Thursday, October 31, 2013

"Home of the Brave," A Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

“Tess Williams, come to the office. Tess Williams, come to the office.”

So began the worst day of my life, at least so far.

When I got there, the Principal, Mr. Decker, told me that he had some troubling news for me: my mother was coming to school to pick me up to take me to the local hospital: my father had been sent there because he was hurt fighting a fire downtown. OMG! I was shaken.

Ten minutes later, my mother, my elder brother Rick and my younger brother Tim came in the van and we all drove to Phillips Memorial Hospital.

When we got there, the woman at the registration desk told us that Dad had been moved from the Emergency Room to a room in the Critical Care Unit. We were given ID badges and one of the helpers led us to the room.

Dad seemed asleep, but was actually in a coma. A doctor and a nurse were by his bed. They asked us to meet with them in a small room down the hall.

The doctor spoke to Mom, while we listened, “Mrs. Williams, your husband was injured in fighting the fire down at Commercial Avenue. He was struck by debris while in the building and has suffered burns to his face, neck and throat and smoke inhalation. We regard his condition as ‘guarded,’ which means he needs skilled medical attention, but he is expected to survive.”

“Is he asleep now?”

“No, he is under sedation, to ease the pain and allow us to carry out some necessary medical procedures.”

“What are those tubes?” Rick asked the doctor.

“The one going into his mouth between his teeth is giving your dad extra oxygen. The one in his arm is an IV drip, an intravenous line with nutritive glucose fluid and a pain medication. We are planning to give him a tracheotomy.”

“What’s that?” Mom asked.

“We will insert a tube that goes into his throat from the front and into his windpipe, his trachea. It will allow him to breath air with added oxygen without the threat of having his throat swell up and close,” Dr. Walker explained.

I was worried. “Won’t that hurt?”

“We will keep him on anesthetics, as much as needed. They will also help ease the pain of his burns.”

Tim suddenly piped up, “Is Dad going to die?”

Dr. Walker put his hand on Tim’s shoulder. “We expect him to be just fine in a few weeks. Meanwhile, we will do everything we can for him. Your dad is a hero.”

“A hero?” I asked.

“Yes, when he was brought to the Emergency Room, his fellow Emergency Medical Technicians told me he had risked his life to save a woman in that building fire on Commercial Avenue. Excuse me, I have got to see another patient. Nurse Robinson is available to help you and to answer more questions, if you have them. Your dad is going to be fine.”

The four of us took another look at Dad, who was still asleep, and then headed home. Each of us was still worried a bit, though not as much as when we first saw him lying in the hospital bed.

We were quiet at the supper table that night.

Finally, Tim asked again, “Mom, is Dad going to die?”

“No, Tim. The doctor seemed confident he will not. He was badly burned, though. He will be in the hospital for weeks. When he gets home, he may not be able to work for some time after that.”

I feared that our family would not have enough money. Mom reassured me that their father’s salary would be paid while he was healing and reminded me that she would still be teaching at the middle school.

“We all have to be brave, just as Dad is. When we see him, let’s not let him feel we are scared. Let’s let him know that we believe all will be well,” Rick told me and Tim. “It will all work out.”

“Right, Rick,” his mother replied.

Mom visited Dad after school each day for the rest of the week-days, but he was usually asleep while she was there.

On Saturday, he was still sedated, but on Sunday, he was awake, and our whole family was in his room during visiting hours that afternoon.

Unfortunately, Dad could not talk, due to the tube in his throat. We told him what each of us had been doing during the week, and we asked him questions to which he replied by blinking his eyes, once for “yes” and twice for “no.” It was slow, but it was better than nothing, and he was clearly delighted to see us.

Rick, Tim, and I asked the nurse about the various pieces of equipment in the room. The hospital bed was narrow, but it allowed having its back or its leg area raise or lowered. There was a heart monitor that gave the heart rate, the blood pressure, and the percentage of oxygen dissolved in his blood. The nurse assured us that the readings were within normal limits. I think I’d like to be a nurse.

When we returned Sunday evening, Dad was temporarily in another room. When we entered, we did not see him. What we saw, instead, was a little scary…a blue plastic chamber somewhat longer and wider than a person, with tubes going in and out of it. A different doctor, Dr. Fruchter, explained that this was a “hyperbaric” chamber, a chamber with air plus oxygen at high pressure. It is used to speed up healing of burns. We did not stay long, as it was hard to talk with Dad and not easy to see whether he was blinking once or twice….

During the week, Mom visited each evening, watching Dad improve. She avoided the times he was in the hyperbaric chamber, and they got better at playing “twenty questions,” with those yes or no responses. Fortunately, by the end of that second week, Dad was fitted with a device that let him speak, and the week-end get-together went much better. He was still somewhat groggy from the pain-killers, but he asked the medical staff to decrease their level, and he was in good spirits, eager to get home. Still under careful attention and observation, he had to wait another two weeks before he was released from the hospital, no longer on the ventilator, but still bandaged on face, neck and hands.

Before he went home, however, both the Mayor and the Chief of Police came to his hospital room along with the rest of our family. The Mayor read a citation to us and gave Dad a Medal of Bravery for his courageous actions during the fire the month before.

The Fire Chief then read to the our family the accident report that was written up for the Fire Department’s records:

“The fire at 6 Commercial Ave. was a structural fire, with multiple calls, in the six-story tenement building, with the fire in the top floor in a rear apartment unit. This is not uncommon for a winter day in the city, except that there were multiple calls.

“Upon arriving at the reported address, the first unit determined that there was a fire on the top floor, not a false alarm. Firefighter Williams, assigned to the first arriving unit’s ‘inside team,’ along with firefighter Thompson and Capt. Dixon raced to the top floor and proceeded to gain access to the burning apartment. Upon entering the apartment, Capt. Dixon and Thompson crawled to one side while Williams crawled to other, simultaneously looking for the base of the fire and for possible victims.

“Capt. Dixon and firefighter Thompson quickly found the base of the fire. Williams discovered two young children. He quickly guided them to a window, where another firefighter was about to enter via the fire escape. Williams helped the children out of the window and transferred the children to the other firefighter, when one of the children indicated that the mother was still inside.

“Williams crawled back into the room where he had found the children, and he came across a barely coherent woman who was still looking for her children. Williams began to assist the woman and the ceiling suddenly collapsed around them. They were trapped without access to the door or to the windows.

“Aware that his fellow firefighters were just a few feet away, Williams shielded the young woman and shared with her the air from his tank, knowing that soon they would be safe. After several minutes, they were saved, but not before the air in his tank ran out.

“The young mother was treated at Phillips Memorial Hospital for mild smoke inhalation and minor burns. Firefighter Williams, however, suffered severe smoke inhalation and significant burns inside his throat and to his neck and face. Williams spent three weeks in the hospital. The first week he was periodically treated in a hyperbaric chamber, to provide supplementary oxygen into his lungs and accelerate burn wound healing; furthermore, he was intubated because of burns and swelling to his throat.

“After being released from the critical care unit, Williams spent two more weeks in the burn unit, receiving skin grafts to his neck and face, after which he was released from the hospital.”

“We would shake your hand, but I know it’s still sore. You know we are all proud of you and we look forward to your return to active duty as soon as it is safe for you to do so,” the Mayor told Dad.

Chief Dixon added, “We all are eager to have you back again. Your heroism saved that woman’s life. You are a real credit to the Department and to the town.”

When Dad came home, with Mom driving the car because his hands were still painful, he told the children that he was proud of them for helping their mother while he was in the hospital and for not being afraid of what would happen to them. “I know you were worried, but you faced it bravely.”

I put my arms gently around Dad’s waist, and said, “We tried not to worry too much. We know you are strong and brave, and we wanted you to be proud of us, too.”

Mom added, “Now that Dad is back, our house could be called ‘the home of the brave.’”




The authors thank Dennis Farrell, retired NYC fire-fighter, for his technical assistance. He served the NYFD with distinction.

Friday, October 25, 2013

"She Throws Free Throws," A Middle-Grade Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

Laura Byrne was Tess Williams’s best friend, almost as athletic as tom-boy Tess, almost as scholarly as wizardly Tess, almost as pretty, almost as popular, almost, almost, almost….

Sweet Laura was not jealous of Tess. They were buddies, They shared secrets, though not clothes, and both played on the seventh-grade basketball team, tall Tess the center, shorter Laura a guard. Each liked Michael Wilkinson, captain of the boys’ basketball team. Laura had a real crush. Tess less so.

It came to pass, as the saying goes, that the seventh-grade field day was to be held in the gym. Why they called it a “field day” when they held it indoors was a mystery, but traditions stay traditions, even when they make little sense. That day, only an afternoon really, featured a series of competitions: races, feats of skill, opportunities to “show your stuff.” In other words, “field day” was full of chances to show off, chances to impressed the girls, chances to impress the guys.

Laura and Tess were entered into the basketball free-throw competition: take 20 shots, count how many are made. Both were pretty good at this, with…as you might guess…Laura being almost as good at it as Tess.

As the girls’ free-throw competition got underway, several of the guys came to watch, to cheer, to tease them a bit, too. Michael Wilkinson was among them, as Tess and Laura quickly noted.

After the first round of 20 shots apiece, two players were tied for the championship. Tess and Laura, no surprise. Each had made 15 of 20, fine shooting, about what Laura would normally do when practicing on her own.

“We have a tie. We will have a ‘shoot-out,’ with Tess and Laura taking turns. Best score out of 20 shots is the winner,” the Principal announced.

We won’t go to the play-by-play. At the end of the 20th shot for each of them, Laura had made another 15, Tess 14. Laura had won. Several of the kids congratulated Laura, including Tess and Michael, and Laura beamed.

When Tess came home, brother Rick asked her how the field day had gone.

“It was great fun. We had a lot of competitions, and Laura and I were the finalists in the foul-shooting contest.”

“That’s no surprise. I’ve seen you shoot them…almost perfectly. I’ll bet you won.”

“No, this time Laura won.” Tess smiled as she said it.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

"Too Far," a Middle-Grade Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper an Brian Maher

“Tim, my police friends tell me some kids are getting into trouble out by the lake. Remember, you are not allowed out there, not allowed out beyond the railroad tracks,” Mr. Williams told his adventurous fourth-grader son.

That had been Sunday. Now it was Thursday. What were those kids doing out by the lake? Curiosity was killing Tim. He asked his sister, Tess. She didn’t know.

“Tim, don’t forget what Dad told you. Stay away from the lake. Don’t go beyond the railroad tracks.”

Much as he liked his somewhat older sister, Tim did not like being bossed by her.

“If I go, are you going to tell on me?”


It was a beautiful day. Tim road his bike on the road toward the lake, but stopped at the railroad tracks. He looked around. Nobody was watching. He could ride up the hill some more and get a look at the lake in the distance. When he got to the top, he saw smoke…down by the lake. He started riding the bike down the slope toward the lake, saw a pothole, had to brake hard, heard a snap.

What was that? Had the bike chain broke? Yes. Bad place for that to happen. Annoyed, Tim turned around and started to walk the bike back home.

Almost immediately, a police car came from town, driving toward the lake. The officer in the car stopped, rolled down the window and said, “Tim, what’s happening down at the lake?”

“I don’t know, sir. I was just looking.”

“Good. We’ve had some trouble with teen-agers down there. Looks like they’ve started a fire. You would be safer heading home.”

“I’m going. My bike’s chain broke.”

“I’d drive you back, but I can’t right now. Stay close to the side of the road, in case more cars come by.”

“Yes, sir.”

Tim went home, a long, slow walk.

When he got home, he was pleased that no one knew he had gone beyond the railroad tracks. He still had a broken bike chain, and he was tired from the long walk, but at least he was not in trouble.

After Tim’s father came home, he told Tim to come out on the porch, as he needed to speak with him.

“Did you go out past the railroad tracks toward the lake today?”

“Um, yes.”

“Didn’t I tell you not to?”


“Aren’t you supposed to obey your parents?”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Sorry is a start, but not enough. On Saturday, you are staying in the house all day, and you are going to clean up that room of yours, besides.”


“I see your bike chain is broken. Did that happen on this trip?”


“I’ll get it fixed for you but not until next week. Meanwhile, you won’t be riding it. Now, go do your homework.”


Later, Tim saw Tess and accused her of telling on him.

“I did not,” she replied.

“Who did?”

“Did you meet any firemen or policemen while you were out there?”

“A policeman…near the lake.”

“Well, they all know Dad. The cop must have thought you were too far from home and told Dad. There’s not much we can get away with in this town!” Tess said ruefully, as though she, too, had gotten into similar trouble…and she had.



Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Waste Not, Want Not," Another Middle-Grade Short Story


Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

“Do you want to go to the movies together this afternoon?” May Lee asked Tess on a slushy Saturday in February.

“I’d love to. It’s too cold to do most other things, but I can’t. I’ve spent all my allowance.”

“Don’t you have some money saved?”

“No. Somehow it just goes, disappears.”

This was when Tess was twelve, an athlete and a fine student, but not a saver, not at all. She knew she should save “for a rainy day,” or for a slushy one, but just couldn’t seem to do it.

May Lee’s parents, like Tess’s parents, gave her a weekly allowance, from which she was to buy little stuff, not necessities, but snacks and treats and admissions to movies and such. May’s parents were originally from China, where thrift was emphasized, as many in that country were poor, and widespread poverty went back thousands of years. Even now in America, her parents were very careful about spending money. May’s mother made many of May’s clothes, and she made them well.

Tess’s parents, a school teacher and a firefighter, we neither poor nor rich, but they, too, were careful with their money. They tried not to buy things they did not need, and they watched for sales and for opportunities to attend free events. They did many of their home repairs rather than paying others to do them. The kids all had chores to do to help out, too. Eric had a part-time job on the week-ends. The Williams family were savers rather than spenders.

“May, I‘ll call you back. I’ll go ask Mom for my allowance a day early. Maybe she will agree.”

Tess found her mother in the kitchen.

“Mom, could I have my allowance a day early this week? May and I would like to go to the movies this afternoon, but I’m out of money.”

“Where did it go?”

“I’ve got no idea.”

“How smart is that?”

“Not smart, but it just goes. Too much trouble to keep track.”

“I don’t know about this week, but I have seen you buy stuff you then don’t use, like lipstick of a certain color. My parents taught us an old New England saying:

Waste not, want not.

Make do, do without.

Use it up, wear it out.

Your father and I try to follow this, too.”

“Mom, just this once?”

“No. that won’t teach you a thing. Next time, you’ll expect me to give in again. You know me better than that!”

“Maybe Rick will give it to me,” referring to her brother, some five years older.

“No. Rick will not go against my decision. He knows me better than that, too!”

Calling May back, Tess said, “I’m sunk. Can’t go. No dough.”

May replied, “Let’s go to the museum, instead. The price is right…it’s free!”


Thursday, October 3, 2013

Chaos for Chicks: The Butterfly Effect

Can a small mistake ruin your life? Can a lucky break bring happiness? Do “little things mean a lot”? Does love change everything? Certainly.

Might the flapping of a butterfly’s wings produce a disturbance that days later and a thousand miles away creates high winds in Texas? If we traveled back in time, would a small change made back then produce a big change in the present we returned to? These are popular conceptions of chaos theory, an important scientific field that deals with situations where a small change in the initial situation produces a large change eventually. My own research ran into this phenomenon in trying to improve environmental measurements. Small changes in the input data or in the model produced large changes in the results, the conclusions.

Back to our daily lives: In high school, a “friend” gave me a ride home from football practice and hit 103 mph in his Chevy on a small country road. If we had crashed, my later life, if any, would never have been the same. My youngest brother’s best friend was killed when his motorcycle failed to stop rapidly enough, perhaps hitting a slippery patch of road. A current writing client of mine had, decades ago, unprotected sex with a local girl when he was seventeen and serving with the Marines in Guatemala. A son resulted, one he has shared responsibility for ever since. How many people have “tried” smoking or drugs or alcohol and gotten dependent, hooked? Choices that seem small can lead to large consequences.


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"Rusty, the Wonder Dog," Another Middle-Grade Short Story

Douglas Winslow Cooper and Brian Maher

“I’m home,” Tim yelled, “anybody here?”

His twelve-year-old sister, Tess, responded, “In the living room.”

Tim joined her there, dropping his knapsack, chock full of books even though he was only in fourth grade.

“You’re home a bit late, Tim, what’s up?”

“Played touch football after school.”

“Did you walk Mrs. Kaufmann’s dog?”

“Oh, no! I forgot!”

“Better get over there, before there’s a mess.”

Tim raced the two blocks to the Kaufmanns’ house. He had their key. When he opened the door, their Beagle, Rusty, was clearly excited to see him. Rusty barked his loud Beagle bark, wagged his tail, his welcome waggin’, and excitedly jumped around as Tim put the leash on his collar.

Tim and Rusty walked down Maple Street, the trees nearly free of leaves, as this was late Fall. Rusty moved next to one of these maples, lifted his leg and gave out a little spurt.

“Is that all?”

Rusty did not reply.

The two returned, and Tim and Rusty went to the kitchen to get Rusty a treat. There was a puddle on the kitchen floor and an unwelcome smell in the air. Tim thought, Uh-oh, Rusty has had an “accident.”

Tim pulled several sheets of paper towels from the rack, and started to dry up the puddle. Yellow. Smelly. He opened a cabinet and found some Zip-loc storage bags and put the wet paper towels in there. He got some more paper towels and repeated the wiping and the storing. There was still a smell. What to do? He picked up the telephone and called Tess.


“Hello. Who is this?”


“Tim? Where are you?

“Kaufmanns’ house.”

“What’s up?”

“Rusty peed on the kitchen floor. I dried it up…but it still smells.”

“Wet a paper towel, put a few drops of dish detergent on it, wipe the spot again. Dry it with a paper towel. Then wet another one, without detergent, and wipe again. Then dry it all up with another paper towel. That should do it. I‘ll wait.”

Tim did as Tess instructed. A few minutes later, the smell was gone, and the floor looked fine.

“Thanks, Sis.”


When Tim told his mother what happened, she told him he would have to apologize to the Kaufmanns for letting them down, not walking the dog right after school as he had agreed to do, and tell them what Rusty and he had done.

Mr. Kaufmann thanked Tim, told him the floor seemed fine, “No harm, no foul.” It was not clear, however, whether they would rely on Tim to walk Rusty again until he got older and more responsible.

When Rick got home from football practice, he heard the story and said he’d call Rusty “'The Wonder Dog'…he wondered whether Tim would ever get there to take him for his walk.”

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Your Marriage as a Calling

Your spouse has MS, and the symptoms are no longer minimal. Your marriage has become either your handicap or your calling.

A handicap keeps us from doing some things we want to do. We can make choices that reduce its impact. We can substitute almost-as-good options for our first choices. Still, we will have a sense of loss, regret about what might have been. For example, a friend’s wife cannot fully pursue her university teaching career due to her spouse’s medical condition. She has accepted this, with occasional regret. He wishes it needn’t be this way, but they agree that it must.

A calling is something we have dedicated our lives to doing. It takes us beyond mere conventional living. Viewed that way, helping a spouse who has a disability can make one feel special, make one’s marriage special, if you remain committed to each other. [A old joke goes that in a ham-and-egg sandwich, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed.]


Read the whole piece at: