The Silent Killer

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Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

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

L.H.

Firefighting in a Doomed City

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Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

21 April 1945

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

24 April 1945

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

25 April 1945

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

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

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

26 April 1945

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

27 April 1945

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

28 April 1945

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

30 April 1945

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

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

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

4 April 1945

Hermann Schinkinger

10 April 1945

Max-Joachim Baumgarten

23 April 1945

Kazimir Nawrotski

26 April 1945

Heinz Hamann

30 April 1945

Richard Raufeisen

Otto Streich

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

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

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.