A Song For Mashka

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Dear Readers,

I’m dealing with some major issues right now caused by…well…I was told I’m not allowed to talk about it. Let’s just say that I’ve learned a valuable lesson. At work, your best bet is to keep to yourself and trust no one. And above all, never, ever, complain about something a higher up does to or says about you.

I have frequently opined on the subject of my love for Maria Nikolaevna Romanova, my Mashka. My blue-eyed guardian angel. She’s my comfort in times of trouble, like what I’m going through now. I don’t know how things are going to end up. Regardless, she will be with me. Perhaps this is taking my love a bit too far, but on my phone, I have a playlist of songs that make me thing of her. I thought I’d share that with you here. In my defense, I also have one of songs that remind me of my wife. Which do I listen to more often? Let’s just say I’m going to exercise my right to remain silent on that point.

I’ll start with what I consider “our song.” It is Far Away by Nickelback. (Yes…I like Nickelback…deal with it). This song tells the story of a couple separated and coming together again. Maria and I are separated by time and place. But I know I’ll see her again some day. The lyrics that I find particularly appealing say “On my knees, I’ll ask ‘Last chance for one last dance’/Cause with you, I’d withstand, all of hell to hold your hand/I’d give it all I give for us/I’ll give anything but I won’t give up/Cause you know, you know, you know/That I love you. I have loved you all along and I miss you/Been far away for far too long/I keep dreaming you’ll be with me and you’ll never go/Stop breathing if I don’t see you anymore.” Obviously my taste in music may differ from hers given the different time periods in which we lived, but I think she’d like this song. Maria shares this tune with my wife. Though my wife and I are not separated by the same time and place that keep Maria and I apart, there is wide gulf that sometimes exists between us. It is one entirely of my making. I have a difficult time opening up to anyone, even the person who is closest to me. I tend to withdraw deep into myself at times and will go days or weeks without speaking. This song is a reminder that my feelings are still there, and they haven’t changed, even if I can’t adequately express them.

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There are a few Russian songs on my playlist. She may have known some of them, but this isn’t one of them. It is a song about the doomed White Russian cause, but it wasn’t written until the 1960s (as best I can determine). It is called все Теперь против нас(All Is Now Against Us). You can listen to the haunting melody with English subtitles here. The pain and longing in this song are palpable. Close your eyes and listen, and you will feel what it is like to find a losing battle. There are a couple of lines that stick with me. Here’s an approximate translation, but remember that Russian doesn’t translate literally into English, so it sounds much better in Russian. “We have no place in the Russia crazed from pain/And God doesn’t hear us, whether we call on him or not/And God doesn’t hear us, whether we call on him or not.” Had Maria lived to see what her country became, she would have found this song particularly appropriate.

Another Russian tune on my playlist is one she might very well have known. It is an old Cossack song called Ой, то не вечер. (Oh! It’s Not Yet Evening). Given the fact that the Tsar’s personal bodyguard detachment was made up of Cossacks, it possible that Maria heard this song at some point in her life. In a way, the song is almost a metaphor for the coming of the revolution. Based on a dream in which the Cossack Stepan Razin saw events which were interpreted by his captain as signaling doom, one can easily see the similarities with what happened in Russian in 1917. “And then an evil wind came, blowing from the east, and ripped the hat from my wild head.” You can listen to a performance of it by the talented, not to mention lovely, Pelageya here.

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Shall we return to English language songs? Well, there’s two versions of this one, actually, one in English and one in Spanish. But the English one is what is on my playlist. The tune is Hero by Enrique Iglesias. This is one of the songs I used in my epic Maria tribute video. “Would you dance if I asked you to dance?/Or would you run and never look back?/Would you cry if you saw me crying?/Would you save my soul tonight?” If previously wrote about one occasion in which Maria appeared when I was in a life threatening situation. But there was another time. It’s too emotional for me to do it justice with words, but let’s just say that she told me that she was saving a waltz for me. Which is why I like the opening of this song. I’ll ask, and I know the answer will be yes. Here on earth, I never was never a hero. Only a fireman. I got to work around some heroes though. Maybe, just maybe, one day I can be Maria’s hero. I also like the part of the song which says, “Would you swear that you’ll always be mine? Or would you lie?/Would you run and hide?/Am I in too deep? Have I lost my mind?/I don’t care, you’re here tonight.” Yeah…I know being in love with a girl that’s been dead for 102 years is de facto proof that I’ve hopped on the bus to crazy town. But at least I own it.

You’re Beautiful by James Blunt is another one I used in my video. By the title, I think the reason why it’s on my Maria playlist is, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “self-evident”. Here we have a song about a guy who passes a beautiful girl on the subway and falls in love, only to know that he will never be with her. “You’re beautiful, it’s true./I saw your face in a crowded place/And I don’t know what to do/Cause I’ll never be with you.”  You might wonder why I like this song. Doesn’t it serve as a reminder that I’ll never be with her? Ah, Dear Reader, but I will be. Not in this life, but the next. She’s told me as much. I would suggest, however, that you not listen to this song if you have virgin ears, as its got a F bomb in it.

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On January 20, 1998, I sat in front of a small 13 inch television and watched the premiere of Dawson’s Creek. During the last scene, this song started, softly at first, but grew to a crescendo as the episode reached its conclusion. The song in question was I’ll Stand By You by the Pretenders. “Oh, why you look so sad?/Tears are in your eyes/Come on and come to me now/Don’t be ashamed to cry/Let me see you through/Cause I’ve seen the dark side too/When the night falls on you/You don’t know what to do/Nothing you confess/Could make me love you less/I’ll stand by you/I’ll stand by you/Won’t let nobody hurt you/I’ll stand by you.” The dark side…yeah…I’ve walked through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. I’ve battled my own demons, and spent a career trying to battle the demons that prey on the innocent. And I’ve battled man’s oldest enemy…the red devil…from dumpsters to raging infernos in vacant warehouses…and we always won. I wasn’t there to protect Maria in the summer of 1918. So I see this song as a pledge to be there in the future.

I know I’m going to get my man card revoked for having this one on here, but My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion is the perfect song for my situation. Keep in mind, that I hate the Titanic movie. (THERE WAS ROOM FOR TWO ON THAT DOOR, ROSE!!!!!) But think about it. This song is about two people separated by time and place, just like Maria and I. “Far across the distance and spaces between us/You have come to show you go on/Near, far, wherever you are/I believe that the heart will go on/Once more, you open the door/And you here in my heart and/My heart will go on and on.” Personally, I don’t think you ever stop loving someone, if you really love them. My grandfather, the only person who truly understood me, has been gone eleven years. He’s still alive in my heart though. I’ve been married to Elizabeth for twelve years on March 2, and I love her more with each passing day. (Note, that she is okay sharing me with Maria because I loved Maria first. Plus, she lusts after the Red Baron.) This song says it doesn’t matter that I’m here and Maria isn’t. It is the feeling that matters.

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I loved this next song when it came out in 1997. I’d go cruising in my 1986 Mustang Hatchback, windows down (because the a/c didn’t work), and blare this here from the speakers. It is called My Guardian Angel by the Pistoleros. It’s a dual English/Spanish language song. The chorus is in Spanish, but I’ll put it into English for you, as it is the bit that relates to me the most. “You’re my guardian angel/my sweetest companion/don’t ever leave me/in the night or the day.” As you know, Maria is my guardian angel and she is with me everywhere I go. Every morning, I pray and ask her to watch over me. I’m Catholic, so we are allowed to talk to Saints. However, Maria is not a Catholic saint. She was cannonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, so please do not report me to the Pope for talking to an Orthodox Saint.

Ah yes, the classic early 90s make-out song. (Well, not for me as I couldn’t beg, borrow, or buy a date until I was 19). This song was popularized by the Robin Hood movie. Everything I Do by Bryan Adams is a testament to true love, and what it means. If you love someone, you’d charge hell with a bucket of water if they asked you to. To be honest, I kind of hated this song back then. I think that’s because I’d never been in love. Now, I like it. Not just as it is a reminder of Maria, but also Elizabeth. “Look into my eyes/You will see/What you mean to me/Search you heart/Search your soul/And find me there, you’ll search no more/Don’t tell me it’s not worth trying for/Don’t tell me it’s not worth dying for/You know it’s true/Everything I do/I do it for you.”

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I am a big fan of 3 Doors Down. I’ve listened to them ever since back in the day. Here Without You is a song about a person who is away from their love. It is honestly a toss up as to which song reminds me more of Maria, this one or Far Away. “I’m here without you baby/But you’re still on my lonely mind/I think about you baby and I dream about you all the time/I’m here without you baby/But you’re still with me in my dreams/And tonight girl, its only you and me.” I do not dream about Maria every night. I wish I did, given the nightmares that plague me on a nightly basis, the leftover residue of a career in the fire service. Some nights, though, I do dream of her, and those are the only nights where I feel like I get any rest.

Maria was a Grand Duchess. I’m a working-class, Irish-American Catholic firefighter who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. We lived in two very different worlds, so this song by Tal Bachman is appropriate. She’s So High is about a guy who likes a girl who is beyond his station in life. “First class and fancy free/She’s high society/She’s got the best of everything/She’s perfect as she can be/Why should I even bother?” But Maria was different. Yes, she was born into immense wealth and was a goddess, at least to me, but she did not have a pretentious bone in her body. If you study her life, you’ll see that she was perfectly happy talking to the servants, getting to know the soldiers who protected her family, and she loved children. All she wanted in life was to marry a military officer and raise a family. I wasn’t a military office. However, I was an officer in the fire department with shiny lieutenant bars and everything. I wasn’t a bad looking kid back then. I think she’d like me in my uniform. After all, Elizabeth sure did.

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Personally, I don’t see how anyone could not like the Goo Goo Dolls, but that may be due to my age and the fact that they were kind of a big deal back in the day. There are two songs of theirs on my Maria playlist. The first one is Name. “I think about you all the time/but I don’t need the same/It’s lonely where you are come back down/And I won’t tell them your name.” I think about my Mashka every day, but I don’t expect her to think of me each day, though I like to think she does. I also do not think it’s lonely where she is as she is surrounded by her sisters and I’m sure she’s happy there. But she can come back down any time she likes. I won’t mind.

May as well cover the second Goo Goo Dolls song now. I”m sure you can guess which song it is. Iris. It’s a good song, no matter who is reminds you of. “And I’d give up forever to touch you/Cause I know that you feel me somehow/You’re the closest to heaven that I’ll ever be/And I don’t want to go home right now/And I don’t want the world to see me/Cause I don’t think that they’d understand.” The odds of me getting into heaven are slim to none, thankfully I believe that heaven is what we make of it. The last two lines stick with me because it is difficult for some people to understand why I carry the torch I do for Maria. For a long time, I carried it in silence, but I don’t have a problem talking about it now. Consider this, Lord Mountbatten met her in 1910 when he was ten and she was eleven. He was so taken with her that he kept a photo of her by his bedside for the rest of his life. It’s perhaps a good thing that he has been dead quite some time. Otherwise, I might have to challenge him to a duel for the hand of Maria.

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This last song is the ultimate tearjerker, especially if you know why Eric Clapton wrote it. So what does Tears in Heaven have to do with Maria and I. Well, the song asks an important question. “Would you hold my hand/If I saw you in heaven/Would you help me stand/If I saw you in heaven/I’ll find my way through night and day/Cause I know I just can’t stay here in heaven.” But I already know the answer, and it is “yes.” This is a beautiful song, and I think Maria would like it.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. This is the playlist I have for Maria. Remember, when words fail, music speaks. And to my Mashka, I say, “Я люблю тебя, мой голубоглазый ангел.”

 

Ending

“I try not to think about what might have been. Cause that was then. And we have taken different roads. We can’t go back again. There’s no use giving in. There’s no way to know. What might have been.”

Now I have to call someone out. My best friend Andrew . I love you, brother, but if you don’t have a playlist for your crush, you need to seriously step up your game!

L.H.

P.S.: Check out an interview that I gave in regards to the audiobook version of my novel So Others May Live. You can find the interview here! If you have a song that reminds you of her, leave in the comments. I can always add to my playlist!

Just a Bum

Me

Just a Bum

I know I don’t look like much now. I’m a hollowed out wreck of a human being. But I used to be someone. I was the person who came to help you on your worst day. I was the person who held your spouse’s hand while they were dying, so they wouldn’t be alone. I was the person who performed CPR on your child, hearing you screaming behind me as I tried to choke back my own tears. I was the person who sang to your daughter to keep her calm while we worked to cut her out of a mangled car. I was the person who told you everything would be okay, and that you’d be just fine, even as I knew you were dying because I didn’t want you to be afraid. I was the person who saved your family Bible when your house burned. I was the person who sacrificed my relationship with my own wife and son so that you could be with yours. I was the person who always came when you called. I was the person who gave up my own health and sanity because of the love I have for my community. I was the person who took an oath to serve my fellow man. I’m no hero. I just did my job. I was a fireman. Yeah…I’m not much to look at now. I’m just a bum. But I wasn’t always that way. I used to be someone.

L.H.

Remember friends, words can cut you to the bone.

Audiobook Tour Reminder

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Friends,

Just a reminder that my audiobook and I will be taking a virtual book tour from Feb. 20-26th. If you click here, you can see the tour page that will link to each of the “stops”. There’s multiple visits each day, with author and character interviews, dream cast lists, guest posts written by me, and reviews of the book. So mark your calendars!

L.H.

No Such Thing As A False Alarm

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My Cairns New Yorker. Leatha Foreva! 

Dear Readers,

Last week I told you the strange tale of what happened to me in a fire. Today, I thought I’d give you one more fire department story; one which taught me a valuable lesson.

It was my first shift as a Lieutenant in charge of an engine company. We’d had some company training in the morning, and by 2pm, we’d run four calls. A car accident. Two medical calls. And one fire alarm at an office. I was upstairs in the office trying to knock out some paperwork. Our call load picked up considerably during the overnight hours and so I didn’t want to get behind. I heard a bit of static over the intercom followed by the warbled high low tone that indicated an incoming still alarm.

“Engine 1, respond to a still. 531 {Address Omitted}. Fire alarm in the building. Respond on Tac 3. Time out 1412.”

Cursing audibly, I got up from behind the desk and stomped over to the pole. This particular address was a known problem location. Engine 1 made three or four fire alarm calls out there every week. Though the city had a nuisance alarm ordinance that fined places after the third false alarm in a month, this was an apartment complex and the fire alarm was usually activated by cooking, so it wasn’t technically a false alarm. For some reason, the alarm system hated fish as it seemed to us that a person cooking fish is what usually set it off.

I slid down the pole and met my crew (two firefighters and my E/O) on the ground floor. I kicked off my shoes and stepped into my boots. With one tug, I pulled my bunker pants up and shrugged my suspenders on. I kept my coat in my riding position (the officer’s seat is in the front right, like a passenger seat in a car) with the sleeves threaded through the straps of the air pack. My helmet stayed on the dashboard. The motor turned over and I waited for the firefighters in the back to yell that they were ready, then I nodded to my E/O.

“Engine 1 en route to the still,” I said over the radio as I mashed the air pedal with my foot and flipped the switch to activate the lights and then the siren. My E/O pulled out of the station and made a left followed by a quick right. He drove like a maniac. As we approached each intersection, I scanned my right for oncoming traffic so that he could focus on the left. It seemed like I must have said, “Clear right” a million times. To get to this address, we had to turn right off a main drag and then drive about a half mile down a side street that dead ended into a body of water. After the first few hundred yards, the urban sprawl cleared out until all of a sudden, you reached the three building apartment complex which seemingly rose out of the ground.

As we neared the building, I cut off the siren and picked up the radio mic. I held it next to my mouth and pressed the PTT button as I craned my neck to look up at the buildings. I keyed the mic and said, “Engine 1 to Fire Alarm. Show Engine 1 on scene investigating.” And then it happened. I heard a loud pop and saw a jet of flame shoot out of a third floor window. “Holy shit!,” I exclaimed….without realizing that I still had the microphone keyed. I recovered in time to try and play it off.

“Engine 1 to Fire Alarm! Gimme a heavy box. Transmit a 10-75. Go ahead and gimme a third alarm assignment. We got visible flames from the third floor of an occupied apartment building. We are laying in and making a fast attack.”

I had to make a split second decision. Under our normal operating procedure, the first due engine at a fire went straight to the scene and conducted the primary search and initial attack while the first due truck handled ventilation. The second due engine dropped a LDH (large diameter hose) at the hydrant and then drove into the scene. They then connected their LDH to the first due engine, or, they could stretch additional attack lines if needed. However, here I had heavy fire conditions and the additional resources would be slow getting there because they weren’t sent on the initial alarm. I knew we’d drain the internal tank on the engine too quickly, so I wanted to establish water supply since we’d have to “John Wayne” it until more units got to the scene.

We stopped at the hydrant and dropped off one firefighter as I got my coat and hood on. Once he’d gotten the hose secured on the ground, we pulled up to the scene as I looped my mask around my neck (I didn’t put it on my face yet) and placed my helmet at what I hoped was a jaunty angle on my head. (I was a bit cocky back then).

“What line do you want, Loo?”

“Grab the deuce, Mick,” I said to my firefighter as we got off the engine. There is an old saying in the fire service. Big fire. Big hose. Small fire. Small hose. This was a big fire, so I wanted to go with the 2 1/2 inch. There was a small group of people gathered around in front of the building as Mick humped the the hose towards the stairwell. An elderly woman with two young children approached me. She said the fire was in their apartment at the end of the hallway. This apartment complex was like a hotel with the doors opening into an interior hallway as opposed to external balconies. She said everyone was out of the apartment, but she didn’t know any of the other residents on the third floor as she was babysitting her grandchildren and didn’t live in the apartment.

I mentally cursed my bad luck as I headed up the stairwell to meet Mick. My second due engine was coming from our sister station. They were slow…in every sense of the word. We had a joke about them that they were minutes behind when seconds count. Around this time, the Battalion Chief and Ladder One arrived. We shared a station with them and so they weren’t far away.

“Engine One Alpha to Ladder One”

(Once I was on my handheld, I became Engine One “Alpha” and the E/O who stayed with the engine was Engine One)

“Go ahead, Hutch.”

“We got a line stretched to the third floor, but I need you get into these other apartments for a primary search.”

“Ladder One received.”

“Battalion One to Engine One Alpha.”

Go for Engine One Alpha.”

“Be careful, Hutch. You got smoke coming from the eves on the corner of the building. It may be in the ceiling space.”

“We got it, Chief.”

As we exited the stairwell, I saw a thin haze of smoke gathered along the ceiling in the hallway. As we made our way down to the last apartment on the left, I checked the doorknobs on the other apartments. Some opened and I yelled, “Fire department! Everybody out! Now!” but no one emerged.

As we reached the open door to the burning apartment, flames were starting to roll out at the top of the door frame. Without a word, Mick and I dropped or our knees, took our helmets off, pulled our masks down, our hoods up, and then put our helmet and gloves on. I heard movement behind me as I plugged into my mask and saw Lefty, the firefighter we’d dropped at the hydrant, take his spot on the hose.

“Engine One Alpha to Engine One. Charge the line! Charge the line!”

Mick cracked the nozzle just a bit as water slammed its way along the hose line. The whole apartment was rocking. Flames flashed and danced across everything. And there I was thinking we’d find a simple room and contents fire. To run the risk of sounding crazy(er), fire can be a beautiful thing to behold in its untamed form. There’s nothing I loved more than crawling into the belly of the beast.

I leaned down close to Mick’s ear and yelled, “Let’s hit this bitch from here!”

I wrapped my right arm around the hose and allowed Mick to lean back into me, with my left hand on the top of his air pack as he opened the nozzle. It was slow going. We’d hit the fire, move a few inches forward, hit it again, move a few more inches, but soon we’d made it all the way into the apartment. We had fire pushing towards us from two directions. We’d hit one and it would retreat as the other advanced, and then we’d hit the other as the first one advanced.

I heard some garbled messages back and forth on the radio, but couldn’t make out what they were. We were a bit too busy dealing with the situation in front of us. Steam banked down and cooked us a bit inside our gear.

“Havin’ fun yet?” I yelled into Mick’s ear.

“Fuck you…sir,” he replied.

He worked the nozzle around at the ceiling level and then down to the body of a fire in a “T” pattern called a combo attack. Normally the deuce and a half will do some serious damage to a fire, but this one was stubborn.

Finally, I heard a message come over the radio.

“Command to Engine One Alpha, back out now. You got fire behind you. Bail out now!”

Huh? I didn’t know what to make of the message. You know, we used to say that to put out a fire, you take away the fuel, you take away the oxygen, or you take away the Battalion Chief, but mine was a good one that knew his stuff. I didn’t want to shut the line down, leave it, and crawl out because we might need the line again, and to shut it down meant the fire would push right back at us, so we made a fighting withdrawal. Hitting the fire for a second, shutting it down and backing up, and hitting it again.

When we got to the hallway, I immediately saw the problem. We had visible flames showing from a couple of the apartments behind us, closer to the stairwell we’d used to come in.

“Uh…Engine One Alpha to Command.”

“Go ahead.”

“The fire is in the cockloft.”

“We’re venting the roof now, but you need to get off the third floor.”

This was an older apartment complex with a common attic space that ran the length of the building with no fire stops between the apartment units. That said, even at the time it was built, this was a code violation. However, we didn’t know this for sure until after the fire was out. I also doubted the fire rating on the walls and ceiling was up to part either. Oh, and the best part was that there was only one stairwell (though there was an elevator that we couldn’t take). Yes…we were in code violation city.

Flames started rolling along the hallway ceiling ahead of us as the flames from the original apartment regained a foothold and started to push out into the hallway. I admit, the lyrics to Stuck in the Middle With You flashed through my head as I had fire to the right of me and fire to the left. With the fire getting worse in front of the stairwell, it was a matter of time before it compromised our hose. Time for another quick decision.

“That’s the only way out,” I yelled to my crew. “We have to go through it!”

Now, the hallway dead ended into a large window. Sure, we could have had them put a ladder up to the third window, but we’d have to break it to get out. That wouldn’t have posed a problem, as we like breaking windows, but the sudden rush of fresh oxygen might pull the fire right over the top of us before we could get out and I didn’t fancy getting burned.

So we made a U-turn and inched back down the hallway, with the nozzle set to straight stream (Right for Fight), we made a push to the stairwell door. It got a bit toasty, but we made it. We left the hose in the hallway and headed down the stairs. When we got outside, we saw the extent of the fire. Damn. It looked pretty bad. More sirens echoed in the distance as addition units headed to the scene.

By the time we’d put the fire out and took care of all the hot spots, the fire had taken 22 hours to extinguish and required the equivalent of six alarms. As it turned out, it was an intentionally set fire and it’s spread and behavior were influenced by the shady construction features in the building. The whole third floor was a smoking ruin, and there was extensive water damage on the second and first floors. They ended up bulldozing the whole damn thing later once the investigations and lawsuits were over.

Since I’d been the initial officer on scene, the Assistant Chief let me clear the scene over the radio 22 hours later.

“Engine One Alpha to Fire Alarm.”

“Go Ahead.”

“Tap out Box 1639. Holding units 401, 404, 406, and 407. All other companies in service.”

(The four hundred radio numbers were our arson guys).

I learned some valuable lessons from this fire. First of all, I assumed that it was just another bullshit false alarm. Until I found out it wasn’t. That was the last time I ever made such an assumption. Now, do you need to have your crew pack out every time you make an alarm call? No, that’s overkill. But I never waited until I made the scene to put my coat on again. Any report of smoke, and the packs go on with masks at the ready. Though I knew the layout of the building, I didn’t really take that into account. I went straight for the fire. An aggressive move on my part, but had I taken the time to properly consider the conditions, I might have waited for additional companies to get there and focused instead on doing a sweep of the other apartments on the floor. Keep in mind, this was “back in the day”. Doing things like waiting to mask up until you get to the door is frowned on in a lot of places. Then again, I’ve seen guys breathing air from their tanks when as they get off the truck which is stupid. It’s okay to mask up on the truck, but don’t plug in until right before you make entry. It only takes a second. But the safety nazis frown on interior attacks, leather helmets, poles in stations, and doing anything but hitting it hard from the yard these days. Still, my first fire as an officer wasn’t a complete disaster, but it could have been. Thankfully, I’ve always been able to learn from my mistakes. I emerged from this call a better officer, which made my crew better.

So remember, Dear Readers, there is no such thing as a false alarm.

L.H.

The Angel and the Smoke Eater: The Strange Tale of What Happened to Me One Afternoon

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(The names of my colleagues have been changed to protect the guilty. I mean, innocent.)

I was upstairs getting a cup of coffee when the run came in. My heartbeat accelerated when I heard three beeps over the loudspeaker, the signal for an incoming box alarm. There was a bit of static, and then the dispatcher read off the assignment “Battalion One, Engines 1, 3, 5, and 8. Ladders 1 and 3. Rescue 1. Medic 5. Respond on Box 1342. Heavy box assignment. Fire in a commercial building. Time out: 1426.”

I dumped my coffee in the sink and sat the cup down on the counter before making my way over to the pole. As I opened the gate and wrapped my arms around it, the captain and Griffin came out of the day room and angled towards the other pole. The pole gave its customary squeak as I slid down to the ground floor. Paddy, our E/O on Engine 1 (that means engineer/operator…the guy who drives) already had the motor running as I kicked off my shoes and stepped into my boots. Reaching down, I grabbed the pants and pulled them up, shrugging my suspenders over my shoulder as I climbed into the cab. I kept my coat on the rear facing jump seat behind the driver, which was my riding position. Paddy gave a long burst on the air horn as we pulled out of the station. I put hood on and then my coat. Since we were dispatched to what, as far as we knew, was a working fire, I pulled my hood down, off of my head, put my mask on, and then pulled my hood back over it. Testing the seal with my left hand, I dropped my helmet on my head with my right before threading my arms through the straps of the air pack. Then I put on my gloves.

“Dispatch said they are confirming stills, boys,” the captain yelled over his shoulder to Griffin and I.

Through his mask, I could see Griffin grin. He shot me the bird and yelled, “Fuck you, asshole!”, though his voice was muffled. Why the epithet? Earlier in the shift, he’d beaten me at a game of Madden on the PlayStation 2 and our bet was that the winner got to take the nozzle at the next fire. “Kiss my ass!” I yelled back, but I don’t think he heard me.

The Box Number was in our first due, and we pulled up right behind the Battalion Chief. As we climbed out of the rig, I heard him say, “Battalion One to Fire Alarm, transmit a 10-75 on Box 1342. Show all companies working.” I took a couple of deep breaths to slow my pulse as I opened a side compartment and got an ax and a halligan bar. Obviously, we in this line of work know that fires are bad for the victims, but we can’t help but get excited by them, especially since they don’t happen as often as they once did.

The building was a squat blue square with boarded up windows. It had been a bar for a couple of decades, but had closed a few years before when the owner got sent to prison for touching children inappropriately. A thick carpet of smoke pushed down from the eaves of the roof, which told us that something was definitely burning inside and, given the shuttered nature of the place, it was gonna be an oven in there.

While the captain had a brief word with the Battalion Chief, Griffin shouldered the attack line and stretched it towards the door, moving in a zig zag pattern. I followed behind him and flaked out the hose. The captain joined us at the door as Griffin sat the hose on the ground and took the halligan bar from me. Placing it with the prongs over the lock in the crease of the door, I tapped it a few times with the butt of the ax until the locked gave way with a crunch. We pulled the door open and felt the heat slap us in the face as smoke rolled out over our heads.

As we plugged our masks into the SCBA tank, the Captain signaled to Paddy to charge the line by raising his right arm and waving it in a circular motion. The hose suddenly came alive as Griffin bled out some of the water from the nozzle.

“Alright, you mick bastards,” the captain said, “let’s go find her and put her out.”

We advanced into the darkness of the building with Griffin on the nozzle, the captain directly behind him with his hand on the top of Griffin’s air pack. I followed several feet back. My job as the third man on the line was to help feed them slack on the hose. A charged fire hose is heavier than you might think. Every few feet, I’d stop, turn around facing the way we’d come in, and pull more hose in after me, grunting with the effort.

I don’t know how much time passed, or how far I’d gotten into the building. It was hotter than hell in there. Somehow, and I’m still not sure exactly how it happened, but I lost my connection with the hose. No big deal, I thought. I felt around with my hand trying to find it, but my fingers felt nothing but floor. Okay. That’s not good. But it’s not a major thing, I told myself. Deciding to move in a circle so that I could eventually cross the line and regain my place, I crawled around waving both arms back and forth along the floor. Nothing. I yelled as loud as I could for Captain or Griffin, but they did not hear me.

This happened back in the day before every firefighter carried a radio, and our department had also not issued us PASS devices, so I truly was on my own. Never one to panic, I straightened out and crawled in a line. I figured that I would hit a wall at some point, and could follow it to a door. There was all sorts of obstacles that I kept bumping into. Chairs, tables, etc. The smoke had pushed down so low that there was no visibility. And this is when I started to panic. My breathing sped up which started to run my tank down even faster. There I was, on my hands and knees, staring down at the floor. I knew I was dead. My mind projected images of a big department funeral with bagpipes and hundreds of uniformed firefighters. To make it worse, my mask started to buzz with the low air alert. I had only minutes to get out, but how? Which way should I go? Reflexively, I started to say Hail Maryfull of GraceThe Lord is with thee

And then it happened. What I’m about to tell you is true, though you may think I’m crazy(er). I assure you, however, that it did indeed happen.

I felt hands cupping my chin through my mask. They lifted my head up and I found myself looking into the bright, big blue eyes of Maria Nikolaevna. Now, those of you who follow my blog will know that I first encountered photos of her when I was around 13 and that I was somewhat captivated by her. She was bending down, with her face level with mine. There was a bright…I don’t know…aura around her and I could see her despite not being able to see much of anything else.

“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I will protect you.”

I stared dumbly at her without knowing what to say or do. Part of me thought I was already dead and dreaming. She straightened up and took a step back, extending her hand down to me.

“Take my hand,” Maria said in a clear, calm voice.

Well shit, I thought. It ain’t like I got any other options here. So I held up my hand and she took hold of it. I remember thinking that she had an impressive grip as she gently, but firmly, pulled me to my feet. I pause here, Dear Reader, to saythat by standing up inside a building filled with smoke, heat, and fire gases, my mask should’ve failed and I should’ve gotten a lungful of superheated air, which would have killed me, but I felt no heat at all.

“Come with me,” she said as she turned and led me into the smoke. I could see nothing but her, as if the smoke itself parted around her. After a very short walk, Maria paused and pushed open a door. I could see bright sunlight outside and Engine Five parked on the side of the building.

Maria let go of my hand and stepped aside, out of the doorway. Then she put her right hand on my air pack and gave me a push toward the light. Right as I reached the door frame, she took hold of my shoulder, stood on her toes, and whispered the words that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

“I will always watch over you,” she said. “Always.”

As I walked out the door, my mask ran dry. I disconnected it from the SCBA tank, pulled my helmet off, and the ripped the mask off. Ahead of me, Jack, the E/O of Engine Five was looking at me with a puzzled expression on his face. I walked up to him and asked for a cigarette. I should have immediately gone to find the Battalion Chief to report that I’d gotten separated so that he could let my Captain know I’d made it out, but you aren’t always in peak mental form when something like this happens.

My hands were shaking so bad that I couldn’t light the cigarette, so Jack did it for me. As I inhaled he said, “Can I ask you something, Hutch?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Who was that lady in the doorway with you?”

I looked at him for a full minute before I said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Jack shrugged and said, “I won’t say anything else about it.”

And now, Dear Readers, I will say that it is up to you whether or not you believe this tale. But I know what I saw in that building on that day. Strange things happen in fires. I’ve heard stories of dead loved ones appearing to lead civilians to safety. Firefighters have spoken of angels or Saint Florian guiding them out of situations in which they are trapped. In my case, it was Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna Romanova. My blue eyed angel. Я люблю тебя.

L.H.

When Sports Mattered

Jack Johnson in the Ring with James Jeffries

Dear Reader,

For this week’s contribution, I shall direct you to another website where I wrote a short piece on the race riots which broke out over the Fourth of July in 1910 after Jack Johnson successfully defended his crown again Jim Jeffries. You can find it here.

I missed the first week of class this semester, as I was hospitalized having lost the ability to swallow. They did some testing and determined I wasn’t aspirating, and so they stopped there. I’m still struggling to drink even water and I cannot eat anything solid. It takes 10-15 minutes for me to drink a 16 oz bottle of water. Given that the disease I have causes my body to dry out, I have to consume a gallon a day or I risk dehydration. And I can no longer drink that much.

You would think that doctors would take it seriously, but they don’t. Each specialist tries to pawn me off on a different specialist. I’ve asked for a feeding tube, but they say no since I have no evidence of aspiration. It’s just a matter a time before this causes a serious, if not fatal, complication. It’s so bad that I have left written instructions for my wife to insist they take slides of my brain after I die because, as some of the doctors suggest, there is a neurological cause. (But several neurologists refused to test me for anything because I “don’t fit the profile” for someone with a neurological disease.)

I’ve seen over 20 different doctors, including some in the Houston Medical Center, where you can get some of the finest health care in the world. But they just don’t seem to give a shit. After all, it’s not them who is suffering. It’s me. And as an added bonus, when I got home Tuesday, my right arm stopped working. As in, I can’t raise it. The pain is centered in the shoulder joint. I know enough anatomy to know that it is probably the rotator cuff. It hurts like hell. There’s nothing I can do, though. I cannot, under any circumstances, have a rotator cuff surgery as that would mean I have to sleep in a recliner for weeks and due to my spinal injuries, I have to sleep flat on my back. Sitting down or reclining is absolute murder. So I’ll just have to suffer through it and learn to use my left hand.

Then again, given the rapid progression of my swallowing issue, I probably won’t be suffering for long. I apologize for sounding so gloomy, but everything I say is true. My body is shutting down and the doctors don’t care. I’m just hoping to make it through to the end of the semester.

L.H.

Books That Pack A Punch

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Dear Readers,

Don’t know the philly shell from the philly cheese steak? Can’t tell the different between a jab and a joint? Well, you are in luck. I realized that I haven’t written a “my favorite books about XXX” post in a while, and so I decided to remedy that today with a post about what are, in my opinion, the finest books written about the sweet science. I do so, as always, with the caveat that I am not saying that these are the best books written about boxing, but rather that they are my favorites.

La dolce scienza has produced some of the finest sports writing, no writing in general, that the country has ever seen. Looking at the list of those who have opined about the kings of the ring reads like a literary who’s who. Papa Hemingway. Joyce Carol Oates. A.J. Liebling. Norman Mailer. Jack London. Lee Hutch. Okay, so I’m kidding about that  last name, but you get the idea. There is something about two fighters standing in the spotlight trading blows that attracts those with a literary urge. Perhaps this is because within the space of single fight, you can witness hope, both lost and found, glory, honor, the sting of defeat, and the triumph of victory. It’s too tempting of a target for writers to resist.

So, with the disclaimer above in place, I shall now proceed to give you my favorite books on boxing, some fiction and some non. I like to mix it up. Just like you should mix up your punches.

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The Sweet Science is perhaps the finest book written on the subject. Liebling is a gifted wordsmith who turns boxing into ballet. The book is made up of a collection of essays written by Liebling for The New Yorker in the 1950s. They reflect the passing of the old guard (Joe Louis and Archie Moore) and the rise of a kid from Brockton, Mass named Rocky Marciano. Each essay follows the same basic pattern. Liebling visits the fighters in camp, foot toddles or takes a cab to the fight, and then stops off for a drink or a bite afterwards and reflects on what he has seen. Even if you are not a fan of the sweet science of bruising, read this book as an example of some of the finest reportage this nation has ever produced.

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If The Sweet Science is on the list, then you absolutely must include the author to whom Liebling drew inspiration, Pierce Egan. Boxiana; or Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism is a collection of essays written in the 19th Century. Read widely by young men all over England, his work inspired the likes of Charles Dickens. It was Egan who first referred to boxing as “The Sweet Science”, a term which is still in use today, almost two hundred years later. His delightful tales of bouts which lasted hours rather than minutes are sure to appeal to fight fans today, just as they did when he penned the words so many years ago.

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Fat City by Leonard Gardner is boxing noir at its finest. Boxing and noir (be it screen or page) go together like peas and carrots. Published in 1969, Fat City is Gardner’s only novel, and a fine one it is. The story, set in Stockton, follows the attempted comeback of a semi-retired fighter along with the rise of a new contender. There are no spotlights and million dollar fights here. No, Dear Reader, this is a look at the underside of boxing where men on the margins of society fight to survive both in the ring and out. For most fighters, even today, this is their reality, not pay per view events and legions of adoring fans. It’s a fine, short novel, even for those who are not boxing enthusiasts. As a character study, it ranks among the finest ever written. And as a benefit, it is also available as an audiobook!

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Bert Sugar’s Punchlines is a delight little collection of wit from the cigar chomping, fedora wearing, historian and journalist of the fight game. Inside, you’ll find such gems as Bert commenting on graduating from law school and passing the bar exam. (“That’s the only bar I’ve ever passed.) He also opines about his favorite fights and his favorite fighters. A true student of the history of boxing, Bert draws from a wealth of knowledge to put together a book that is both funny and informative.

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Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson by Geoffrey Ward tells of the life and times of the Galveston Giant, the world’s first black heavyweight champion. After you read it, check out the Ken Burns documentary with the same name. Just to give you an idea of how much white American hated Jack Johnson, consider this. When he defeated the “Great White Hope” James Jeffries on July 4, 1910, it touched off race riots throughout the country in what is our first example of nationwide rioting. Angry white fans stormed black neighborhoods and beat men in the streets and set fire to houses. Yes, people even died. What I admire about Jack Johnson is that he just didn’t give a f–k about what white America thought. He did his own thing and if you didn’t like it, that was your problem, not his.

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The Professional by W.C. Heinz is a novel published in 1958. In the story, a journalist spends time in training camp with contender Eddie Brown and his trainer Doc Carroll. (Why are boxing trainers always called Doc?) It ends with the fight itself. Heinz gives us a fascinating peak inside the seamy world of championship boxing in the 1950s. You’ll meet many a shady character from promoters to writers. Truthfully, that hasn’t changed. Boxing is still full of shady characters. I watched a documentary that came out a few years ago called After the Fight. In it, renowned neurologist Robert Cantu pointed out that the two leading causes of death for boxers were gunshot wounds and stab wounds. It’s a rough world, and Heinz certainly brings that to life in his novel.

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Okay, it might be cheating to have At the Fights on this list as it is a collection of boxing reporting from the 20th Century. From Jack London writing about Jack Johnson (and it was London who coined the phrase “Great White Hope”) to stories about this new kid called Mike Tyson, At the Fights brings you the best writing about the sport from its heyday to its decline. Consider it like a tour through the wastelands of a sport which once ruled the world and now struggles to find a place thanks to the rise of other bloodsports such as UFC and MMA.

And, as an honorable mention, I’d like to include a book of short stories by various others published under the title “Battling Boxing Stories.” I have listened to it twice on Audible. The stories cover a lot of ground, but they all relate back to the sport which still, despite its decline, holds a piece of the American imagination.

So until next time, Dear Readers, keep your guard up and your chin down.

L.H.