Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

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Dear Readers,

I’ve been finding it difficult to devote any time to writing of late. There are two reasons. First of all, my teaching load this semester takes up a good portion of the day (and then you can add the two hour round trip commute and the committee meetings to it). The second reason is the severe, unrelenting pain I’ve been in since my fall last month. I already have spinal injuries, but the pain has gotten absolutely murderous over the past couple of weeks. So much so that it has started to rattle my thinking. Furthermore, I cannot sit down for more than 20 minutes or so without even more pain (which makes the commute tough). In the past, I’ve always used a standing desk to write from at home. But even that is uncomfortable now. I have been forced to adapt somewhat, and I have found something that seems to work well.

I’m writing the old school way, as in actually writing by hand. The benefits of this are numerous. I don’t have to wait until I am at home and feel like standing in front of my laptop to write. I can write in my office, in between classes, while laying in bed at night, while waiting for an MRI (like I did yesterday), or just about anywhere I go. It’s like having a portable typewriter. The major drawback is my abysmal handwriting, which I’ll have to read when I transcribe the manuscript onto the the computer. As an added bonus, I can edit while I type it up, and so the first typed draft will, in fact, be the second draft.

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As with anything, I get “help” from Anastasia. 

It’s working well so far. It is slower going than typing a first draft though, but it isn’t like I’m on a time crunch or anything. I wouldn’t have time to type it up until after the semester is over anyway, so we’ll see how far along I am by then. Honestly, it’s kind of fun. I feel like a writer of old. I’m using a regular pen, but it would be kind of neat to use a quill and ink. I’d probably spill it all over myself though. After I hit publish on this post, I’m going to lay down on some ice packs and try to knock out a few pages. Athletes must play with pain, and writers sometimes have to write with pain.

Until next time, happy reading and happy writing friends.

L.H.

Loving Your Neighbor’s Wife: Or Lessons From Russian Lit

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Dear Readers,

I just finished reading The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons From Russian Literature. Okay, to be totally honest, I didn’t actually “read” it, I listened to the audio book. (Still counts!) The premise of the book is what caught my eye. A book that sets out to teach life lessons based on Russian literature…..what’s not to like? No one captures the human condition quite like Russian authors. As an Irishman, a people well known for our sense of tragedy, I must admit that the Russians do it even better. But I digress.

The author, Viv Groskop, studied the Russian language and literature in college and spent a year living in Russia in the early 90s. Each chapter of her book discusses a different Russian classic (and it’s author), and boils it down to its essential premise. She illustrates the life lesson with stories from her own experience in Russia. The reader (or listener) can easily apply said lesson to their own life. Such as, don’t jump in front of a train. (Anna Karenina)

If you think about it, we all struggle with certain questions in our life. Why do bad things happen? What if you love someone who doesn’t love you? What if you love someone that you shouldn’t? Is there any deeper meaning in life? Is there such a thing as fate? Luckily for those of you who are literarily (is that a word?) inclined, the pantheon of Russian lit holds all the answers. I think that at some level, most great works of literature examine at least one of these essential questions, regardless of the national origin of the author, but perhaps because of their history, Russian authors tend to do the best job. I guess a certain amount of angst is an invaluable tool for an author.

At only 224 pages, Groskop manages to briefly sum up most of the great works of Russian literature before delving into the answers to life’s questions they provide. If you add up the pages of the works themselves, it would run to thousands of pages, so this book can be used both as a primer on classic lit or as a refresher course if you’ve read the authors discussed. It’s a book that you’ll want to revisit (I’ve listened to it twice) so you can fully digest the material. Perhaps take a note or two, and then look over them should you find yourself pondering life.

My only complaint is that Mikhail Sholokhov is not mentioned. He won the Nobel Prize in 1965 and his seminal work Quiet Flows the Don is, in my biased opinion, the finest novel ever written. It was the most widely read work of Soviet literature. But, as is often the case, whether we like or dislike an author is subjective. Not mentioning him in the book may have been due to constraints of time and space. It is also true, however, that Sholokhov, fine writer though he was, is not overly popular in some circles. He was very close with Stalin. A member of the Communist Party, he was also elected to the Supreme Soviet. I’ve looked over some university reading lists for Russian literature PhD programs, and he is not even included on some of them. And that, Dear Readers, is a travesty.

So what lesson can you learn from Quiet Flows the Don? Don’t fall in love with your neighbors wife. And should a civil war break out in your country, make sure you are on the winning side.

That said, The Anna Karenina Fix will appeal to lovers of literature, both Russian and every other kind. The book has a lighthearted tone and, if you listen to the audio book, it is rather like sitting back and hearing a story. A story part hilarious and part sad (such as Groskop’s experience at a Russian funeral). So throw on your ushanka, hop on your troika, and raid your nearest bookstore. You’ll enjoy it.

L.H.

A Disastrous Book

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Dear Readers,

I finished the first week of the semester. One down. 15 more to go. Come Friday afternoon, I felt like I’d been beaten with a baseball bat while being run over by a bus. I’m afraid my fall a few weeks back did more damage to my (already damaged) spine that I’d first feared. But I’ll endure, I guess, as there really isn’t another option.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of disaster movies. The cheesier the better. I could watch Twister on an endless loop. The Towering Inferno is, in my opinion, the best disaster movie ever. Not to mention, as a retired firefighter, I appreciate how it is a stirring call to not let profit margin outweigh fire safety standards. I also enjoy reading books about disasters, both natural and man-made. That said, disaster fiction can, at times, be difficult to come by. And by that, I mean novels about actual disasters from history, not novels about disasters that might happen in the future. (Though those can be good too.)

My novel that is currently making the publisher rounds is set during World War Two. The novel I’m writing now is set during the Civil War. After that, I have a World War One novel in the mental hopper. Once those are done, I’d like to write a historical novel about some great disaster somewhere. The problem is that I can’t figure out which one to use. All that I know is that it would necessarily involve fire. The reason is because the other novels all have some aspect of historical fire protection in them. They are not part of a series and, in fact, are entirely self contained, but they all touch on the fire service. With that in mind, I’ll end up finding some major fire (probably not in the United States, but we’ll see) and writing about it.

I’m sure it will be a hot topic. And I hope the book isn’t disastrous.

Get it?

L.H.

The Wildest Ride Yet: My 2018 in Review

Dear Readers,

New Year’s Eve is the time to reflect on the previous year and, in my case, it was perhaps the most momentous year of my life. If not that, it was certainly the biggest roller coaster that I’ve ever ridden thus far in my 40 years. I’ve struggled with trying to find a way to sum it all up, but I think I’ve gotten it down. So without further delay, here is my 2018 Year in Review, presented in word and picture.

1

The morning after surgery. One word. Pain.

If you read my 2017 Year in Review post, I referenced having been hospitalized on Thanksgiving with an obstruction in my small intestine. As they did not know the exact cause, they could not say with certainty if it would return. Well, as you can probably guess, it did. In mid-January I did the usual in-service week stuff for the college before starting my temporary full time professor job. It was the usual meetings, professional development, and convocation. The weekend before classes started was a long one, with Monday being the MLK Day holiday. Everything was set for me to start classes on Tuesday. Sunday, however, I began to feel the familiar pressure/pain in my stomach. I gave it some time, thinking it might ease up on its own. It didn’t. By 2 a.m. I was vomiting and so back to the ER we went. The diagnosis didn’t take long. It was another obstruction. Owing to a flu outbreak, I was unable to get into a room until Wednesday morning and spent the time in the ER instead. On Wednesday, the surgeon saw me and said I was booked for a rather large operation on Tuesday. I spent the time in between roaming the halls with my IV pole and visiting with the nurses. I was unable to eat anything, but that had me on TPN through a Picc line, but I still dropped a massive amount of weight, bad because I’d already lost a lot due to the issue in November. The surgery turned out to be a shorter operation than they thought it would be. I had a few complications post op, and so it was quite a while before I got to go home. On the day of my discharge, I had been in the hospital for nineteen days.

2

My first “meal”. Forgive the skeletal appearance. This is what happens when you drop fifty pounds due to stomach/intestinal issues!

I started to work officially on Monday, February 5th. I think my students were surprised to see that I actually existed. I owe a big thank you to my colleagues who covered my classes for me until I was able to healthy enough to come back. Throughout the month of February, I never felt entirely “right”. My stomach still bothered me from time to time. I was still dropping weight. Finally, by February 28th, I felt more normal than I’d felt since November. So imagine my surprise on March 2nd, our tenth wedding anniversary, when I ended up in the ER with, you guessed it, another bowel obstruction. I was only there for a week this time, but I was told that I needed the big surgery now. My surgeon agreed to let me try and make it until the semester ended. Also, while in the hospital I had a phone interview for a permanent position at the school and the week after I got out, an in-person interview. Luckily, I got the job.

5

Professing…..1940s style!

The rest of the spring passed in a blur. I spent the time teaching, watching TV in bed at night, and editing my novel which I completed in 2018 in preparation for sending it to a professional editor in August. Before I knew it, final exams were over and it was time for the surgery. They weren’t lying when they said it would be a big operation! I was in the hospital for 8 or 9 days afterwards, but did okay. I was up walking around as fast as they’d let me, though it hurt like hell as I had a six and a half inch incision in my abdomen. I weighed 130 pounds upon discharge. Keep in mind, I’m 6’4 and weighed 185 before this all started back in November! Thankfully, as I’m writing this, I’m back up to 160, though gaining weight has proven to be difficult. All these months later, I feel decent. I’m sincerely hoping I never half to go through anything like this again. But only time will tell.

4

Your’s truly on TV.

Enough of the health stuff! In June I visited the Metropolitan Research Center in Houston to delve into the archives they had on the Gulf Hotel Fire of 1943 which killed 55 people in Houston. I was able to successfully track down the mass grave where the unidentified victims were buried, and set out to see if I could get funds to place a marker. A reporter from KPRC was kind enough to air a story on it close to the anniversary of the fire. I was able to get a little support, but what I’m doing now is exploring the process for getting a historical marker on the site of the grave. That will be an easier and cheaper option.

In August, my book went off to the editor for a developmental edit. I spent much of the fall semester working on the revisions she suggested. It took a bit of time and a few more drafts, but in December I sent it back in for the copy edit. Those revisions have been done and round two of the copy edit is scheduled for Jan. 7th. Once that is complete, it will be submission time. I have a small number of indie presses to query and if I strike out, then I’ll go the self-publishing route. Be warned. I’m planning to throw one hell of a 40s themed launch party when the book hits the market, whenever that might be. (Sooner if I do it, longer if a press does it.) Also on the writing front, I’m halfway through my second novel which is set during the Civil War. That one should be ready to publish by early 2020.

Anastasia

Anastasia provided editorial “assistance.” 

As a Red Sox fan, I would be remiss if I did not mention their having won the World Series. It was an exciting summer for sure. On those long summer evenings, my wife and I always sit outside and listen to a game on the radio. Thankfully with SiriusXM and their handy app, I can get the Red Sox home radio feed on my phone or in the car. That’s useful when you live in Texas and not Massachusetts. Given the tendency of the Sox bullpen to blow saves, my sense of delight at winning the Series was only exceeded by my sense of shock. The New Orleans Saints are having a banner year too. So let’s hope at this time next year, I can talk about how they won the Super Bowl.

7

Votes for women!

When the new semester started in late August, I got to teach an in-service session on how to communicate emergency procedures to your students. I think it went pretty well. Or at least I didn’t get any feedback that said “you suck”, so I’ll take that as a win. It was kind of an odd semester, and I never really felt like I’d hit my stride. I’m not sure why, exactly, but that is how it was. In December, my wife and I attended Dickens on the Strand in Galveston with a friend of mine. We drank beer, got our picture with a suffragette, ate fried food, and had to have my wife drive us home after having too much fun. At the end of the semester, I got a “present” of sorts from the college. A new office!

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An office with a view.

My back injuries still hurt, and always will. A little more with each passing year, but such is life. I would say I’ve gotten used to it, but there really isn’t a way to get used to living with severe pain, though you can learn to cope with it. So I’ll still enjoy my New Year’s Eve brandy and cigar on my front porch as I ponder the past year and wonder about what the upcoming year will hold. I’ll spend New Year’s Eve and Day watching the Twilight Zone marathon on the SyFy Channel, which has become a tradition since I no longer have to work holidays.

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A brandy, a cigar, and a dream of the future.

So there you have it, Dear Readers. My wild and crazy year. I don’t do the whole “New year, new me” thing. In 2019, I’ll be the same profane, sarcastic prankster that I’ve always been. I do have some goals, though. Fortunately, they are all obtainable. They are as follows:

  1. Publish So Others May Live
  2. Finish Book Two (as of yet, untitled)
  3. Edit Book Two

Here’s wishing you a safe and happy New Year.

L.H.

Once More Into the Breach

 

Anastasia

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L.H.

An UnCivil War

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

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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This is how I organize the research.

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

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

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

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

L.H.

 

Florian’s Own: A Night Under the Bombs

 

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.

+++

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.

ec76ec92c692d31778d0f6f8b6e41be7

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.

+++

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. 

+++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

+++

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

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

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

+++

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

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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.