killed by an artillery shell while returning from a call, along with a third, unknown firefighter.

The following are members of the Berlin Feuerschutzpolizei who were killed in action in April 1945, though the circumstances are unknown.

4 April 1945

Hermann Schinkinger

10 April 1945

Max-Joachim Baumgarten

23 April 1945

Kazimir Nawrotski

26 April 1945

Heinz Hamann

30 April 1945

Richard Raufeisen

Otto Streich

When you add the two lists, including the unknown firefighter on 30 April, then we can see that at least 17 firefighters were killed in action during the final few weeks of the war in Berlin. Technically you could say 16 since General Goldbach was the commander but not actually a firefighter. It is quite likely that the true number is higher, since many of the firefighter deaths in Berlin during the height of the war due to air raids or later street fighting went unrecorded.

One of these days, I’ll revisit the fire station I wrote about in So Others May Live and we will see what happened to the crews during the final two weeks of the war.

The Best Laid Plans

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Dear Readers,

Yesterday, 15 June, should have been the day that I celebrated finishing the first draft of Molly’s Song. The operative word in that sentence is should. The writing gods, however, had other plans. And as they hold me captive, I must do as they direct.

When I reached the 75K word mark, I was excited because I was only five days away from being finished, and plugging along at my 3K word a day quota. It was close! SO CLOSE! Then it happened. I realized, while looking over what I’d done so far, that there were major issues with parts of the plot and that the timeline was blown all to hell. The problem wasn’t with the story itself, but rather the way in which I was telling it. Some key points were overwritten, and others underwritten. Normally, I take care of this kind of thing at the editing stage, but two major issues proved fatal.

So I decided that the only thing to do was to go back to square one. I scrapped the second viewpoint, and decided to focus only on Molly’s point of view. (This is a challenge because, as a male writer, I do not want to fall into the various tropes that many male authors use when they write female characters). I decided to tell ALL of her story, not just one piece of it, as originally intended. In the scope of a single day, I managed to write a 1500 word synopsis of where I wanted the story to go, and also sketched out my chapter outline. I’m pretty minimal with the outlining. It just contains the chapter number and a one sentence statement about what needs to happen in that chapter. This new version has it coming in at 32 chapters and 96K words, as opposed to the original 30/90K split.

I can still finish it by July 15th, which I absolutely must do because that’s when my summer classes start, and they lead right into the fall. I can edit during the semesters, but I cannot write, as I do not have the time during the day and I’m in so much pain by the time I get home that all I can do is lay on ice packs and stare at the TV while Anastasia licks my face. (For the record, she’s my cat.)

Molly, and the whole way I came to write about her, is too important to let slide. I MUST tell her story, but I must tell it the right way. I owe it to her, though she’s fictional, and through her, to all the women in history who have suffered as she did, yet managed to persevere. But it doesn’t change the fact that rather than being finished, I’m six chapters into this new version. Chapter 6 has a major turning point, a dark one, and after writing it today, I feel kind of sick. It’s a dark book, but it contains a message of hope.

And the best part? Molly is too big a character for a single book. So as I work, I’m sketching out the rest of the series (another two books). But before I write another book about her, I have to tackle my planned epic set during the Russian Revolution. A writer’s job is never over.

Until next time, Dear Readers, stay cool this summer.

L.H.

Lancaster Skies: A Review

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Dear Readers,

It’s a statistic that bears repeating. Nearly half of all Bomber Command aircrew died during World War Two. Most were in their late teens or early 20s. Their’s was a war fought in darkness over occupied Europe, with the night sky occasionally illuminated by searchlights, flak, or tracer rounds. Men from all over the Commonwealth, and indeed, the world, took to the night skies to deal death each night, while other young men, in different uniforms, did their best to kill them in return. The indie film Lancaster Skies manages to capture a slice of their world, and it is a film you should add to your watch list.

I will preface this by saying that I was able to watch in courtesy of my all region DVD player. It will be out in the United States later this year, but if you have a DVD player like mine, you can get it and enjoy it now. Follow the official website here for updates as to the specific US release date, though I’ll be sure to announce it here as well. Now on to the review…

I will not detail the plot, as that information is available on the film website other than to say it concerns a pilot who transfers from Fighter Command to Bomber Command and takes over a crew whose pilot was killed on their last operation. He has to win their respect, but doesn’t have much time to do it, as they are due for another mission soon.

The first thing to really strike me about this film was the cinematography. The lighting and camera angles are incredible. It gives the film an intimate feel, as though you are taking part in the events rather than merely watching them on screen. This helps you build a connection with the characters. It had an almost claustrophobic quality to it (similar to Das Boot), which is a good thing in a film like this as it recreates the tight quarters of a Lancaster, but also the lives of the men in Bomber Command as they were eternally squeezed between life and death.

The dialogue is lean and sparse, which suits the subject. Most American and British aircrew I’ve met in my life tended to be men of few words. There is an appropriate amount of banter as well, but not so much as to be over the top. (Think the novel and TV series Piece of Cake). Right away I appreciated the fact that the cast, at least visually, looked the right age. Wars are fought by young men, but the actors that play them usually aren’t. In this movie, the actors and actresses look the part. It was great to see the inclusion of some WAAF characters.

The aerial combat scenes both at the beginning and the ending of the film were both well filmed and well acted. It’s difficult to show nocturnal activities in a film sometimes because if it is too dark, the audience can’t see what they need to see, but if it is too light, then you lose the night setting. Thankfully, Lancaster Skies was able to find a happy medium. As a boxing fan, I appreciated the inclusion of a crewman who boxed and the scene of him engaging in the puglistic arts.

The remarkable thing about this film is that it was filmed on a shoestring budget. The fact that the filmmakers were able to produce such a quality movie is really a testament to their skills, as well as those of the actors. It just goes to show you that a small budget doesn’t always mean a small film. So my final verdict is to give Lancaster Skies two thumbs up. Stay tuned to the film website and to my blog for announcements about the upcoming US release, or spend $40 like I did and get an all region DVD player and get the movie now.

If read my novel So Others May Live and enjoyed the scenes which take place in a Lancaster over Berlin, then you will absolutely love this film. So get you hands on a copy as soon as you can. Though it would be staggeringly expensive, I think a film focusing on the Berlin firefighters in my novel would be pretty cool. Then again, movies about firefighters can either be good (Ladder 49) or absolute garbage (Backdraft, Backdraft 2). And, as a reminder, there is a great sale on World War 2 fiction taking place from June 5 through June 9 to celebrate the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings. Numerous books listed for a mere 99 cents. You can see that list here.

Until next time, Dear Readers, here’s to hoping you don’t prang your kite and catch a rocket from your CO. He’s a right bastard.

L.H.

Lee Hutch is a retired firefighter/arson investigator. He is a history professor at a small college in Southeast Texas. His first novel, So Others May Live, was published in 2019 and tells the story of a Lancaster crew over Berlin and a group of firefighters on the ground. 

 

D-Day 75th Anniversary Sale

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Dear Readers,

In honor of the 75th Anniversary of the Normandy Landings, there is a special ebook sale! Several authors are offering their World War 2 novels at the low price of 99 cents! From action/adventure to romance, there is something for everyone in this sale. All of the books are set either during or just before the Second World War. The sale runs from June 5th through June 9th. Don’t miss out! Spend the summer with some great books.

You can see a list of the books with their purchase links here.

Happy Reading,

L.H.

Inspiration Part Deux

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Dear Readers,

I wanted to expand a bit on the topic of last week’s post and go into a bit more detail. I’m happy to report that my current work in progress is half completed. I’ve written half a novel in fourteen days. The next fourteen will see me finish the first draft. In other news, you may also obtain a copy of my first book on Kindle for a mere .99 cents up through June 9th in order to mark the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. So if you haven’t read it, now’s a good time.

But on to the subject of today’s post. You can see in last week’s post where I talked about the photo that helped launch my current book, but allow me to go into a bit more detail. So as I was looking at the photo and pondering those questions, the lyrics to Runaway Train by Soul Asylum came to mind. Particularly the lines “Can you help me remember how to smile/Make it somehow all seem worthwhile/How on earth did I get so jaded/Life’s mystery seems so faded”. Wow, I thought, I could definitely see a young woman in 1864 trafficked into prostitution as my main character Molly was appreciating those lyrics. Like all 90s kids, I know this song, but I did not have it downloaded on my phone as its never been one of my favorites.

I wanted to listen to it as I looked at the photograph, so I fired up the AppleTV, opened up YouTube, and watched the original video. Though you may not believe me when I say this, I had NEVER seen the video before! It was released in 1993 and we didn’t have cable and I wouldn’t have watched MTV anyway, even if we did. As the video started, Dear Readers, I was absolutely awestruck. I had no idea the subject of the music video was runaway children, going so far as to show photos of actual missing children. Now, Molly did not run away from home. She was sent to America, but through circumstances that you’ll just have to wait to read about, she finds herself forced into prostitution just as runaway teens today are sometimes compelled into those exact same circumstances by traffickers. (And others are outright kidnapped by the same.)

Later that day, I got in the car to run down the corner store to buy my daily green apple slushy. In the truck, I tuned into the Pop Rocks station on SiriusXM, and guess what song came on? If that’s not a sign, dear readers, I don’t know what is. I made the photo/lyric sheet that appears at the top of this post and printed it out to keep next to my computer. I need only look at it and the words come pouring from my head as if they were floodwaters through a breached levee.

So follow the posted link above and watch the original video if you’ve never seen it. Absolutely haunting. That I can tell you.

L.H.