Park Heights and Rogers
By Bob Fleishman
The sound of the siren was not out of place that cold November Wednesday afternoon as I waited for the bus that would take me to my Hebrew School class. It was always exciting to see a shiny red fire engine speed by this then ten-year-old boy, with fearless firefighters clinging to the back of the truck, on the way to another adventure saving lives and property. And then I heard the second siren, this one coming from a different direction, and the thought struck me that something terrible was about to happen.
A hook-and-ladder truck was traveling north on Park Heights Avenue. Another fire truck was speeding east along Rogers Avenue, both heading for the intersection where I was standing on the southeast corner. As I watched, a short, stubby traffic policeman, wearing the square policeman’s hat popular in those days, ran into the middle of the intersection frantically waving his hands in a useless effort to stop at least one of the vehicles hurtling toward a spot only feet away from where I stood. At the last possible second, he leaped out of the way.
The Hook-and-Ladder entered the intersection first and, for an instant, as the other truck slammed on its brakes, I thought it might make it safely through.
But it was too late.
The skidding Rogers Avenue fire truck hit the Hook-and-Ladder in the rear, where the firemen were hanging on. The crash noise was incredible. Bodies flew into the air and the Rogers Avenue truck continued on and came to rest against a utility pole, its driver and his passenger slumped in their seats. I immediately knew that both were dead. An eerie silent-movie-quiet followed once the fire engines came to a rest. Then I became aware of yelling and sobbing from the spectators, as several men ran toward the trucks to see what they could do. When it was over, four city firefighters had died, and four more were gravely injured.
It took awhile to clear the intersection so that traffic could proceed. Finally, my bus arrived. I remember very clearly getting on the bus, and just as I was to drop my money into the cash box, I reconsidered and said to the driver, “I want to get off!” Rather than go to Hebrew School that afternoon, I walked the nine blocks back to my home in a daze.
When I got home, the enormity of the event hit me full-force. I broke down crying and could hardly get the story out to my mother. The fact that I had been so near to the actual impact of the vehicles, so close to my own death, had finally registered.
My mother had me lie down and calmed me the in the usual way mothers do. But over the next few months, ramifications of the event began to manifest in my behavior, and she must have realized this time was different. Sleep was almost impossible, my appetite dwindled, and I was unable to concentrate on my schoolwork. I had been a pretty good student, scoring well on Standardized Reading and Arithmetic Tests. My fifth-grade teacher realized I wasn’t my usual self and spoke to my parents about it. I saw a few doctors, and it was decided that I should enter the hospital for, as one doctor put it, “Observation”. Another even said I had a “nervous condition.” These days, I suppose they’d call it “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”.
I was admitted to Johns Hopkins Hospital and spent a week there undergoing all kinds of tests, none of which I remember today. But one thing about my stay stands out. On Tuesdays, we were allowed to stay up and watch Milton Berle on Texaco Star Theater. Not yet having television in our house (it was the early 1950s), this was a real treat. Uncle Miltie, as he was called, was every bit as funny as my friends who did have TV sets had told me. That helped me to get through those days more comfortably.
When I was released from the hospital and returned to school, the teacher eased me back into the routine and soon I was up-to-date. In a short time, my “nervous condition” abated and I was back to playing ball with the guys in my neighborhood and resuming my fifth-grade schoolwork.
Just a few years ago, I visited a firehouse near my home when I heard that they had newspaper accounts of that horrible accident framed on one of their walls. I told the firefighters that I had seen the event first-hand. They were mesmerized when I relived my eyewitness account. Of course, it was a legend in local Firefighter lore, and they were grateful that I had taken the time to come in.
The firehouse visit wasn’t exactly the soul-cleansing experience I may have hoped for. I still have flashes of those traumatic moments, especially when I hear sirens, a dramatic reminder that, over sixty years later, I haven’t totally put aside the horror of that day.
Copyright © 2012 Bob Fleishman.
Bob Fleishman is a retired General Dentist who is using his newly found extra time in more creative pursuits. He has written two plays, The Man Who Makes You Laugh and The Session and is currently writing a book about growing up in his old neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore. In addition, he is a professional videographer currently working on a film for Baltimore City College’s 175th Anniversary.
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