Thursday, February 18, 2016

My Blogs...And Welcome to 'em

Spent part of the afternoon tidying up my various Blogger accounts, and reflecting on my side gig as a hack writer.

Since 2007, I’ve started four different blogs:

The first one, “Switch 2 Plan B,” I ginned up as an outlet to write about my life in the fire service. Humorous anecdotes. Trenchant observations. That sort of thing. Unfortunately, in 2011, I forgot to renew the effin' domain name on time and subsequently lost it. (I still have access to the posts—all 393 of them—on my Blogger dashboard, but it’s no longer publicly viewable.)

A few days after “Switch” disappeared from the internet, I was back in business with my current site, “The Damage is Done.” I like the new title better anyway.

But sometime last year, I realized I had slowed down with the amusing fire house stories and adulterated the site with rants on politics and culture. 

Jesus, no one wants to see that.

So I started “I Just Drive a Truck,” and have since exiled my crackpot political thoughts to that domain.

So today I cleaned out “The Damage is Done,” and purged the politics. You’re welcome. From now on, it’ll be reserved for work stuff, mostly, and other witty but innocuous observations. I may even sort through the archives and repost some of the old “Switch 2 Plan B” pieces. Because, let’s be honest, I peaked way back then.

Since 2007 across these four blogs I’ve posted over 500 pieces, received over 83,500 page hits, and garnered more than1300 comments…mostly “please stop writing” kind of remarks. Those stats are really unimpressive in the blogger world, by the way.

And at one time I even had one creepy stalker leaving disturbing comments.

Wait, what’s that? “What about the fourth blog?” you ask. Oh it’s still floating around out there somewhere. Good luck finding it…

Sunday, July 21, 2013

George Washington Slept...Here?

One of the first things I learned on my recent trip back east was the definition of the euphemism “historic site.”

Specifically, the word site (at least in National Park Service parlance) means that what you are looking for used to be...right...about...HERE

But it ain’t anymore.

While some of the iconic structures, roads, stonewalls, and earthworks so integral to, and extant during, whatever historic battle you’re retracing has indeed survived both the war and the ravages of intervening years, other such landmarks are long, long gone.

This was made painfully clear to me when one day I visited Ferry Farm, boyhood home of George Washington and, years later, site of Federal encampments during the Civil War. (I should clarify that this area is now privately owned and operated, so the Park Service is not to blame for this one. I have great regard for the NPS, by the way.)

After ponying up an $8 admission I was free to wander the grounds, but quickly realized there was nothing to see. There was no “here,” here anymore. The foundation of the original home had been located and excavated, but then--for reasons not entirely clear to me--it was reinterred. The four corners of the old foundation buried beneath the grass were marked by a low stack of modern masonry work. 

All I could do was stand near the very spot where George Washington once slept. Cicadas buzzed in the summer afternoon heat. Cars zoomed down the interstate a couple of hundred yards behind me. The nice young lady at the front desk conceded that, in fact, none of the quaint buildings, beautiful gardens, split rail fences, or stately trees were “original.” I hid my disappointment, but left after spending only about 15 minutes on the otherwise scenic grounds.

Across the Rappahannock in Fredericksburg, the wood-sided Innis house was once caught in a deadly crossfire between Confederate forces hunkered down behind a sunken road and stonewall, and waves of Federal troops on a suicidal charge towards their position. The Innis house still stands. You can walk inside and see dozens of small holes blasted through the interior walls by rifle fire during the daylong battle. 

...But Widow Stephen’s place next door survived the war only to burn down in 1917.

At Spotsylvania, there are literally miles and miles of low earthworks--trenches--hastily dug and topped with timbers by Confederate troops in 1864 in a vain effort against Grant’s unstoppable march towards Richmond. But the McCoull house which once stood in the middle of the salient is now just

That structure is, well, history.

(At Harper’s Ferry, I surmised that my mildewed room at the Quality Inn may have rested over the approximate site of Pender’s lines. Perhaps I shared the lodgings with a spirit or two from those North Carolinian units.)

I spent a lot of time that week searching for various Holy Grails--famous houses, stonewalls, roads, and other historic landmarks, sometimes only to discover that what I was now looking at was merely a reproduction of what was once there.

Other times there was nothing there at all.

And so, when it can no longer be seen, it’s called a “site.”

And that’s a shame, by a damn sight.

(to be continued...)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Lost in the Woods

I spent the past seven days hiking the Civil War battlefields of Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia. Killing fields with iconic names like The Bloody Angle, Slaughter Pen, Devil’s Den, and the Sunken Road. Through dense wilderness, over rolling hills, and across now silent peach orchards, cornfields, and wheat fields that, for one terrible season, yielded only unspeakable human carnage and immeasurable tragedy. I stood in the cool waters of Antietam Creek and the Potomac River, and crossed the Rappahannock, Rapidan, Shenandoah, and dozens of other creeks, runs, and branches. I took in the expansive vistas from atop Maryland Heights, Marye’s Heights, Culp’s Hill, and Little Round Top

Today, some of these battlefields are utterly surrounded, besieged from all sides by a standing army of urban encroachment; others lay beyond the edge of forgotten gravel roads, or buried beneath 150 years of thick, tangled undergrowth.

And yet, I never found what it was I had come in search of: Answers to fundamental questions about this, the bloodiest, and arguably most significant war in all of U.S. history...

Why did they fight? What was accomplished? Was it worth it?

And the deeper I searched, the more disoriented I became.

I was lost in the woods.

(to be continued...)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

CPR, part 4 (Re-posted from "Switch 2 Plan B")

When we walked into the back bedroom, I was sure he was already dead.

Yup…Pretty sure.

See, I can’t remember really ever having to worry about it too much before. The paramedic squad would be right behind us, bring in their Zoll heart monitor, hook ‘em up, and most likely “call it.” But with the department’s recent reiteration of certain field protocols, the in-coming squad would be canceled if the on-scene firefighter/EMTs (emergency medical technicians) determined right then and there that the victim was dead.

So it was up to us.

As I’ve said before, there’s no point in working up an elderly person with extensive medical history who’s been down for a while. Chest compressions and all the drugs known to man just aren’t gonna help. So before we drag him in a tangle of blankets off his bed, ease him to the floor (best to do CPR on a hard surface), and start pumping on his chest, we can verify certain criteria.
Moments before, as we sped to the call, sirens and lights, our boot firefighter admitted he’d never been on a full arrest and had never used an AED (automatic external defibrillator) on an actual patient. Now I stood in a tiny bedroom with that same wide-eyed fireman waiting to follow my cues.

While our captain took the old man’s wife aside, we established that our victim was pulseless and apneic, and began checking for additional signs that would let us off the hook, in regards to initiating CPR.

Evidence of rigor mortis? I tugged gently on his lower jaw, and it did not seem to give readily. Post-mortem lividity? We rolled him slowly on his side, lifted his pajama shirt, and observed what appeared to be that purplish discoloration caused by pooling blood that can occur within 20 minutes of death.

The captain glanced up from his clipboard and looked at us expectantly. “Well?” the raised eyebrows seemed to ask. Are we going to cancel the medics and call it, or start CPR and continue them in?

Protocols also call for auscultating heart and lung sounds for at least 60 seconds, but as the rookie would later confess (and I remember all too well from my days as a new fireman), when you steady that stethoscope to the victim’s chest and listen intently, trying to block out all external distractions, you’re so nervous that you begin to second-guess whether the steady thrum you hear is indeed the pounding of your own heart and not the patient’s.

Nervous, because the next words out of your mouth had better be definitive.

Is he, or is he not, dead?

And even though that may be a foregone truth, it will be you, in fact, who acknowledges this reality for the first time—for the anxious wife, the concerned children, and the well-meaning friends all to hear.

And it will set off a chain of events.

A chain of “No.”

No, there will not be any life-saving measures…
No, there’s not going to be a paramedic squad coming in…
No heart monitors, no defibrillators, no ambu-bags…

And we have been told: When informing family members, do not use euphemisms such as “passed away” or “gone on,” or any other gentle yet gauzy terms you may be tempted to couch this hard truth in just to help sooth loved ones or ease your own conscience. The pronouncement must be unambiguous:

I’m very sorry

There is nothing more we can do

He is dead

…And so maybe I did pause, if just for moment. And in that split second, feel a dizzying kaleidoscope of sorrow and pain suddenly coalesce. Pulled back to those moments in my own life when someone I loved slipped away.

I’m very sorry

There is nothing more

The Doctor is In (Reposted from "Switch 2 Plan B")

I’m standing in the middle of the physical therapy gym of the rehabilitation center in downtown Boise.

As I wait for Gary, I watch others hobble in and out. A gray-haired man stares out the window as he slowly pedals nowhere on his stationary bike. Another man—his wife at his side—lies patiently on a padded table as a therapist attends to his ankle, gingerly working the joint back and forth. The elderly and young, sick and injured, all around me are people—crumpled, lame, exhausted.

Outside the huge plate glass window, pedestrians—Plato’s shadows—hurry by, pretending not to see into this brightly lit clinic. They are well-dressed and walk purposefully past.

Back here inside, I notice that even one of the therapists is limping.

And then


in this single moment

the entire universe

comes crashing into view

In here, the broken help the weak
the injured attend to the dying
while we all await our turn
as servant and the served

Every one of us
in need



None of us whole

none of us well

Each of us
on the other.

This is reality

This is how it was always supposed to be,
how it was all ordained:

Christ told us,
then showed us,
feed those who are hungry,
clothe those in need,
visit the sick and imprisoned…

because sooner or later
we will all find ourselves
starving, suffering, alone
in a prison of our own making

are shadows.
An unreal
where we imagine ourselves to be
healthy and happy


Inside is the real world
A community of the vulnerable
The weak and the broken
The tired
and waiting

So welcome to the hospital...

The doctor/
The patient/

Will see you now

Magic (Reposted from "Switch 2 Plan B")

(My sister Amy asked that I repost a few stories from my former blogspot, "Switch 2 Plan B"...So, here you go!)

*   *  *

In the Middle Ages, alchemists sought to transmute base metals—iron and nickel—into something far more valuable: gold and silver. They failed, of course.

My dad, on the other hand, made it look easy.

One of my favorite childhood memories: Small town, upstate New York. It’s early morning. Outside, a foot of snow on the ground. I’m burrowed deep beneath warm blankets heaped on my bed. From downstairs I can hear my dad stirring milk into his coffee, the metal spoon softly ringing against his stoneware mug. He grabs his leather briefcase and puts on his favorite fedora—still standard issue for businessmen in the 1960s. I hear the garage door roll up, and the old Mercury turn over in protest against the freezing temperature. The tires crunch across the new snow, and I hear his car drive off down the street.

It was the sound of constancy. Steadfast, reliable, faithful, enduring. And I knew I would hear again the next morning. And the next.

My father took the base materials of ordinary life and—day by day, year after year—transformed them into something far more valuable: A family. A home. A sense of abiding security for six young kids.

He never complained, never got drunk, never filed for divorce or walked out on his many considerable responsibilities.

On Saturdays, he mowed the lawn.

Dad was the second son of a Polish immigrant. His father fled Krakow ahead of the Russian army, which was sweeping across the countryside, forcing all young men into service. As a seventeen year-old boy, grandpa sailed into Boston harbor with a work visa in his hand, and never saw home again.

My dad grew up on a farm, and after serving in the Army, he went to work for IBM on early versions of the computer—vacuum tubed, magnetic tape-spinning, punch card-munching behemoths that filled entire rooms at the time. At Hughes Aircraft, he helped develop the Intel Sat VI communications satellite. Today, a model of that craft is on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

I often wondered if, every now and then on his way home from work, my dad ever daydreamed of the “what ifs” or “might have beens” of his life, like Walter Mitty asleep at the wheel. If he did, he never let it show.

On a new moon night you could probably make out the faint light of his satellite still making its orbit high overhead. Constant. Reliable. Faithful. But that is not his life’s achievement. He built an amazing world for another kind of satellite—those who would fly higher and venture out farther. First six. Then eleven. Tomorrow...who knows?

Out of the ordinary: Gold.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Second Banana

Doc Holiday
Antonio Salieri
Ed McMahon

Second bananas.

“Yes men.” Sycophants. Straw boss. Toady.

It’s easy for me to spot one, because I am one. As wheelman and engineer, I am (by policy) second in command of this little four-man fire truck. Not that it amounts to much, since my current skipper never asks for my opinion and the crew simply humors me. But that is to be expected. Being a second banana means being overlooked. The only “first” I can lay claim to is being first runner up.

Even at home, this king of the castle can only attain court jester status. I am a non-voting member in my own household, where I live in the long shadow cast by a take-charge wife. Best just to go along. Sensing this, my teen children just cut to the chase and ask her everything. They know it’ll have to go through her for approval eventually.

But such has been my life. Even as a little kid, I was third of six children—a middle child lost in a sea of siblings, each one smarter or cuter than me.

So. Being an experienced second banana, I thought I might offer up some tips to those of you aspiring to the near-lofty status of numero deux. I do this humbly, of course. I mean, after all—who the hell am I?
Be quotable, Kemo sabe. Let’s face it: The second banana always had the most memorable lines. “Holy epigrams, Batman!” Spock’s dry retort of “highly illogical” was repeated in the halls of high school by future Geek-Squaders more than anything Kirk ever uttered. Just sayin’. So if you want to be second best, it’s pretty much your responsibility to be pithy, 24/7.
Anticipate. Like Radar O’Reilly finishing Colonel Henry Blake’s every sentence, the right-hand man always has to be one step ahead. It’s your job to prognosticate, portend, and presage your boss’ whims. This will render you indispensable.
Know your place. No one likes an uppity subordinate. Be Christ-like in your humility. Or short of that, insult your boss using big words that he doesn’t understand. Think Dilbert. 
Be ready. You may never sit in the command chair, but you never know. Stranger things have happened. Even Roman centurions walked over their own dead. If your boss gets hit on the head by a falling anvil, or your wife suddenly takes ill, you may have to step up to the plate. Lyndon Johnson’s entire day was changed by a single bullet (probably from the grassy knoll). Best to know the job inside and out before that moment arrives. Turns out, Doc Holiday was quicker on the draw than Wyatt Earp. At least according to that movie “Tombstone.” 
And finally… 
Never Give Up. Al Gore may have come in second, but he squeezed life’s lemon hard, invented the internet and global warming, and landed a hugely successful book tour. The Jamaican bobsled team never won Olympic gold, but they inspired a major motion picture (“Cool Runnings”). Being first may not be all its cracked up to be.
Like Avis, we second bananas try harder.

*   *   * 

(Edited and reprinted from my long-lost blog, "Switch 2 Plan B." First published June 7, 2010)