Please Don’t Ask

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The camera caught me in an unguarded moment. We all have our demons. 

Dear Readers,

This post has nothing to do with my book (available in ebook, paperback, and hardcover!), which I’m sure you’ll find a welcome relief. In fact, it isn’t about writing or history at all. It’s about a question. A question which I frequently find myself being asked (as in once every few months). Though the person asking never asks it with malicious intent, it nonetheless invokes strong emotions in me. So consider this a PSA. The scenario usually unfolds like this:

“So you are a retired firefighter, right?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”

Do you really want to know? Do you really want that inside your head? Because I’d gladly give it to you if it meant it would be out of mine. Do you want to know the sound a person makes when they are on fire? Do you want to know what it is like to hold a teenager’s hand and have them say “Please don’t let me die”, and you promise them that you won’t, even though they are fading right in front of you and there is nothing else you can do. Do you want to know what it is like to keep working on a drowned toddler, though they are too far gone, for the sake of their parents who are standing over your shoulder. Do you want to know what a body looks like when it has been ejected from a vehicle and said vehicle has rolled on top of it? Do you want the smells? Blood, piss, shit, burned flesh, vomit, or my least favorite, blood mixed with alcohol. Do you want to see what an explosion does to a body? And these are just a few examples. I could go on, but I won’t.

What you are actually asking me to do is to relive my worst nightmare. You ask the question, but what you don’t see is that I won’t eat or sleep for days afterwards. You won’t see my hands shaking uncontrollably. You won’t see me alone in the dark, surrounded by ghosts. You won’t see my wife losing sleep to stay up with me. You won’t see me having difficulty performing the most basic of tasks. Sure, it passes eventually. But I’d rather not have deal with it to begin with.

I know, people are obsessed with the macabre. They watch serial killer shows. They slow down to gawk at traffic accidents. But real life isn’t a television show. Trust me, you don’t want what is inside my head. I never thought, as a young firefighter, that all these years later that I’d lose sleep at night over incidents long passed. But I do. I guess that means I’m human after all.

So ask me about the funny calls, and I’ll keep you laughing for weeks. You can even ask me about the most memorable calls, and I’ll gladly share. But please don’t ask me about the worst thing I’ve ever seen. My wife is my best friend. There are some things, however, that I haven’t even told her about. She doesn’t know the answer to that question, and so I’m certainly not going to share it with a stranger.

Some public safety personnel are perfectly okay with answering that question. That’s their business. But just because some are doesn’t mean that we all are. So unless you know someone really well, it is best to avoid asking something so blunt and potentially insensitive. Yes, I know, morbid curiosity and all that, but if we want to tell you, let us tell you in our own way.

L.H.

So Others May Live: The Silver Screen

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Dear Readers,

I’m sure I’m not alone among novelists in pondering who we’d like to play our characters should our book be turned into a movie. Mine never will be, of course, but it is still a fun exercise. Sure, I’d love to see my characters brought to life, but then I’d complain about how the director/producer took my work of art and turned it into something else. I wrote my novel without considering this question, and so I’ve had to search for actors/actresses who fit what I envision when I think about my characters. Once you’ve read my book, please let me know if you concur with picks, or, if not, who you’d pick to play a character and why.

Of the utmost importance of selecting the following folks was age. Too many war films have actors too old to be believable in the role. Also, for Ursula, a redheaded actress was an absolute must as that is an essential part of her character. The only main character not in their early twenties is Karl Weber, who is in his mid thirties. But fortunately, there is a perfect actor for that role.

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Let’s start with Grace. Her character is in some ways the most important one in the novel, but I won’t spoil it for you by telling you why that is. It’ll be apparent when you finish reading the book. For her character, I’d select the English actress Rachel Hurd-Wood. She’s close to the right age, and she did an great job in the period drama Home Fires which ran for two seasons before it was abruptly canned. She has the right look, or at least I think she does. To me, having already acted in a WW2 series is a big plus. Though she wasn’t really a major character in the series, her character did experience highs and lows, from getting married to then losing her new husband in a tragic accident. As an actress, she handled that quite well and I am confident she could do justice to Grace’s character.

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From Grace, let’s move to her fiance Michael O’Hanlon. This would be a tricky one to cast. While Michael is from Belfast, whoever played him would have to be able to handle that accent, which is kind of specific. I don’t know if my selection, Liam Ainsworthy, can do that, but if so, I’d think him a good fit. He’s done some soap opera work in the UK and I know he isn’t Irish and it might be best to have an Irish actor in the role, but his name is Liam and that is Irish, so it’s close enough. The reason I think he’d do good in the role is that he has a brooding, almost haunted Irish look about him. That is an essential part of Mick’s character and so I think Liam would work in the role, provided he can do a Belfast accent. If not, it’s back to the drawing board. Note, he’s also young enough to be believable in the role.

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Confession time. I don’t watch Game of Thrones. (Go ahead and send me hate mail if you must, but it just isn’t my kind of show). That said, I think Sophie Turner would be perfect to play Ursula. She has red hair (a must for the role), and she’s young (another must). Acting in a series like GOT is no doubt quite a challenge, and is somewhat akin to a historical drama, so I’m certain she could handle portraying a young woman in 1943 Berlin.

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Volker Bruch is an absolutely perfect fit to play firefighter Karl Weber. He’s only a few years old than Karl’s character, and he has done an absolutely amazing job in two big period pieces, Generation War and Babylon Berlin (now on Netflix). In Babylon Berlin, he plays a police detective in the 1920s, so I’m sure he could handle playing a firefighter in the 1940s. He speaks English too, which is kind of important since the movie would need to be filmed in English. Though I had already finished writing the novel when Babylon Berlin debuted on Netflix here in the States, when I saw his character on screen, I thought to myself that he’d do a great job as Karl.

And as a bonus, this would be a great song to play over the closing credits.

I haven’t gone so far as to consider all the minor characters. That would be a bit too much for me, so I’ll just stop with the major ones. Feel free to let me know who your picks would be for characters major or minor. Maybe I’ll revisit this post in a few months with reader picks.

If you haven’t bought a copy yet, So Others May Live is available for Kindle and in paperback on Amazon and is available for hardcover pre-order on the Barnes and Noble website.

L.H.

 

Book Release!

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Dear Readers,

It is finished! So Others May Live is now out in ebook and paperback. Hardback and audio book to follow. It has been a long road (two years) and the book went through multiple drafts (8), but now it emerges onto the world stage. I have to admit I’m a bit nervous, as even the best books get nasty reviews from some people, but I’m also happy it is finally done. Exhausted, yes, but happy.

So happy reading! And thank you all for taking this journey with me.

L.H.

 

Pride in the Job

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Dear Readers,

Yesterday I found out that I have been walking around with a broken back (literally) since my fall in January. I have a compression fracture at the L3/L4 level. That’s above the two levels I destroyed in 2012 which led to my retirement. It is a stable fracture, so I just have to give it time to heal and suffer quite a bit in the meantime. Though everyone talks about the “Opiod Crisis”, what they don’t tell you is that all of the restrictions on getting the medications don’t actually have an impact on illegal drug users, but those with a legitimate medical need (because their f—–g back is broken), can’t get adequate pain control. But I digress.

Since my original injuries are due to the fire service, I’ve been reflecting a little bit on my career and what it meant or means to me. When I was a young kid, new to the job, we’d make fun of the old school firemen we worked with. These were men who’d served in Vietnam and had 30 years on the job by the late 90s. They would sit around the table upstairs and bitch about the “youngsters” on the job and how much better it was “back in the day”. I would never consider myself old school now, but a conversation I had with a young firefighter the other day proved otherwise.

He was shocked when I told him how, back in the 90s, we could smoke in the fire station. These days, a lot of departments have gone to requiring all firefighters to be non-smokers, on duty AND off. Hell, I remember smoking a cigarette on the fire truck. En route to a fire. We didn’t wear our seat belts. We didn’t wear SCBA while doing salvage and overhaul. Our engines routinely went out with three person crews. In fact, my first engine was a 78 La France, which just so happens to be the year I was born. We did not hit it hard from the yard, we went in, found the fire, and put it out. Now, I’m not saying the old days were better. They were merely different. If anything, the increased awareness of things like job related cancer indicates that the job is finally starting to own up to the fact that just because putting out fires in dangerous, you can still mitigate a lot of the ancillary risks.

I had a student once ask me (during a lecture about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire) if I would have preferred to work in 1911 or when I did. I had to think about it for a minute. There were pluses and minuses to both. Ultimately, the job really hasn’t changed all that much. Sure, we have more EMS calls than fires. But at the end of the day, we are still firefighters. The feeling a firefighter in 1895 had when responding to a reported building fire is no different than what I experienced in 15 years on the job. It’s a feeling like no other. Better than sex and as addictive as cocaine. And it is universal. I’ve met firefighters from different eras and different countries, but our bond transcends time and distance. Our shared pride in our jobs brings us together.

So no, I don’t really consider myself old school (despite the fact I wore a leather helmet and ate my share of smoke), but the main reason for that is because I could never manage to grow the legendary handlebar mustache required of all Old School Firemen.

L.H.

Of Books and Burns

Friends,

As I’ve previously written posts about my favorite books on topics as diverse as the Old West and the great works of Russian Literature, I thought I would turn my attention to another subject near and dear to my heart; the fire service. Novels about firefighting are not all that common, and indeed, only one makes my list here. Part of it is because the job isn’t simply rushing from one emergency to the next, which does make for exciting reading. For a novel to be realistic, it would have to cover training time, meals, and sleeping. Hardly compelling stuff. Furthermore, raging structure fires are not as common as they once were, and professional firefighters today spend more time running EMS calls than they do putting out fires. So the books that follow are mostly non-fiction memoir type books, with the exception mentioned above. These are not technical books about the job, but rather books about either the history of the fire service or the experiences of someone in it.

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The Bronx was burning before I was born. The men of Engine Company 82 fought a never ending battle against the red devil, responding to numerous fires each shift. Dennis Smith, a firefighter on Engine 82 also happened to be a talented wordsmith. His memoir, Report From Engine Co. 82 is a firefighting classic. Imagine if, rather than writing about World War One, Remarque wrote about life at what was, at the time, one of the busiest engine companies in the world. And that’s what this book is like. It is, perhaps, the greatest of all the firefighting memoirs and rises to the level of true literature. Smith wrote many books, including a novel called A Song For Mary which tells his story before he joined the fire department. He has also made contributions to fire service history. His History of Firefighting in America is an excellent, if somewhat hard to find these days, book. Recently, he penned a great book on the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. But Report rises to the top of the crowded field of fire department memoirs.

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In graduate school, my research focused on the German Civil Defense system during World War Two.  I had the opportunity to interview German firefighters who worked during the firebombing raids from 1943-45. This ignited, pardon the pun, in me a lifelong interest in how fire departments cope with the strain of wartime conditions when they find themselves on the front lines. Burning Issues is a unique account because it describes the activities of the Belfast Fire Brigade during the early years of The Troubles. No other fire service in Europe or America has had to cope with what the Fire Service of Northern Ireland has. For thirty years, terrorism tore their relatively small country apart. As part of the establishment, the fire brigade tried to stay above the sectarian issues which divided the country, and responded to calls from both communities. The author does an excellent job writing about what it was like working in that kind of environment. This is a tough book to get a copy of now, but if you can find one, buy it.

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Larry Brown was a retired firefighter turned novelist from Oxford, Mississippi. His non-fiction book On Fire is a short but very interesting account of his time as a firefighter. It consists of a series of short vignettes which move from the humorous to the tragic, a fact which I think all of us current or retired firefighters can relate to. With a novelist’s skill, he tells stories which induce laughter and/or tears. Reading this book is rather like sitting around a campfire and listening to the author tell stories. It’s personal and engaging. Sadly, the author passed away several years ago, but he has left us with a great account of firefighting in the Deep South in the 70s and 80s. I’m sure William Faulkner would approve of this book.

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If you are in the market for a more scholarly look at the development of the American Fire Service, look no further than Crucible of Fire. The author describes some of the great conflagrations of the 19th Century and explores how they impacted fire departments of the 20th Century. It’s about lessons learned and applied. As such, it might not appeal to the general reader, though firefighters, historians, or both will find much to like about it. Firefighting in the United States is long on tradition unimpeded by progress, so sometimes it is nice to see where some of those traditions came from. Fire departments are made up of humans, and as such, we tend to learn from our mistakes, thus finding things out “the hard way”. This book is a great read for young firefighters, who I think need to know some of our shared history, no matter how boring it might seem to them. The fundamental goal of firefighting, putting the wet stuff on the red stuff, has never changed, even though our apparatus and gear has.

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3000 Degrees is the best book written on a single fire and the men who fought it. The author tells the tragic story of the 6 firefighters killed in the Worcester Cold Storage Fire in December of 1999. I was a young firefighter in Texas at the time, and I remember watching the news coverage of this fire. What the author does particularly well, is introduce you to the lives of the six men, so that when the unfortunate events occur, you can really feel the loss suffered by their families. It’s far more than just the story of a fire, it is an ode to those who answer the alarms, even knowing the risks they face. Not a terribly long read, it can be easily digested. It is also available as an Audiobook with an excellent narrator, so if that is more your cup of tea, you can enjoy it that way.

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My final book is the only work of fiction on the list. Chicago 1871 is both a science fiction novel and a historical one. The science fiction angle comes from the fact that the protagonist travels back in time to Chicago on the eve of the Great Fire. While I actually don’t much care for time travel books, this one is the exception. Once we arrive in the past, the author does an incredible job painting a portrait of the Chicago Fire Department in the 19th Century. The information about how they lived and fought fires is well researched enough to be like reading entertaining non-fiction. The action scenes are very well done, and you can almost taste the smoke. I’m a first generation firefighter, and my son has no desire to enter the profession and so I’ll be the only generation, and I have no personal connection with the firefighters of old, other than a shared job. Sometimes, the book made me wish I had worked back then instead of when I did. But to work back then, I’d have to live back then, and I rather like having access to antibiotics. There aren’t many firefighting novels out there, but this one is the best I’ve read. Feel free to check out the author’s page here.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. Hopefully you’ll check out some of these books and find them as interesting as I did. Being a firefighter is the toughest job you’ll ever love. My years on the job made me the person I am today, for better or worse. Until next time, enjoy your holidays and I’ll see you at the big one.

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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.”

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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.

“Where Do You Get Your Ideas?”

Dear Readers,

Forgive me for yet another long delay in posting. I’m still recovering from my surgery whilst also trying to teach two five week courses at the college. I rather doubt that is much of an excuse, but it is the only one I have. Anyway, on to today’s topic. I’ve watched a lot of author interviews and been to a few author readings in my day. One question that comes up quite frequently is “Where do you get your ideas?” Whilst I cannot answer for anyone else, I shall endeavor to explain where the idea for So Others May Live sprang from.

The genesis of my novel came from two places. Back in 2003, I interviewed a man who, from 1944-45, had been a Hitler Youth Auxiliary firefighter. He related a story to me of falling through the floor of a building and landing in the basement in a liquified pool of human fat which was all that remained of the occupants who burned alive as liquid phosphorus from an incendiary ran down into the basement. He was 14 years old when this happened and I asked him “How do you get over something like that?” He looked me dead in the eye and said “You don’t.” I never really forgot this story but it wasn’t one I dwelt on either, at least not until one night eighteen months ago.

I awoke with a start from a dream. In my dream, I saw a crippled Lancaster limping towards the airfield. Three crew members dead. The pilot at the controls, and the remaining three crewmen seated in their crash positions. As the plane inched closer to the ground for a belly landing, the crew began to sing “Nearer My God To Thee.” When I awoke, I lay in bed for several minutes pondering the dream, and then I remembered what the German firefighter told me all those years before. The dream and the interview collided in my head.

I got up and jotted down a few brief things in my notebook so I’d remember it the next day. As I went about my business that morning, I continued to think things over. Slowly, the rough ideas of a plot began to come together in my mind. A firefighter trying to save lives for a regime bent on destroying them. A Lancaster pilot on his last mission before he gets to transfer out of an operational squadron. A fiancé trying to plan for a future that may not pan out. And a woman playing a dangerous game with the Gestapo.

I’m neither an plotter (one who writes out a detailed plot outline) or a pantser (one who just starts writing). I guess you could call me a plantser. I sketched out the format of the book and listed out the order in which each chapter would be written by character name. All I had to go on was a one sentence description of what I wanted in each chapter, and the rest came from the seat of my pants. 96,000 words and one year later I had a finished novel. As to what will come from that, well, time will tell.

L.H.