Florian’s Own: A Night Under the Bombs

 

Berlin, Aufräumungsarbeiten nach Luftangriff

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?

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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.”

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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.

What’s In A Name

SoOthersMayLive

Dear Readers,

I’ve finished with a full set of revisions to my novel. It is presently in the hands of some Beta Readers whom I am waiting to hear back from (hint, hint) which will then spark more revisions. After that, it goes to the editor in mid August. My target date for the ready to submit version is November 1, 2018. At that point, I’m not sure precisely what I’m going to do submission wise as I have a few options. Self publishing is an option, of course, but I’m holding on to that as my backup plan. I could always submit it to agents, secure one, and then try to land a traditional publishing arrangement with one of the big houses. This option doesn’t really appeal to me too much for several reasons. First of all, I know that this book isn’t really something a traditional publisher would like. It doesn’t have bestseller stamped all over it. Second, the process to land an agent first would slow down publication by at least a year, if not more and that’s assuming I could get an agent interested in the first place. So what is my plan? I think I’m going to approach some small independent presses. There are some positives, but there are also some negatives (no marketing budget, etc). But overall I think it is worth giving it a shot.

Today, I thought I’d write a short note and explain how I came by my title. I’ve read some cool stories about how some authors came up with the names of their book. I do not have a cool story, but what I do have is the reason for the novel. To get there, I first have to tell you how I came up with the idea for the book in the first place. I awoke one morning with an image in my head of a Lancaster pilot trying to land a crippled plane while the surviving crew huddled on the floor behind him and sang Nearer My God to Thee. This image merged in my mind with a conversation I had with a man who’d served as a Hitler Youth Auxiliary Firefighter during World War Two. This got me thinking about the strange juxtaposition of an occupation in which your job is to save lives in the midst of a destructive war and on behalf of a regime bent on destroying them. As a retired firefighter myself, I know the demands the job puts on those who do it in peacetime. So imagine doing that same job in the middle of a war.

So Others May Live sums up the reasons why firefighters do the job today, just as it sums up the reasons why they have done the job for hundreds of years. Sometimes, the job requires you sacrifice your life on behalf of the greater good. In wartime or peacetime, firefighters stand ready to answer the call. I hope my title captures this and conveys it to the reader. If it does, then I’ve done my job.

Lee Hutch

The Learning Curve

SoOthersMayLive

Dear Readers,

Today I finished the first round of edits to my novel. Technically, I think it is the second round since my wife reads each chapter and marks it up as I finish. What I’ve really been doing is going back through it and mixing her suggestions with a few of my own and also putting it together in one file. Normally when I am working on a project, I make a folder with the project name and each chapter gets its own sub folder. When it is complete, I merge them all into one. I’m sending it out to Beta readers now. Some are reading it for subject matter content (ie: any historical anachronisms, etc) while others are reading it for general flow, characterization, and overall story. Once I receive their feedback, I’ll incorporate it into the next draft. I hope to pass it off to the professional editor in August. Then will come more changes and more drafts. Hopefully it will be ready to submit to agents by the first of the year.

After I finished today’s work, I began to ponder what I’d learned in the year that has gone by between the first typed word and the finished draft. This isn’t my first completed novel, but it is the first that I feel somewhat comfortable with though I know it still needs quite a bit of work. I’m not qualified to give writing advice to anyone, but here are the lessons I’ve learned while I devoted myself to this book. Some of it might be of use to you.

1. Your first draft isn’t going to be perfect! And do you know what? That’s perfectly fine. The trick is to get it down on paper. When I took creative writing courses in college, my instructors always said that good books are not written, they are re-written. Your first draft simply provides the bones. Sure, good bones are important, but you can flesh them out when you start working on revisions.

2. Good research is essential for historical fiction, but don’t get bogged down. I love research. I love diving into the archives, reading old newspapers, interviewing people, and watching old films. This book has its genesis in an interview I conducted in graduate school. The elderly man I spoke with had been a teenage firefighter in Germany during World War Two. After he described a horrific experience to me, I asked him how one gets over something like that. He looked me dead in the eye and said “You don’t.” The dozens of interviews and hundreds of books prepared me to write, but I still found things I didn’t know as I was writing. Rather than stop and go back to the books, I just made a note to myself to fact check the items and kept on getting the draft pounded out. If I had stopped each time to do more research, I’d still be researching and would have no completed novel.

3. Immersion helps with historical fiction. What do I mean? My book is set during World War Two. While I worked on it, I only listened to 1940s music, watched movies from the 1940s, and even listened to baseball games from the 40s. I turned my bedroom into what looks like a squadron ready room (I write in the bedroom). Since I wear 1940s clothes anyway, I got inside the time period as best I could. I do know that this would not work for every historical time period, but for the more recent ones, it is a way to get caught up in the world inhabited by your characters.

4. Bounce ideas off of people. The internet is a wonderful place for writers to meet and exchange ideas and support. There are some excellent Facebook groups for writers in general, writers of historical fiction, and even writers of World War Two fiction specifically. What you’ll find is that other writers will be quick to offer help, encouragement, or ideas. The only person who knows what struggles you go through both internally and externally as a writer is another writer! Writing does not have to be a solitary task. Certainly you are the one putting finger to keyboard, but let others cheer you on. I’ve written stories since I was in elementary school and up until a few years ago, only my closest relatives (and by that I pretty much just mean my wife and cats) knew that I liked to write. I don’t think I was ashamed of it, I just didn’t want people thinking I was…..I don’t know…..weird or something. Well, I got over that and now have no problem “coming out” of the writing closet.

5. But Social Media can be a double edged sword. It is nice to make new friends and interact with other writers, but take care lest social media consume your world. I once lived on Facebook. Now I visit a few times a day, but I take time out for other things too. In fact, when I set out to finish the last 40K words of my novel, I did it in November. To aid me in that endeavor, I took a social media vacation wherein I did not post for the month. I did keep up my cat Anastasia’s page (since she has more followers than I do), but I made no personal posts. The withdrawal ended after the first week or so and rather than spending my time reading stuff, I spent it writing stuff. I met my goal of finishing the book in the nick of time, as it turned out.

6. Life happens, so be prepared. Write what you can while you can. The day after I finished my first draft was Thanksgiving. That evening I ended up in the Emergency Room with a bowel obstruction and spent the next six days in the hospital. I got out, only to return on January 15th with the same problem. This next trip, I had an emergency surgery and spent 19 days in a hospital bed. As it turns out, the surgery didn’t work and I was once again in the hospital for a week in early March. I need a second surgery, a much bigger one this time. Right now it is planned for May when my semester ends, but the problem could reoccur at any time and necessitate an immediate surgery. This is why I was pushing so hard to finish my revisions and ship it off to the Beta Readers. Now I don’t have to worry about that while I worry about my surgery. So my advice is to take advantage of good writing days/times whenever you can. They won’t always be there.

7. Take time for yourself too. Even though you are hard at work trying to write a book, you need some “me” time. Don’t become so wrapped up in your project that you forgo food or human companionship. Step away from the keyboard every now and then. Go for a walk. Go to the library. Play with your kids or pets. The exercise will do you good and help clear your head. Since I’m a college professor, my lecture days provide me with an outlet to move around and interact with others. Writing is important, but so is your family. I’m fortunate that my redheaded wife supports my creative endeavors, but that doesn’t mean I can lock myself in my room 24 hours a day. No matter how many words I’d written that day, each evening at around 6pm, we’d sit on the front porch of our 1932 bungalow a few blocks from Galveston Bay and discuss our day. Sometimes we’d discuss my writing, but more often we talked about anything but writing.

8. Try to limit the self doubt. Easier said than done, I know. I’m the world’s worst at laying in bed at night and thinking of all the things I suck at and replaying every negative event in my life. It is tempting when reading a well written to novel to think “I’ll never write as good as this. I should just give it up.” If you have a sliver of talent, you’ll get better every day. Writing, like anything else, takes practice to master. If you read authors who write numerous books, often you can chart their own development across the years. As a writer, all you have to fear is your own mind. Don’t engage in negative self talk and pull yourself down. That doesn’t mean you should travel with an admiring entourage either. Be realistic but be realistic. If you are just starting out, don’t assume that because you don’t write like [insert your favorite author here] that you’ll never amount to anything. I’d be willing to be that your favorite author probably felt the same when they started out.

9. Finishing the book is a success. Am I working towards getting my novel published? Absolutely. Will I cry in my beer if it doesn’t? No, for two reasons. First, I don’t drink alcohol. Second, by finishing the book I’ve already accomplished more than most who start out to write a novel. If it never leaves the binder I place the printed pages in on my bookshelf, I’ve still done something worthwhile. I don’t write for fame, money, or adoring fans. I’m actually a fairly private person. I write because I don’t know how to not write. The urge to write/tell stories comes from deep within my psyche and has been there as long as I can remember. I finished the novel, anything that comes after that is simply a bonus.

10. When you finish one, start a new one! I finished So Others May Live in November and set it aside for several months. I wanted to be able to look at it with fresh eyes for the editing round. That doesn’t meant I twiddled my thumbs. I had already plotted out another novel and so I started on that one. It is also historical fiction, though not WW2 era. When that one ends, I have a mystery novel plotted. I’ll keep writing as long as I have the strength to tap the keys. Someone out there in this big old world is waiting to read your story, so don’t let them down.

So that’s it, Dear Readers. I hope that you might find what I learned to be useful. Good luck and happy writing.

L.H.

 

The Job That Never Ends

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Dear Readers,

Please allow a brief explanation of my lengthy absence. As you may know if you follow the blog regularly, in November I was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction for around 6 days or so. In January, I was set to start my new gig as a temporary full time history professor. I did the new hire orientation and in-service week with no problems, but then the Sunday night before the semester started, my obstruction returned with a vengeance. I had an emergency surgery and spent 19 days in the hospital. I got out and had to get caught up on a missed 2 1/2 weeks of class all while still recovering from my surgery. I have a nice six inch incision in my abdomen (which I will spare you pictures of). I had just started to feel myself again when on March 2nd, my anniversary no less, the obstruction came back again! That day just happened to be my tenth anniversary. My wife and I spent it in the E.R. I need another, much bigger operation now, but the doctor says I can try and wait to have it when the semester ends. Here’s hoping my small intestine cooperates.

Now on to today’s subject. As you know, I finished my novel So Others May Live in November. I set it aside for several months. Now is the time to sally forth to do battle with the written word. I’m going through the revisions process, after which it will go to some beta readers. After I incorporate their feedback, it will be time for a professional editor to take a crack at it. I wouldn’t say it’s a great book, but I do think it is, or at least has the potential to be, a good one. It’s sort of like I say that I am not a historian, I’m just a halfway decent storyteller.

In a previous post, I discussed sources I found particularly useful while doing the research. As part of my revisions, I’m chasing down some information that I need to nail down, things I didn’t stop to look up while I was involved in writing. These are all questions that came up once I began to write. What you see in the above photo is around 1/4 of the print sources I consulted during the research process. It does not include official documents, maps, navigational charts, notes from two dozen interviews, photographs consulted, documentaries watched, and, for fun, period movies and music. I go full on immerse when writing historical fiction. When writing about World War 2, I only watch wartime era movies and listen to wartime era music while working in my bedroom which is decorated something like a squadron ready room (complete with the famous Betty Grable pinup photo).

How much research is too much? I don’t quite know how to answer that. You have to do enough to get it right. I owe it to those who lived through the events I describe to get things as close to accurate as I possibly can, for all its beauty and horror. At my writing station, I have the following excerpt from the Randall Jarrell poem Losses taped to my desk as a reminder of the importance of doing right by those who died.

In our bombers named for girls, we burned the cities we had learned about in school

Till our lives we out and our bodies lay among those we had killed but never seen

When we lasted long enough, they gave us medals. When we died, they said “Our casualties were low.”

After much consideration, I have decided to dedicate my book in the following way:

This book is dedicated to all those who seek humanity in the midst of inhumanity; and to the men and women of the fire services of the world who still give their all So Others May Live.

Lee Hutch

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So Others May Live

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Dear Readers,

As most of you know, I completed my World War Two novel tentatively titled So Others May Live in November. In the nick of time, as it turned out, as I ended up in the hospital for six days over Thanksgiving Break. If you are new to this blog, I wrote a whole series of posts called Reaping the Whirlwind which details the writing process and you may read an excerpt from said novel here, but be warned, it is graphic. Anyway, I thought I’d give you a list of some of the sources I utilized during the writing of said novel. This is not an exhaustive list by any means and I’m leaving some stuff out, but here is your World War Two reading list, particularly relating to the air war and the German Civil Defense system.

General Histories

These are general World War Two histories.

Burleigh, The Third Reich: A New History

Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power

Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

Hastings, Inferno

Hastings, Armageddon: The End of the War in Europe

Weitz, Weimar Germany: Promise and Tragedy

The Air War and It’s Impact

Knell, To Destroy a City

Friedrich, The Fire

Friedrich, Brandstatten

Hastings, Bomber Command

Crayling, Among the Dead Cities

Wilson, Bomber Boys

Wilson, Men of Air

Lowe, Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg

Middlebrook, The Berlin Raids

Everitt & Middlebrook, The Bomber Command War Diaries

Wartime Berlin/German Home Front

Read & Fischer, The Fall of Berlin

Beck, Under the Bombs: The German Home Front 1942-1945

Grunberger, The Twelve Year Reich

Johnson, What We Knew

Moorhouse, Berlin At War

Mayer & Evans, They Thought They Were Free

Selby, A Serial Killer in Nazi Berlin

German Military

Since the firefighter character spent time in the Germany Army before being returned to his pre-war occupation due to wounds, it was important to bone up on German military attitudes, etc.

Knappe, Soldat

Neitzel & Welzer, Soldaten 

Koscherrek, Blood Red Snow

Bellamy, Absolute War

Reese, A Stranger to Myself

Cooper, The German Army 1933-1945

Fritz, Frontsoldaten

Beevor, Stalingrad

Sajer, The Forgotten Soldier

Wartime London

Gaskin, The Blitz

Gardiner, The Blitz: The British Under Attack

Longmate. How We Lived Then

Todman, Britain’s War

Ingham, Fire and Water: The London Firefighter’s Blitz, 1940-42

Novels

Why novels for research? There are a couple of reasons. First, from a professional standpoint, they teach be about plotting, creating characters, etc. Second, they often include historical nuggets that I can follow up on in non-fiction books.

Ledig, Payback

Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Remarque, A Time to Love and a Time to Die

Deighton, Bomber

Bird, London’s Burning

Frei, Berlin

Gillham, City of Women

Misc

Thankfully I was able to view several pieces of film footage shot of German firefighters during the war, including a “how to put out an incendiary fire” video. In addition, there are tons of documentaries on YouTube about the London Blitz, life in Nazi Germany, the Bomber War, etc. Far too many to list here, but I probably watched 50-60 hours worth of them and took notes.

In graduate school, I had the opportunity to interview some individuals who had worked in the German Civil Defense system during the war, either with the Luftschutz or as auxiliary firefighters/rescue workers. My notes from those conversations helped me craft a logical response from the Berlin fire brigade to air raids. Or at least I hope it did.

I also made use of some maps of wartime London and Berlin to help give me a handy reference when dealing with directions, etc.

Again, this list is not comprehensive. My World War Two library alone includes 500 volumes (it totals a little over 2,000 when you add all the other books). If any of you are interested in this subject, the list above provides a good place to start.

L.H.

 

 

 

 

 

 

City of Fire Excerpt

CIty of Fire

Dear Readers,

Here is an excerpt from my latest: City of Fire. There are four main characters: Patrick, Michael, Molly, and Thomas. This is your introduction to Patrick, a fire laddie in the Five Points during the summer of 1864.

The fire bells rang in the distance as Patrick McMahon hurried down Bayard Street. He smelled faint traces of smoke in the air, but New York City in the summertime presented far more odors for the discriminating nose than mere smoke. Raw sewage, rotting food, decomposing animal corpses, and unwashed bodies all combined to assault the unaccustomed visitor with a gag inducing smell. Patrick turned north up Mott Street past Brigid McCarthy’s brothel. He tipped his hat to three of her employees as they lounged near the front door before ducking down an alley. As he emerged on Elizabeth Street, the doors to the station which housed Hibernia Steam Engine 14 were open.

“Bout time you joined us, lad,” Captain Tommy Flaherty said, “We’d sure hate to start without ya.”

“I doubt that,” Patrick said as he pulled off his coat and grabbed his leather helmet from a rack near the door. Engine 14 was housed in a simple two story wood frame building. The steam engine and house cart occupied the ground floor. Spartan living quarters upstairs provided the firemen with a place to stay. Volunteers still provided the fire protection for the citizens of New York, but many of them found themselves in want of a job as often as not, and the station gave them a warmer place to sleep than the streets. Several other men entered the station and took up their places.

Captain Flaherty hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and sighed.

“Well, boyos, looks like a small crew today. Let’s get to it then.”

Patrick took up his spot in front of the engine and took up the running line. Unlike other large cities who converted to horse drawn engines, the firemen in New York City still pulled their engines, hose carts, and ladder trucks through the streets by hand. It was both a source of amusement and consternation to the citizens.

“Look lively, now!” Flaherty called out as they slowly pulled the engine through the wooden doors and out onto the street. The hose cart followed behind them. They made their way down Elizabeth Street, past the Bowery Theater. Patrick saw a thin cloud of smoke in the distance. A large crowd clogged the intersection at Bayard Street and the men slowed.

“Move outta da way!” Captain Flaherty shouted through his brass speaking trumpet. “We’ve a fire to get to. Can’t ya see it? Ya think we’re just after a bit of exercise? Move or we’ll run ya down!”

The crowd parted, but with no real sense of urgency. Fires were a frequent occurrence in Lower Manhattan. The locals gave scant notice to the fire laddies as they rushed their engines back and forth.

“If the Red Sea parted this slow, those poor Hebrews would still be prisoners of the Pharaoh,” Patrick said to the fireman ahead of him on the running line. As soon as the crowd gave way, they turned onto Bayard Street and hurried towards Bowery Boulevard.

“Whose district is this?” Patrick asked to no one in particular.

“Don’t know,” one of his companions said, “They rang the bells for the 14th, 6th, and 4th Wards. Could be on the boundary.”

Lookouts posted in bell towers throughout the city had the job of watching for fire, day or night. They rang the bells to alert each district of a fire. Four rings for the 4th Ward. Fourteen rings for the 14th Ward. If the lookouts could not determine the exact location, they rang each possible district. In the past, this led to bitter fights between members of rival fire companies over who had the “right” to put out a fire. Those fights had become a thing of the past. The war depleted the manpower of the volunteer fire companies who all struggled to turn out a full crew in this fourth summer of the conflict.

Sweat trickled down his face and stung his eyes as Patrick studied the men around him. So many new faces now, he thought. The old boys all gone. Fredericksburg. Antietam. Gettysburg. How many have we lost? And me own brother. Dead at Bull Run. And the damn riots last year. Lost more there. At the hands of our own people, by God! The whole damn world is falling apart and all we do is pick up the pieces.

Two blocks up Bowery Boulevard, Patrick caught sight of the building. A shop occupied the first floor, with fire showing from an upstairs window. The second floor no doubt contained living quarters for the shopkeeper. In the dry heat of summer, embers from the fire might catch the roofs of adjacent building on fire.

“Hydrant!”

Patrick looked over and saw one of the young boys who served as a runner for the company waving frantically from the nearest fire hydrant.

“Close enough boyos,” Flaherty said as he appraised the fire scene with his hands on his hips. “We beat the 4th Ward to their own fire, by Jove!”

In less than a minute, the firemen connected the hose to the hydrant and ran it to the coupling of their steam engine, which sported a large green shamrock painted on the side. Patrick grabbed another hose off the cart and attached it to the other side of the engine.

“Pressure’s up!”

Patrick opened the brass nozzle and directed the stream of water at the upstairs window. The fire danced away from the water and retreated into the room, only to reemerge seconds later, a bit larger and angrier. With another man behind him on the house, Patrick shuffled a few steps forward, careful to keep the water aimed in the window. He felt a tug at his arm. He glanced down and saw a small, dark haired man with a soot stained face gesturing towards the building.

“I know it’s on fire,” Patrick said. “Now get away and let me work.”

“My vife!” the man yelled in a thick, German accent. “She’s inside.”

Patrick passed the nozzle to the man behind him and walked over to the engine. He grabbed an ax and yelled over to Captain Flaherty, “There’s someone inside. I’m goin’ in.”

“Wait! You can’t!” Flaherty answered, but Patrick was already making his way through the door. The thick, black smoke left a small gap of around two feet just above the floor. Patrick pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, dipped it in a puddle of water, and tied it around his mouth and nose. The heat drew ever bit of moisture out of his body and soaked his clothing with sweat, which then began to steam.

“Can anyone hear me?” he yelled as he crawled deeper into the shop. The crackling roar of burning wood was the only reply. His ears burned as he crawled along on his stomach, sweeping his ax back and forth in front of him. The dense smoke layer moved closer to the floor. The ax hit something solid. Patrick felt it with his hands. A counter. With his right shoulder tucked against the wood, Patrick moved until it ended and then turned to go down the other side. About midway down, he ran into something human.

By feel, Patrick determined the victim to be female and still alive. He pulled the handkerchief from around his face and tied it around the woman’s. With his right hand, Patrick felt around for his pocket where he kept a rescue rope. He threaded it across the woman’s chest and under her armpits so he could drag her out. Then he heaved with all his might. For fuck’s sake! Why is it only the heavy one’s who get stuck?

The smoke darkened. Patrick lay on his back and pulled with as much strength as he could muster. He felt the body slide a short distance. He moved a few feet and pulled again. Up ahead, a small sliver of light shone through the blackness. Patrick wasn’t sure if it was the door or not, but as it was the only landmark, he made for it. Overhead, the floor creaked with a sound that told him it would buckle soon. If it ain’t the door, we’re both dead, Patrick thought as he dragged the woman. Four feet. Three feet. Two feet.

“There he is!”

Patrick felt hands grab him and pull him out onto the street and away from the building. Men half dragged, half carried him across the street and deposited him on the porch of a small saloon. A loud crash resounded from the building as the second floor collapsed onto the first in a shower of smoke, sparks, and flames. Fresh air filled his lungs and he sucked it in with great gasps. A wave of nausea overcame him and he bent over and vomited most of what he’d eaten the past few days onto the sidewalk. Captain Flaherty wisely stood out of splatter range, and then approached with a flask in his hand.

“Here you go, boyo,” he said. “Drink this. It’ll take the sting outta da smoke.”

Patrick took a long swig and felt the burn all the way into his stomach. As soon as the whiskey hit his stomach, it came back up along with some bile.

“How is she?’ he asked, his voice a mere croak.

“The one you pulled out?” Flaherty asked. “She was dead when you got her outside.”

“But…” Patrick protested. “But…..she was alive inside. That’s why I brung her out.”

“Well,” Flaherty said, “she’s among the departed now, lad. It was a gallant effort, but a damn fool thing to do.”

“So you always say,” Patrick replied. Before the war, Patrick and his older brother Seamus both belonged to the company. They had plenty of scrapes and close calls over the years. There ain’t a fire that can touch us, lad. That’s what Seamus always said. And right he was. It wasn’t a fire that got him, but a load of Confederate canister at Bull Run what done him in.

“Take some water.”

A voice brought Patrick’s mind back from the battlefields of Virginia. His eyes focused on a young woman who stood in front of him. She held a tin cup in her hands and extended it towards him.

“Thank you,” Patrick gapsed. “Maybe I can keep this down.”

He drained it in one gulp and handed it back. He studied the young woman for a moment. Red hair. Green eyes. She had a familiar air about her, like maybe he’d seen her around before, but his mind failed to recall where.

“Is there something you’d like to ask me? Or do you always stare at people like that?”

Patrick blinked, “I’m sorry. It’s only that you look familiar. Have I seen you before?”

She laughed.

“Did I say something amusing, then?” Patrick asked as red crept up his neck.

“Oh sure,” she said, “You’ve probably seen me before. But you won’t admit where.”

“Surely it was at Mass,” Patrick offered.

She laughed again, turned, and began to walk away.

“Wait!” Patrick called out. “Could I ask your name at least?”

“Molly,” she said over her shoulder as she disappeared around the corner.

Flaherty sat down next to Patrick and wrapped a meaty arm around Patrick’s shoulders.

“I know where she lives, lad,” Flaherty said. “If ya care to pay her a visit.”

“And where might that be,” Patrick asked.

“At the corner of Bayard and Mott. She’s one o’ Miss McCarthy’s gals. If’n ya pay her a visit, mebbe she’ll give you a fireman’s discount.”

Flaherty erupted in laughter as he pounded Patrick on the back in time with his loud guffaws.

“I’m sure you’ve provided Miss McCarthy with plenty of financial support over the years, Captain,” Patrick said.

“That I have, lad,” Flaherty said. “That I have. Just don’t let the missus find out.”

Flaherty got up and walked away to give directions to the firemen. Patrick remained on the porch and watched as two men sprayed a house back and forth across the top of the debris pile which remained of the shop while another engine, Americus Number 6 wet down the exposures of the wooden building next door. The white tiger on the side of their steam engine was well known to everyone in Manhattan. They were Tweed’s boys, and a good company. A spasm seized his chest as his lungs revolted against his forced ingestion of smoke. Patrick coughed and spit up a great glob of black phlegm onto the wooden sidewalk. I’m useless for this fire now, he thought. May as well go back to the fire house. The men would have to remain on the scene for at least an hour to make sure the fire did not rekindle and that the embers caused no other fires. No one wanted the notoriety associated with companies who had to return to the same fire a second or third time.

Flaherty nodded when Patrick asked to be excused from the scene. The crowd gave way in front of him. A few of the civilians gave him a strong clap on the back as he threaded his way towards Bayard Street. He hoped to get back to the station and have a lie down to ease the smoke headache which pounded at his temples like a mallet. But when he reached Elizabeth Street, Patrick kept walking. He did not stop until he found himself outside the ornate wooden building on the corner of Mott and Bayard. He studied the sign above the door which read McCarthy’s.