Another Semester in the Books

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Dear Readers,

Another semester has come to a close. I haven’t had much time to blog over the past few months. I taught seven courses this semester (my contracted 5 and 2 overloads). On top of that, there were meetings, office hours, and working on revised drafts of my novel (now in the copy editing phase).  Now I have a month off, and I plan to spend it playing Red Dead Redemption 2 and wrapping up my novel copy edits. I think I can manage to do both.

In other news, I moved into a new office at the college this week. When I got hired full time, there wasn’t any available office space, and so I had a cubicle. It was a nice, big cubicle, and I had it all to myself. But when they told me that I could have a real office after a professor retired, well, I leapt at the chance. I got set up yesterday, and now it resembles a museum of fire helmets. Some mine and some antique ones. Students don’t generally make use of office hours though, and I spend ten hours a week staring at the phone waiting for it to ring, or gazing at the door waiting for a student to appear. When neither happens, I wander around the office suite and pester my co-workers.

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A couple of weeks ago, we (myself, my wife, and a friend) went down to Galveston for Dickens on the Strand, an annual Victorian Era festival. My friend and I donned Yankee blue for the trip. We had a lot of fun. So much fun, in fact, that my wife had to drive us home! There were lots of people dressed in Victorian clothing. We even got our picture taken with a suffragette! The food was great, as was the beer. Next year, I’m planning on going as a 19th Century firefighter.

Apologies for the short post, but the Old West beckons. I’ll see you on the trail, pilgrim. And look forward to another post within a few days about my favorite Western fiction.

L.H.

Dickens on the Strand

Dear Readers,

Yesterday I made the drive down to Galveston for the 45th Annual Dickens on the Strand event. Growing up, my parents would take us every year, rain or shine, and some of my fondest childhood memories are of spending the day walking around The Strand and looking at all the people in Victorian Era Costumes. Later, as an adult, I would go with my late friend Robert and we would set up a table and talk to people about Civil War Galveston whilst dressed in Union Navy uniforms. (One year a group of Victorian “working girls” came up to us and said “We love seamen!”)

But I haven’t been down there since Robert passed away as I thought the memories would be too difficult for me. I decided to break my ten year long absence and sally forth to occupy the city in the name of the United States Navy, circa 1862. With me on this trip were my wife and my friend Mike. I wore my US Naval surgeon uniform and with me I had licenses to pass out to women of the town. The US military establishment during the Civil War required working girls to have a health certificate and a license to operate in occupied areas, so I was only doing my part to ensure the health and well being of our soldiers and sailors.

The weather was perfect and the crowd was one of the largest I’ve seen attend. Also, I was particularly happy to see so many young people dressed up. There were tons of pirates there (which isn’t really a Victorian thing, so I’m not sure what is up with that). I also liked all the suffragettes who wore sashes which said “Votes for Women”. A particularly attractive one even asked if she could get a picture with us, which we readily agreed to! Words do not exist to describe the all the wonderful foods available! We had lunch at a German beer garden (at my German wife’s insistence). I’ve never had sauerkraut balls before and Holy Crap they were good! And funnel cakes……how I love thee.

It was a great day and I had a ton of fun. So much fun that my wife had to drive us home….

L.H.

Once More Into the Breach

 

Anastasia

Dear Readers,

It’s been several years since my retirement from the Fire Service, but I’m still not used to being off on holidays. For many, many years, holidays were just another work day. My Thanksgiving Break started yesterday (Tuesday) afternoon. I’m not much of a turkey eater, so I have no plans to stuff myself on Thursday. Indeed, my only real Thanksgiving tradition is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And even then I must avert my eyes whenever they show the clowns. No, Reader Mine, this Thanksgiving I will be tackling yet another round of revisions as I prepare to send my manuscript out for the copy edit. This will be my last substantive edit. The remaining ones will focus on grammar, word usage, etc.

This has made me look back and consider all the editing rounds I’ve done to see how many drafts I’ve gone through and which changes were made to each. I save each draft as a separate file, so I can actually track my own progress across the drafts. So here is what I’ve done so far (and this has stretched over many months).

Draft One: Took about a year to write. Afterwards, I put it aside for several months before giving it a full read through and marked changes, mostly to character, story, plot, etc.

Draft Two: Incorporated those changes, plus the changes my wife suggested after reading the first draft. After completing Draft Two, I again put it aside for a couple of months before giving it a fresh read to prepare a third draft, which is what would go to my content editor.

Draft Three: Most of the changes here were to language, dialogue, and cleaning up “Americanisms” as my characters are not American. In between Draft Two and Three, I also chased down some lingering research issues and incorporated that into this book. And then came the content edit!

Draft Four: This is the first draft to incorporate editorial feedback from someone other than myself or my wife. I received excellent feedback from my editor and during my first pass through the draft, I added in the suggested big picture changes which were easier to include. Then I set the book aside for a few weeks while I made copious notes based on the more detailed feedback.

Draft Five: This was probably the most substantive of all the drafts. Whole chunks were slashed or re-written. I delved deeper into the psychology of the characters, based on suggestions from the editor. This helped bring them into sharper focus, I think. Or rather, I hope. I tweaked the timeline of the book as well. I also printed out a full copy so that the next reading could be a physical one. I then let another six weeks pass before having another go.

Draft Six: My wife read Draft Five, her first reading since the original draft, and made notes on the pages. Once she was done, I gave it a read through and made my own notes. Most of the changes going into Draft Six involve fixing typos, removing redundant words or unclear/awkward phrasing. I’m trying to clean up as much as I can so to maximize the benefit of the copy edit.

So how many more drafts will there be? Two. Draft Seven will be the first round of the copy edit and Draft Eight will be the second round. By mid January, it should be submission ready. I’ve identified seven presses which accept historical fiction submissions without needing an agent. If I strike out there, I will self publish the book. But that’s still quite a ways down the road.

I’ll get there eventually. Sooner, in fact, than it appears.

L.H.

Mightier Than the Sword: My Favorite Civil War Novels

Dear Readers,

To sort of piggyback off of yesterday’s post, today I shall endeavor to discuss my favorite works of Civil War fiction. Keep in mind, that all I am saying is that these are my favorites. I am not saying that they are the best. Whether or not a person likes a book or not is a personal thing. I’ve read bestsellers that I did not like and I’ve read obscure books with only a few hundred copies published that I think are, or should be, classics. My personal collection of books is well over 2,000 volumes and around 500 of them are Civil War specific, so I’ve read every standard work and a whole lot of non-standard works, fiction and non, on the subject. I shall endeavor to tell you a little bit about why I like each of the books described below and where I was in life when I read them, as that may have something to do with why I enjoy them so much.

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Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith was the first Civil War novel I read. The winner of the 1958 Newbery Medal was published the previous year. As I remember, I read the book when I was in third grade which would put it around 1985. This is a young adult novel and the protagonist is sixteen years old. What I enjoyed about this book is that you got to meet a large cross section of people; from Union soldiers to Cherokee Confederates, to civilians caught in the middle. Since the novel involves action in and around the Indian Territory, it covers something left out of the vast body of Civil War literature which tends to focus on things further east. I can longer recall what brought me to read Rifles for Watie. I have a vague memory of doing a book report on it, but I don’t know why I selected it. If I had to guess, it was probably a combination of the cover and the fact that it was about the Civil War.

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Love and War by John Jakes. This is book two of his North and South trilogy and this is the volume that covers the actual war itself. (North and South covers the Mexican War through the Secession Crisis while Heaven and Hell covers Reconstruction.) Though to be honest, you should really read all three in order. Jakes paints on a vast canvas. Too vast, I think, for me to truly capture the essence of it. The novels provide an in depth look at the events of the day through the eyes of two families, the Hazards and the Mains. There are a few differences between the mini-series (which was good in an 80s miniseries sort of way) and the novels. But honestly, they are so significant as to detract from the story. My introduction to these books came from television. I remember when the first miniseries aired in 85 and the second in 86. My grandfather recorded them on the VCR, and I watched them quite a few times. I did not read the books until I was in high school in the early 90s. I found them at a library book sale for a quarter apiece. It was pocket change well spent. As I mentioned yesterday, this book taught me that when writing about the Civil War, try to go for the lesser told tale rather than rehashing the same things that have been written about a million times. I also learned that well written historical fiction can be as educational as it is entertaining. Finally, Jakes taught me how to write complex characters that accurately reflect the temperament and mindset of the era in which your books is set. Jakes wrote quite a few other books. I have copies of all of his historical novels and I cannot recommend them enough. He is my biggest inspiration as a writer of historical fiction.

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Look Away & Until the End by Harold Coyle tell the story of two brothers separated by war and forced onto opposite sides by circumstances largely outside their control. Coyle was an Army officer and is best known for his World War Three novel Team Yankee. I read his Civil War novels when I was in high school and identified with the main characters, largely because they were of similar age to me. One common theme you might see here is that I read a lot of books in high school. I rarely read things that were assigned for a class, preferring to find my own books instead. My teachers, thankfully, largely tolerated this since I read a whole lot more than most of my classmates. Though these books do contain the usual Civil War clichés, the action sequences are well written and the characters are believable. The situation which separates the brothers and sets them down the path to end up opposing one another in the war is plausible as well. These are not dense, heavy reads. In fact, if you are a fast reader, you could probably finish one of them in a night. I would also suggest that if there is a young person in your family who likes to read, and who you would like to get interested in the Civil War, give them both of these books. They will no doubt find them interesting. Who knows, said young person might become the next great Civil War historian or novelist.

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The Black Flower by Howard Bahr tells the tale of the Battle of Franklin and its aftermath. This was among the most horrendous engagements of the entire war, though it is largely forgotten outside of enthusiasts of the Western Theater. Bahr was an English professor, and this novel is, what I would classify, as a literary novel. It’s written in a way that I could never dream of doing myself. It won the WY Boyd Award for military fiction in 1998. The funny thing is that it came out around the same time as Cold Mountain. While Cold Mountain won the National Book Award and was eventually made into a movie, not to mention being mentioned on national television programs, The Black Flower got no major media coverage at all, despite being (in my opinion) a much better book. I will admit to a certain bias though. As I’ve written about before, I’ve had a reoccurring dream of the Battle of Franklin for most of my life and so I am pre-disposed to like ANY book written about the battle, fiction or non. Lastly, the one thing that I enjoyed the most about this book is that it manages to show both the horrific and the absurd, both present on Civil War battlefields. You can find the account of my recurring dream about the Battle of Franklin here.

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I saved the best for last. Paradise Alley (2002) by Kevin Baker is one of the finest Civil War novels ever written, though the events on the battlefield are somewhat removed from the story itself. Instead, it tells the story of the worst instance of urban unrest in American History. It has entered our lexicon as the “New York City Draft Riots” though, as I discuss here, it was really a full scale urban insurrection. To call it a mere riot does not do it justice. It seems as if the Draft Riots are known outside of Civil War circles merely because of the movie Gangs of New York. While the movie nails the setting and costumes of 1863 Manhattan, it falls flat on the history itself. Still, some knowledge is better than no knowledge. Back to the novel. Baker does an incredible job describing the environs of lower Manhattan in the summer of 1863, along with those who inhabit it. We see a cross section of people, so the reader is exposed to various viewpoints both political and social, all accurate for the time period. His descriptions of the Great Hunger in Ireland are among the best I’ve ever read in a novel. One of the ways this book inspired me is that the author goes for all of the senses. He describes how things look, feel, and smell. (Smell often gets left out of fictional descriptions.) For this reason, it my own writing, I try and make sure the nose is duly assaulted by the odors of the past. As an Irish-American, I feel that Baker does justice to both our triumphs and our tragedies. Though discriminated against themselves, the Irish in this country could be quite racist in the 19th Century, though no more so than society at large. Paradise Alley is a book I have recommended to people time and time again. I’ll continue to do so in the future. If you’d like to read a post I wrote about the Draft Riots, you can do so here.

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I am aware, Dear Readers, that I have left The Red Badge of Courage, The Killer Angels, and Gone With the Wind off the list. Yes, I have read them all. Yes, I own copies of them all. In fact, I have a first edition Gone With the Wind. These books are classics and I do not seek to diminish them in the slightest. They are simply not my favorite Civil War novels. As this list describes my favorites, those three do not make the cut. I’d be happy to hear what your favorites are, especially if they are lesser known titles. I’m always on the hunt for more things to read. In fact, I’m presently reading This Scorched Earth by William Gear. I’m enjoying it because one of the characters is a Civil War era doctor and during my time as a reenactor, I portrayed, among other things, a Civil War surgeon (both Army and Navy). His novel doesn’t shy away from the more brutal aspects of the war either. So add that one to your list if you enjoy Civil War fiction.

Happy Reading!

L.H.

An UnCivil War

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My “trick” for multiple viewpoint novels is to make a storyboard. This one is part one of my novel.

Dear Readers,

As my World War Two novel goes through the final edits and I decide whether to publish traditionally or not, I have been working on the background for my next novel. The research for it was done years ago, so I’m lucky in that regard. So Others May Live did not start out as a National Novel Writing Month project, but I did finish it during November of 2017. Going into NaNoWriMo 2018, I thought it might be nice to start a novel and we’ll see where it leads. I have my character sketches and I have made my storyboards for the novel. I gained enough confidence in writing So Others May Live to attempt another multi-viewpoint novel. It is set in Canada and New York in the summer and fall of 1864. The outline is done. The first chapter written. Character sketches drawn up. And I have my music playlist to go along with my writing, so I’m about as ready as one can be.

I’ll not say too much else about the plot at the moment, but I will say that it is a Civil War novel that does not take place on the battlefield, or at least not on the traditional battlefields. You’ll find no tales of battlefields and brigades, but rather of men and women torn by conflicting ideals, shifting loyalties, and uncertain futures. There are no bands, bugles, and bags of glory. Instead, you get a glimpse of the “dirty war”; a war fought in the shadows by men of questionable repute pursued by lawmen who in another time might have been criminals themselves. You’ll find no Gettysburgs or Shilohs within its pages.

I’m a HUGE fan of the writer John Jakes. He is the Godfather of historical fiction. His North and South trilogy is masterful as is his American Bicentennial series. Not only can he craft a good story, but you can learn quite a bit of history from him too. In the Author’s Note at the end of Love and War, the second book of the North and South trilogy, he said that he kept a sign over his writing desk whilst working on it which said “Not Gettysburg Again!” Though his characters are, of course, involved in the war, the book focuses on little known or little written about aspects of it like the Confederate Torpedo Bureau. I took this to heart myself and strove to do the same.

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This is how I organize the research.

The Civil War is my first love, it was only later that I developed my affinity for redheads. I’ve always known that I would write a Civil War novel. It’s as inevitable as sunrise tomorrow. My love of the Civil War comes from one of my great-grandmothers. She was born in 1898, a mere thirty-three years after the end of the War. Incidentally, I was born in 1978, thirty-three years after the end of World War Two. Just as I spent my childhood around World War Two veterans like my grandfathers, she spent hers surrounded by Civil War veterans. Both of her grandfathers, their brothers, and her grandmothers’ brothers all fought in the War. She was very interested in it as a child and they told her their stories, which she then passed on to me. As a teenager, she danced with elderly veterans at reunions. Hearing about the Civil War from a person who talked to veterans herself is an experience I’ll never forget. When you think about it, the 1860s weren’t really all that long ago. We are only a few generations removed from it.

The Civil War was the American Iliad. Perhaps that is why it still captivates so many people. I studied the War in college and graduate school. I spent 16 years as a Civil War reenactor. I even helped edit a published volume of correspondence from Jefferson Davis. I could, if I desired, call myself a Civil War expert. But I do not like terms like “expert” because, though my Civil War knowledge could fill many volumes, there is always more for me to learn. And there is always more for me to write.

As a child, I looked on the Civil War as a time of glory and great feats of heroism. Sure, the war did create many a hero. But there is no glory in seeing a friend decapitated by a cannonball, or listening to the screams of wounded comrades. There is no glory in dying from dysentery or undergoing an amputation. To write or talk about the war, we must tell it as it was, not as we wish it was. That is the obligation of both the historian and the novelist.

So until next time, Dear Readers, double canister and give them hell!

L.H.

 

Florian’s Own: A Night Under the Bombs

 

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In war torn Berlin, the city relies on a mix of grizzled veterans of hundreds of fires and inexperienced kids fresh from training. This is the story of a single station on a single night as bombs fall and fires burn. 

As darkness descended upon the city, I made my way towards the fire station. It was an imposing three story stone building a few blocks west of the Tiergarten. Had it not been for three massive red doors, it could have been an apartment or office building. Rows of windows on the second and third floors faced the street. They glowed slightly in the fading light of the sun. I stood for a moment and took in the building before I knocked on the middle door.

It took a few minutes and three knocks, but eventually the door began to raise with a creaking noise. I found myself staring at the cab of a green Mercedes fire engine. Footsteps echoed on the concrete floor and a firefighter appeared from behind the engine.

“You must be the journalist,” he said, making the word journalist sound a touch profane. I replied in the affirmative and he said, “Name’s Frei. I drive the ladder truck.”

My eyes followed the direction of the thumb he used to point towards a shiny green truck with a turntable ladder.

Oberwachtmeister Weber is upstairs,” Frei said, “Follow me.”

We walked across the apparatus floor. The station smelled of smoke, mold, sweat, and diesel exhaust. Four brass poles along the far wall ascend upwards and disappeared into the floor above. The stairway in the back of the station rose so steeply that, for a moment, I felt as if I were climbing the Swiss Alps. The second floor consisted mainly of one large room with iron cots along both walls. A few sparse decorations hung on the walls, mostly pin-up girls and a few official posters. One was of a grinning skeleton hurling a bomb earthward. Large block letters proclaimed “The enemy sees your light! Blackout!” The cots were all made up in regulation military fashion with the sheets and blankets folded with precision. A large picture of Saint Florian, the patron saint of firefighters the world over hung next to the fire poles.

“The washroom’s over there,” Frei said as he indicated a hallway. “So’s the kitchen. Or what passes for one. Our water pressure isn’t great these days.”

We found Obermachtmeister Karl Weber sitting behind a cluttered desk in a small office just off the main room. The stirring sound of a military march drifted from a radio atop a metal file cabinet in the corner. He stood to shake my hand, insisting I call him Karl as he motioned me to sit.

“So,” he said as he lit a cigarette, “You are writing a story about the fire brigade. Why?”

I gave him my rehearsed response about wanting to showcase the heroism of those who labor under the bombs, attempting to save lives. Karl silenced me with a wave of the hand.

“We’re not heroes,” he said as he exhaled a cloud of blue smoke which formed a halo over his head, “We’re firemen.”

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The war weighs heavily on Obermachtmeister Karl Weber, station commander. “We’re not heroes,” he said, “We are firemen.” 

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Karl Weber is a man of medium height and the build of a middleweight boxer a few years past his prime. His brown eyes, with dark bags underneath, managed to look both amused and exhausted at the same time. Permanent creases line the corners of his mouth. A few flecks of gray around the temple made him look older than his thirty-three years. Karl grew up in the Charlottenburg part of Berlin, not too far from the fire station he now runs. From an early age, he found himself drawn to the fire service, more from the excitement and the nice uniform than anything else. In 1929 at the age of 19, he joined the Berlin Fire Brigade as an apprentice fireman.

In 1935, Karl enlisted in the army as a reservist. He has seen action in Poland, Belgium, France, and Russia. It was in the frozen hell of Stalingrad that a few pieces of shrapnel buried themselves deep into his hip, thigh, and knee. Doctors removed most of it, but the remaining shards of metal cause him to walk with a slight limp. After a long, difficult recover, Karl received a discharge from the Army and orders to return to Berlin, where a new war was being waged.

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After a few minutes of small talk, Karl and I walked out to the main room and joined the others around a table. A stack of magazines under one table leg kept it steady. I’d met Frei earlier. The other two, Baumann and Fischer, nodded as Karl made introductions. They eyed me warily as I sat across from them.

Just a few short years ago, in the relative calm before the war, this station had twelve men assigned to it, six per truck. Now they make due during the daytime with only two per vehicle. At night, the professional firefighters are joined by teenage auxiliaries, young men and women eager to do their bit for the war. Hastily trained and working under the guidance of experienced old hands like Karl, these youthful volunteers make up the frontline defenders of the citizens of Berlin.

“We’ve only just got our volunteers,” Karl said. “They haven’t really gone through a big raid yet, at least not as firefighters.”

“What is it like?” I asked. “Putting out fires in the middle of a raid.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Karl replied. “If it’s a big enough fire, you don’t notice the bombs.”

We were interrupted by the sound of footsteps and laughter on the stairs. Four young men in ill fitting uniforms walked into the room. They carried their helmets tucked under their arms and had their gas mask cases slung over their shoulders. Four young women in baggy blue-gray coveralls followed them in. Karl gave them a few curt orders to put their gear on their assigned trucks and to start polishing the engines.

“Just because we are war doesn’t mean we go around looking like some voluntary fire brigade from the countryside,” Karl said. This is Berlin. A well polished engine indicates a well polished crew.”

I asked permission to follow the volunteers downstairs and Karl nodded his approval.

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Monika Schneider is a quiet, serious young woman of 17. She wears her long blonde hair in pig tails and regards the world with bright blue eyes. Her gaze penetrates you as if she is searching your soul, probing from your hidden fears and weaknesses. With increasingly large numbers of young women being drafted into war related occupations, Monika had a choice of either training to operate an 88mm antiaircraft battery or the fire service.

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Young women like Monika Schneider (right) have stepped forward to serve on the front lines of the air way. Their job? Save lives. 

“My older brother Gunter flew a Heinkel,” she explains as she wipes polish off the engine in a circular motion. “He was shot down and killed during a raid on London. I didn’t think  I could bring myself to shoot down some English girl’s brother. So I chose the fire brigade.”

After a two week course in which she and her fellow auxiliaries drilled on donning their gas masks until they could do it in their sleep, navigated obstacle courses to hone their agility, and lectures on the various types of bombs employed by the enemy, the were deemed ready for assignment. Their only experience with an actual fire came when they were allowed to spray water on a burning haystack. But there would be plenty more fires to come.

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In some ways, Fritz Kluge is a poster child for the new Germany. Born into a working class family near the center of the city, Fritz joined the Hitler Youth at age 10. He’s fifteen now, and has also had enough training to qualify him to help the fire brigade and to wear the coveted HJ firefighting patch on the sleeve of his coat. Fritz has a ready grin, which tends to be a bit on the cheeky side. I listen as he trades barbs with some of the other boys. If they were at all nervous about the possibility of a raid that night, they did not show it.

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Two young volunteers from Karl’s station operate at a fire in Charlottenburg. 

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Fliegeralarm!”

A sudden shout which came to us via the hole from which the fire pole descended broke the silence. The youths glanced up from their work, eyes darting back and forth. A minute later Karl came down the stairs and said “Listen up, the formation we’ve been tracking has passed east of Hanover. We are probably the target for tonight. Apparently it is a heavy raid.”

The young people nodded, their expressions serious.

“Gather up flashlights and place some onto the truck and then bring the others into our shelter,” Karl said. He gave orders with the rapidity of a machine gun. “Gather up some buckets of sand from the closet and put them near the station doors. Bring your helmets and masks into the shelter with you. And you need to visit the lavatory. Void your bladder and bowels if you can. Should you get struck with a shell splinter in the guts tonight, it’s best to not have anything inside them that can cause an infection.”

The young people scattered in eight different directions to begin work on their assigned tasks. Karl handed me a metal container with a gas mask inside, identical to the ones carried by the firefighters, and also a steel helmet. The helmet looked similar to a Germany Army helmet, but it had the addition of a leather flap attached to the back of it and a reflective stripe painted around it.

“That flap keeps embers from blowing under your collar,” Karl said. “Hurts like hell when that happens.”

I asked if there was anything I could do to help and he said no.

“You’ll only be in the way. Just wait until it is time to go into the shelter.”

I stood along the back wall and watched the young volunteers as they scurried back and forth carrying out their instructions. The older men moved more slowly. For them, the impending raid did not represent excitement, but rather one more thing for them do; one more challenge to face. Their faces bore the looks of men who have seen so much of the depths of the evil that men do that it no longer registered in their minds. They walked with shoulders slumped forward as if the weight of their job keeping the citizens of a city under aerial siege safe pressed down on them.

The tasks completed, we walked down a dark, narrow hallway until we reached a solid oak door. Karl pushed it open with his shoulder and ushered us inside. It was a small, sparse room. Ten chairs, five along each wall, provided the only place to sit. A telephone and a radio occupied a table in one corner and a large, detailed map of the city filled the wall above it. I took a chair and settled in to wait.

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An air raid is a singularly terrifying experience. You sit in near darkness and listen to the shriek of bombs and the thundering blasts of anti-aircraft guns. The building sways when a bomb lands nearby and dust floats down from the ceiling. As your mind envisions every form of fiery death that could happen, you try to think of something, anything, to keep you sane. You grab onto the first pleasant memory you can conjure up the way a drowning man grasps at a life jacket. Your heart pounds almost audibly in your chest as your breath comes in ragged gasps as if a tight band constricted your chest and kept your lungs from fully expanding. That’s an air raid.

Those around me took the raid in stride. When the flak batteries atop the Zoo Tower a few blocks away opened up, one of the Hitler Youth boys said “I guess they’ll teach the Tommies a thing or two.” Karl leaned his head back until it rested against the wall and closed his eyes. Frei smoked a cigarette. Baumann and Fischer played cards. The auxiliaries sat on the edge of their chairs, ready to spring into action with all the enthusiasm of youth.

“So how do you know if you get an assignment?” I asked.

“The phone rings,” Karl said without opening his eyes, “Or if the phone system goes down, they send a messenger by on a bicycle. He knows where to find us back here.”

The sound of aircraft engines penetrated the brick walls of our shelter. Frei looked up for a minute, a quizzical look on his face. After a moment he said “They aren’t dropping over the city center. Looks like Charlottenburg is going to get it tonight.”

Fischer grunted, “Too bad they didn’t drop it on Wedding. Might bump off a few kozis that way.”

I lost track of how much time we were in the shelter. It could have been thirty minutes, but it seemed like thirty hours. Finally the phone rang. Frei grabbed it and said “Fire station” by way of greeting. He scribbled something on a scrap of paper and hung up.

“Where?” Karl asked, his eyes still closed.

“They said just drive west towards the fires,” Frei said.

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The morning sun revealed a landscape of utter devastation. 

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A few minutes later we pulled out of the station. I sat in the cab, squeezed in between Baumann and Karl. The boys rode the ladder truck and the young women traveled on the engine, but they had to stand onto the tailboard and cling to a metal bar. We operated with no lights, and the going was very slow, though we could see fires burning in the distance. Searchlights stabbed at the sky like accusing fingers. Occasionally, we caught the glimpse of a bomber. But mostly we kept our eyes focused on our destination.

“Are you having fun yet?” Karl yelled over the sound of the planes, bombs, and our own engine.

I thought it best not to answer. I looked over my shoulder and barely made out the faces of the four young women; Monika, Elisabeth, Ingrid, and Lotte. I thought I might see fear, but instead I saw excitement mingled with determination in their young eyes.

“Stay near the truck when we get there,” Karl said, “And be careful, there will probably be a gap of about thirty minutes where it will look like the raids over, then they’ll come back to try and catch us in the open.”

Which is exactly where we will be, I thought. When we reached our assigned sector, the heat slapped at my face like an oven. Baumann stopped the engine and the crew threw themselves into their duties with a vengeance. Monika and Elisabeth grabbed a thick hose and dragged it towards a fire hydrant while Ingrid and Lotte uncoiled another section and stretched it towards an apartment building. Flames showed in the windows of the top two floors.

I heard a grinding noise and turned to see the ladder from Frei’s truck extend upwards towards the roof of the building. Fritz and another young man scrambled up as the ladder moved. I looked around for Karl, but did not see him. A minute later, he emerged from the building, pausing for a moment in the doorway as smoke curled around him. It almost looked as though the smoke were wings and he were an angel.

“They’re dead,” he yelled to Baumann. “Let’s go ahead and see if we can knock this fire down and move up the street a bit.”

+++

For the next few hours, I was treated to the sight of Karl and his crew of veterans and kids alike tackle one blaze after another. I learned that he was right. I found myself so fixated on the fires that I no longer heard the bombs. While a blessing, it nearly proved fatal. At one point, Karl froze and looked up for a second, then he screamed at us to get down. I hit the pavement as fast as I could manage. The explosion lifted me up and then shoved me back into the ground with enough force to empty my lungs of oxygen. It took a few minutes for my ears to stop ringing and my breath to return. When it did, I looked up and saw Karl smiling down at me.

“Bit more than you bargained for, eh?” he asked.

I stood with as much dignity as I could muster and busied myself by brushing dirt off my clothes. It is difficult to describe everything I witnessed this night, as scene ran into scene. I watched these young men and women perform feats of incredible bravery with the skill of seasoned professionals. Every now and then, one of them would flash me a grin from a soot lined face, or give me a nod of assurance. I had to remind myself that had the world not gone mad, they might playing games in the street, or complaining over their amount of work their teachers had given them that day. But here they were, performing a job usually reserved for grown men. But I can’t help but ask myself, at what cost? What will their lives be like when all this is over? Will they ever be able to forget what they’ve seen?

+++

A few hours after daylight and seven hours after the phone rang at the fire station, we were permitted to return to the station for a two hour period of rest. We stank of sweat, phosphorus, cordite, and smoke. Our lungs were raw. My skin felt sunburned, owing to the intensity with which the fires burned. When we arrived at the station, no one had the energy to walk upstairs to the bunkroom. We collapsed on the floor or on one of the trucks and let exhaustion carry us away. I felt as if I had just closed my eyes when Karl slapped my shoulder and said “Come on. Back to work.”

image1

Fritz (right) grabs some rest in between alarms. 

Our new assignment was to check shelters for victims, living or dead. I was allowed to put on my gas mask and accompany them into the buildings as we searched below ground level for any survivors. As we entered one large basement, our flashlight beams caught the faces of people sleeping as they sat on two wooden benches along the wall. I wondered why they didn’t wake up and asked Karl if we should shake them or pat them on the shoulder.

“Look at the faces,” Karl said, “See how they have a bit of red in their cheeks? They are dead. Carbon monoxide poisoning. It happens when the fire burning above them uses up all the available oxygen. They are the lucky ones. They just fall asleep. Far better than burning alive.”

As we walked up the stairs and out the doorway, Karl removed a piece of chalk from his pocket. His hand shook slightly as he scrawled “20 tot” on the brick façade near the door.

“Come on,” he said to me, “We’ve got two more blocks to go.”

This is a work of fiction. I wrote this piece as if a journalist did a feature on the fire station where the characters in my novel work. If a reporter spent a night with them, it might have happened this way.

Opening Day Revisited

Philco90Front

Dear Readers,

On Opening Day of the 2018 season, I wrote about my experience following multiple games here. As we are now in the month of October with playoff baseball in progress, I thought I’d revisit my experience.

After watching the Red Sox blow a 4-0 lead to the Marlins to lose 6-4 on the first day of the season, I have to say that their completion of a 100+ win season came as something of a surprise. However, in their first game of the ALDS against the Yankees, they went up 5-0 only to give up four runs and make it a much closer game than it should have been. I listened to said game on the radio, as I always do. You could feel the energy of the Fenway crowd coming through the speaker on my phone. (I use the SiriusXM app and follow the Red Sox home feed.)

In May right after I finished teaching for the semester, I had surgery and spent another 8 days in the hospital. (That’s for a total of 6 weeks since late November if you are keeping track). Luckily, the hospital has excellent Wi-Fi coverage and so I was able to have one game going on the TV, one on my computer via my MLB subscription, all while listening to a game on my phone. Though much of the time I was in a morphine induced fog, it did provide an avenue of entertainment if not excitement.

During the long hot days of summer, I was more focused on recovering from my surgery than on anything else, especially during the month of June. Still, I managed to catch a few games a week. I taught a couple of classes the second half of the summer and would listen to afternoon games on the car radio during my “relaxing” hour drive home. August was an exciting month for the Red Sox, but they seemed to go flat in September which doesn’t bode well for the playoffs.

As much as it pains me to say, I think the Astros are still the team to beat in the American League, though the Yankees are hot too and might very well take the series from the Red Sox despite losing the first game. If this happens, it will be due to the combination of the Yankees hitters verses the Red Sox putrid bullpen. I’m still not sure why they didn’t address this known deficiency either during the last off season or before the trade deadline. But I digress.

So here’s to hoping for an exciting last month or so of the season. May we see great games, regardless of who comes out on top.

L.H.