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.
Doodlemeister is looking for short memory pieces up to a thousand words, on any subject, in any style — as long as it happened to you. Whatever the subject, we have a bias for the lighthearted tone. And if need be we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
I had forgotten about this incident until I read your memoir. I was seven or eight, and had heard about the accident, then read about it in the paper. (No television for us then, either.) It was much talked about when I was a child. No wonder you were traumatized …
Editor’s Note: Here are some remarks from Bob’s friends who were too shy to comment directly on his excellent post.
Hi Bob, and season’s greetings. I read your piece on doodlemeister. I had no idea. You are (I think) a really good writer. Vivid. And the fact that you have gone to the firehouse and told them your story–well, that caps it all. You have chronicled a tragedy that needs remembering. And you have carried it inside yourself all these years. It is not just combat soldiers from far away battlefields that have to cope with post traumatic stress. My friend and classmate, Bob–the things I never knew. Thanks for sharing.
– Professor of American History-Oklahoma City University
Not to put too fine a point on it, the piece is damn good. What you should do straight off in my humble opinion is submit it to the Baltimore Sun as an op-ed. Ordinarily this would be too grim a subject matter for them to treat around Xmas time, but given the strong resemblance to what the survivors at Newtown have just experienced, I am pretty certain the Sun will be interested in printing it. I think the piece could easily, with the addition of a few sentences, be directly cast as a reflection on Newtown and what children who experience sudden tragedies go through. Really first class. Congratulations!
– Social Worker – Boston
I read your piece in the blog and was blown away, both by your writing and the event you wrote about. What a traumatic experience for a little boy. In view of recent tragic events in the news, it also poignantly points out how much those children in Newtown will be affected for the rest of their lives!
– Lawyer – Boston
Wow. Does that bring back memories. I went to Hebrew School before the crash occurred. When I was taking the bus home from Hebrew School, the intersection was blocked because they were cleaning up the fire trucks, etc. Everyone was still walking around in a daze. I remember going into the drugstore on the corner. (Weinstein ‘s?) The pharmacist was a friend of my father. He called home to let them know why I would be late. It took a while before the bus could go again. What a horrible experience that must have been for you. You were PTSD even before they named it. I remember people citing the crash when all new emergency vehicles had to have sirens with alternating tones, so they would be more easily detected by someone on another emergency vehicle.
-Rabbi – St. Louis
Bravo Bob! There is more to you than any of us over knew.
– Pharmacologist – Boston
Excellent writing and an amazing story! What an experience for a 10 year old kid! Maybe that explains why you’re so screwed up!! LOL
A very interesting blog. I want to read more when I have time.
– Retired Dentist, now novelist and portrait artist – Berlin, Germany
A great story, very well written — and I tend to be a tough critic. I didn’t see your daughter’s name on the address list. I know that she would value this insight into your childhood, especially (if you haven’t already told her) the part about being hospitalized. I don’t think I knew that before. This “snippet” bodes well for your more ambitious undertaking. Kudos.
– Ex-wife – Baltimore
Wow…what an experience!! Vividly recaptured!
– Teacher – Baltimore
Rich remembers that time. Oh my-horrific for a young boy to see. You lost your innocence that day.
– Social Worker – Baltimore