Journal of a Pandemic Year: Part Thirty

Dear Readers,

I hope this missive finds you well. Today, March 2nd, marks thirteen years of marriage to my wife Elizabeth. It has not always been smooth sailing. When we got married, I was on top of the world with my dream job, the respect of my colleagues, and the whole world at my fingertips. How quickly that all came crashing down a few years later. Left with serious physical injuries, and a never ending cascade of serious health complications related to them, the past several years have been taxing on us. I haven’t always been the best husband, as my job, and then the aftermath, made me kind of distant at times. I tended to bottle everything up inside. For a while, after I got hurt, I was so miserable that I took it out on everyone around me. My wife has stuck by me as I slowly came to terms with what happened, and plenty of others wouldn’t have done that. I know how lucky I am to have her and I also know that I don’t deserve her.

In other good news, Spring Training has started! After the utterly abysmal season the Red Sox had in 2020, the only direction for them to go is up. Right? Since I am still working from home, I have given myself a Spring Training goal. I plan to listen to every Red Sox game this month on WEEI, courtesy of my SiriusXM app. I know a lot of people don’t much care for Spring Training games, but I’ve been a fan of minor league baseball every since I was a kid going to watch the Beaumont Golden Gators play, and Spring Training games are essentially minor league games. Still, it is great to have baseball again, no matter if it is March or October. After all those months last year with no sports and no distractions, I don’t think I’ll ever take it for granted again.

I have nothing new to report on the publishing front as Molly’s Song slowly makes its way towards publication. As soon as I know anything more, I’ll let you know. I found out last week that I was nominated for Faculty Member of the Year at my college, an honor I am entirely unsuited for, but it is nice to be considered. Friday of this week will mark two weeks since I got my second Rona shot and at that point, I can consider myself “fully vaccinated.” Nothing will change for me though. I won’t be leaving the house any more than I normally am and when I do, I’ll use double masks like I have been doing for almost a year now. Pretty soon, we’ll hit the one year anniversary of this blog series. When I wrote the first one and caused it “Journal of a Pandemic Year,” I didn’t actually think that it would really be year, but here we are nonetheless…

So until next time, friends, take care of yourselves, and each other.

L.H.

Journal of a Pandemic Year: Part Twenty-Nine

Dear Readers,

I did not have Alaskan weather on my 2021 Bingo Card. We knew it was going to get cold this week. The weather guessers on TV had been saying as much for several days, and for once, they were right on the money. We got some snow mixed with ice and several nights well below freezing, but the real issues involved infrastructure. We had rolling blackouts throughout the state that turned into long term blackouts. My area was lucky. We never lost power, but pretty much everywhere around us did. In fact, the blackout stopped two blocks down the street from us!

On Wednesday afternoon, we had a pipe bust under the sink. When it happened, we were inside and were able to quickly shut off the water coming into the house to minimize the damage. Then, a second water line in the back yard that feeds the old garage burst and we had to call the city to cut off the water at the meter. A plumber came out on Thursday and fixed both of them. Friday morning, the city came out to turn the water back on…and a line under the house promptly burst! They shut it back off and the plumber came back Saturday to fix that one. So far, as of Sunday morning, everything is good. But that is subject to change, of course. SNOVID-21 appears to be over, and before long, we will be back to 90+ degree days with 100% humidity and all of this will be like a bad dream.

Originally, I was scheduled to get my second Rona shot on Friday morning at 9am. The County pushed my time back to noon, due to the weather. I made my way up there and waited in line, though not for long, to get it. People who had already gotten the second shot warned me that dose two was an ass kicker. Let me tell you! They weren’t lying! It ended up being 1pm when I got the shot. Sure enough, twelve hours later, My immune system went into overdrive. I got up around 1:30 in the morning to avail myself of the facilities. I felt fine on the way to the bathroom. During the fifteen steps back to the bed, I felt like I had suddenly been hit by a speeding train.

My temperature jumped up to 103 and I had insane chills. I lay there shaking in bed for close to six hours. Then, I got up (around 8) and took some DayQuil. My fever dropped to 101.4 and the chills went away. I spent the rest of the day in bed, getting up every so often to walk around a bit and drink some water or Gatorade. By 10am, my fever was down to 100.5. The worst was mostly over, but around 1pm, the chills came back and my fever started to go back up. Some Tylenol quickly knocked it back down. By the time I went to bed, around 9:30, I still had a slight fever, but it broke overnight. As I right this, on Sunday morning, I am a bit fatigued, but that is all. My arm is still a little stiff where I got the shot, but honestly, I think my arm hurt worse with my first shot. All things considered, I’ll take 24 hours of misery over having COVID. I am truly fortunate that I was able to get both of my shots so soon. (I am in the 1-B group in Texas due to being immunocompromised.)

With the college shut down all of last week, I have to spend the day figuring out how to amend my calendar for the rest of the semester to make up the lost instructional time, though it is virtual in my case since I am all online.

Until next time, friends, take care of yourselves, and each other.

L.H.

Journal of a Pandemic Year: Part Twenty-Eight

Dear Readers,

I hope this missive finds you well. I’ve spend the past week working with my publisher on edits to Molly’s Song. I got to see it in print layout format which is kind of cool because it makes it all seem real. If you haven’t already, head over to Molly’s website where you can read an interview with her and get some more behind the scenes information on the book and its creation. With the publisher’s permission, I am trying to track down the rights holder of the photo that inspired the novel with an eye towards obtaining the necessary permissions to incorporate it into the cover, but that is a long shot as I may not be able to hear back from them in time and, even if I do, the cost could be prohibitive. But it is worth a shot, for sure.

It has been a little over two weeks since I had my first Rona vaccine. I have not turned into a mutant. Other than my arm being sore for three days, I handled it okay. Originally, I was supposed to be getting my second shot on 2/17. That’s what they told me when I got my first one. They said I would get an email within 24 hours with the specific time to come in. Ten days went by and I got no email. Eventually I got a text message that told me that I was on a waiting list to get my second shot once they became available. This concerns me. We were told that if we got our first shot, we were guaranteed a second shot. Now the county is backtracking on that. So I don’t know when I’ll get my second dose, or even if I will be able to get a second dose. Even if I do, it may not be within the specified 28 days (I got the Moderna shot). All that concern about not being able to get a first shot has now been replaced by worry that I won’t be able to get a second.

On a more positive note, the Six Nations Rugby Championship starts today. Obviously, I’m an Ireland fan and they play tomorrow (Sunday, 2/7), but today I got to watch Italy v. France and now I am watching Scotland v. England. And in case you are wondering, yes, I have a flag from every country except England and I fly the colors of whoever is playing England at the time along with my Irish tricolor. Tomorrow, I’ll be waving the flag while clad in my Ireland jersey and randomly singing Amhrán na bhFiann when I watch the lads take on Wales. And tomorrow is the Super Bowel and my wife is a big Chiefs fan, so she’ll be completely decked out in Chiefs gear, including underwear and socks, and pacing back and forth in the living room until game time. So, it’ll be an interesting day around the house.

Until next time, Dear Readers, take care of yourselves, and each other.

L.H.

A Different Kind of Welcome

Dear Readers,

I previously wrote about my own rather unceremonious welcome to the fire service here. Years went by and eventually I found myself in the position of a company officer who occasionally had the opportunity to welcome probationary firefighters to my company. I did things a little differently though. Before I delve into how I did it, I need to share some background info on the way things worked. First of all, the 90s were still very much a part of the Wild West of firefighting. Ritual hazing of probationary firefighters was still commonplace. We operated in a much more cavalier manner than we would in later years. Anyway, we ran a three platoon system, so each truck had three crews assigned to it, one per shift. Companies had a captain, two lieutenants, three E/Os, and three to six firefighters. A captain was in charge on one of the shifts a lieutenant on the other two. Our helmets denoted our rank. This is common among all fire departments, but the color schemes aren’t always the same. In my department, firefighters and E/Os wore black helmets, lieutenants wore yellow, captains wore red, and chiefs wore white. All helmets had a leather shield which had your rank and company. Probationary firefighters’ shields were red, all others were black. Rank can very from department to department. Some do not have lieutenants at all, others may have varying ranks of firefighters (private, sergeant, etc). Captains were usually called “Cap” or “Cappie” while lieutenants were called “Loo” or “LT.” If the department had an class in the academy, we would find out around a week or so before graduation if we were going to be assigned a probie, though they would not find out their assignment until graduation. The top graduate got to pick their station and the others were allowed to fill out a “dream list” where they put their preferred assignment, but only the top graduate was guaranteed the spot. Everything else was subject to the needs of the department. That said, Station One was a choice assignment because of how busy we were, so it was not uncommon for probationary firefighters to be assigned to two or sometimes all three of our shifts. Also, all new firefighters started on an engine company. No exceptions. I realize other departments may do things differently, but we believed that the engine was the building block of the fire service and you had to master that before you could go over to a ladder or rescue.

First, I would be sure to drop by the graduation ceremony. I would already know who my probationary firefighter was and I would know what they looked like, having seen their academy file. After they were sworn in and opened their station assignments, I would go over and introduce myself. It wouldn’t be a long conversation, but I would set up a specific time for them to come by the station so that we could talk. This kept them from having to show up and hope that we were in quarters and not on a run. It made it a little less stressful for them as they would know what I looked like and know who to look for when they got there.

Second, they would not have to wander in and look for me. Knowing what time to expect them, I would have the senior firefighter in my company, usually the E/O, waiting downstairs to greet them when they arrived. Owing to the unexpected nature of the job, in the event that we might catch a run before the new person arrived, I would be sure to tell the guy on house watch to keep an eye out for them and tell them that if we were out when the probie arrived, to be sure and greet them and let them sit in the watch room until we got back. A fire station can be a rough place to work, and rougher on newcomers, but I did not want a person’s career to start with a negative impression. It is cliché, I know, but you don’t get a second chance at a first impression.

Upon being shown to the Engine Company office, where I sat behind the same desk where Captain Arceneaux once sat, I would make sure not be smoking when they got there! I would get up and answer the knock on the door myself and usher the person into the office and offer them a cup of coffee. I would accept the training file, but I always placed on the desk to be looked at later. And I would be sure to shake their hand and welcome them to my company.

To put them at ease, I would start off by asking them to tell me a little about themselves. Where were they from? Where did they go to school? What were their hobbies? What did they do for fun? All of this was a way to put them at ease. More often than not, they’d be very excited to be assigned to a company with a reputation for being very busy and very tough, but that could also be nerve wracking. Now I know that some old timers would say that I should’ve gone all Full Metal Jacket on them, in fact, some did say that, but that wasn’t my style. I was more of a lead by example type. Department tradition held that company officers were exempt from house duties. This meant that they did not have to wash the trucks, mop floors, do dishes, or scrub toilets. I could, if I wanted, have sat up in my office all day and watched TV in between runs. That’s not how I liked to operate. I did my share of house duties along with everyone else. Probies, if a company had one, were required to wash the engine at the beginning of every shift. If it was 35 degrees outside with a 25 mile an hour wind on top of it and my probie had to go out and wash the truck, I’d be working right alongside them. I never asked my people to do anything that I was not willing to do myself. I know that some might say that officers should be cold and a little aloof to gain respect, but I found that I gained respect by not being afraid to get my hands dirty. I’m not saying one is better than another. Everyone has to have their own style. This was mine.

I also believed in being up front, and so at the end of the meeting, I would give them a calendar for the year that had my drill schedule for the company, the drill schedule for the probie, and the dates that they would be test on the myriad of skills they would have to demonstrate by the end of the year. Of course, I would tell them that there would be surprise drills mixed in their too, so they needed to stay sharp. I assured them that they would have plenty of opportunities to practice skills before they were tested on them. They also received a written copy of the station specific rules. Finally, I would give them my closing monologue. I’ll include it, as best I can remember, below, but it did vary over time and so this isn’t exactly verbatim.

The city and the department obviously think there is something worthwhile about you, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired you and invested six months and a shitload of money training you. It is my job, and my company’s job, to make sure, one year from now, you can meet your training benchmarks and can go on to another company and be a valued member of the department. It is my job to help you achieve those goals. I will push you hard, but no harder than I push myself. I do not get a bonus check for each probie I bounce out of here. In fact, if you fail, that is as much a reflection on my abilities as an officer as it is on yours as a firefighter. You will drill ten times as hard as you did in the Academy, but we will be doing the drills with you. Engine One is a family, and we take care of one another. You’ll need a thick skin around the fire station because we can be rough on each other at times. As a probie, you’ll be the butt of some jokes, but if you feel something has crossed the line, let me know. If anyone from outside this house messes with you, they’ll answer to me. You are going to make mistakes. We know that. All I ask is that you don’t make the same mistake twice. If you are told do something and you don’t know how, do not try to bullshit your way through it. Tell me, or tell one of the crew and we will show you. If we are not out on a run, and you have no house duties to perform, you need to be going over every truck in this station with a fine toothcomb learning where everything is and how everything works. In the evenings during our down time, I expect your nose to be in your training manuals. Ask questions. I will never jump your shit for asking a question. I will jump your shit for acting like you know how to do something when you really don’t. There will be times when you hate me, hate Engine One. Hate Station One. Hate the department. Hate the whole fucking city. That’s fine. We all have days like that, myself included. But guess what? When they bell rings, we still have to go do our job. So learn to compartmentalize that shit.

This is a full house with an engine, ladder, and rescue. Learn as much about their jobs as you can. If the ladder is doing a drill and we aren’t, I expect you to jump in and be a part of their drill. After six months or so, if you are meeting your benchmarks and their officer approves, I’ll let you answer the occasional call with them. Once you learn the house watch system, volunteer to cover the desk for people. It’s a great way to learn about the city and the department since you’ll hear every call in the city dispatched and you’ll have a map with all the station locations. I’m not going to give you a long winded spiel about how when you put on that uniform, you represent all of us. I know you’ve heard all about that in the Academy. But what I will tell you is that the badge you wear represents a position of public trust. Your conduct on duty and off must be above reproach. Wherever you go, you are representing Engine One and me. Don’t let me or this company down.

Now here is the bad. There are only a few reasons why I would bounce you out of here, but these are my reasons. Remember, the department also has other reasons. First is repeated safety violations. It’s true that sometimes we have to push the envelope in this job, but that is my decision as a company officer. And even then, we have to keep our safety and more importantly, the safety of the public, in mind at all times. Second: failure to achieve training benchmarks. If you know you are weak at a particular skill, let us know so we can help you work on it. Third: Refusal to follow my orders. On scene, my orders are to be obeyed instantly and without question. Rest assured, I will never order you to do something illegal, immoral, or unethical. If we are at a scene and you are engaged in a task that I have ordered you to and you are approached by an officer from a different company and or a chief from a different battalion who gives you a different order, politely refuse. If they persist, respectfully refuse and tell them to take it up with me. Don’t worry about getting into trouble. I’ll take any heat that comes down, not you. Fourth: not treating the public with the respect they deserve. This is a big one for me. Your first call could be a cardiac arrest. I don’t give a fuck if it is a crack addicted prostitute or the mayor’s wife, you WILL treat everyone with courtesy and respect. You will respond to shootings at this station. I don’t care if the victim is a gang member who has shot plenty of other people in the past, it is not our place to judge and you WILL treat that patient like they are you own brother. If I observe that you are treating people differently based on their race, religion, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status, you are finished in this department. I’m sure you’ve heard this station called a “ghetto station.” Around here, we take pride in that fact. Over a third of the families in this district live in poverty. The rest don’t have it much better than that. The majority of people in this district are African-American. They trust us because they know that, no matter what, if they have an emergency, we’ll come running. And we will not discriminate. They deserve no less than our very best. So don’t screw that up for us, or you’ll be gone. Understand? If someone from another station or another department calls you a “ghetto fireman,” just remember this, they all WISH they could catch as many runs as we do. So own that shit and wear that term with pride.    

At this point, my monologue was over. I’d stand up, shake hands with them again, and welcome them to Engine One. Then, I’d call my E/O and firefighter up to the office over the intercom and make the introductions. I would allow a bit of small talk, and then I would personally give the probie a tour of the upstairs instead of delegating it. Once we were finished, I would then ask my E/O and firefighter to show the probie around the downstairs area and the truck.

Some might say that the way I was introduced to the fire service was the right way and my method was too soft. All I will say to that is that we all have our own ways of doing things. We consistently had the fastest turnout time of any company in the city, we had the fastest average on scene arrival time, and we were regarded as a company that knew how to get the job done. That’s not because of me as an officer, since they had the same reputation when I was a probie assigned to that company, but it is something that I maintained while I was in the officer’s seat.

Oh, and I liked donuts. I also did not adhere to the old standard that probies could not use the poles until their first fire. During their first shift, they would be given instruction on the proper and safe way to use them, and then they were free to do so.  The bottom line is that the pole is the fastest way to get from the second floor to the first and I was not going to sacrifice my response times just to make sure a probie “knows their place.”   

Until next time, friends, take care of yourselves, and each other.

L.H.

Welcome to hell, kid!

Somewhere along the Gulf Coast. Twenty-four years ago.

In the academy, the department spent six months filling our heads with all sorts of information. Fire behavior. Hazmat. Ropes and knots. Radio procedures. Fireground Operations. Rescue operations. An EMT course. You can only pack so much inside the human brain, but all of it seemed to ooze out through my ears as I stood in front of my new home, Fire Station One, for the first time. I had been assigned to A Platoon. This was not my first day of work, that would be forty-eight hours later, but in the academy, they told us to stop by the shift prior to our first to introduce ourselves to our captain and go over the rules and training objectives for our probationary year.

When this station was built, it was a remarkable sight to behold, but that was back when Theodore Roosevelt was president. Now, it resembled an aging movie start who conceals the lines and wrinkles on her face with heavy makeup and just can’t quite come to admit that her time has vanished with the advent of talking pictures. Station One was definitely not ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille. The main building was three stories of red brick turned brown from age and weather. There were two bay doors, both open, and I could see the front bumpers of the engine and ladder. The windows on the second and third floors all held window unit air conditioners as the city was too cheap to add central air in the older stations. To the left of the building was a one-story addition with two more doors for the battalion chief’s car and the rescue truck. To the right, a chain link fence with razor wire on top surrounded the parking lot which was filled with older model pickup trucks.

It was December, and though I was dressed in my Class A uniform; dark blue double-breasted coat with matching pants, long sleeve light blue shirt with a dark blue tie, and an eight pointed uniform hat, a thin trickle of sweat ran down the back of my neck and I fought to suppress an involuntary shiver that ran down my spine. The weight of the manilla file folder tucked under my left armpit and bulging with my training records rubbed into my side. I had not really set out to be a fireman. It just sort of happened. I was in the process of flunking out of the community college and saw an add in the paper that said the department was giving a Civil Service exam. On a whim, I took it. I scored well enough to move on in the process. I completed the exam and the agility test on back to back days. After passing the agility test, they gave me a twenty-five page background packet to fill out where I had to list all my deepest darkest secrets. We had a week to turn it in with supporting documents. A month long background investigation followed. I got a call out of the blue telling me I was scheduled for a polygraph exam the next day and, if I passed, a panel interview the day after that. I was certain I had bombed the panel interview, but I guess others did worse than me. Three days later, I sat in the chief’s office and he gave me a conditional job offer based on me passing a medical exam and a psych evaluation. Two days ago, I stood with ten other graduates on a stage in the high school auditorium. We all raised our right hands and swore to protect and defend the Constitutions of the United States and our state, and to faithfully discharge the duties of the office of firefighter for the City Fire Department. Then, one by one, the chief called our names. We walked over to him, came to attention and saluted before he pinned a shiny silver badge to our chests.

“How in the hell did you graduate from the academy when you are too dumb to come in outta the cold?”

I looked up and saw an African-American man of indeterminate age standing in front of the bumper of the engine. He wore a non-regulation department sweatshirt, his arms folded across his chest.

“Oh…uh…I’m sorry, sir,” I stammered. “I was…uh…I was just…”

He shook his head and turned away, disappearing back into the station as he muttered to himself, no doubt questioning my intelligence. I hesitated for a moment, and then trotted after him like a lost puppy. The inside of the station smelled faintly of smoke, motor oil, and mildew. Three brass poles descended from the second floor, one to the right of the engine, one in between the two trucks, and one to the left of the ladder. Three more provided more downward access towards the rear of the trucks. On both sides of the apparatus bay, the stalls which once held horses now contained a variety of gear; old turnouts, SCBA tanks, tools, and boots. All except the one the near the front of the engine.

A sign over the stall said, “Watch Desk.” I poked my head inside and saw an older firefighter with close cropped gray hair leaning back in a swivel chair, his feet propped up on the desk as he watched a small black and white television which sat atop a black file cabinet. His fingers were laced behind his head. There was a handheld radio on the desk, along with a base unit transmitter. A printer sat on a second file cabinet near the first one. The desk was in front of a switchboard with various knobs and switches. I wondered what they were all for, but I figured they would let me know eventually. I waited for a minute to give him a chance to notice me. He didn’t, so I cleared my throat.

With an exaggerated sigh, the firefighter turned to me and said, “What the fuck do you want?”

I stood up straight and said, “I’m the new probationary firefighter assigned to Engine One. I’m…I’m…in the academy…they told us to stop by and introduce ourselves before our first shift.”

He scratched his chin and asked, “The new what?”

“Probationary firefighter, sir.”

“What?”

I thought maybe working around sirens had damaged his hearing, so I said it louder, “Probationary firefighter, sir.”

“No,” he said. “You are the new asshole. That’s what your name will be until you show us you belong. Now, what’s your name?”

“It’s John, sir. John O’Doe.”

He laughed and said, “You are one dumb mothafucka. I just told you that your name is now asshole. I’ll ask you again. What’s your name?”

“Oh,” I said. “Right. It’s…uh…my name…is…uh…asshole.”

“Good,” he said with a nod. “You ain’t as dumb as you look. Captain’s office is on the third floor.”

I thanked him, but he had already turned back to the television. As I walked away, he called out, “Hey asshole! Don’t forget to bring enough ice cream for the whole shift on your first day.” This was something that they warned us about in the academy. Every station had its own house rules. Some said that probationary firefighters had to bring donuts every morning for the entirety of their probationary year. Others wanted ice cream every shift. I knew that there were 14-16 firefighters on A shift at this station, depending on vacations and sick time. That was going to be a lot of ice cream. As I made for the wrought iron spiral staircase that led upstairs, I mentally calculated how much this would cost. Given that my salary as a probationary firefighter was a whopping 19K a year, ice cream would take up a chunk of that. Make it through probation, and I would be the recipient of a 2K a year raise! People don’t go into firefighting for the money. That’s for sure.

The staircase deposited me in between a kitchen to my left where two firefighters busied themselves with a pile of dishes and a day room to my right, with a large table in between. On the day room side, a group of firefighters sat on two sofas and a couple of recliners of a distinct 1970s vintage and watched a TV on top of an entertainment center full of VHS tapes. A brick arch on the far side of the kitchen led to a bunk room where I could just make out metal bunks along both walls stretching back to the front of the station. None of the men took any notice of me as I searched for another staircase to bring me up to the third floor.

It looked like there was a hallway on the other side of the day room, so I circled behind the guys and crept down it. There were a few doors on each side. I hit a dead end at the back wall where, on my right, a second set of stairs led back down to the ground floor. There was a door on my left and I carefully opened it and breathed a sigh of when a set of stairs leading up greeted me. The steep, wooden stairs creaked as I walked up. The steps were well worn, from decades of work boots making the same trip I was.

I opened the door at the top of the staircase and found myself in another hallway. There were four doors, even spaced with two on each side. The doors were made of beautifully carved wood and had a frosted glass pane in the center. The door on my right had a sign that said, “Chief.” The left, “Rescue.” I made my way to the second set of doors. The left said, “Ladder,” and the right said, “Engine.” Taking a deep breath, I knocked on the door with my right hand.

“Enter!” barked a gruff voice from inside.

I turned the brass doorknob and walked into the office. I immediately came to attention and saluted the man behind the desk and said, “Probationary Firefighter John O’Doe reporting to Captain Arceneaux of Engine One.”

The captain was an older man with salt and pepper hair with a pair of wire rimmed spectacles on his nose. He sat behind a desk piled high with papers. When he saw me, he stubbed out his cigarette into an ashtray perched perilously atop the largest stack. There were two other desks, similarly filled with forms in the office, and a single metal bunk with a sleeping bag draped over it as a sheet.

“You my new man?” Captain Arceneaux asked.

“Yes, sir,” I said.

“Welcome to hell, kid. Shut the door and give me your file. Then have a seat,” he said as he gestured towards a chair in front of the desk.

After I closed the door behind me, the captain did not stand up, but he did hold out his hand. At first, I thought he meant to shake mine but then realized that he wanted my file. Passing the documents over, I dropped into the chair and said, “I just want to say how happy I am to be assigned to your company. I know that…”

He waved a hand to stop me, then pulled off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“How do you expect me to read through this with you bumping your gums?”

“Yes, sir. Sorry, sir,” I said.

After thumbing through my file for a grand total of thirty seconds, Captain Arceneaux pulled open a desk drawer, dropped the file inside, and slammed it shut. Then he fixed his eyes on me and said, “How old are you, kid?”

“Nineteen, sir,” I said. “Nineteen and a half, exactly.”

“Tell me something,” the Captain said as he began to rub his temples, “why do you want to be a fireman?”

“I want to help people, Captain,” I said with a measure of pride in my voice.

I flinched when, in response, Captain Arceneaux burst out laughing. It was a deep, throaty laugh that soon turned into a hacking cough. He spat a wad of brownish-green phlegm on the floor and said, “Help people? You ever heard the story of that Dutch boy and the dyke?”

“Uh…I don’t think so, sir,” I said.

“Well,” the Captain said as he leaned back in his chair. “There was this Dutch boy over in…over in…wherever Dutch people live at. Anyway, they got these dykes to keep it from flooding. So the water starts coming up and then, one of them dykes starts to spurt water. This Dutch boy knows he only got one way to stop the flood. He’s gotta stick his finger in that dyke and try to hold back the water. Understand what I’m saying?”

I did not, but I did not want to appear unintelligent and so I said, “I…I…think so, sir.”

“That’s what you’ll be doing here, son. Trying to hold back the flood. Twelve calls is a slow shift for us. I don’t know what they expect me to do with a probie whose balls ain’t even dropped yet. Yo’ mamma know you up here playing dress up?”

“I’m just here to do my part, Captain,” I said. I quickly added, “And to learn.”

“The number one thing to learn is to forget that bullshit they taught you in the academy,” Captain Arceneaux said as he fished a pack of Lucky Strikes from his pocket. He shook one out and lit it. After he blew a smoke ring over my head, he said, “I’ve been on the job twenty-eight years. Back when I got hired, we had one month of training. Now they baby y’all for six months. And we didn’t have to learn all that medical bullshit back then either.”

My mind wandered back to six months of being screamed at daily by instructors, forced to do countless pushups and numerous punishment drills. We had training evolutions where they would push us until we were on the brink of heat exhaustion and then give us a ten minute break before they screamed at us to stop playing grab ass and get back to work. At any time, even when you were taking a piss, an instructor might appear and bark, “Recruit, what are three ways that heat is transferred;” or, “Recruit, what is General Order No. 12-378;” or, “Recruit, what is the proper compression to breath ratio on a 6 month old baby with no pulse and no respirations?” Woe unto you if you did not immediately respond with the correct answer. Being called recruit was actually an honor. The instructors normally called us “numb nuts,” “asshole,” or gave us an unflattering nickname based on some unfortunate physical characteristic, or our ethnicity.

As if he could read my mind, the captain said, “So…your last name is O’Doe. You Irish, then?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fucking micks,” he growled. “What is with you people always wanting to be cops or firemen. Don’t you know there’s other jobs out there? Or do ya’ll just got some kinda uniform fetish or something?”

“Uh…,” I stammered, unsure of how to respond.

“That wasn’t a question,” he said. He sighed and said, “Well, I guess I should tell you a little bit about our district.”

Station One was in the First Battalion. Our first due district, that means the area in which our engine would be first on scene of a structure fire, consisted of one square mile. In the center, the old downtown area, now long vacant, looked the surface of the moon with the addition of boarded up shop windows, empty brick warehouses built in the 20s, and an eight story art deco style hotel that had been locked up tight since 1980. The station sat in the middle of all of this. To our east and west, the rest of the district held two neighborhoods, both full of rundown houses built from the 20s through the 40s. It was a high poverty, high crime area, and both neighborhoods were controlled by gangs. The problem was that the neighborhood gang to the east was at war with the gang to the west. The commercial area in between them was a no-man’s land, where both sides often ran into one another and decided to settle their differences, usually with guns, but sometimes with knives.

As the captain talked, he flicked ashes into the ashtray. I had known this about Station One and Engine One. This was the assignment I wanted when I graduated from the academy, however, my being here was a matter of luck. Only the top graduate got to pick their assignment, and I was more towards the middle of the pack, so I was randomly assigned here by a pencil pusher over at departmental headquarters. The station was nicknamed “The Fire Factory” owing to the very high number of fires that came in each year. Engine One was nicknamed “The Ghetto Blasters.” As the captain droned on, I envisioned myself dashing into burning homes and carrying attractive young ladies out on my shoulders. It took a moment to realize he had stopped speaking.

“I said,” the captain repeated, “do you have any questions?”

I had several, as he had not even touched the training regimen for probationary firefighters at this station, but instead, I asked, “Are there any special house rules I should know?”

“Yeah,” the captain grunted, “probationary firefighters are not allowed to use the poles until after their first fire, and only if they don’t fuck up. And if you do screw up, I’ll boot your ass out of here so fast you won’t know what hit you. And I’ll make sure you are done in the fire service. You won’t even be able to volunteer at BumFuck VFD.”

Damn, I swore to myself. I was looking forward to sliding down the pole. I now was even more relieved that there was a staircase besides the spiral one. I could not imagine trying to run down a spiral staircase in the middle of the night to avoid being left behind when a run came in.

The captain lifted the phone on his desk as he mashed a button with a nicotine stained finger. Overhead, an intercom crackled to life and he said, “Jorgensen, get your square head up here.” Almost immediately after he said that, I heard a large bell ringing from somewhere deep inside the station. It sounded like the bells on an old alarm clock, that is, if the clock had ingested steroids. A few seconds later, the intercom crackled to life again and I heard the voice of the firefighter at the watch desk.

“Still alarm. 1459 Second Avenue. Ladder goes.”

The office door opened and a tall, athletic man with shaggy blonde hair longer than the regulations allowed walked in. He looked at me and I rose to greet him. The guy was as tall as a mountain. I had to look up slightly, and I’m 6’2. I offered my hand and he shook it.

“This is the new kid,” Captain Arceneaux said. “Starts on our next shift. Show him around. You know the drill.”

“Will do, Cap,” he said.

I turned and offered my hand to the captain who recoiled as if I intended to slap him. He turned his attention to the stack of forms and Jorgensen motioned for me to follow him out of the office. When I reached the office door, I heard the voice of the captain say, “And you better bring donuts, kid.”

As we walked down to the second floor, I ventured an opinion.

“The captain seems like a tough character.”

Jorgensen snorted and said, “Cap? Naw, he’s all bark and no bite. It’s the Battalion Chief you gotta watch out for. You best just try to stay out of his way. He eats probies for breakfast. A regular ball buster. Even Arceneaux is kinda scared of him.”

Great, I thought. My captain seemed to regard me as a nuisance and a battalion chief with a reputation. On the second floor, Jorgensen pointed out which locker would be mine. He showed me the bathroom and the showers. When he led me into the bunkroom, I learned my cot was the one furthest removed from the window units, but that was not a big surprise. Jorgensen spoke so quickly that I had a difficult time understanding what all he was saying, much less committing it to memory.

Downstairs was even worse. We finally stopped at the cab of the engine. This was not the shiny red fire engines you see on TV. Engine One was old…as old I was, in fact. And she was white, not red. The cab was not fully enclosed and the rear facing jump seats, one behind the driver and one behind the captain, had a roof overhead, but not doors.

“Gets a bit cold sometimes,” Jorgensen said. He pointed to the seat behind the driver. “This’ll be your spot. The seat position matters if we are the second due engine to a fire. That means you’ll have to catch the hydrant. Hope you can do it fast.”

“I can,” I said, “I mean, I did it fast enough in the academy.”

“Academy fast ain’t street fast,” Jorgensen said. “Cap is gonna drill you on it during your first shift. Just a little tip. Also, on your first day, any time you aren’t busy doing something else, make sure you are studying every compartment on the engine. On your second shift, Cap is going to test you on what tools go in what compartment. Trust me. You don’t wanna fail.”

I nodded, expecting this to be the case.

“They issued you all your gear, right?”

“Yes,” I said. At home, I had a newly issued pair of boots, turnout pants and coat, thick red suspenders, a nomex hood, and a leather Cairns New Yorker helmet with red shield that said “probationary firefighter.” More than anything, I wanted my helmet to look like the ones the instructors had, charred black and covered in the soot of a hundred fires or more.

“First thing you do when you get here is get your gear set up by your riding spot. Cap don’t care how you do it, just so long as you can get into quick. Second, sign the company logbook in the watch room. That officially puts you on duty.”

“Got it,” I said.

My eye was drawn to a small circular hole in the side of the truck, right near the spot I where I had been assigned to ride.

“Is that…”

“Yep,” Jorgensen said. “Bullet hole.”

Before he could elaborate, I heard the bells ringing again. I heard the firefighter in the watch room give a triumphant shout, then his voice came over the intercom.

“Box Alarm! Box 726. Canal Street at Jefferson Avenue. House goes.”

Bodies came hurtling down the poles from the second floor as Jorgensen kicked off his station shoes.

“Gotta run, kid,” he said. “Try not to be late for your shift.”

I stood on the apron and watched as the station emptied. The battalion chief left first, followed by the engine, and then the rescue. They made a noisy parade as they disappeared around the corner leaving to me contemplate the bullet hole and wondering just what in the hell I had gotten myself into.

Journal of a Pandemic Year: Part Twenty-Seven

Dear Readers,

I got lucky, truly. Thought I am in the 1-B group here in Texas due to a chronic disease and thus qualify to be vaccinated, there weren’t any vaccines available in my area, and whenever they’d get them in, they would run out of appointment slots almost immediately. Mid-morning on Sunday, January 17th, I was hanging out in my usual haunt (the front porch). On a whim, I checked the county health page and they had just opened up for registrations! I was able to book an appointment for 0900 on Wednesday, Jan. 20th. I had to drive around 30 minutes or so to get to the vaccine hub, but it went quickly. The shot was the least painful shot I’ve ever had. Right away, I got a metallic taste in my mouth and my skin felt warm, like when you get contrast for a CT Scan, but it passed quickly. It is a little over 48 hours later as I type this. My arm is still sore, but definitely less so than yesterday. Today I also feel a little achy, have mild chills off an on, and a slightly elevated temperature (99.1), but it’s not too bad as of yet. I suppose that could change though. I’m looking forward to getting my second dose. (I got the Moderna vaccine).

Molly’s Song is winding its way toward publication. I’m not sure of a release date as of yet, but I will update you as soon as I know. As much as I would like to have had the book out for you yesterday, that is not how this works. It takes a lot of time to write a book, and it also takes time to publish a book. But I assure you that your patience will be rewarded when you get to read the story! Now I need to devote myself to writing the first sequel so that you won’t have to wait as long in between the release of those books. Molly still has plenty of stories left to tell!

And speaking of headstrong redheads, my wife is a Chiefs fan and she’s already planning what outfit to wear to watch them in the Super Bowl. When I remind her that they have to beat the Bills first, she sends me to my room. I’m a Saints fan and they turned in a typically putrid performance that saw them out of the playoffs last Sunday. Underperforming in the playoffs (with the exception of one year), is sort of a Saints tradition. Is it baseball season yet? Though to be fair, I would not call what the Red Sox played last year baseball. Hopefully this season will be better.

When I first started keeping this running Pandemic Year series back in March, I had no idea that ten months and twenty-seven posts later, I’d still be writing it. Originally, did not have a plan for how long I’d keep it up. Part of me thought I would do it until there was a vaccine, which there is, but it will take a long time for enough people to get it to make a difference. With that in mind, I am going to keep this going until next August when I “should” start back to my normal face to face teaching duties. That said, there will be other posts not in this series during that time too, particularly related to the release of Molly’s Song.

Once all this is over, the three things I plan to do are: go to mass, visit co-workers I haven’t seen in March, and get a new tattoo (it’ll be my fourth). I’m not sure what order I’ll do them in either!

Until next time, friends, take care of yourselves. And each other.

L.H.

Journal of a Pandemic Year: Part Twenty-Six

Dear Readers,

I came to a sudden realization this morning. For the past ten months, I’ve been dealing with crippling writer’s block which is somewhat new to me as it is not anything that I’ve struggled with in the past. Sure, I managed to get all the edits done to Molly’s Song and place it with a publisher, but by my own calendar, I should have had two other books written by now. (One being the sequel to MS and the other being a stand alone) Whereas in other, better, times, I can stand in front of the computer, close my eyes, and visualize the story unfolding in my head, now when I close my eyes, I see nothing but darkness. Today I finally understand why that is, though unfortunately there is not much I can do about it.

For the past ten months, like many of you, I spent most of my time looking at the same four walls. Apart from doctor appointments and my morning walk on the beach, I haven’t been anywhere, not even to campus. It’s the lack of variety and variation in my day to day life in this pandemic world that is causing my brain to lock up. Alas, there is not much that can be done to change things, at least not until I can get my vaccine. I’m in the priority group due to a chronic medical condition that puts me at high risk, so hopefully I can before too much longer. Regardless, I’ll be able to power through the block eventually. It’s bound to happen sooner or later. There will be that eureka moment. I just have to be patient.

Sadly, another issue from my past has decided to intrude upon the present. In Nov. of 2017, I spent a week in the hospital due to a small bowel obstruction. It cleared up, but I was back in January when it reoccurred. I had an emergency surgery and spent three weeks there. Upon release, I was still sick, or at least I still felt sick. In March, another obstruction hit me (on our tenth anniversary, no less). I spent another week there and was told I needed another operation, this time a bigger one. I had that surgery done in mid May. So that’s the backstory.

When I got out of the hospital in May of 18, I had dropped all the way down to 130 pounds…and I’m 6’4. In May of 2020, I finally got back to the weight I was prior to Nov. of 2017 when it all started. Over the course of time, I had gotten to the point that I no longer worried about the condition. The second surgery appeared to have worked. Bowel obstructions (and the horrific pain they cause) stopped crossing my mind at all. Now, the primary cause of small bowel obstructions is abdominal adhesions, but mine is caused by my autoimmune disease attacking my intestines and causing a section to essentially stop working and so nothing would pass through them. The second surgery added a second “drainage” spot from my stomach to my duodenum which, in theory, means that is the primary drain backs up, the secondary drain will handle it. Just like your air conditioning unit!

However, the blockages are returning. In early September, I can’t remember the exact date, I developed an obstruction in the morning. I went to the ER (as it is a medical emergency and can be life threatening). Thankfully they were able to tell me how to get it to clear up at home since they could identify a specific issue on the C/T scan. Everything was fine until Friday, Jan. 8th. That morning it hit me again, hard. I had always said that the obstruction in Nov. of 2017 was the most painful, however, the one on Jan. 8th overtook that one. I waited to go to the hospital though. After some violent vomiting episodes, I did feel a little better, but I finally went in. They were busy, as well you can imagine, and so by the time I finally got my C/T scan, it was over eight hours from the onset time. The scan came back clear, as apparently the vomiting forced the blockage to release.

Unfortunately, until they see it on a scan, they won’t really be able to figure out the exact cause and decide what the course of action is. Typically, that is a surgery, but more surgeries increases the risk of more obstructions. It is a never ending cycle. Even now, while I type this, I can feel that all too familiar twinge in my stomach that usually signifies an incoming obstruction. Sometimes it passes on its own, but other times in doesn’t. The last thing I wanted to worry about right now is a recurrence of an issue from two years ago that might very well lead to extended hospital stays and surgeries, but it is what it is.

Everyone has their own crosses to bear, I just happen to have a couple of them. Heavy ones, at that.

Until next time, Dear Readers, take care of yourselves. And each other.

L.H.

Molly’s Song Update

Dear Readers,

My forthcoming novel, Molly’s Song (Fireship Press, Release Date: TBD), is the first in a projected series. And Molly O’ is a character that commands a separate place. I have made a new website that is about her and the world in which she inhabits. Please consider click here and giving her site a follow. As the website grows, it’ll include more information about her, the book(s), the writing process, and her various adventures. She will be making some of the posts herself too. But take care. She’s got a sharp tongue and can be a bit cheeky.

Until next time, friends, take care of yourselves, and each other.

L.H.

A Long December: My 2020 Year in Review

Dear Readers,

It’s that time of year again! Time for me to write my personal year in review. Obviously, I’ve had an ongoing series on here called “Journal of a Pandemic Year” which stretches back to March. I think there are twenty-four or twenty-five entries in that series, some of which will make its way here. 2020 has been one for the books, that’s for sure. And soon, the year will be history and we can move onto 2021. In last year’s post, I mentioned my first novel came out in 2019 and on New Year’s Eve, the audiobook version hit the shelves, so that year definitely ended on a major upswing. How quickly everything came crashing back to earth.

In January, I spent the first week of classes in the hospital due to a complication with the disease that I suffer from. In fact, when I went to the ER near my house, they had to transfer me to the Medical Center in Houston to a larger teaching hospital so that I could get better care, as the disease is somewhat rare as a whole and virtually unheard of in a male patient. They treated me pretty well at the hospital and the bed was the most comfortable hospital bed I’ve ever been in, and I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals! Still, missing the first week of classes at the start of a semester (for the second time in two years) makes it hard to find your footing. Once I was back in the classroom, I never quite managed to hit my stride. It felt like I was swimming upstream.

Attending the Independent Audiobook Awards, virtually, of course

I started paying attention to reports about the virus right around the end of January. I figured it was a matter of time before it found its way to this country. The week before we left for Spring Break, the first case popped up in the county where my campus is. I was really looking forward to the break as I needed a chance to recharge my batteries and reevaluate what I was doing and where I was going. Ironically enough, the last thing I lectured about was the Spanish Influenza pandemic. About midway through the break, things started to accelerate. The NBA postponed the season. I had been excited about Spring Training starting, but the MLB decided to postpone things as well. And then we got the notice that the college would be switching online for the balance of the semester.

Pandemic haircut

The move to the online format wasn’t as traumatic for me as it might have been for others because I’ve taught at least a couple of online classes every semester going back to the fall of 2013. It took a little bit of work to switch the face to face classes over to the new format, but it wasn’t too terrible. The more time consuming part was recording lectures. I spent countless hours doing this until I checked the states and realized the students weren’t watching them. But then April arrived.

The new look

I won’t belabor the point here, because if you’ve followed the blog for while, you already know the story. I’ll try to be brief. Basically, our roof got damaged in a storm which necessitated a new roof and an entirely new electrical system. (We also went ahead and had the house painted while we were at it). Since they had to open up some walls to do the electrical work, we also had to do a small kitchen renovation too. All told, it came to around 35K. Trust me, you do not want a basketball sized hole in your roof. Ever. The house is 88 years old and so she needed a bit of a facelift. We are happy with the results.

 Since I had finished the first draft of Molly’s Song back on Thanksgiving of 2019, I had spent time doing my own edits. I sent her off to my editor Kristen in March. My plan was to tackle the content edits before the semester was over and send the book back for a copyedit in June. But I’m sure you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice and men. Likewise, in June I also planned on starting to write my third novel; the massive novel set in the Russian Revolution that I have dreamed of writing for years. I had it all plotted out and outlined, but the repairs interfered. Since I missed the window of time that I had wanted to start, along with everything else going on in the world, I never quite got my mind right to write. (ha ha)

My son turned 18 at the end of May and graduated from high school a few days later in early June. (He also graduated with an AA degree from the community college two weeks before that). They had an in-person graduation since at that time, case counts were still relatively low. That would change, of course. Oddly enough, I don’t really remember much from the summer which is kind of funny since it wasn’t that long ago. I wasn’t teaching, at least not for the first part, and I wasn’t doing any writing. Maybe that’s why it was so unremarkable. I did teach the second half of the summer virtually, of course.

Elizabeth and I in the pre-Rona days

Given the rapid rise in case in July and early August, my wife and I made the difficult decision to live apart once school started back for her. The district where she works was falling all over themselves trying to rush to be the first district in the state to open for the new school year. Given that we knew she would be exposed, it was inevitable, and the fact that with my health, I am all but certain to not have a positive outcome should I contract the virus, it was for the best. We stayed apart for the first six weeks of the school year before we decided that it just wasn’t worth it. Whatever happens, it happens to both of us. (Other districts have shut down when they had a few positive cases…my wife’s district had 45 new positive cases in the two weeks after Thanksgiving alone and they have said repeatedly they will not switch to virtual instruction for any reason).

Hurricane preparations aren’t complete until the pirate flag goes up

As if 2020 wasn’t bad enough, we had to dodge a few hurricanes in late August/early September. The worst of it was to our east, but it’s one of those things. Every time one is looming out there and on track for your area, you have to prepare for it to make landfall right on top of you. The one time you don’t is the one time it will. It can be stressful, but for those like myself who have spent a lifetime on the Gulf Coast, you kind of get used to it over time. The one positive thing is that at least if we had taken a direct hit, we’d have had a new roof to protect us. Then again, I’d prefer that its strength not get tested. Since we’ve shelled out all the money on repairs/renovations, we have decided to add storm shutters before next hurricane season starts.

I don’t touch alcohol and the last vice I really had was smoking. I gave that up in August. I mean, what better time than the middle of a pandemic? I do still enjoy a fine maduro cigar on occasion, but only rare occasions. After twenty-years in the arms of Nick O’Tine, I had not realized how much time I spent on the porch with my smokes. I needed something to do to fill the void. Once upon a time, I loved singing, so I purchased myself a karaoke machine! It serves a very useful purpose on two fronts. Not only could it distract me until the cravings passed, but it also served as an excellent way to start rehabbing my lungs. Slowly but surely, my voice is coming back.

I’ve dealt with some medical issues later in the year, including a cancer scare. As a retired fireman, I walk around with cancer hanging over my head like the Sword of Damocles. In late August, I started having some deep pains in my lungs. I already have fibrosis in both of them due to occupational exposure. I went to the doctor and he packed me off to have a CT scan. Long story short, the autoimmune disease that I developed after I got hurt and retired has caused me to develop a few benign lung nodules. They aren’t serious and are not life threatening. I’ve had a couple of Rona scares too. I’ve talked about them in my other posts and so I’m not going to dive into it here. I’ll just say that I tested negative in both cases, though the second still left me pretty sick of a week. And then we had the spinal injection from hell…

My new friend, a feral cat that I named Alexander Nevsky

I sent Molly’s Song off for copyediting in mid-September. I got it back in early October. I spent a week or so putting the finishing touches on it and then it went out on submission. I think I was up to 50 rejections before I got an offer for publication, which I accepted. The book should be out in 2021. It’s the first in a projected series, so there will be at least two more to follow. So stay tuned to my website for updates as to the release date, etc. Going from initial idea to offer of publication was long, tough slog through hours alone in front of my computer battling self-doubt and frustration. It was worth it to see it all pay off in the end. Molly is a wonderful character who took over the book on her own. I have to say that I’ve developed a bit of a crush on her. And since she was inspired by an old photograph, I know what she looks like.  

It was a subdued Christmas this year. We traditionally do gifts on Christmas Eve. Honestly, there was much that my wife and I needed or wanted this year, so we didn’t exchange any. The family event that we usually hold that night was cancelled due to The Rona. My mother and I are both in the high risk category, so that was for the best. However, on Christmas Day, my parents did stop by for a little bit. We stayed outside and wore masks and socially distanced ourselves. My typical Christmas Day tradition (post retirement from the FD) is to watch the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It’s the best of all of them, in my opinion, and you can watch it on YouTube here.

One of my photoedits
And here’s another

I’ve learned a couple of new skills during quarantine. I have learned photoshop and also how to colorize black and white photos. My photoshop skills mean that I can add myself to photos with my Maska. Or I can add her to photos of me. I’ll post a couple of examples above. As far as colorizing photos is concerned, I was able to give my little girl, Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Anastasia Colleen Hutchison, a special Christmas present. I touched up and colorized a photo of the Grand Duchess Anastasia she is named after and had it printed out and framed to give her as a Christmas present. Above, you see a photo of her posing with her picture. I hung it over the spot where she sleeps at night (and during the day).

Anastasia with her Christmas Present
One of my colorizations of Grand Dutchess Anastasia
And here’s one of my Mashka

It took about four days to recover from the spinal injections from hell, though my pain only went down to pre-procedure levels, not pre-flare up levels. However, I managed a good week or so. The day after Christmas, things went south again. My entire spine locked up from ears to ass and I had to spend a large part of the day in bed on ice packs. Though I am always in pain of varying degrees every second of the day, I can still function okay. The problem is that my usual day to day pain level was a four. Over the past year, it has crept up to a 6. And where in the past, I had flare ups that lasted three or four days happen every four months or so and kicked my pain level up to an 8, it always soon went back down to a 4. What scares me is that over the past year, not only has my day to day pain level gone up to a 6, but I’m getting one flare up lasting 7-10 days every month. Honestly, it makes me dread going back to work in person in August. I don’t know how I’m going to manage a two hour round trip commute. It’s not like I’ll have much of choice though, so I’ll learn to cope. I’ve always known that my injuries will continue to cause my spine to deteriorate over time, but this last year has really seen it accelerate. The frustrating thing is that there is nothing that can be done. There’s no surgery that can fix it because, in the words of my surgeon, “it looks like World War 2 was fought in your lumbar spine and World War 1 in your cervical spine.” Medications can take the edge of a little, but doctors are prevented by the government from prescribing heavier meds now due to all the restrictions. So people like me are left to suffer in silence. It does seem as though suffering is essential to the human experience.

And here’s one more colorization, just because.

My annual New Year’s Eve tradition is to watch the Twilight Zone marathon on the ScyFy Channel. This means my day started at 0500 when I awoke to catch the first episode which, incidentally, was the pilot episode for the entire series. I’ve seen all the episodes a dozen times each, if not more, but I always get something new out of them with every re-watch. It truly is a television masterpiece and many of the themes are just as relevant today as they were when the episodes aired. Later on tonight, well after the sun goes down, I brave the cold front that has dropped our temperature 35 degrees in a matter of hours and have a cigar with a glass of calvados to usher bid farewell to 2020 (good riddance) and usher in 2021.

In later December 1944, the popular New Year’s Eve toast in Berlin was, “1944 had twelve months. Maybe 1945 won’t bring us quite so many” and rather than wishing people a Happy New Year, residents of Berlin simply said, “Survive.” After 2020, I think we can all relate to those sentiments. All month long I have been thinking of the song “Long December” by Counting Crows, particularly the line that says, “It’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe maybe this year will be better than the last.” Let’s hope that is true!

Though I do love my office at the college, it’s hard to beat the view from my pandemic office.

I’m going to do something a little different this year. Given the fact that I’ve been more or less housebound for nine months, I’m going to give you a list of some of the TV shows I watched and novels that I read. It’s not all inclusive, of course, but being a writer and all, I thought you might like to see what I’ve enjoyed watching/reading.

The lovely Demelza as portrayed by Eleanor Tomlinson

  TV Shows watched (*=rewatch):

Poldark: Demelza is an absolute goddess!

Тихий Дон* (2015): My favorite television drama. (Adapted from my favorite novel).

Love in Chains: An epic Russian/Ukrainian historical drama. Free on Amazon Prime w/subtitles.

Anastasia (the Broadway musical)

True Detective Season 1*

Admiral: a ten part Russian drama about Admiral Kolchak (free w/Prime and subtitled)

Hell on Wheels

Deadwood*

The Sopranos: Seasons 1 & 2

Peaky Blinders: Seasons 1 & 2

Ripper Street*

Copper*

Designated Survivor

The Stand: (the new version that came out in Dec.)

Lights Out* (A cool drama season about a down and out boxer who runs a gym. On Amazon)

The Last Czars (I wish I hadn’t. It is very inaccurate).

House of Cards: The original British version

Ancestral Lands: An epic newish Russian series. Free on Prime w/subtitles

Romanovs: An Imperial Family: About the last 18 months in the lives of the Romanovs. I have it on DVD, but it is also available free on YouTube w/ English subtitles.

The Road to Calvary: (Excellent recent Russian TV drama. Was on Netflix but is no longer)

Cold Case (entire series)   

Some of the Books I Read (Fiction):

*= books I read for the second (or more) time and += read them in the original Russian

Journal of a Pandemic Year

Moll Flanders

Vanity Fair

Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Quiet Flows the Don*+

Doctor Zhivago*+

The Revolution of Marina M.

Chimes of a Lost Cathedral

Anna Karenina*+

The Stand

Lonesome Dove*

Shoeless Joe

Russka

The Butcher’s Daughter

December Girl

Palmetto

An Instrument of War

Make Me No Grave

Our War

Russian Treasures

Ribbons of Scarlet

Paris

Million Dollar Baby*

Beau Geste

Caribbean

Crime and Punishment*+

War and Peace*+

Fat City*

The Professional

The Berlin Boxing Club

The King of Warsaw

The Last Daughter

(Note that these lists are not all inclusive. I watched a lot more than this and I also read a ton of non-fiction books not listed above, mostly about Russian History/Literature).

You’ll notice on both lists that I revisited shows and books that I have seen/read before. That is because in times of trouble, like 2020 has been, I take comfort in familiar things. For example, I’ve seen the 2015 14 part adaptation of Quiet Flows the Don probably a dozen times. Part of that because Aksinia Astakhova, one of the characters, is my literary crush, and the actress that plays her in this series is out of this world! (And a great actress too!) Taking comfort in familiar things is why I also rock out to 90s music all the time. It reminds me of when my life was simpler, and perhaps most importantly, how I felt pre-injuries.

The lovely Aksinia Astakhova as portrayed by Polina Chernyshova

In case you are wondering why so much Russian stuff appears on both lists, I could easily, and truthfully, say that Russian History is my “thing.” It is a bit deeper than that, though. From childhood (during the latter part of the Cold War), I was fascinated with Russian history, which is kind of odd being that we were fed a steady diet of anti-Russian propaganda in school. Many years later when, as an adult, I started to learn the language, my tutor (who was Russian) was amazed that I picked it up as quickly as I did. She said she had never seen someone whose native tongue was English acquire a working knowledge of Russian so quickly, and without an obvious American accent when speaking. Keep in mind, I do not have a natural gift for languages. I struggle with English on a daily basis and I grew up speaking it. She once told me, “You have the blood of an Irishman, but you have the soul of a Russian.” I took that to be a great compliment, which is how it was intended. Sometimes I wonder if our interests in life don’t come from something buried deep in our psyche or our soul from a part of us that we cannot readily access. But even if that is true, I’m not from Russia and have no Russian ancestry, and this goes back to my childhood when I would have been hard pressed to find the country on a map.  

And there you have it, friends, my 2020 year in review.

Here’s wishing all of you, my dear readers, a 2021 filled with much joy and happiness.  

L.H.

Journal of a Pandemic Year: Part Twenty-Five

Dear Readers,

I just wanted to give you a quick update rather than a full blown post. As I referenced at the end of the last post, I had gotten sick on Friday. Saturday morning, I had a COVID test but they said that it would be five days or so until I had the results back. On Sunday, I woke up with chest pain and tightness in my lungs. I went ahead and went into the ER. They ran a whole bunch of tests, including another COVID test. Everything came back normal and the COVID test was negative. I didn’t have the Rona, but rather a raging upper respiratory infection. They gave me a bunch of prescriptions and sent me home. Getting over the URI has been tough, but it isn’t the Rona, so I’m grateful for that. My Mashka was definitely watching over me.

It is Thursday as I write this. The fever and chills are gone. I still have a lot of gunk in my chest, but I think it is getting better, albeit slowly. Today, I entered grades and finished all the end of the semester paperwork for the college and one more semester is in the books. We have a shorter than usual turnaround this time, three weeks off instead of four, but I plan to take full advantage of it. Normally, my end of the semester tradition is to have a Sharpe’s Rifles marathon. However, I’m probably not going to do that to mark the end of this one.

On Monday, Dec. 21st, I’m going to launch myself wholeheartedly into knocking out the first draft of the sequel to Molly’s Song which I am tentatively calling Molly’s Journey. As soons as I have a release date for Molly’s Song, I’ll be sure to let you know, so stay tuned for updates. Also, my next post will not be part of the “Journal” series. It will be my annual “Year In Review” post which I will make on Dec. 31st.

Until then, Dear Readers, take care of yourselves. And each other.

L.H.