Of Box Alarms and Phrases: The Historical Origins of Some Fire Service Terms

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Friends,

With my previous post about a historically significant fire in Houston, Texas, I thought I’d revisit the subject of fire service history. Fire departments are big on tradition, and a lot of the terms in use in some areas today have very old origins and harken back to the days of wooden ladders and leather lungs. Helmets, for example, are usually a firefighter’s most iconic piece of equipment, especially the traditional style (as opposed to the salad bowl type). When I was a humble fireman, my department issued us the “modern” style helmets but allowed us to purchase our own, so long as we stuck to the department color requirements. (Yellow for firefighter, red for captain, white for chiefs). Most of us purchased our own. Mine was a Morning Pride traditional helmet called the Ben Franklin. Why? Because Franklin was once the chief of a volunteer fire company! I went through a couple of different helmets, all the same style. When I was an arson investigator, I wore a leather Cairns New Yorker which has, other than a few modifications, been the same helmet for 168 years. Cairns began to make helmets in the 1850s and prior to that, made leather helmet shields going back to the 1830s. Ah yes……tradition! Thankfully I still have my arson helmet and one of my firefighter helmets. They make for nice conversation pieces.

Keep in mind that what I discuss below may vary from department to department. Some use all of the terms, others may use none of them. Not only that, but the meaning of the terms may vary as well. The meanings and origins I give are the originals, rather than how they’ve morphed over time. Though the fire service is strong on tradition, things do change no matter how resistant some may be. Change comes slowly, but it does come. So without further ado here are some historical terms still in use.

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Box Alarm/Assignment: This is a holdover term from the days of telegraph fire alarm systems which existed in most major cities. Alarm boxes like the above stood on street corners. Should a citizen witness a fire emergency, they could hurry to the nearest box and pull the lever. This transmitted a coded series of numbers by telegraph to the central alarm system. The dispatcher reviewed the box number (which corresponded to an intersection), and then selected a punch card which had the apparatus assignments for that intersection. The punch card was fed into a second telegraph which sent the box number to the stations assigned to that intersection. Meanwhile, at the station, the alarm bell would ring to notify the station where to go. Let’s say it was box 427. The bell rang four times, pause, two times, pause, followed by seven times. It may sound complicated, but alarms could be transmitted from alarm box to station in seconds and, believe it or not, horse drawn apparatus often cleared the floor in less than 30 seconds! Though the FDNY doesn’t use fire alarm boxes (thanks to things like cell phones), they do use box numbers. Boston, however, maintains their fire alarm boxes as a redundancy should their 911 system fail. In my hose dragger days, I typically heard the term Box Alarm to denote a working residential fire with a Heavy Box used for commercial buildings or multifamily dwellings.

(Note also, however, that ambulances are commonly referred to as “the box”, not to be confused with “box alarm”.)

Antique Wooden Telephone

Still Alarm: As telephones became more commonplace, fire departments began to receive calls by phone, along with calls from alarm boxes. If a call came in by phone, it was called a “still alarm” because it didn’t ring the bells at the station. In other words, the bells were still. Though not as commonly used today as “box” is, it is sometimes and by some departments used to refer to fire alarms, medical calls, etc, in other words, anything not a box alarm.

Ready to be confused? You can still a box and you can box a still. If a still alarm turns out to be a working fire, then an officer may box a still, in other words, convert it to a box alarm assignment. Conversely, if a box alarm turns out to be a fire alarm, an officer can still the box, ie: downgrade it to a still alarm assignment.

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Tap this location out: This one is still very common in my area. When an assignment is complete, or nearly complete, the ranking officer will radio the communications center and say “Tap this location our holding units on scene (or a specific unit).” Again, this harkens back to the good old days of the aforementioned fire alarm boxes. Fire department officers carried keys to the boxes and when an assignment ended, they would open the fire alarm box and use the telegraph inside to tap out a message to Central Dispatch, hence the “tap this location out”. I cannot state this as a fact, but apparently the keys were shaped like a “J” and might be the origin of the nickname “jakes” for firefighters. Part of me wonders how many officers, especially the younger ones, know the origin of this phrase since they have mostly likely used, or at least heard it, before. I guess I can say the same for all these phrases.

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I’m sure that there are some other terms or phrases that I’m forgetting or that even I don’t know the origins of, though I try to stay up on my fire service history. When I was in graduate school, my favorite paper to write was the one about firefighting in Colonial America. I learned a lot of interesting things, though when I shared them at the fire station, the guys were underwhelmed by it all. Their loss, not mine. When it comes to firefighting, I think you can truly say that the more things change, the more they really do stay the same. Assuming that the world is still here in 100 years, I imagine some fire service historian will write an article on all the quaint terms from today that will still be in use.

Hutch

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Houston’s Forgotten Tragedy

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Friends,
Houston and indeed all of the Texas coast and part of Louisiana has seen a great tragedy this week. I do not have the words to adequately describe it. I just can’t. I live in the affected area and though I was spared by the flooding, so many friends and family were not. So I took pen in hand today to talk about another tragedy which struck Houston in the midst of World War Two. A tragedy which has been sadly forgotten by all but a few who live in the area. I was a firefighter and then a fire marshal, the law enforcement arm of the fire service. In that capacity, I enforced fire code regulations and investigated fires. If we ruled a fire arson, we pursued those responsible. (In Texas, arson investigators are fully sworn peace officers with the same authority as any other peace officer, though that may differ in different states.) When I was a young fireman in the late 90s, a grizzled old 35 year veteran of battling the flames mentioned that Houston had experienced one of the deadliest hotel fires in US History. I’d never heard that before and it peaked my curiosity which is how I came to learn about the Gulf Hotel Fire, the subject of today’s sad tale.
Houston during World War Two was a happening place. It was nowhere near as large a city as it is today, with a population of just under 400,000. The city added 100,000 people between 1930 and 1940 and would add another 200,000 by the end of the 40s, partially due to the growth brought about by the War. Americans were lucky in the sense that here in the Continental United States, we did not face bombing raids as did our allies and our enemies. Houston, with its port and oil, played an integral role in the allied war effort. The downtown area was booming with restaurants, movie theaters, and dancing at the Rice Hotel. But there was an underside too. Cheap hotels and boarding houses dotted the landscape filled to the brim with transient workers who traveled to Houston seeking employment. The war gutted the Houston Fire Department with many members enlisting right after Pearl Harbor. The City of Houston created an Auxiliary Fire Department to supplement their missing manpower. This created the perfect storm which broke over the downtown skyline on the night of September 7, 1943.
The Gulf Hotel was located at 615 Preston which was the corner of Preston and Louisiana in the Downtown District. As you can see from the photo, it was probably a nice looking building when not on fire. As was often the case in downtown buildings at the time, the hotel only occupied the second and third floors. The Gulf Hotel would be happy to rent you a bed for forty cents a night. Or if you were down on your luck, you could get a cot for 20 cents! Though the hotel register listed 133 guests that night (all male), in reality there were probably many more than that. The 87 beds were often divided by thin wooden partitions and two men often shared a bed and split the price. Fifty cots were also crammed into the building. Every bed was occupied by at least one person and so were all of the cots. The hotel was located one block from the city’s major bus depot which meant that many of the guests arrived and booked a “room” with little familiarity with the layout of the building or the surrounding area.
While making his rounds in the middle of the night, a clerk noticed a smoldering mattress on the second floor, most likely due to a carelessly discarded cigarette. This was the 1940s and non-smokers were a rarity and you could smoke just about anywhere. The clerk and some guests dumped water on the mattress and thought that the fire was out. Rather than tossing the mattress outside, they stuck it in a closet. Bad idea. A few minutes later, other guests noticed heavy smoke pouring out of the closet and you began to hear shouts of “Fire!” There were only two exits from the building, an interior stairwell which led to the street and another which was a rickety fire escape. The fire quickly moved to cut off most of the guests from the interior stairwell, fueled by the wooden partitions used to separate the rooms. This left the fire escape as the only option, but just days earlier a Fire Department Inspector cited the Gulf Hotel for not installing a red safety light to point the way to the fire escape.
Around 12:50 am, the officers and men at Houston’s Central Fire Station received the alarm. The station was only six blocks away. After the fire, Deputy Chief Grover Cleveland Adams (what a name!) said “As we started out of the station, we could see the reflection of the fire against the sky.” That always signifies a big job. As they pulled up, the sole fire escape was already crowded with men. Some of them were on crutches and making slow progress which backed up the rest of the men trying desperately to get out. Then people started jumping out of the third story windows as that was the only means of escape left. With bodies thudding on the sidewalk, the fire department tried to rescue as many men as possible while the flames continued to light the downtown sky. The body of one victim, unable to escape from the third floor, hung limply out the window for the duration of the fire as a gruesome reminder of a fire’s deadly power.
Houston TX Gulf Hotel Fire 9-7-1943
Victims were transported to the two nearby hospitals, Saint Joseph and the old Jefferson Davis Hospital, many of them by private auto or police car. Doctors arrived and provided what first aid their could on the scene. Two victims died at the scene and another fifteen died after arrival at the hospital. The city was already dealing with a major tragedy. It took two hours for the fire department to battle their way inside and extinguish the fire. What they found was far worse. Thirty-eight bodies were inside the hotel, overcome by smoke and flames as they tried in vain to reach safety. The fifty-five men who died that night were victims of the deadliest fire in Houston history. Indeed, it is one of the five deadliest hotel fires in 20th Century American History. The 40s saw many deadly hotel fires, unfortunately, and this was just one.
Given that this happened during the midst of World War Two, it did not receive much coverage. Fire disasters like this were not unheard of at the time. Indeed, not even a year earlier, the City of Boston experienced the Coconut Grove Nightclub fire which killed 492 people, the second deadliest fire in American History. The post war brought era brought two other mass fatality fires when the Winecoff (Atlanta) and the La Salle (Chicago) hotels burned. Today, few Houstonians know anything about the Gulf Hotel tragedy. Part of this is because so many of the people who live in Houston today are part of the boom in population that happened after the War. Also, the City of Houston is partially to blame. They gleefully bulldoze any building more than thirty years old. The city has totally lost touch with its past, both good and bad. That is a tragedy of a different sort.
Twenty-three of the victims from this fire were never identified. They were buried in a mass grave at Houston’s South Park Cemetery, where they remain just as forgotten today as they were in 1943. The Houston Chronicle summed it up best at the time when it said the following:
“Who were these men? What strange, pathetic, colorful,
or drab histories led to a fate that sent them unrecognized
to this tragic grave?
Histories that shall be forever unwritten, unknown.
Some of them had good jobs, as shipyard workers,
defense plant workers. Some perhaps were newspaper vendors
peddlers, or clerks in hideaway stores.
Or they were beggars and crippled derelicts wandering
in the city streets with nothing to do, no place to go but
their cots in the crowded hotel.
What kind of homes did they come from? Where?
No one will ever know?”
Perhaps the finest words ever written by the Houston Chronicle. Sadly, we still do not know.
My name is Lee Hutch and I am a Half A$$ Historian.
Source Notes: In my college years I wrote a paper about this tragedy and had the opportunity to speak with a few people who witnessed the fire. (None of them were inside the hotel at the time.) I also collected newspaper articles, etc, and had a pretty nice file on it. I also consulted a publication available at the Houston Fire Museum called Houston Fire Department: 2000 Traditions & Innovations. There is some debate as to the number of remains buried in the mass grave with some sources saying 23, 31, or even 38. Most of the sources say 23 and so that is what I am going with.

A Bloody and Treasonable Doctrine: An Urban Insurgency In the Midst of the Civil War

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This is a reworked article that first appeared on my old blog in 2014.

Friends,

Let us travel back in time to New York City during the hot summer of July 1863. It consisted only of Manhattan as Brooklyn was a separate city across the East River. A million people crammed into its narrow confines. A large percentage of them were foreign born, Irish and German mostly. Politically the city was solidly in the Democratic Party folds. Modern New Yorkers would be shocked to learn that the city voted 2-1 AGAINST Lincoln in 1860 and again in 1864. This was due to the fact that Tammany Hall and the likes of Boss Tweed controlled the city with an iron fist. The immigrants were loyal to the Democratic Machine and the Irish remembered the fact that prior to the establishment of the Republican Party, many prominent Republicans had been Know Nothings, an anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic organization. The fact that there were anti-Catholics/anti-Irish abolitioninsts often gets glossed over in the history books, but I digress. Given the very close business relationship between New York City and the South, Mayor Fernando Wood proposed seceding from the Union and declaring NYC to be an “open city”, free to trade with either side. New York City business leaders were afraid that they would lose a tremendous amount of money if the war kept them from doing business or if the slaves were freed and their cotton imports dried up.

And what of the city itself? We have a wonderful portrait of the city by virtue of a book called Sunshine and Shadow in New York written by an English visitor in the immediate post war period. It is out of print but you can download it for free on the internets. The population of Gotham doubled between 1825 and 1845 and that is BEFORE the Irish Potato Famine brought hundreds of thousands of poor Irish men, women, and children flooding into the city. By 1860, they made up a quarter of the population. They were crammed into some of the worst urban slums on the planet at the time. While they lived in squalor and extreme poverty on the Lower East Side, a few blocks to the north, the wealthy lived in opulent mansions seemingly oblivious to the plight of so many of their fellow New Yorkers. Crime and poverty go hand in hand and the city was known as a home to every vice imaginable. They city boasted 600 houses of prostitution and scores of other “houses of assignation”. Then you had saloons, lots of saloons. Some of the saloons on the East Side had “waiter girls” which shocked the sensibilities of the English author of the book. He said “waiter girls are not of the highest moral order”. Seeing as how my redhead was a waitress when I met her, I will not comment on that.

The NYPD and the Fire Department were overwhelmingly Irish, a fact that did not escape the notice of the wealthy Protestants in the city. They feared an urban uprising. When the day arrived, would they city’s protectors side with the rioters? Or would they protect the lives and property of the wealthy? No one wanted to find out for sure, though in the summer of 1863, they would. The Fire Department officially carried about 4,000 volunteers on the rosters but only about half of them were active. The police department, led by Superintendent Kennedy numbered around 2,100 men. Both had received plenty of bad press in the 1850s. Their manpower was down due to the number of men enlisting in the Army at the outset of the war, but by 1863, enthusiasm had grown very thin. Whereas other cities had made the switch to professional firemen with horse drawn apparatus, New York City still relied on volunteers who pulled their hose carts, steam engines, and hook and ladder trucks by hand.

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Superintendent Kennedy

That diminished enthusiasm, along with heavy losses is exactly why Congress enacted the Enrollment Act. It was signed into law in March of 1863. Each Congressional District received a quota that they were to fill from the ranks of men between the ages of 20 and 45. It was widely unpopular for two reasons. To escape the draft, you could pay a substitute to go in your stead, something only a wealthy person could do. Or if not substitute could be found, you could pay the princely sum of $300 which represented the average annual wage of a working class person. One thing that often gets left out in the discussion of the draft is why it was needed in the first place. People often ignore the effect that the Emancipation Proclamation had on recruitment. Notice that after the Proclamation was announced, they suddenly needed to institute a draft.  Likewise, when the Confederate Congress passed their draft law the previous year, it exempted those who owned 20 or more slaves or those who worked as overseers on plantations and Confederate enlistments dropped and desertion rose. In both cases, this was a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. In New York City, the ability of the rich to hire substitutes or pay $300 is ultimately what would cause this unrest.

Rumors ran throughout the Sixth Ward (aka: Bloody Sixth) in the days leading up to the draft days. On Saturday, July 11th, the first names were drawn, slightly over 30. The crowd gathered to listen were somewhat boisterous. They made jokes as the names were read aloud, mostly Irish. Not a wealthy man among them. “Well a nice vacation from the wife, Johnny”. The draft ended and people went home. Two days later, July 13th dawned hot and clear. As crowds began to gather in Lower Manhattan, the police were on high alert. A large crowd congregated around the 9th District draft office, led by firefighters of Engine Company 33, the Black Joke. (meaning dark sense of humor, not race) A pistol discharged and they stormed the building. The men of the Black Joke were upset because their captain had been draft on Saturday. There is a difference between a crowd and a mob. A crowd is just a large group of people. A mob is something quite different. People in a mob get a certain amount of anonymity and a mob mindset can take over quickly, as it did on that hot July day.

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Superintendent Kennedy arrived to try and see firsthand what was taking place. The mob recognized him despite his not being in uniform. They dragged him out of his carriage and nearly beat him to death. From the onset, he would be out of commission. The police, armed with clubs and revolvers, charged the crowd but were beaten back. The police took heavy casualties. As buildings were set alight, the fire department responded to the alarms but the mobs cut their fire hoses and attacked them with clubs. The mob then turned its anger on black residents of New York City. Why? The reason is a little more complicated than you may realize. Yes, the fear that freed slaves would come up North and take jobs away from the Irish was true. That idea had been mentioned in Irish newspapers. However, the predominantly working class Irish mobs vented their anger on black residents of New York City because they saw them as symbol. They represented the elite white New Yorkers who, though often abolitionist in sentiment, despised the Irish. Remember the mobs that burned down Catholic Churches just ten years before. Many of the leaders in that movement were now abolitionist and since the Irish could not attack them directly, they instead focused their rage on the people who the abolitionists cared about.

On Monday evening a mob lynched a black man and set his body on fire as he hung from a rope, strangling to death. In an eerie scene, something out of the Middle Ages, people danced around the burning body. Another mob marched on the Colored Orphan Asylum with the express intent of burning it down and perhaps murder the children inside. In a feat unparalleled in the history of the police and fire services, a small group of police officers and firefighters fought the mob long enough to allow the children to be safely brought to safety out the back door. The Chief Engineer of the Fire Department, a position similar to that of the Fire Chief, was grabbed by the mob. They slipped a rope around his neck and were about to hoist him skyward when he said “If you kill me, you will only stop my draft.” The crowd began to laugh. They patted him on the back and sent him on his way. Remember, the Irish were considered to be a different race by the elites in New York City, hence the frequent references to them as the “Irish race” and their depiction as monkeys in the newspapers. By attacking blacks, they were trying to racialize themselves as “white”. Of course, they also attacked the homes of the wealthy and Protestant churches, all people who had victimized them in the past. This was an uprising of oppressed underclasses that targeted everyone who upset them. The rich. The military. The city itself. And the black workers of New York who represented the threat of a non-union labor force and who the abolitionist cared more for than the poor Irish immigrants.

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Desperate calls for reinforcements went out from city leaders and the War Department rushed soldiers to the city to restore order. New York Governor Horatio Seymour, who was a little pro-South as it was, told Lincoln “Remember this—that the bloody and treasonable doctrine of public necessity can be proclaimed by a mob as well as by a government.” Many of the reinforcements had recently fought at Gettysburg. The mob attacked them too. They pulled up bits of the pavement and carried it to the rooftops. When dropped on the street, the paving stones and bricks shattered, peppering the ranks of police officer and soldiers with shrapnel. Accounts speak of cannons being fired and pitched gunfights in the streets between the mob and the military. I don’t know how accurate those accounts are, but they ring true. And what of those gallant men of the New York City Police Department? They fought armed mobs often armed with nothing more than clubs themselves. Teams of them would stream inside their stations for a break from the action, battered and bruised. Many sported bandages on their heads and supported broken limbs as they walked. After a brief respite they would form up and go back into the fray, clubs tapping out a beat on the pavement as they marched. No one knows for sure how many of them died over the course of those few days, somewhere in the vicinity of 10. A few hundred were injured, some so severely that they could never work again.

From the moment the war ended, there was a constant effort to downplay this incident in the official histories and to turn it into a race riot. It was a race riot, but it morphed into that. The Irish did not wake up that day and say “Let’s go kill some black people.” It started as a riot against the draft which was seen as an unfair and corrupt. Remember, when the war started the Irish were among the first to enlist. Tens of thousands of them fought with gallantry and honor. Historians also like to gloss over this incident because, it doesn’t fit in their nice little Civil War box whereby the North, a paragon of freedom and equality, fought against the slavish backwards South. History is complex. It’s complicated. And to reduce it to soundbites on the evening news does a great disservice to us all.

Furthermore, the official casualties that historians cite are so far off the mark to be laughable. James McPherson states that around 120 civilians died, including 11 black men who were lynched. I will call bullshit on that for a few reasons. First of all, there are plenty of accounts of a few black women being lynched too. Second, you don’t have pitched gunfights in narrow streets for three or four days with only 120 deaths. Third, there are plenty of accounts that say that the mob slipped out under the cover of darkness each night and removed their dead. Finally, what of the military casualties, which are thought to be pretty severe, as are the police department losses. Superintendent Kennedy estimated that around 1,100 people died, which is probably more accurate. Herbert Asbury estimates 2,000 deaths and that is probably too high. Bodies were incinerated in burning buildings, tossed in the rivers, or dragged away and a count of 120 is absolutely insane. These riots are downplayed and when discussed at all, it is turned into a race riot when it was really an example of class warfare AND a race riot. In my opinion, it moved far beyond “riot” category and moved into the realm of an urban insurgency against the police, the fire department, and the military.

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Note the simian appearance of the Irish in this cartoon.

So, as you can see, history is not, pardon the pun, a black and white thing. It is nuanced and not as simple as we try to make it. Some blame this “dumbing down” of history on things like the History Channel, but I disagree. I think it has more to do with our idea of a story having good guys and bad guys and a clear distinction between right or wrong. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. But we also need to understand that the truth is always more complicated. Every historian has his or her biases that keep them from being truly objective. The more they claim that they don’t, the more likely they probably do. Remember, the guilty man flees when no man pursueth. I have mine too. As proud as I am of my Irish heritage, murdering innocent people is wrong, no matter what justification you attach to it.

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Let us remember that intrepid band of police officers and firefighters who fought back angry mobs of their own people to save innocent lives and property, as they were sworn to do. They were the true heroes of this sad tale and should be remembered as such. And let us ask ourselves what we would have done. Remember too, that the Draft Riots of 1863 is the worst case of urban rioting in American History, bar none. Yet other than the terrible movie Gangs of New York, you don’t seem to hear much about it for some reason.  This was not my people’s finest hour to say the least, but just as we discuss the great things the Irish have done for our country, we must also discuss the bad. To do otherwise is to gloss over historical truth.

Hutch

 

 

Football time in Texas

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I will not permit 30 men to travel 400 miles merely to agitate a bag of wind!

Andrew Dickson White

1873

August in Texas. When you step outside of the house, it feels as though you are walking into an oven. The heat and humidity sap your soul. A mere walk to the mailbox leaves you drenched in sweat. This can only mean one thing. Football season has arrived with the accompanying smell of a freshly mowed field and the smack of pads on the first day of contact (after 5 non-contact practices). The shrill blast of the coach’s whistle mingles with the sound of the marching band practicing nearby. The rules are a lot different than when I was in school. High school teams rarely have two practices a day for ten days before school starts. New rules prohibit that to prevent heat related issues (though that was never a problem when I was in school). But on the first day of practice, all things seem possible. Every team has a shot at making the playoffs or reaching the state championship, or at least they can dream of it.

It is no exaggeration that football is a civil religion in the state of Texas, particularly high school football. It brings people of all backgrounds, religions, and races together. I live in a town where things shut down on Friday nights in the fall when the team is playing. My house is a few blocks from the stadium and I can hear the PA from the stadium from my front porch. I grew up in the Golden Triangle area of Texas (Beaumont, Port Arthur, & Orange) which is often called the football capital of the world given all the professional players who come from there. Truthfully, football provides people an escape from the area, which if like me, you grew up in Port Arthur, you completely understand.

High School ball has been around for well over a century. For many years, the first high school game was reported as taking place in 1894 between Ball High of Galveston and Texas A&M (a college playing its first game). However, 2001 research uncovered a game between Ball High and the Rugbys of Sealy on Christmas Eve, 1892. It gets a bit muddled though, because Ball High played city teams, YMCA teams, and even college teams and the players didn’t actually have to be in high school. Others point to the first game between school sponsored teams as having taken place in 1900 when St. Matthews Grammar School of Dallas took on the Wall School of Honey Grove. Of course, these early games bore little resemblance to those we watch today, more rugby than football and more brawn the finesse. Source

I married a girl from Missouri. She was an athlete in high school (volleyball). I remember when I took her to her first high school football game in Texas. She said “This isn’t a game. It’s a spectacle.” I suppose it is, with marching bands, cheerleaders, dancing girls, and the game itself. Sometimes the half time shows are better than the games. It was quite different than what she grew up watching in Missouri. Growing up she was a bit of a tom boy and can throw a tight spiral and debate the finer points of a 3-4 defense vs. a 4-3 with the best of them. I actually think she’d make a good coach. Actually, she is a good coach having coached volleyball and soccer at her high school. I mean she’d make a good football coach.

Football, like other sports, has the power to bring people together. When I run into a fellow Saints fan, I have an instant friend no matter our differences in background, skin color, or political beliefs. When I meet a fellow native of Port Arthur, we bond over our mutual dislike of Port Neches-Groves High School. With fellow LSU fans, we discussed our desire to “Fire Les! Win More!” and our dislike of Alabama, though with a new coach in Baton Rouge, I guess we’ll have to have something else to complain about. There are many ways to develop self-discipline, teamwork, and to build character. Sport, be it football or softball, is merely one of those ways. If coached and taught correctly, those lessons, not the actual game, will last a lifetime and provide a basis for future success.

So this fall as you watch your favorite teams on the television, try to take some time on a Friday to catch your local high school game. Most of the kids you’ll see on the field will never play again after their final game of their senior season. At least for now, high school football is free from the influences of agents and television contracts. It’s probably naïve of me to still think of it as “pure”, but at least in a small way, it is. Here are the high schools I cheer for:

Port Arthur Memorial (my hometown)

La Porte (where I live)

Anyone who plays Deer Park

Anyone who plays PNG

I would be remiss if I did not end this by saying “Geaux Tigers! Geaux Saints!” I do not have high hopes for a successful season from either of them this year.

My first team. We won the city flag football league championship in 1985. Our coach, back left, was killed in a car accident a couple of days before the championship game. We won it for him.

Hutch

The Wrong Way to Tickle Mary: Music and Memory

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Friends,

I’ve always been a fan of music. I’ve also always been a student of history, thus studying music from bygone eras has great appeal for me. As a lad, I remember watching a World War Two movie at my grandfather’s house. He was a veteran of that war, having seen North Africa, Sicily, France, and Belgium, though not as a tourist. I think the movie was Action in the North Atlantic but I am not sure. There was a scene where the men were singing the (at the time) well known “Bless Em All”. It just so happened that granddaddy was passing through the den at that exact moment. He paused there by the television and then began to laugh. I asked him what was so funny and he said “Son, I know that song well. But that’s not how I remember singing it.” Granddaddy, a man whom I had never heard raise his voice, let alone utter a profanity, then launched into a rousing rendition of “F–k Em All.”

Over time, he also taught me some of the racier versions of other songs along with some soldier songs that were never recorded. His father was a World War One veteran and so granddaddy also knew the more, shall we say, risqué verses from Mademoiselle From Armentieres along the Tipperary parody which gives today’s post its name. Naturally such songs were amended when they were recorded, or in the case of World War Two music, played on the radio. But I fear that we might be in danger of losing some of the actual lyrics sang by soldiers.

Here in the United States, history is heavily sanitized. No one had sex or drank alcohol (other than Prohibition). Profanity was invented by rap artists. Soldiers during World War One and Two did nothing but attend church when not at the front. I think this is in part because some feel that to discuss things like venereal disease and illegitimate wartime children is to attack the soldiers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Understand that our combat troops during both world wars were young men far away from home (often for the first time) who faced the rather imminent prospect of death. Thus the songs they sang had little to do with glory and honor, they left that to the civilians, and more to do with military bureaucracy and the time honored alcohol and sex. Rudyard Kipling said it best when he wrote “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints.

To understand why men might sing “Hurrah for the next man who dies” is to understand how those men viewed the war. To consider the racy lyrics of some of these songs is to understand that wars are still fought by young men (and now young women). Soldiers in the Great War, when they had the time, wanted to snatch what little happiness they could in the short time they might have left on the earth. If they sought comfort in a bottle or the arms of a prostitute, who among you could blame them?

One of the biggest problems I face in teaching my US History survey courses is that students don’t consider figures from the past to be flesh and blood people. The idea that they had the same emotions as we do is difficult to get across to them. Once upon a time our grandparents fell in love and (GASP) had sex! And your grandpa while serving in France (be it in either World War) might have sang a song about getting drunk and doing creative things with a prostitute. So these bawdy songs from the past must be remembered (thought not necessarily played on the radio) because they give us a glimpse into a world that we will never see. And they might just give us an appreciation of how human our elderly family members once were.

And for the record, my wife does not permit me to sing “Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine” at home or in public. Here are a couple of links to some popular WW1 songs as they were probably sung in the trenches.

Mademoiselle From Armentieres

Wrong Way to Tickle Mary

Three German Officers Crossed the Rhine

(Do NOT listen to Three German Officers is you are easily offended. It gave the more famous Mademoiselle from Armentieres its melody.)

Stand To Your Glasses Steady

(AKA: Hurrah For the Next Man Who Dies)

Hutch

 

All Hell Exploded In Our Faces: A “Firsthand” Account of the Battle of Franklin

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Through the travail of the ages

Midst the pomp and toil of war

Have I fought and strove and perished

Countless times upon this star

George Patton

Friends,

The following comes from a dream I first had many years ago. I woke up drenched in sweat. I could taste the gunpowder in my mouth and I could smell the sulfur based black powder on my fingers. I was in a cold sweat but at the same time I felt strangely calm. Over the twenty years since I first had this dream, it still occurs a few times a year. Always the same. I feel a strange kinship with the author of the above verse, General George Patton.  I think maybe he and I would have much to talk about.

I stand in a line of battle, gazing out across the valley. It is a beautiful Indian summer day. The temperature is cool, but not cold. The sun is beginning its descent in the west, leaving a crimson streaked sky behind. A sign of things to come perhaps. I, along with the other men in my regiment, am angry. Schofield and his Yankees gave us the slip down at Spring Hill. I don’t know which of our officers made a mess of that. We were close, so close, to bagging the lot of them. But now the bird has flown. Word has trickled down the line that the Yankees are dug in and waiting for us. Now more good men will die because of some general’s mistake. Unfortunately this is not the first time in this d—n war that this has happened. General Bragg had a particular talent for that sort of thing. Hood has proven himself equal to the task too. Folks say he is a Texan, but I also heard he was from Kentucky. I’m not sure which is true or why that even matters. I saw him a few days back, perched in his saddle with his wooden leg sticking out at an odd angle and his useless arm limp at his side. Hardly an inspiring sight. Now here we stand.

If I crane my neck, I can see the whole Army of Tennessee stretched across the valley, one brigade behind another. I think there’s something like 20,000 of us now. Far fewer than just a few months back. I marched off to war in 1861 in a company of 100 men and a regiment of over 1,000. Now there’s just about 20 of us left in the company, and a few of them are replacements. Our regiment numbers around 350. The sickness has carried off a good number of us, though that number has grown fewer over time. Yankee bullets and artillery have done in the rest. But through it all, we’ve given a good account of ourselves. I’ve already lost a brother and two cousins. And I’ve marched through more states than I can count. We’ve shed and spilt blood in places with names that no one had ever heard of until we died there; Shiloh, Perryville, Chickamauga, Murfreesboro, Kennesaw Mountain, and more that I can’t remember myself. I’ve come close to meeting my maker a few times. A spent musket ball gave me one hell of a headache at Missionary Ridge. Another Yankee put a round through my calf outside Atlanta. Another inch and it would have taken out my shin bone. I count myself fortunate to be among the living. But as I look across the valley, I don’t know for how much longer.

Two places down in the ranks, Charles O’Neill, an Irishmen, is performing his usual pre-battle ritual of entertaining those around him with a ribald tale of lewd conduct in a New Orleans brothel. He does this before every fight. I guess it calms his nerves. Behind me, our resident expert on tactics, Haywood Galloway is prattling on about our chances for success. When he boasts that we will drive the heathen Yankee into the Harpeth River in a half hour’s time, I turn and remind him that he also said that we would never lose Atlanta. He admits that he was mistaken as to that point but reminds me that we met the Yanks at Kennesaw Mountain and “smote them hip and thigh.” Henry Ferguson, the man on my right, hands me his rifle. He steps out of the ranks, bends over, and vomits the contents of his stomach onto the grass. Then he wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his coat, takes his rifle back, and resumes his place. No one says a word to him as this is his usual pre-battle routine. I wish Charles would do more vomiting and less talking.

I can no longer remember why I enlisted. They tell us we are fighting for “The Cause” but no one seems clear on what that cause is anymore. My family never had no money. We scratched out a living but we ain’t exactly in high cotton. The d—n planters look down on us just as they do their slaves. You ask me, I’d trade most plantation owners for a Yankee any day of the week, even if they do talk kind of funny. I’ve met a few of them while on picket duty. They don’t seem like bad fellows. I can’t consider them the enemy since we speak the same language and pray to the same God. I do know one thing, they can put up one hell of a fight if they have to. All that talk about one Southerner licking ten Yankees that the newspapers were full of when the war started has proven to be a lie. No, I can’t remember why I signed up. But I know why I’m still here. I fight for the boys on either side of me and behind me in the ranks. We’ve been through hell on many fields together and I’ll stay with them no matter what. If that means I have to die today then so be it. I can’t give up on my friends. Our battle scarred regimental flag floats proudly above us. I’d die to protect that too, as it is a symbol of the only thing that matters to me anymore, the regiment and my comrades.

Some of the boys are reading versus from little Bibles they carry with them. Others are absently staring into space, lost in their own thoughts, as I am. Down the line, one officer is reading the Bible aloud to his men. His passage is from the book of Psalms. “A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand, but it shall nigh come near thee.” I think maybe he could have picked a better verse. And since I am to the right of them, I can’t help but feel a little nervous. But death in war is random. It is all by chance. One step sooner and you’d have missed the round that hit you. One place to the right of where you stood in line and the cannonball would have missed. I’ve seen the man to my right take a musket ball in the face mid sentence. It could have been me, but I don’t like to dwell on that. So far, I’m grateful for the fact that when it comes to me the Yankees have poor aim.

I hear another regiment singing softly, in unison, with their chaplain leading them. I recognize the hymn but as I was never much on church attendance before the war, I can’t say I know the words.

Oh land of rest for thee I sigh

When will the moment come

When I shall lay my armor by

And dwell in peace at home

Henry nudges my ribs and says “I think that moment has come.” I chuckle and earn a glare from the Lieutenant who commands our company as he paces back and forth in front of us like a caged animal. He is young and wholly incompetent. Part of me hopes that he catches a bullet soon before he gets more of us killed than necessary, though I suppose that goes against my upbringing. And then I hear it, a single cannon shot from behind us atop Winstead Hill. The orders echo down the line. “Shoulder arms.” “Forward march!” Here we go. Behind me, Charles begins to recite a Hail Mary. He does this every time as I am sure he wants to ensure he goes to heaven after telling his lurid stories. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve memorized the prayer after fighting in plenty of battles with him. I join in, silently, just for good measure.

The valley shakes with our footsteps. Each shrunken regiment moves behind their flags and it gives the impression that we march behind an ocean of red. Up ahead of us, I catch a glimpse of what looks like a small unit of Yankees out in advance of their main line. We are going to overlap their lines with ease. Maybe this won’t be as bad as I thought. “At the quick step!” We pick up our pace. And then it starts. Whooooooooooooooo-eeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Whooooo-eeee! Our yell. I’ve heard the Yanks cheer moving forward, but nothing like our Rebel Yell. Prisoners say it scares the daylights out of the Yankees. With good reason too. As I join in, the hair on the back of my neck stands up. If we can’t drive them out with force, then maybe we can yell them out.

We get so close that I can see the individual faces of the Yankees in the advanced line. They stare at us with eyes wide with a mixture of fear and awe. I hear their officers urging them to open fire. Then all hell explodes in our faces. I feel sudden space to my left but I don’t turn and look. Someone else slides into the place. We quickly fire one volley into their ranks though I don’t think I heard the order to do it. The Yanks turn and bolt for the safety of their main lines. Our officers are yelling at us to follow them and we do, matching them step for step. We even pass a few of them. I imagine someone will be along to gather them up and direct them to the rear.

There is a road that runs through the Yankee lines and they didn’t bother to block it though they erected pretty extensive breastworks everywhere else. The Yanks hold their fire, not wanting to shoot their own men who are running between us and the Yankee positions. We smash into them like an ocean wave. It is mass confusion. Soldiers are running in every direction. The powder smoke is thick and I have a hard time seeing much of anything in the gathering twilight. Suddenly, a phantom group of Yanks looks like they appear from the very ground itself. Screaming like demons from hell they run towards us. For the first time, I feel fear.

My hands shake as I try to load my musket. I manage to get one shot off and hit a young private in the chest. There’s no time to reload. Jesus Christ it’s going to be hand to hand. I hate this. Killing at a distance is one thing, but killing up close is something quite different. A Federal soldier lunges at me with his bayonet. I parry his strike and smash him across the jar with the butt of my musket. The air is filled with the sounds of desperate men. I can hear the screams of enraged men, the shrieks of the wounded which always turn my stomach, and the roar of gunfire. I turn and see a Federal battery preparing to fire into another advancing regiment behind us. First I hear the roar of the cannon. Then I can hear the crushing sound of bones shattering under the impact of double canister rounds. Body parts fly dozens of feet into the air. My ears bleed from the concussion of the blasts.

There is a tug at my elbow. I look down and see Henry kneeling by my side. He pulls at my sleeve with his left hand while he tries to stuff his intestines back into the gaping hole in his stomach with his right hand. I drop my rifle and grab him under the arms. I try to pull him away to the safety of the other side of the breastworks, but as I pull him his intestines snake out of his stomach forming a trail. I set him down. His eyes are glazing over and I know that he won’t be much longer for this earth. I grab the nearest rifle and locate a large Federal sergeant who is kneeling atop our hapless Lieutenant, hands locked around his throat. Oh the temptation to turn away. But it isn’t the Lieutenant’s fault that he is an imbecile. I plunge my bayonet into the Sergeants back and give it a quarter turn to the right. He stiffens and screams as I withdraw it. The Lieutenant scrambles out from under him, picks up his sword, and stabs the sergeant through the neck. He is covered in spurting blood. As the Lieutenant turns to move away, he drops to the ground without a sound. He doesn’t get back up.

As I try to load my rifle again, I see soldiers weeping hysterically as they try to do the same. Some are wandering around in circles laughing, their minds broken by what we are doing to each other. Two officers in the middle of the road are fighting with their swords as if they are medieval knights. But that is officers for you. They always have to be the center of attention. I look to my left and right and notice a few of my company and regiment still in the area. We move to seek refuge on the other side of the Federal positions, facing the spot where we started our attack. The Yanks dug deep ditches there and I think we’ll be much safer.

We keep up as steady a rate of fire as we can over and through the wooden logs at the Yankees just on the other side. But our losses are mounting. Blood is starting to fill the bottom of the ditch. The air is thick with the acrid, sulfuric stench of the gunpowder that smells, I imagine, like hell itself. The coppery scent of blood makes me want to vomit. I gag involuntarily as I try to load my rifle with shaking hands. Some of the men are praying aloud as they go through the motions of firing their rifles. Others are screaming curses at the Yanks, at the Confederacy, at General Hood, or at all three. “God have mercy on us!” I hear from down the line. As I turn, I see the Yanks preparing to fire a cannon down the length of the ditch. Then I feel nothing.

So as through a glass, and darkly

The age long strife I see

Where I fought in many guises

Many names but always me

So forever in the future

Shall I battle as of yore

Dying to be born a fighter

But to die again, once more

Through a Glass, and Darkly by General George S. Patton

Hutch

P.S. I cannot logically explain why I have this reoccurring dream. Or at least not in a manner satisfactory to most people. I do have a decent hunch though……

 

 

What We Forget

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Warning: This post contains graphic black and white photos from the Civil War.

Dear Readers,

Since the summer of 2015, we’ve seen an increase in Civil War related news items. Most of them focus on monument removals or flag debates. Obviously such a national discussion is both relevant and important and I would not seek to take anything away from that. However, for those historians who simply want to focus on issues of race and slavery, I would remind them that those issues were decided on the battlefield. Context matters. The cause of the war matters. But it was decided by young men on bloody fields. Quite a few of those young men were immigrants. To try and separate out the military aspect of the war does a huge injustice to those who suffered and died. Part of this is due to the war the country seems to remember the war. The Civil War has an almost romantic air about it. And by that, I don’t just mean the Lost Cause. Civil War movies have tended to be bloodless (and bad). Where is a movie like Saving Private Ryan to graphically depict the realities of a Civil War battlefield? Maybe we need that reminder. But when we focus only on causes and context, we are in danger of forgetting this, the truth about what the soldiers experienced.

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We forget that when canister rounds struck a line of advancing infantry, body parts flew as high as the tree tops. We forget that Civil War battlefields echoed with the screams of wounded animals which sounded almost human, and the screams of wounded humans which sounded like animals. We forget the sheer carnage wrought on the human body from a Minie Ball as it smashed bone and tissue. We forget the spray of blood from a wounded comrade’s shattered body that drenched your clothes as you fought on with bits of his skin and tissue stuck to your uniform. We forget the odor of the battlefield; palpable fear mixed with the coppery smell of blood, the sulfuric stench of gunpowder, of sweat, shit, and wool. We forget the courage of the Irish Brigade as they charged Marye’s Heights only to be slaughtered and the courage of the Army of Tennessee in their ill advised charge at Franklin.

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We forget the fear and pain of having a limb amputated with a dull, dirty saw as surgeons probed with bloody hands and ungloved fingers. We forget the generation of morphine addicts, made so by their Civil War wounds. We forget the physical pain so many soldiers lived with in their advanced years as they battled arthritis and a back pain. We forget those wounded in mind rather than body who spent their post war years locked in a lunatic asylum, more like a prison than a hospital. We forget the pain of abdominal cramps brought on my dysentery or cholera, more deadly than combat. There is no glory in dying a long, slow death as your life’s fluids leak from every orifice. We forget that for so many young men, this was the reality of their last days on earth.

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We forget the fear of loved ones as they waited for news of casualties following a major battle. We forget the relief they felt to find out their husband or son’s name wasn’t on the list only to feel guilty that they felt such relieve when so many in their community, their friends and neighbors, lost someone dear to them. We forget about the generation of war widows and war orphans. of women struggling to survive on a small pension as they struggled to feed their children. We forget the anguish of communities as their young men marched off to war never to return. We forget the men and women who labored long hours in dangerous conditions to fuel the war machine. We forget the slaves who waited for their day of liberation and hoped they survived long enough to see it. We forget those who opted to free themselves and escaped to Union lines only to be used as a laborer. We forget the immigrants enlisted straight off the boat to fight in a conflict they understood little about.

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When we reduce history to statistics, we ignore the personal stories. When we talk about the Civil War but we don’t mention the horrors of a Civil War battlefield, we are doing ourselves and our country a great disservice. Two percent of our 1860 population died during the war. It touched every family in the country. For better or worse, the war made us what we are today as a country. We must not, we cannot, forget what transpired during those four long, bloody years. Our national battlefield parks are a treasure that must be preserved for future generations. Just as they talk about the causes of the war, they must also continue to tell the stories of the men who fought and died there.

Hutch