City of Fire Excerpt

CIty of Fire

Dear Readers,

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

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

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

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

Captain Flaherty hooked his thumbs in his suspenders and sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hydrant!”

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

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

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

“Pressure’s up!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There he is!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Take some water.”

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed.

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

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

“Surely it was at Mass,” Patrick offered.

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

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

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

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

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

“And where might that be,” Patrick asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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City of Fire

CIty of Fire

Dear Readers,

For those who have been following me for the past year, you no doubt know of my novel which was recently completed. For those of you who are new to the site, you can read an excerpt from it here.  So what is next on the agenda for me? Writing wise, that is. Well, the completed novel will go on a shelf for four to six months, long enough for me to basically forget about it. After enough time passes, I’ll re-visit it and read through it with fresh eyes so that I can correct the myriad of mistakes it no doubt contains, some plot, some continuity, some character development, and far more grammatical ones. This does not mean I will do no writing in between now and then. Nay! Quite the contrary! I’m now at work on another novel, this one set in New York City during the Civil War.

Here is the teaser:

A story ripped from the headlines……….from 1864.

Eight men, including Captain Thomas Fitzgerald, slip across the US border with Canada and make their way to New York City. Their goal? To create a wave of destruction that will interrupt the upcoming presidential election.  Michael, a New York City detective desperately tries to ascertain their identities and their plan while Patrick, a firefighter, stands on the front lines of the city’s defense against an attack. Maggie, a fiery redheaded prostitute, is the link between the attackers and the defenders, but while one man holds the key  to her escape from her life and from the city, another holds the key to her heart. She must chose between them as chaos erupts throughout the city. From the squalor of the Five Points, to opulent mansions on Fifth Avenue, New York City is a City of Fire.

I have my character sketches done along with a 10,000 word outline. Plus, I have all of my scene cards mapped out on a storyboard. I’m not sure how long this one will take to write. It might be a while as it is plotted to be roughly 100,000 words, which is 4K longer than the one I just completed. It is nice to revisit the Civil War from a writing standpoint, but I wanted to focus more on the untold stories rather than a traditional military action novel. The Confederate Plot to Burn New York City is known by some, but not many. It does touch on many modern themes, though. The Confederates involved in this plot believed themselves to be soldiers conducting a military operation while the Northern authorities believed them to be terrorists.

This is a tale of heroes, villains, and the line between the two that often blurs in time of conflict. Every man can be a sinner. And every man can be a saint. This is, perhaps, my most ambitious project yet and it is a book I’ve wanted to write since I first got the idea in 2004.  So we’ll see how long it takes, and I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

Hutch

Me

Me as a young firefighter with my son who is now 15. I was much younger and better looking back in those days…….

 

Some Other Beginning’s End

 

Unicorn

Dear Readers,

In 1999, my senior year of college, the band Semisonic recorded a song entitled “Closing Time”. There is a line in the song that says Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end. This is, of course, quite true. I have one new beginning that is ending this week and another new one which will start in January.

In early August of 2013, two weeks removed from my final day on the job after my injury, I was offered the opportunity to teach dual credit college courses at an early college high school that was just about to open its doors to students for the first time. (To explain, I’m a college professor. The only difference between this class and one on the college campus is that I’d be teaching a class full of 16 year olds.) I agreed to do it, though not without some trepidation. I’d taught dual credit courses before in the past, as I’ve been teaching part time since 2004. But in the past, the kids always came to the college campus. Now I’d be going onto their turf. I know full well I’m not cut out to be a high school teacher, so facing a class full of high school kids in a high school campus on the first day of school made me as nervous as a fully involved multi alarm apartment fire.

My trepidation vanished as the first class began, and it’s never come back. I feel like I’ve found a home there. Each semester I teach two or three courses and the nice thing is, I generally get to have the same students all year which is different than it would be in an “adult” class on the college campus. I’ve had the time of my life at this school. Seeing students walk across the stage and accept their Associate’s Degree and then later, their high school diploma is a feeling I cannot describe.

I have stacks of cards, photographs, and even a signed poster board that I’ve been given by students over the years. Every professor or teacher struggles with self doubt, at least if they are a good one or want to be a good one. On those days, I need only look at what I’ve been given and know that at least for someone out there, I made a difference. Since I deal with chronic pain from my injuries along with an incurable autoimmune disease, my weeks are filled with some really rough days. But when I walk through those doors on Monday and Wednesday mornings, all the pain vanishes to the deep recesses of my brain as I look forward to spending the day with my kids. Sure, I enjoy my regular college classes too, but there is something special, perhaps even magical, about this place.

Over the past five school years, I’ve shared a ton of laughs with my students, sometimes at my own expense, and even shared a tear or two. I’ve spent a good chunk of my life on one hallway it seems, and the thought of leaving for a full time position, while obviously a no brainer financially, still tears me up inside to think about it. Wednesday will be an emotional day for me. I’m not going to lie and say it won’t be. My students mean the world to me and no words I can say or type can fully express that to them. I see my students as my own children. I care about them. I worry about them. And I try to look out for them, just as I do my own son who is around their age.

So when I walk out those doors for the last time on Wednesday, it will be with a heavy heart. I’m excited for my new beginning, but I mourn the beginning that is now coming to an end. I’ll take away a lot of good memories, like coaching the junior girls in the powder puff game this year. I can only hope and pray that I did enough for my students so that they know that no matter where they (or I) end up, they’ll always have me in their corner.

Hutch

Last Harvest of the Death Angel: 5 Hours of Horror, Franklin, TN

history1

Dear Readers,

November 30 marked the anniversary of one of the most horrific battles ever fought in North America. Some call the Battle of Franklin the Pickett’s Charge of the West. That is incorrect. Pickett’s Charge was the Franklin of the East. At Gettysburg, 14,000 men crossed a mile of open ground after a two hour artillery bombardment. The charge lasted around 50-55 minutes. At Franklin, 19,000 men crossed two miles of open ground straight into three levels of entrenchments. And it wasn’t just one charge, it was more like 15-17 and it lasted four five brutal hours.

Over night on November 29/30, 1991 when I was thirteen years old, I had a very graphic dream about the battle of Franklin from the point of view of one of the soldiers. In the dream, I knew it was Franklin because of what someone said. At that point in my life, I was a student of the Civil War, but my knowledge, though more than most 13 year olds (or adults for that matter) was still very general in nature. I started reading Bruce Catton when I was 8, for example. I’d never heard of the battle before this dream. Dear Readers, I’ve had the dream every year on the night before the battle since 1991. I’m 39 now and just a few days ago, I had the dream yet again. You can read my written description of it here

I have visited Franklin and when I close my eyes, I see the whole thing played out in front of me again. I do not know why I have this dream. I had several brave ancestors who fought in this battle. Do they have the ability to pass on their memories to us via DNA? Or is it something else? One thing it is not, Dear Reader, is a figment of an overactive imagination because I wrote down the dream at age 13 and it has never changed. And remember, I didn’t know a d–n thing about this battle when I had the dream. But I digress. On my Facebook page on November 30th, I posted firsthand quotes from participants in the battle and probably drove my non-history friends crazy. I set out to do that again here, for those who know me not on Facebook. I’ll also throw in some more that I did not put on Facebook as I didn’t have to time post non-stop all afternoon, though I really wanted to.

I do not propose to describe the tactical decisions, etc, that led up to this battle. I only want you to read the words of the participants and understand this battle for what it was…..obscene and vile. No words of mine could EVER do justice to those brave souls who bled and died here.

CottonGin+(4)

The Carter Cotton Gin. The Confederate attack in this sector was described as “Glorified suicide”. 

“The men seemed to realize that our charge on the enemy’s works would be attended with heavy slaughter, and several of them came to me bringing watches, jewelry, letters, and photographs, asking me to take charge of them and send them to their families if they were killed. I had to decline as I was going with them and would be exposed to the same danger.” Chaplain M’Neilly, Quarles’ Brigade

“It is ominous, and I fear our men are going to be annihilated. Our bands played ‘Dixie’, ‘The Bonnie Blue Flag’, and ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. This was the first and only time I ever heard our bands playing on the battlefield and at the beginning of a charge.” — Dr. Phillips, Surgeon, 22nd MS Infantry

“Then the order rings out against the din ‘Fire left oblique boys! Fire left oblique! They are bearing down on our left!There is now a wall of blazing guns all along our front. Men are dropping all along the line. Every second someone is killed. We are loading and firing until the gun barrels burn our hands.” — W.A Keesy, 64th Ohio, Conrad’s Brigade

“My color bearer was shot and the flag dropped. Colonel V.P. Greene grasped the flag staff and said ‘Damn! I’ll carry the flag. Look to your own company.’ Colonel Greene carried the flag through the fight without a scratch. They were killing and wounding our men so fast the order ‘Charge!’ was given. We raised the Rebel Yell and moved in double quick time.” — Lt. Mintz, 5th Arkansas Infantry, Govan’s Brigade

“We ran about 50 yards back and were reforming when a cannon ball took off my right foot. The same ball passed through two other men and wounded Beaumont and myself. We were in a very exposed place and could not move, the dead and wounded were all around us.” Joseph Thompson, 35th Alabama Infantry, Scott’s Brigade

“The ditch was full of men…..dead, dying, and wounded. If I ever prayed earnestly in my life, it was then.” Capt. Rea, 29th Alabama Infantry, Sears’ Brigade

“Go back and tell them to fight! Fight like hell!” General Wagner, 2nd Division 4th Corps, US. (Reported to be “vaingloriously drunk at the battle)

“The force and wind of the grape and canister would lift us clear off the ground at every discharge. As the great clouds of smoke had to some extent vanished, I could look around me and saw to my surprise, I was left alone in the ditch within a few feet of the battery which was still pouring forth it’s messenger of death, and not a living man could be seen standing on my right, nor could one be seen for some distance on my left. They had all been swept away by that mighty tempest of grape, canister, and rolling waves of lead and fire.” John M. Copley, 49th TN Infantry, Quarles’ Brigade

“The ravings of the maimed and mangled were heart rending. Crazed with pain, many knew not what they said or did. Some pleadingly cried out ‘Cease fire! Cease fire!’ while others agonizingly were shouting ‘We surrender! We surrender!'” Sgt. Banks, 29th AL Infantry, Shelly’s Brigade

“We charged up to the works. We used bayonets, butts of guns, axes, picks, shovels, and even…. [Colonel] Opdycke picked up a gun and clubbed with it.’ J.K. Merrifield, 88th IL Infantry, Opdycke’s Brigade

“About 9pm, a large body of the enemy in our front who were lying low and did not dare to go back begged for quarter and were allowed to come in. The only instance when I heard Johnnies beg for mercy.” Lt. Mohrmann, 72nd IL Infantry, Strickland’s Brigade

“Kind reader, right here my pen and courage and ability fail me. I shrink from the butchery.” Sam Watkins, 1st TN Infantry (writing in his 1882 memoir Co. Aytch.

“Call it glorious to die a horrible death, surrounded by an awful butchery, a scanty burial by enemy hands, and then total oblivion, name blotted out and forever forgotten—where is the glory?” Capt. James A. Sexton, Illinois Infantry

So there you have it, Dear Readers, a few quotes from a few brave men from both sides who fought at Franklin, only to have their memory and sacrifices largely forgotten as the battle faded into memory, known only today by true Civil War enthusiasts. Part of that is because the veterans, especially the Confederate veterans, did not wish to speak of the horrors they witnessed here. My great-grandmother’s grandfather fought at Franklin. He lived well into his 80s and so she knew him quite well as a girl. She said he could talk about “stacking Yankees up like cordwood” at Kennesaw Mountain and the first day at Shiloh where they overran Federal positions and “smote them hip and thigh.” But when asked about Franklin, which lay only about twelve miles from his home, all he could do was weep.

I’ll stop there, Dear Reader. I do not know why I have such a strong, visceral connection to this battle. Or why I can see it unfold in my head. Or why each year on the eve of the anniversary, my mind dredges it up in the wee hours of the morning. Bruce Catton once said that “We are the people for whom the past is forever speaking.” Mr. Catton is right on that point. The quotes above come from a few places, Eyewitnesses to the Battle of FranklinThe Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, and Co. Aytch. Though I close here, below I will list my family’s Roll of Honor from this battle.

Hutch

Roll of Honor

19th TN Cavalry

Buford Hanks Fitzgerald

48th TN Infantry

Daniel Fitzgerald

Francis Marion Fitzgerald

Uriah Galloway

Aaron Thomas Vestal

Charles W. Vestal

James Vestal

Josiah Franklin Dugger

William L. Dugger

1st TN Infantry

Haywood Taylor

John L. Jacobs

Thomas Henry Jacobs

33rd AL Infantry

Elisha Potts

George W. Potts

14th TX Cavalry (Dismounted)

Hewitt Rather

Nathaniel Houston Rather

2nd TN Infantry

Thomas Fleming

 

The Sound of Distant Cannons

 

Reenact1

“Are you hot in that uniform?” “Well, some women think so…..”

Dear Readers,

Whenever I teach about the Civil War in class, it makes me a bit nostalgic. Not for the war, but of the sixteen years I spent as a Civil War reenactor. Yes, I spent four times as long reenacting the war than the war itself was. I guess my reason for getting this way is because I was younger then, of course. And it was before I suffered a serious injury which ended my public safety career and left me in constant pain. Also, I miss my friend and comrade of all those years, Robert, who passed away unexpectedly a few years ago. The laughs we shared, the funny incidents we witnessed, the people we met and the places we saw are just as fresh in my mind today as they were back then. You can see the post I wrote upon learning of his passing here.

Since I now dwell in an academic world and not one filled with fires and arsonists, I have come to understand that many (I dare say, most) academic historians look on living historians (my preferred term for what I did) with barely disguised and often open disdain. I’ve heard them claim that all reenactors are racist, Lost Cause types. I’ve heard them claim that reenactors are all gun freaks or super right wing nut jobs. People who proudly boast of how “open” and “tolerant” they are quickly lump all reenactors into one category. Are there people within the ranks who are all those things? Of course! But most are not. They are men and women who love what they do and try to bring history to a wider audience.

Reenact2

The 13th US Infantry on the field at Liendo. 

Apart from those criticisms, the other major one I’ve heard over the years is that “Reenactors get too bogged down in details and don’t care enough about the big picture.” Maybe that is a valid criticism. However, the majority of them portray humble privates in the ranks and NEWSFLASH: they didn’t know much about the big picture either. Grant and Lee were not in the habit of discussing grand strategy with enlisted men. Does it really matter in the grand scheme of things what the specific thread count of a Union sack coat was? Probably not. Another criticism is that reenactors don’t care enough about the cause of the war. Honestly, I’m not quite sure why professional historians often fixate on this. Reenactors are not reenacting the secession crisis. I think this might touch on why it seems like over the past several years, academic historians have all but removed the battlefield from the teaching of the Civil War, preferring to talk of other things. Which, by the way, need to be discussed, but the question of slavery was decided ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

How did my time as a reenactor help me become a better teacher? At most events, there would be a school day on the Friday before the reenactment opened to the public. Schools would bus in students who frequently had to complete a scavenger hunt. They’d come by in groups of 10-15 or so and we’d talk to them and answer their questions. Some reenactors looked on this as a bit of a bother and would show up after the kids left, but I came to enjoy it. I was talking to students long before I ever thought of being a teacher myself. It gave me better insight which helped explain the decision making process on Civil War battlefields. I’ve marched ten miles (which was nothing for a Civil War soldier) as part of a preservation march and did it barefoot and on an empty stomach just to try and see what it was like for the men who did it for real. Yes, I can load and fire a rifle, work a cannon, and explain how to perform “by files right into line”. None of that really helps in the classroom, but one of the things my students enjoy the most is when I teach them how to move from a column of fours to a line of battle and back. I’m enthusiastic when teaching about the Civil War and I hope that transfers over to my performance in the classroom.

Reenact3

We ran a Civil War “boot camp” for high school and junior high teachers. Here I am performing a cursory examination to declare them medically fit for service.

Now, I want to tackle one subject which was kind of the reason for my post to being with. As a Southern boy who wore “the blue suit”, I want to address a statement that people (other reenactors too) frequently made. Yes, most (though not all) of my family who was in the United States at the time fought in the Confederate Army. I don’t apologize for that, nor do I feel the need to. I’m proud of the bravery they exhibited on many a field. I’m also glad they lost. Anyway, the one thing that people said to me all the time was “Your ancestors are turning over in their graves seeing you dressed as a Damn Yankee.” Here is my answer to that. First of all, I think our ancestors would be a little amused that we dress up like them and reenact something as horrific as the Civil War. Second, assuming our ancestors approved of what we do, I would think they’d want us to get it right and in the South, Rebel reenactors outnumber Yanks by 4-5 to one at most events. Since when did the odds ever favor the Confederacy that way? Third, I would occasionally switch over and portray a Confederate surgeon rather than a Union surgeon every now and then. Fourth, and most important, if you don’t like my choice of impressions, you can kiss my Irish a$$. Truthfully though, at events in the South, the Yankees are the “bad guys” and sometimes people boo as you march out to the battlefield. To be honest, it was kind of nice to be the bad guy.

So there you have it. My humble musings on my time as a reenactor. Here are some of the regiments that my ancestors served in (all Irish immigrants, by the way).

8th Ohio Infantry

160th New York Infantry

1st Tennessee Infantry (CSA)

48th Tennessee Infantry (CSA)

6th Louisiana Infantry (CSA)

4th Texas Infantry (CSA)

Hutch

Reenact4

A Union Surgeon treats a wounded Confederate drummer boy.

 

So Others May Live

SoOthersMayLive

Dear Readers,

I am using November (National Novel Writing Month) to finish a project I’ve been working on for a while now, namely finishing my novel. It’s divided into 32 chapters. I’ve written 24. It should be finished within the next two weeks. What happens after that? Well, I don’t know. I have a Civil War novel to finish too. I’ll probably tackle that over Christmas Break, then return and work on revisions to this one. Or not. Who knows. Anyway, I’m sharing an excerpt with you in today’s post. I’ve partially shared it before, but it has been slightly revised, expanded, and edited a bit (thanks to a wise English professor friend, though if it sucks, it is my fault, not his). So this gives you a sneak peak. Or advanced look. Or whatever the hell you want to call it.

WARNING: This excerpt graphically describes the aftermath of an air raid on a nameless German city. Every vignette in this scene is as described to me by people who lived through it. All I did was collect them all and place them on the same street for dramatic purposes, but they actually happened. War is hell, and trying to sanitize it does not justice to the past. So if you are squeamish, you might want to give it a pass.

A young girl sat on a pile of rubble clutching a kitten, eyes wide with terror, under one arm, and a stuffed bear under the other. Soot stained her face, except for a thin, pale line under each eye washed clean by her tears. Four teenage Luftschutz boys in helmets too big for their heads, and eyes far too old for their young faces, stood over the charred remains of two victims, one an infant. Cigarettes dangled from the boys’ mouths as they used a shovel to scoop the shrunken bodies from the pavement, tossing them in the bed of a truck before they moved on down the street. The whole area stank from a mixture of sulfur and the sweetened odor of roasted flesh. A line of people shuffled past the girl. Most were either elderly or young women with children. Some clutched suitcases which held the only possessions they had left. No one cried. No one shook an angry fist at the sky. Their faces bore the expression of a dog that’s just been whipped and doesn’t know why. The stunned silence which accompanied them was deafening. Large fires still burned in the distance, and some of the refugees cast anxious glances over their shoulders to check its progress before they moved on. None took notice of the child, who continued to stare into the sky with blank, hollow eyes. Finally, an elderly woman stepped out from the line and took the girl’s hand. After a brief exchange of words, the girl joined the rest as they moved away to some unknown destination. As she walked away, the bear fell out from under her arm. She continued to walk and did not look back.

Further down the block, a group of uniformed men attacked a smoldering pile of brick and stone with their bare hands. A tall man in the green uniform of a policeman yelled for quiet. He tapped on a copper pipe which rose from the rubble. It pointed at the sky like an accusing finger. After a moment, the man pressed his ear down to the mound of debris. After a minute of listening, the officer stood and yelled for someone named Fritz. A young boy in a Hitler Youth uniform ran forward. The firemen sprayed his clothing down with water before he wormed his way into the rubble. He emerged five minutes later with a baby in his arms. Dead. One of the soldiers took the baby from Fritz and cradled it in arms streaked with dirt and blood as he walked across the street. He gently placed the tiny child on the pavement, as though the street were a crib, alongside the bodies of ten other people. Some bore obvious signs of trauma – limbs askew, open wounds. Others looked as though they might have been sleeping, bearing no outward marks of the savage pressure of a bomb blast which collapsed their lungs. Two had the rosy cheeks of a victim of carbon monoxide. The soldier’s hands shook as he stood over the tiny body he’d just placed in the street and fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette. After several attempts to light it with a match, he flung it away and sank to the ground. His shoulders shook as he buried his face in his hands.

A dog whimpered as it limped down the street, tail kept tucked beneath its body. The dog’s ribs were visible, ripples through skin stretched tight across its shoulders. Music drifted from one of the buildings. A man sat at a piano on the ground floor, visible to the street after a bomb ripped the façade away. His fingers moved deftly over the keys, and a Beethoven melody floated through the air. Nearby, a man sat on the ground with his arms wrapped around a large suitcase. He laughed as he rocked back and forth. A soldier detached himself from rescue work and asked the man if he needed any help. ‘No,’ the man said, ‘I’m taking my wife away from here.’ The soldier asked where the man’s wife was, and he opened the suitcase to reveal a charred, shrunken corpse. The soldier tried to take the suitcase away, and a brief struggle ensued. The man stood up, and when he did, his wife’s corpse fell out of the suitcase and onto the street. ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ he said. ‘I hope you didn’t hurt her! I’ll talk to your commanding officer if you did!’ The soldier shook his head and walked away as the man gathered the corpse and put it back in his suitcase. His guttural laugh echoed from the shattered buildings as he staggered down the street.

Against the wall of a ruined drugstore, a teenage couple copulated furiously as the line of refugees moved past. The girl’s legs were wrapped around the boy’s waist, her skirt hiked up far enough to expose the tops of her garters. Her ankles were locked behind him, and her eyes closed. The ash and smoke turned her blonde hair a shade of gray as though it were the color of a corpse. The boy also wore the uniform of a Luftschutz worker, baggy dark blue coveralls with an arm band which marked him as a Hitler Youth volunteer. The refugees averted their eyes as they filed by.

Further on, a man clad only in his underwear ran up to each refugee that passed and grabbed them by the arm. ‘Have you seen Ilse?’ he asked. ‘I can’t find Ilse! Please help me find Ilse!’ No one answered. He grew more frantic and ran to a fireman who stood over the body of a badly burned woman. She was alive and screaming in pain and fear. ‘Help me find my wife!’ the man yelled over the sound of the stricken woman’s cries. ‘Get away from me,’ the fireman growled. ‘Your wife is probably dead, like this woman will be if you don’t get away and let me work.’ The man ran down the street, still calling for his wife, as the fireman knelt beside the woman. His hand trembled as he smoothed a few strands of what little hair remained on her head. ‘There, there,’ he said. ‘You’ll be alright.’ Her chest rose as she drew a ragged breath. The air left her body with a sigh, and then she was still. The fireman drew the back of his forearm across his eyes and then walked away, his head hung low and his fists clenched at his side.

Screams echoed from deep within a collapsed apartment building. Smoke drifted from the stones as a fire burned inside. Two firemen sprayed a single, impotent hose on the debris. ‘Can’t you do something?’ a civilian asked. ‘Listen to them! They are going to burn alive. Get them out!’ One of the firemen turned to him and said, ‘With what? We barely have any water pressure. There’s no way to get to them. Don’t blame us. We didn’t drop the bombs.’ The man tried to grab the hose, and the fireman felled him with one punch. The other fireman pulled a piece of chalk out of his pocket and walked over to the one remaining wall. He shook his head and scrawled ’20 Tot’ on the gray surface, and the men moved on. When the man who had been knocked down regained his senses, he began to shift bricks around to make an opening to squeeze through. Satisfied he could make it, the man wormed his torso into the hole and yelled to the trapped people that help would arrive soon. As he said the words, the rubble shifted and heavy blocks collapsed into the hole, leaving only his legs visible. They kicked once as blood began to seep from under the fallen bricks.

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