Stay Thirsty Interview with Mark Yost

Here is the interview Stay Thirsty magazine did with me for their Fall 2014 edition. Ahead of the publication of “Jimmy’s Nephew,” the next installment in my Rick Crane Noir series, due out in a few weeks.

Jimmy's NephewMark Yost has written for The Wall Street Journal for over twenty years, has served as the Journal‘s editorial page writer in New York and Brussels and has been a regular contributor to it’s Leisure and Arts section in the US, Europe and Asia. His columns have also appeared in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal. A six-year veteran of the US Navy, he also spends time as a firefighter/paramedic in the northern suburbs of Chicago. His first noir thriller, Cooper’s Daughter, was released in June 2014 and his second book in the Rick Crane series, Jimmy’s Nephew, will be released this fall. THIRSTY was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit with Mark Yost in Chicago between stints for the Journal, his duties with the Highwood Fire Department and his work on the third Rick Crane novel.


THIRSTY: What first attracted you to the noir thriller? Which of the iconic writers in that genre influenced you the most? Were you influenced by any of the classic noir films?

MARK YOST: I always thought I had a thriller in me. And, originally, I thought I would do something similar to Tom Clancy or John le Carré. I had been in the Navy, covered the military for The Wall Street Journal. So it was a natural progression.

But then I discovered this thing called noir. First through movies, like The Big Sleep, The Third Man, and, my favorite noir – and perhaps the best of all time – Double Indemnity. If you only know Fred MacMurray as the affable Steve Douglas, the father of Chip and Ernie on My Three Sons, or the bumbling professor in the Disney Flubber movies, it’s a real change of character and shows his depth and breadth as an actor.

I’m such a fan of the movie that I knew that the house where MacMurray’s Walter Neff gets sucked into the dark world of murder for love was still standing in the Hollywood Hills. So I drove up with my son and made George take a picture of me in front of the steps where Walter Neff utters perhaps the greatest noir line ever written: “How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle.” In fact, that line was my Facebook post, along with the photo.

From the movies I discovered noir authors like James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammett, and, of course, Raymond Chandler. I also like a modern-day noirish author named Charlie Huston. He wrote a three-book series set in Brooklyn, where I spent much of my young life. The first book was called Caught Stealing, and introduced you to a character who gets mistakenly caught up with the Russian mob in Brighton Beach, a neighborhood I know very well.

THIRSTY: You debuted a new noir series with your book Cooper’s Daughter based on an Upstate New York private investigator named Rick Crane. Who is Rick Crane and what makes him so intriguing?

MARK YOST: Rick Crane is the classic noir-flawed good guy. When we first meet Rick, he works as a private eye, mostly investigating cheating spouses. He’s also a part-time enforcer for the local mob boss.

A lot of people don’t realize that Upstate New York – places like Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo – are as mobbed up as Brooklyn and the Bronx. Before it became the Rust Belt, Upstate New York, where I went to high school, was part of the industrial heartland. And in that heartland, there were union contracts to negotiate, well-paid workers who liked to gamble and borrow money. And businesses to shake down. It was prime mob country.

So we meet Rick, and shortly after he blackmails one of the cheating wives he’s following into going to bed with him, down-on-his-luck Bill Cooper comes to Rick while he’s having his morning coffee, spiked with bourbon, at the local bar. Cooper’s daughter has been murdered. He barely has two nickels to rub together, but Rick feels sorry for him and takes on his case. This sets up the good guy-bad guy persona of Rick. He’s breaking fingers one minute to get guys to pay their vigorish loans to Rick’s boss, the next he’s risking life and limb so that Bill Cooper can have some closure with his daughter’s murder.

There’s also a high school sweetheart, Mary Walsh Rooney, who comes into the picture about halfway through the book, further complicating Rick’s character.


THIRSTY: You have a long career as a journalist that included time as an editor at The Wall Street Journal, the Dow Jones Newswires and as foreign correspondent. Was it difficult to shift gears as a writer of short-form journalism to create a compelling full-length detective novel?

MARK YOST: Not really, because my best training as a journalist was at the Dow Jones Newswires. That’s the wire service for The Wall Street Journal. Their bread and butter is the brief news bites that go out to the brokers and traders on Wall Street, giving them the news short and sweet.

So, for instance, when we would get an earnings release for Chase or GE, we would put out maybe 30 headlines in about 5 minutes. I think 64 characters was the limit. Twitter before anyone even thought of Twitter.

Then, we would fill out each one of those headlines with little three- or four-paragraph nuggets. When it was all done, an editor over at the Journal would take our snippets and cobble them into a story for the next day’s paper.

Writing in that staccato style was great training for the voice and tone you need to write noir. Short, tight sentences that don’t waste a word.

And, of course, I had listened for years to the dialogue of noir films. Phillip Marlow and Sam Spade talking to less-than-desirable characters in back alleys and dark barrooms.


THIRSTY: You have written about World War I on many occasions including recent columns for The Wall Street Journal. What stirred your interest in that war and what is the significance of its 100th year anniversary, especially in light of the issues occurring between Russia and the Baltic states in 2014? Are Europeans more in touch with the tragedy of World War I than Americans?

MARK YOST: World War I is definitely more important to the Europeans – especially the French and British – than it is to us. Mainly because the war was so devastating to those populations. To put it in context for Americans: If we lost the same percentage of the population in the War on Terror that the French lost in World War I, some 10 million Americans would have been killed fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Entire French villages along the front were wiped from the face of the Earth by the shelling, never to be rebuilt again. In the villages behind the front lines, many of the women never married because all the men went off to war and, in some cases, none of them came back.

My dad was a World War II historian and I knew a lot about that war. But when the Journal sent me to Brussels in the mid-1990s, I was amazed at the number of World War I cemeteries and monuments. Perhaps the most impressive is the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate in Ypres, on the French-Belgian border. Every night since 1928, an honor guard from the local fire brigade has come out and played the British military equivalent of Taps to remember the nearly 60,000 British Commonwealth troops – not just Brits, but Moroccans and Sikhs – who died in and around Ypres from 1914-18. All the traffic stops in Ypres. Some of the older people come out and stand on their stoops. The whole town goes silent. It’s really moving. In 2015, Ypres will host its 30,000th Last Post ceremony.

And, yes, many of the borders that we’re fighting over today – Iraq, Syria, the Balkans – were drawn after World War I.

THIRSTY: You have written three books on “big” sports – the NFL, NASCAR and college athletics. How do you view the climate for these big businesses going forward? Are the big scandals behind them or is another in the offing?

MARK YOST:  Somewhere along the way, college and professional sports went off the rails in this country. Especially football and men’s basketball. The Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson incidents from earlier this fall are just the tip of the iceberg. While many media pundits expressed outrage at Rice, it has long been known that the NFL has a domestic violence problem that is near epidemic.

And the biggest problem is that many of the fans tolerate it. Despite these cases, repeated over and over, we continue to by tickets to the games, revere these guys as some sort of heroes. And just accept the off-field criminal behavior for what it is.

I reviewed a college football book for the WSJ last year that, among other things, looked at a case at BYU where three football players drugged and raped a young girl. Utah brought in their most seasoned prosecutor, and she put on a tremendous case. But ultimately, the players were acquitted. The prosecutor was so devastated that she talked to some of the jurors. The prevailing attitude among the jurors was, “Those boys had been punished enough. They lost their scholarships.”

That should tell you all you need to know about the state of college and professional sports in this country.


THIRSTY: How has broadcast television and cable affected the growth and prosperity of these sports franchises? Is media in the driver’s seat because there is so much money at stake?

MARK YOST: Television is absolutely the driver of big money in college and pro sports. The NFL brings in about $10 billion a year, and more than half of it comes from television, radio and other media contracts.

The other big driver is shoe and apparel contracts with Nike, Adidas and the like. Because of greater television exposure, these companies want their logos seen. This has led to almost every big-name school in college football and men’s basketball having what’s known as an all-school contract. The shoe and apparel companies want the football and basketball teams to get their logos on the uniforms so much that they agree to supply equipment to women’s field hockey and men’s track. They can be very lucrative contracts – seven or eight figures – for schools like Penn State and USC.


THIRSTY: You have a special passion for baseball and unique baseball parks. If you were given the opportunity to play one inning, where would you do it?

MARK YOST: Since this is fantasy, I would want to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers in Ebbets Field. Brooklyn holds a special place in my heart. I haven’t lived there since the mid-1990s, before parts of it became a hipster enclave, but I still call it “home.” When I cross the Brooklyn or Verrazano Bridge, my blood pressure drops by 20 points. It is the one place in the world where I feel the most comfortable. I only wish I’d been born 20 years earlier and seen the Dodgers play there.


THIRSTY: What’s next for Mark Yost?

MARK YOST: I want to keep developing the Rick Crane character. The second book in the series, Jimmy’s Nephew, is coming out in the fall of 2014. I think it’s a really solid story and adds depth to the character of Rick Crane. And the first book was so well-received that I think it’s fair to say that people want to read more about this guy from Corning, New York.

The L.A. County Fire Museum Remembers and Inspires

Here’s my piece on the L.A. County Fire Museum in the Stay Thirsty Fall 2014 Magazine.

Go to the Stay Thirsty web site and they have some neat sound effects to go along with the story.

Kevin Woyjeck with his parents, Joe & Anna.

Kevin Woyjeck with his parents, Joe & Anna.

One of the neat things about being a firefighter is that on any given day you can see something tragic turn into something incredibly positive. Those calls where you see everyday guys do extremely courageous things, or the knock on the firehouse door that turns out to be that critically ill patient you didn’t think was going to make it despite your best efforts, just stopping by to say “Thanks.”

Turning tragedy into something positive is certainly one way to describe what has happened at the Los Angeles County Fire Museum over the past year.

The museum has long been headquartered in an old warehouse on a vacant block in Bellflower, Calif., a small neighborhood of diners, machine shops and lower middle class houses sandwiched between notorious South Central and the tonier ocean-side communities of Seal Beach and Palos Verdes. While the museum has a great working relationship but no financial support from the county, it mostly relies on small monthly donations from the nearly 4,000 L.A. County firefighters who have money taken directly out of their check. But the museum still has to rely heavily on volunteers like Joe Woyjeck and Paul Schneider, the two L.A. County fire captains who essentially run the museum, spend a lot of their off-hours cobbling together private donations, and asking some of the legendary Southern California speed shops to help them with parts, machining and chroming. The net result of all these efforts is that the museum has managed to amass one of the most impressive collections of historic fire trucks, engines, ambulances, and horse-drawn pumpers dating from the 1860s.

Kevin 2The museum has also been helped in its fundraising and publicity efforts by the fact that it is home to the vehicles used in the 1970s hit television show, “Emergency!” which chronicled the adventures of fictional L.A. County Firefighters Johnny Gage and Roy DeSoto, two firefighters who were also trained in a brand-new job called paramedic. It may have been a brand new field then, but ask any firefighter today about the number and types of calls they go on, and most will tell you that nearly 90% of them are paramedic calls.

Squad 51, the vehicle driven by Gage and DeSoto in the show, is the showpiece of the museum. It was restored some 10 years ago at a cost of about $30,000 and has been used in promotional appearances across the country, benefitting both the museum, local fire departments, and at trade shows. The museum is also home to the 1965 Crown pumper that was the last open-topped engine in service in L.A. County and the fictional Engine 51 for the first two seasons of the show. The Engine 51 used in other seasons is a 1972 Ward LaFrance. After starring in “Emergency!” it went into service in Yosemite National Park. It came to the museum in August 2008 and was recently fully restored.

You’d think that with such an impressive collection of vehicles, and the rich heritage of the Southern California car culture, the museum would see donations rolling in. But that hasn’t always been the case. A year ago that slowly started to change.

That’s when Joe Woyjeck’s son, Kevin, was killed, along with 18 of his fellow Granite Mountain Hotshots, in the infamous Yarnell Fire outside Prescott, Arizona, that made national headlines. But out of that tragedy came something incredibly moving and uplifting.

The Woyjecks – Joe, his wife Anna, daughter Maddie, and son Bobby – have created The Kevin Woyjeck Explorers For Life Association, Inc., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to remembering Kevin and his fellow firefighters. More than just remember them, the association raises money to provide training and equipment to fire explorers – sort of the boy scouts of firefighting – who want to become full-time firefighters.

“As a fire captain I looked forward to the day I got to pin a Los Angeles County Firefighter badge on him,” Joe said of Kevin shortly after he was killed. “Now I have to bury him.”

But here’s the part where the tragedy of Kevin’s death turned into a positive for the Los Angeles County Fire Museum. In addition to raising money for explorer training through the Kevin Woyjeck foundation, his high-profile death has also raised the profile of the museum. The museum’s first annual charity golf event in Palm Desert in April was a huge success.

“It was not only a great way to raise money for our museum, but to get together, tell some great stories about the fire service that we love so much, and spend some much-needed time away from the firehouse,” Joe Woyjeck said.

And following Kevin’s death, Joe Woyjeck and the other museum execs have taken to knocking on more doors. As a result, the museum has raised some $700,000 to build a new, permanent home. The museum will be responsible for raising about $1.5 million of the estimated $7.5 million and partner with the city of Bellflower to create an event center that will also be home to the fire museum. There is still much to do, but if you asked Joe Woyjeck, he’d tell you that the dream of a permanent Los Angeles County Fire Museum is closer than ever.

In the meantime, he hasn’t lost sight of what he wants Kevin’s legacy to be. On Sept. 5, 2014, what would have been Kevin’s 23rd birthday, the foundation hosted a fishing fundraiser with all of the proceeds going to the Explorers for Life charity.

“Many of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crew members dreamed of lifelong careers in the fire service,” Joe Woyjeck said. “The goal of the association is to honor the crew, the Explorers, where many of them got their start, and to augment the existing funding for training and education for the benefit of these young men and women.”

Amen, Joe.

They’re Grown Men

I’ve often made the point — here and in The Wall Street Journal — that many pro sports fans seem to care more about what their team did this week than the national debt, the spread of Ebola, or air strikes against a jihadist band of thugs stuck in the 4th century who want to do everything they can to destroy the 21st century. Remember, “fan” is short for “fanatic.”

Phil Mushnick had a great column in Friday’s New York Post that looked at the SEC. Yes, there were times I laughed out loud. But at the end, I really wanted to cry.

The Twilight Zone. Chiller Theater. Tales From The Crypt. Outer Limits. The Paul Finebaum Show.
The Paul Finebaum Show is, by far, the most frightening.

Finebaum, as the Southern-accented, bald, bespectacled, professorial-appearing and impossibly unflappable 60-year-old host, seems to stir the spooky breeze.

The show appears from a no-frills set — a stark laboratory — in service to his specialty: The Southeastern Conference. It appears weekday afternoons on the new SEC Network, the latest unholy moneyed alliance between big-time, big-crime college sports and ESPN.

The fright arrives when Finebaum takes calls. They’re mostly from adults who seem to care more about SEC football — especially “their team” — than any reasonably well-adjusted, able-to-operate-a-phone adult should.

Callers are often heard as raging lunatics whose welfare, carotid artery flow and brain function are predicated on the weekly results of games played by 20-year-olds. Many know much more than enough. After all, why did the kid choose Ole Miss when he could have started as a freshman corner for LSU?

The legions of deep-fried, loosely wired college football fans are like that second Ray Rice video. It’s one thing to know they exist; it’s another to actually hear them. Daily.

They live and die, laugh and cry, drive or fly SEC football. They rage, they hate; they can’t assimilate. They’re frustrated, depressed and occasionally so overjoyed — a loss by an illogically despised rival will do it — that they scare you. Maybe they’re using their one call from prison.

Consider it was to Finebaum, on his syndicated radio show in 2011, that the Alabama fan who poisoned to death the two historic Toomer’s Corner oak trees on Auburn’s campus, confessed.

Harvey Updyke, in his mid 60s, was soon arrested and sentenced to a minimum of six months and ordered to pay a hefty fine.

Those callers, yikes! All the SEC teams, except theirs, are corrupt. All SEC teams recruit young criminals, except theirs. Their team? It clearly sees the social benefits of giving a gone-astray young man “a second chance.”

But the kid who fumbled near the goal line? He never should have been given a first chance!

After a loss, their team’s coach should be fired then hung in effigy — Effigy, Kentucky. They think of Auburn, Florida and Alabama not as colleges — fat chance — but as football teams and religious denominations due all-week worship, but, because you can’t win ’em all, also worthy of condemnation to Hades!

Who should be ’Bama’s starting quarterback, Blake Sims or Jake Coker? If only the Treaty of Versailles had undergone that kind of inspection and endless, enflamed debate.

And Finebaum calmly listens and calmly answers. He doesn’t blink, wince or even shift in his seat to display discomfort. Clearly, he’s not surprised by — and seems to expect — a string of callers who sound on the verge of committing “lunacide.” He seems to understand. He would make a superb 911 operator. Or a funeral director. But then we would miss him.

One day, perhaps, Finebaum will mess with his professional function and ask such callers for their age, occupation, whether they have kids and why an adult would worry himself sick, angry and on the precipice of clinical delirium — over games played by 20-year-olds.

Well done, Mush.

The Great Galveston Island Art Caper — Part II

badgeI’m writing a new noir serial, “The Galveston Island Art Caper,” for Galveston Monthly Magazine.

Part I ran in the September edition of the monthly Texas Gulf Coast magazine. Part II has just posted.

I’ll wrap up most of it with the third installment in the November edition, then write a short, 500-word epilogue for December.

A new serial will start in January.

Here are the first two installements.

The Galveston Island Art Caper:

An Eddie Montrose Mystery

By Mark Yost

Tuesday, Aug. 12

11:30 a.m.

I’d been coming to Murphy’s Irish Pub, just off the Strand, for about a year. I like it because it’s mostly a locals’ hang out. Sure, you get a handful of tourists on the weekend, but they’re the kind of tourists you can tolerate. The kind that walk past the t-shirt shops and fudge stores and fancy boutiques, look at a place like Murphy’s, and say, “Let’s go in here.”

I also liked to come here because they have trivia on Monday nights. I like to work my brain, as well as my elbow, when I drink.

But this was the first time I’d come here and there’s been crime scene tape strung across the front. Cop cars? Yes. But never crime scene tape.

“What’s going on?” I asked Dave, one of the day bartenders.

“They found Phil, dead out back.”

It took my brain a second to catch up.

“You mean homeless Phil?”

“Yeah,” Dave said. “Who’d wanna kill him?”

Good question. I recognized one of the cops working the scene.

“What’s up, Joe?”

“Homicide, Montrose,” he said. “Right up your alley.”

“Yeah, especially since the vic was found in an alley.”

“Good point,” he said, immediately recognizing my cop’s humor.

“Problem here, Sarge?” one of the other cops asked.

“No, Rodriguez” Joe said, more annoyed than grateful that a rookie would be asking if he needed help.

“Let me introduce you to Eddie Montrose,” Joe said by way of introduction. “HPD Homicide.”

Retired HPD Homicide,” I quickly interjected as I stuck out my hand. “Live here now.”

“He thinks he’s an islander,” Joe said. “It told him he doesn’t have enough time in grade yet.”

“How long you been here…umm…umm,” Rodriguez struggled with my rank.

“Lieutenant,” I said. “But you can just call me Eddie. And I’ve been here about 18 months, but I used to come down here whenever I could. It used to be my getaway from the city. Now it’s my home.”

“Montrose thinks that because he doesn’t like leaving the island, it makes him a local,” Joe said.

It was true. I’d heard people talk about it when I lived and worked in Houston. The fact that year-round residents don’t like to leave the island…for anything. Before, I thought it was just an interesting quirk. But the more I lived here, the more I understood it.

There was something about crossing the causeway. I’d felt it somewhat when I’d come down here for long weekends when I was still living and working in Houston.

My blood pressure would drop.

I wouldn’t drive as fast.

I’d roll down the windows in the car even if it was 50, which to islanders is like -10 to people in Chicago and Minneapolis.

Now, I hated leaving the island. And in my book, that made me an islander. I don’t care what Joe said.

I’d retired after 30 years on the force, having worked some of the worst neighborhoods in Houston. When I was younger, one of the older detectives who broke me in warned me about homicide.

“There’s things you’ll see that you can’t unsee,” he said.

But what did I know. I was 25, just out of the academy and a few years out of the Marines. I thought I knew it all. Twenty-five years later, I realized I didn’t. But I had no regrets.

Well…maybe one. Like a lot of cops, I was divorced. Spent too many nights away from home and wasn’t really there when I was. I didn’t blame Michelle for leaving. But the trouble was, I still loved her.

I have one son. Trumpet player in one of the bars on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Not sure what he’s going to do with the rest of his life. I don’t think he knows either. But he doesn’t ask me for money – anymore – so it’s just fine with me.

Other than that, it’s just me.

To keep myself busy, I bought a little fixer upper near Postoffice and 10th. Just far enough away from the beach to keep the tourists from asking me where to eat and the local kids from pissing in my rose bushes.

The house was actually a double shotgun. I renovated the side I didn’t plan to live in myself first and rented it to a nice, young girl from Austin who was studying nuclear medicine at the medical center. That was the other benefit to this location. I knew I could rent the other side of the house to people like her instead of the beach kids.

You know the kind.

Move down here after dropping out of school. Work just enough to keep themselves in beer and weed. Always behind on the rent.

No thanks.

“So, what do you know so far?”

“Can’t get it out of your blood, huh?” Joe said, ignoring my question.

“Something like that.”

“Not much,” Joe said. “One of the hotel shuttle van drivers found him early this morning. Was going into work and saw something in the alley. When he realized what it was, he called 9-1-1. The forensics guys just got here. For what, I don’t know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come on, Eddie,” he said, calling me by my first name for the first time. “We’re gonna spend like 10 minutes on this and it’s going to go into the unsolved file, where it’ll stay until Kingdom Come. Nobody gave a hoot about this guy when he was alive, and nobody’s gonna care now that he’s dead.”

I hated to admit it, but Joe was right. Even when it comes to solving crimes, money buys results. If this had been one of the wealthy oil and gas execs who’d retired here, or one of the art gallery owners, Galveston P.D. would be all over this. But a homeless guy? He’ll get toe tagged, there’ll be a quick autopsy, and then the city and county will fight over who pays to cremate him. Sad, but true.

Joe could see that my wheels were turning.

“What?” he asked. “You gonna come out of retirement for this? You gonna put your shield back on for Phil?”

“Nah,” I said.

But in my head, I was really saying “Maybe…”

The only thing I was sure of was the fact that I wasn’t getting a drink at Murphy’s. Not today.

So I got in my truck – a beat-up Chevy S-10 I’d picked up used and gotten into shape – and headed over to the Gumbo Diner on the Seawall for a Seafood Po Boy and a cup of gumbo. After that, I swung by the house, checked the mail, slipped into a pair of ratty shorts and my beach shoes.

(Unlike the tourists, who ruin their regular shoes on the beach because the car is overloaded with other crap they don’t need, we islanders have shoes we just wear on the beach. I should have added that into my argument to Joe that I’m an islander. “I got beach shoes.” Maybe that would have convinced him.)

Then I grabbed my fishing pole and hopped on my beach cruiser. I pretty much only use it to go fishing, so I have my small tackle box with my shore lures and rigs strapped onto the back with a few bungee cords. I rode up to Seawall, out past Apffel Park to the South Jetty. I wanted to clear my head and think about this case. And there was only one place to do that. Besides, the winds had shifted and I heard that the redfish and sheepshead are running.

After two hours of catching about all the fish I could eat in the next week or so, I decided, “What the hell. What else do I have to do?”


Wednesday, Aug. 13

10:00 a.m.

After fixing breakfast at home and taking care of a few things around the house, I went back down to the Strand and started to ask around about Phil. A good place to start was the House of Spirits, a dive bar at the south end of the Strand that was even too rough for the bikers that came in on the weekends. But this time of the morning, most of the regulars were still fairly sober.

When I walked in, there were just two scruffy-looking guys sitting at the bar. About average for the clientele in this place.

I recognized them as part of the regular panhandlers around town. Some days they’d work the Strand, other days they’d work the Seawall. Most people who saw them on the street – myself included – would probably guess that they were homeless. But for all I knew, they may have owned one of the old mansions on Broadway.

Like most people, I’ve always wondered about these guys (and girls). One of the beat cops in my old station house told me that if they hustle, they can make $200 a day, tax-free. That’s $4,000 a month, working five days a week. Not bad. Especially if you and three of your buddies are living together and pooling your money. Then again, maybe they weren’t that ambitious. Maybe they begged for just what they needed and spent most nights sleeping on the beach or behind a dumpster somewhere.

“What do you want, cop?” one of them said shortly after I walked in and ordered a draft.

“It’s that obvious, huh?” I asked with a laugh. “I’m actually retired. Houston P.D. Live down here now.”

“And…??” the other one asked.

“And what can you tell me about Phil?”

“Crazy Phil?”

“Is that what some people called him?”

“Yeah,” the first drunk said. “Those that crossed him.”

“What about you two? You ever cross him?”

“We don’t want no trouble,” the other one said. “Just trying to scratch out a living here in paradise.”

“Good luck…” I said as I knocked back the rest of my beer and walked out.

They clearly weren’t going to be any help. In fact, most people either didn’t want to get involved or had nothing to say. That’s how it went most of the rest of the morning as I made my way up the Strand, stopping into the shops to ask the locals what they knew about a guy that everyone knew, but no one seemed to care about.

I got my first break in the case in the alley behind the Lunchbox Café. One of the bus boys, Miguel, was out back emptying the garbage.

“Sure, I know Phil,” he said.

“What can you tell me about him?”

“He was one of the quiet ones,” Miguel said, speaking about Phil in the past tense.

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well, a lot of times when I come out here they’re waiting to sift through the garbage.  Phil was never like that.”

“Hmm…” I said. “I’ve heard from a few people he had a temper.”

“Yeah…” Miguel said. “When they hassled him. Otherwise, he was pretty chill.”

“Did you remember anyone in particular hassling him?”

“No, not really. It’s busy here, especially in the summer. I come out, dump the trash and go back inside.”

“Thanks, Miguel.”

I walked back down the alley and back out onto the Strand. I had a few other places to check when Miguel saw me walk by the front of the Lunchbox.

“Senor,” he said, calling to me from the front of the café. “I just thought of something. You should go speak to Sister Martha Marie, over at the food pantry. I remember Phil telling me that she was the only person who was ever nice to him.”

“Thanks, Miguel,” I said. “I’ll do that.”


Thursday, Aug. 14

6 p.m.

I left the Strand and drove over to the food pantry behind Holy Family. It was closed, but a guy mowing the lawn told me they opened at six every night.

So I went home, made some lunch, then hopped in my truck and drove down the coast road to Surfside. Technically, it’s off the island, but I like going there anyway.

Surfside Beach is a little town about 20 miles west of Galveston. Mostly just beach shacks and dive bars. Sometimes I go a little further down the coast, across the inlet, and fish in Quintana. It’s even more rundown and remote than Surfside. Mainly because there’s some sort of petrochemical processing plant just inland from the beach. But I’ve never glowed in the dark and the fish sometimes run better over there than they do at Surfside.

Also, you can drive on the beach over in Quintana. I have a favorite spot I like to go to, park on the beach, set up my chair, break out a cooler full of beer, and just listen to the waves.

About 7 every night, I pull out my little portable radio and listen to the Astros games – even if they are mostly losing. My son makes fun of my beat-up radio. Tells me I should get an iPod. Clearly he doesn’t get it.

I packed up in the sixth inning. The Astros were winning 4-1. I stopped to wet my whistle at Sharkies and watch the last three innings on TV.

I was on my third bourbon when I heard a commotion in the back. I walked past the pool table and the hallway that leads to the bathrooms and stepped into the doorway to the patio deck that most no one knows about unless they come here regularly. One of the girls I’d half noticed playing pool earlier was pinned down on top of one of the tables on the deck by some bikers that were already at the bar and well-oiled by the time I got here.

Two of the bikers held down her arms while the third one was struggling to unbutton her tight-fitting cut-off shorts. The girl was putting up a pretty good fight, but it was clear that she was going to eventually lose.

“Get off her,” I said as I stepped through the doorway.

The two guys holding her arms looked up and froze. The guy struggling on top of her just looked over his shoulder. He kept his hand on her midsection and leaned into her to keep her pinned down.

“I’d turn around and walk away if I were you, old man,” he said with a sneer.

“I might have done that,” I said, “but then you had to call me ‘old man.’”

“Then I guess you’re gonna get your ass kicked,” he said.

He turned around and took two steps toward me before I pulled my snub-nosed .38 out of my belt and put one in his thigh. He fell to the splintered wooden deck with a thud, the sound of the gunshot still echoing in the air, and began to cry like a baby.

“You shot me!” he managed to blurt out.

“Yeah…I’m too old to fight.”

It was 1:30 a.m. by the time I got finished with the cops and drove back to my place.

The light was on in the apartment next door. That meant one thing: Sheri, my tenant, was  up late studying.

“You’re coming home late, Eddie,” she said as I got out of the truck and she stepped into the porch light.

“Out fishing,” I said.

“I was hoping you were out with that woman you like who works over at MOD Coffee.”

Sheri’d lived here for two years and for a year-and-a-half she’d been trying to fix me up. We’d occasionally go to coffee together. It didn’t take her long to figure out I liked the day manager over at MOD, one of our local coffee shops.

“I’m going to bed,” was all I said.

And that’s exactly what I did. I slept in until 9 – which was late for me – and then spent most of the day running errands and doing work around the house.

I went over Holy Family about 7. I figured by then the line at the food pantry would be down and Sister Martha Marie would have time to talk.

“I’d heard about what had happened to Phillip,” she said after I introduced myself, told her I was a retired cop living here on the island, and I was looking into a case I knew the cops never would. “What a tragedy.”

“You’re one of the few people I’ve heard call him something other than ‘Crazy Phil,’” I said.

“He wasn’t crazy,” she said, her sadness visible on her face. “He was just lost.”

“How do you know that?”

“He sometimes helped me out around here,” she said, still struggling with the fact that she was talking about Phil in the past tense. “With the food pantry and other chores around the rectory. I’d give him a little bit of money, let him take a shower in the rectory.”

“What did you know about him?”

“Not much,” she said. “He didn’t like to talk about himself. But it was obvious to me that he was educated.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“One day, I asked him to help me move some furniture in the rectory,” she said. “Cardinal DiNardo has two Albrecht Durer reproductions hanging on the wall outside his office. ‘The Carrying of the Cross’ and ‘Praying Hands.’ Phillip immediately recognized both of them and pointed out lines and technique that I never learned in my art history class at Sacred Heart.”

“Anything else?”

“He doodled,” she said.


“One day, after he’d helped me around here, he was sitting at one of the tables in the pantry doodling on some papers that had been left there. It was quite good.”


“I signed him up for a class at the Galveston Art League,” she said. “I thought it might be therapeutic for him.”

“Do you mind if I ask you something?”

“Of course not,” she said.

“How did you become a nun?”

I could tell by the look on her face that it was a question she’d been asked before. She was gorgeous. Not in a runway model sort of way, but like the girl-next-door. Like my tenant Sheri.

Beautiful skin.

Gorgeous eyes.

And a smile that lit up the room.

I was almost embarrassed for noticing.

“It’s a long story,” she said. “But thank you for asking.”

“I’ll let you know what I find out about Phil,” I said.

“I would really appreciate that,” she said as a single tear dripped out of the corner of her left eye and trickled down her full, rosy cheek.

I turned around as I started to leave.

“By the way,” I asked. “How’d he do in the class.”

“Not well,” she said. “He came to one session and then never showed up again.”

“Thanks, sister.”

“No, Edward,” she said, making her the first woman to call me “Edward” since my mother. “Thank you.”

I went out back and got in my truck. As I backed out, I saw Sister Martha Marie come out of the pantry. I leaned over and rolled down the passenger window. I hate power doors and locks. Something my dad taught me.

“Just one other thing to break,” he used to say.

“What is it, sister?”

“Maybe you should go talk to Jeannette Miller over at the Art League,” she said. “I remember she called me when Phillip didn’t show up again. But she said he had talent.”

“Thanks, sister.”


Friday, Aug. 15

7:30 p.m.

I got lucky.

The Galveston Art League was having an open house this evening. So I dug a nice pair of slacks, a shirt and a jacket out of my closet.

I stopped off at Medicinal Purposes, another one of my regular hangouts, for a few drinks before I went over to rub elbows with a segment of Galveston society that was probably the least familiar to me. I was more comfortable in the tattered shorts and fishing pole crowd. But I’d learned that the guy up the jetty from you, in the car that wasn’t quite as nice as yours and the tackle box that wasn’t nearly as full, could be a former CEO worth eight figures. Galveston’s that kind of place. It’s one of the things I liked about it.

The reception was actually at the Water’s Edge Studio, one of the smaller studios away from the main art district. I walked in and hoped that the stunning red head in the middle of the room was Jeannette Miller.

As I tried to make my way toward her through more hot pink, lime green and banana yellow clothes than I’d ever seen in one place in my life, I was intercepted by a white-jacketed waiter with a tray of wine.

“Drink, sir?”

“Sure,” I said, grabbing a glass of the closest thing to me.

“There’s really some wonderful artists here on the island doing fabulous work,” she was saying as I walked up to the little circle around her. “I don’t know what those people up in the Heights think they have over us.”

“Crime,” I said.

That got her attention. And, yes, the stunning redhead turned out to be Jeannette Miller.

Up close, I realized she wasn’t really a redhead. Her hair was actually more of a brown with a red tint to it. Maybe it was just like that in the summer.

She had a gorgeous figure.



Her tight-fitting, sleeveless, summer-print dress showed off sculpted yet feminine biceps, a flat stomach, and powerful thighs. I guessed she ran or played a lot of tennis. I was trying not to stare, but got caught.

“What’s that you were saying?” she asked me a second time.

“They have more crime up in the Heights,” I said.

“Yes, I suppose they do,” she said, looking me up and down.

“No,” I said. “They do. I used to be a cop up there.”

“Really,” she said, showing enough interest that the little crowd that had been gathered around her slowly started to break up.

“Yeah,” I said. “But I’m retired now. Live down here.”

“What do you do down here?” she asked.

“Right now,” I said. “I’m looking into the death of one of your former students.”

“Which one?”

I told her about Phil, my meeting with Sister Martha Marie.

“He definitely had talent,” she said. “So much so that I went looking for him.”

“Looking for him?”

“I’m known for taking an interest in lost causes,” she said.

“That’s good news for me.”

“Maybe it is,” she said.

“So what did you find out?”

“How about if I tell you over drinks when this breaks up?”


“The Black Pearl,” she said. “We’ll talk over a plate of oysters and see where that leads.”

“I’ll be there.”

Will the Real Calamity Jane Please Stand Up

Here’s my latest in The Wall Street Journal, a review of “The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane,” which does much to separate fact from fiction.

CalamityOn Aug. 2, 1903, a day after she died in faraway Terry, S.D., Calamity Jane’s obituary appeared in the New York Times. The subhead described her as a “Woman Who Became Famous as an Indian Fighter” and as someone who had “Served with Gens. Custer and Miles.” The article went on to explain how Calamity Jane had been a leading U.S. Cavalry scout, a mail carrier through hostile Indian territory and the woman who had been present when the card cheat Jack McCall, in 1876, shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head in a saloon in Deadwood, S.D.—after which she had single-handedly used a meat cleaver to capture him.

Most of these claims were untrue, but the Times wasn’t alone: Newspapers across the country repeated as fact the bravura stories that had come to make up the legend of Calamity Jane, many of which had first been recited by Calamity herself.

Her real name was, improbably, Martha Canary. She was a farm girl from Princeton, Mo., whose parents chased the Gold Rush to Utah in the 1860s. After being orphaned in her early teens and drifting from one mining camp and boomtown to another, she began to tell tall tales to anyone who would listen, including the dime novelists of the 1870s and ’80s whose job it was to feed heart-quickening copy about the Wild West—true or not—to Eastern readers.

Calamity’s improvised life story was codified in the mid-1890s in a ghostwritten autobiography, really a piece of publicity that was prepared ahead of her cross-country tour with the Kohl & Middleton Wild West Show. An extended appearance at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., thrust her further into the national psyche and ensured that her legend would live on.

In “The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane,” Richard W. Etulain, a former director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for the American West, conscientiously and engagingly tries to separate fact from fiction. After poring through census records, newspaper stories, diaries and eyewitness accounts, he concludes that Calamity Jane’s autobiography “wilded up her life” by taking liberties with the facts. “Her claims of having served as George Custer’s scout in Arizona in 1870 and 1871, at the age of fourteen and fifteen,” he writes, “are a bald falsehood since Custer was not in the Southwest during this period.”

Mr. Etulain also dismisses her “brags” of later being with Gens. Custer and Nelson Miles, because they were not involved in the Indian outbreak during which she claimed to have ridden alongside them. Even the origins of her name are suspect. In her autobiography, she said that she became Calamity Jane when she saved “Capt. Egan” from an attack by Nez Perce Indians during an expedition to the Black Hills in 1875. In gratitude, Egan had supposedly declared: “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” But the dates and details don’t match with what we know of the attack. Besides, as Mr. Etulain reports, Egan later said that “there was not an iota of truth in Calamity’s tale.”

It is true that she was on the Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition in 1876—one of many Army efforts to corral Indian tribes onto reservations—but in what capacity is uncertain. Her true role is “hazy,” Mr. Etulain politely notes. “During this march,” she had claimed in her autobiography, “I swam the Platte river at Fort Fetterman as I was the bearer of important dispatches. I had a ninety mile ride to make, wet and cold. I contracted a severe illness and was sent back in Gen. Crook’s ambulance to Fort Fetterman where I laid in the hospital for fourteen days.” Mr. Etulain can’t find any evidence for such details and concludes that she joined the expedition not as a scout but probably “as a teamster or bullwhacker, or even as a camp follower or prostitute.”

As for the events in Deadwood in 1876, Calamity did arrive there with Wild Bill Hickok after she had been foisted on him by Army officials in Wyoming. They had found her, Mr. Etulain writes, “in drunken and nearly naked circumstances.” Hickok was reluctant to take her along on his travels—a venture into the Blacks Hills consisting of “a half-dozen stout wagons pack with supplies, and containing enthusiastic men overflowing with hope-for possibilities.” But one of Hickok’s partners on the trip agreed to “look after her.”

As it happens, Calamity knew Hickok for only five weeks, though popularizers, Mr. Etulain notes, have portrayed the two of them as a couple in biographies, novels and movies. Contrary to the Times obituary, “Calamity was most assuredly not with Hickok on the fateful day of 2 August 1876,” when he was killed by McCall in the Deadwood saloon. Still, she transformed her nonexistent role into one of her greatest deeds: “I at once started to look for the assassian [sic] and found him at Shurdy’s butcher shop and grabbed a meat cleaver and made him throw up his hands.” McCall did flee to a butcher shop but was cornered by other gamblers and surrendered.

Even as Mr. Etulain dismisses Calamity’s tales of derring-do, he uncovers a feminine aspect to her nature lurking beneath the manly ranch-hand attire. He recounts a story about her and William “Billie” Lull, the manager of the Porter Hotel in Deadwood, who nursed her back from a near-death bout of mountain fever. When he left Deadwood to go back east, Lull wrote years later, “for the first time in her life there was a Tear in her Eyes as she bid me goodbye.” The Lull-Calamity friendship, Mr. Etulain writes, “provides intimate glimpses of Calamity missing in most accounts.” Mr. Etulain’s excellent book is a reminder that history can be a version of myth—in this case, a harmless and entertaining myth that we may be reluctant to give up.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago. His latest book is the e-book novel “Cooper’s Daughter: A Rick Crane Noir.”

Clearing Out Stock for ‘Jimmy’s Nephew’

Jimmy's NephewMy great publisher, Stay Thirsty Press in Chicago, is having a one-day giveaway of my best-selling noir thriller, “Cooper’s Daughter,” today.

We’re clearing out the stock room to make room for “Jimmy’s Nephew,” the second book in the Rick Crane Noir Series.

Here’s a blurb from  the new book, due out in October:

I looked down at the olive-green metal trashcan in the far corner and laughed out of the corner of my mouth. Before I could look up again, Lt. Swift had crossed the six feet separating him from me and delivered a hard right across my jaw. For a few seconds, I thought I might pass out.

“That one’s gonna leave a mark, Swifty,” I said after shaking off the punch. “Too bad. Up until now, your technique’s been pretty good.”

I didn’t know if his friends called him “Swifty,” but what else would you call a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, freckled Irish cop named Sean Swift? Besides, I was pretty sure they weren’t too worried about leaving evidence of the good old-fashioned interrogation-room beating they were giving me.

 “I told you guys,” I said, giving Swifty a look that told him he hadn’t broken me yet.  “You got this all wrong.”

 It was a line they’d heard a thousand times. Adding to my troubles, I wasn’t some run-of-the-mill perp they’d picked up from a bar fight or a DWI they’d nabbed driving home from the local Kiwanis Club.

I was the lead suspect in the biggest case these two had ever had drop in their laps.

The murder of a priest.

And not just any priest.

The bishop of the Diocese of Rochester, one of the biggest Catholic communities in Upstate New York.

And right now, the best suspect they had was me.

Rick Crane.

Local private investigator with shady connections to Jimmy Ricchiati, one of Upstate New York’s biggest mob bosses.

Whether I did it or not, they were gonna make this one stick. 

“Yeah…” Swifty said, leaning over to remind me who was in charge. “How do we have it all wrong, tough guy?”

I wasn’t going to tell them.

Not now.

Not without my lawyer.

But they did have the wrong man.

The Facts of Oklahoma City

My WSJ review of the expanded and renovated Oklahoma City Memorial and Museum, a site and event often overshadowed by 9/11.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, New York’s World Trade Center has been ground zero for terror-attack remembrances in the U.S. (with the Pentagon and Shanksville, Pa., a distant second and third). That’s understandable. But one of the unintended consequences of the 9/11 focus has been the marginalization of the site of America’s other major terrorist attack: Oklahoma City in 1995.

OKCThat may be about to change. The Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum has reopened after an extensive $8 million refurbishing and expansion that includes 19 new interactive stations and 1,100 additional artifacts, including never-before-seen forensic evidence released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Nine of the 12 galleries are now open, with the other three slated to open by December, just ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attack.

You may recall that on April 19, 1995, two antigovernment extremists, Timothy McVeigh and accomplice, Terry Nichols, successfully detonated a 4,000-pound fertilizer bomb hidden in a Ryder rental truck parked outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The museum and memorial are now on that site.

Museums often begin their exhibitions by providing historical background, but this one is unflinching in taking visitors immediately back to the scene of the crime. The primary image in the first gallery is an 8-by-8-foot grainy photograph of the yellow rental truck that contained the bomb. The time stamp in the lower-right corner reads “04-19-95, 08:56:56,” about five minutes before the crude explosive detonated, killing 168 people, including 19 children. The photograph, taken by a security camera at the Regency Tower, is mounted next to a window that looks out on the apartment building, still there, connecting today’s visitors to that fateful day.

Photos, panels and interactive maps explain that the Murrah building housed 17 federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Customs Service, and a Marine Corps recruiting office. On the second floor was a day-care center where, one panel chillingly tells us, cribs lined the windows on the side of the building where the bomb went off. Across the street was the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, which was holding a routine hearing that produced the only known recording of the bombing.

Visitors are ushered into a reconstruction of the hearing room, the doors are closed, and the tape begins. After visitors hear about 30 seconds of routine business, an explosion is heard in the background of the tape. The lights in the mock hearing room flicker, and the wall in front of the hearing table lights up with portraits of the victims. On the tape, we hear people screaming as they evacuate the hearing room. Then a door opens, directing us into the next exhibit space, which the museum calls “Chaos.”

A video of early local-news coverage plays while visitors make their way through a room strewn with debris. Actual ductwork from the Murrah building, chipped and scarred, hangs just overhead. Wide columns are covered with images from that day. Glass display cases hold some of the personal items recovered at the scene. When visitors first look at the glass, there are images of the bombing scene. Then the images fade and the glass is clear, showing recovered artifacts. For instance, a glass panel initially shows the bombed-out parking garage across from the Murrah building. When the image disappears, we see dinged up and dirty car keys found in the rubble. A larger display case reveals a banged up desk and twisted filing cabinet with charred file folders. It’s all done very well, and gives visitors some sense of what it must have been like to be there.

The Gallery of Honor is a sparse room with a sweeping concave wall filled with 168 neatly aligned shadow boxes—one for each victim. Every box has a photo of the victim, and most have small mementos chosen by family members. Those displays with no mementos were purposefully left empty by the family, museum officials said, symbolizing the loss.

The children’s memorials are the most moving. Zachary Taylor Chavez, 3, is seen in a birthday photo along with some Lion King toys. Eighteen-month-old Blake Ryan Kennedy’s box has just one tiny sneaker. A panel in the room explains that 30 children were made orphans that day, while 219 kids lost at least one parent.

The Survivor gallery catalogs just that, with photos and quotes of office workers who survived and helped their injured colleagues. One of the most incredible stories told here is that of Florence Rogers, president of the Federal Employees Credit Union. She was holding her weekly staff meeting when the bomb went off. She was unharmed, but the other eight people in the room “just disappeared” when the building was sheared in half by the explosion and the floor collapsed under them. Her dress, looking like she just bought it, is on display.

The brand-new Trail of Evidence gallery details the police work that began almost as soon as the dust cleared. The museum has the truck axle housing that was the first major clue in helping the FBI track down the perpetrators. It landed 575 feet away. That wasn’t uncommon; parts of cars and buildings were blow so far away by the blast that it initially made it harder for investigators to determine which debris was from, say, the truck with the bomb and which was from cars belonging to workers. Police eventually cordoned off 20 blocks to look for clues, including some that were embedded in the sides of nearby buildings.

All of this is well organized and, most important, presented in a way as to not make McVeigh and Mr. Nichols the focus of the exhibit. There is also little sentimentality or sensationalism, just the facts, which makes the exhibit even more powerful. Yes, much of the evidence used to convict McVeigh and Mr. Nichols is here, including personal items such as the 1977 Mercury Grand Marquis McVeigh was driving when he was pulled over about an hour after the bombing near Perry, Okla. The museum also has the plastic fertilizer barrel found in Mr. Nichols’s barn, along with fragments of the barrel that held the fertilizer for the bomb.

Near the end, large touch screens allow visitors to trace the entire criminal case—from the Dreamland Motel just outside Junction City, Kan., where the truck was rented and the details of the plot finalized, to the trial that ultimately sentenced McVeigh to death (he was executed in 2001)and Mr. Nichols to life in prison. Images of their fingerprints appear alongside each piece of evidence that directly connected them to the crime.

But the clear focus of the exhibits is on the victims and the aftermath. As it should be.

Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago.

Sponsors: The Only Ones Who Can Change the NFL

I’ll be on The Roy Green Show at 2:45 CDT on Saturday, Sept. 20, talking about the scandals roiling the NFL.

Unfortunately, this is not an unusual week in college and pro sports. Assaults and run-ins with the law happen weekly. The only difference is the media spotlight that’s been focused on Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and a few other players.
This will blow over.
The NFL is doing all the necessary — not right, but necessary — things to get the press corps to move onto something else.
Hiring female advisors.
Having a former FBI director investigate, etc.
The one red flag is this (and it’s minor): Sponsors. That is what will really get the NFL’s attention. If sponsors start to get nervous.
Varsity GreenBut the sponsors are — so far — dropping individual athletes, not the NFL. In fact, the sponsors need the NFL more than the NFL needs the sponsors. It is the biggest audience, delivering the most important demographic. Sponsors want this to blow over as much as the NFL does.
And, of course, all this starts when these kids are just 10 years old, playing in “youth” leagues that even then are sponsored by Nike and Adidas. They’re told to foresake academics for athletics, often by their parents. They get special treatement in college. “Tutors” who really write the papers and take the exams for them.
Special dorms, special food.
And then when they get millions of dollars, after a lifetime of never being told “No,” we wonder why they turn into monsters.
Roy and I will discuss. Tune in on the Corus Radio Network in Canada, or on the Internet.

‘Cooper’s Daughter’ on WGN Radio

My publisher, Dusty Sang of Chicago’s Stay Thirsty, was interviewed recently on WGN Radio.

He was nice enough to mention “Cooper’s Daughter: A Rick Crane Noir.”

But more important than that, you’ll get a sense of what a really interesting guy he is. And why I’m lucky to be doing business with him. He’s been a great editor, a great mentor, and done much to make me a better novelist.

Check it out.

Remembering Ed Beyea

This is a piece I originally wrote for the St. Paul Pioneer Press back in 2006. 

I reprint it here every Sept. 11 to remember Ed Beyea, and everyone who was there on Sept. 11, 2001.

Shortly after I joined the Lake Elmo (Minn.) Fire Department, Chief Greg Malmquist
asked me if I’d think about writing a piece for the local paper about my

“You’re a writer,” he said. “Maybe you can help us with

It’s been a year and I’ve been through Firefighter I and II and Hazardous
Materials Operations, and took the extra step of getting my EMT
certification (most volunteer fire departments require only First
Responder). After all that, I was still struggling with what to write. Then
on June 20, a letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal caught my

Ed BeyeaIt was written by Michael Burke of the Bronx. His brother, FDNY Capt. Billy
Burke of Engine Co. 21, was inside Tower 1 of the World Trade Center when it
came crashing down on Sept. 11, 2001. Why was Billy Burke there, even though
the order to evacuate had been given and most who weren’t trapped on the top
floors had already escaped? Because he refused to leave the side of Ed
Beyea, a quadriplegic trapped on the 27th floor. I grew up with Ed Beyea in
New York and know all too well how he died that morning.

Ed was paralyzed in a swimming pool accident three years after he graduated
from high school in 1978. He eventually moved into an assisted living
apartment complex on Roosevelt Island, which sits in the East River between
Manhattan and Queens. Never one to sit around and let life pass him by, Ed
became proficient enough with his oral joystick to land a data-entry job at
Empire Blue Cross and Blue Shield in the World Trade Center.

The trip from Roosevelt Island to midtown Manhattan, then to the Financial District, was
taxing enough for regular commuters; it was doubly so for a guy in an
electric wheelchair. But one of Ed’s co-workers, Abe Zelmanowitz,
volunteered to help him get to and from work each day. It was a commitment
that he would not abandon, even under the most dire circumstances.
Shortly after the second plane hit Tower 1, workers were told to evacuate.
This was obviously a problem for Ed, who couldn’t get down the stairwell
easily. It wasn’t long before Ed had difficulty breathing. Abe could have
easily left Ed there and made it out alone, but he refused to leave Ed
behind. They were soon joined by Billy Burke, who also refused to abandon
Ed. All three were killed – together – when Tower 1 collapsed. (Their
stories can be read in the New York Times’ Portraits of Grief and at
memorial sites on the Internet.)

The inscription on the Marine Corps’ Iwo Jima Memorial reads, “Uncommon
valor was a common virtue.” I think the same can be said of Sept. 11 in general, and of Billy Burke and Zelmanowitz specifically.

Reading Michael Burke’s letter and remembering the details of Ed’s tragic
death crystallized for me why I’m a firefighter. I think I speak for a lot
of firefighters when I say that I do it mostly because it’s a commitment to
something more important than myself. Yes, we all love the camaraderie and
the trucks and the thrill of the call (90 percent of which turn out to be
routine). But it goes deeper than that.

We don’t talk about it much, but we all know that one day we might be asked
to do for our neighbors what Billy Burke and Abe did for Ed. We hope that if
that time comes, we’ll have the courage to answer the call. The fact that
we’re willing to even try is what makes us respect and care for each other.

This selfless commitment is certainly what motivated Billy Burke and Abe.
Thanks to them, Ed didn’t die alone. As terrible as that scene was, I’m sure
Ed was comforted by their presence.

As firefighters, we hope we give similar hope and comfort to the victims we
treat and the communities we serve. Working in Lake Elmo and other small
town and cities across the country, we certainly don’t expect to be part of
a mass-casualty incident like Sept. 11. And even if we never do get “the
call,” we know that in our own small way we make a difference in peoples’
lives every day.

We’re often a calm voice, a reassuring pat on the hand, welcome relief in
their hour of need. And while these victims may not be at the center of the
most devastating terrorist attack in history, the world they know and love
is often crumbling around them. In many ways, it’s just as tragic and
devastating for them as it was for Ed Beyea.

I’m not sure if this is the piece that Chief Malmquist was looking for, but
I now know that this is why we’re firefighters.