Greg Renz | Lake Mills, WI
We had six kids in the family, and my three brothers and I shared a little tiny bedroom with two bunk beds in it. My father worked at Oscar Mayer. It was mostly young families in the neighborhood. Summers were phenomenal because we had a neighborhood full of kids.
I wasn’t a great student at East. I graduated with a C-minus average. When I got out of high school, I started just bouncing around at jobs. Back then you could apply to a factory job; there were tons of factories around and they all offered pretty good wages. So I bounced around and I tried a lot of different things and really didn’t care for any of them.
I ended up at Oscar Mayer, and that was a super well-paying job. Back in those days, around 1970, I think we were making $16,000 a year. The wages for that time were very good, but one night I was talking to one of the fellows on the night shift who had been there for quite some time and he asked me what my plans were. I told him I’d just work here for a couple years because I didn’t really care for it. He looked at me and said, ’Yeah, you know, I said that 32 years ago and I’m still here.’
That’s when I thought I better try something else. I applied to the University of Wisconsin-Madison with my C-minus grade point average and–believe it or not—got accepted. I was in the pre-med program. I thought I’d like to be a doctor. Well, luckily, I didn’t get into medical school. I realized that really wasn’t my dream. It just sounded like something good to do.
When I graduated, I was bouncing around again. I drove a feed truck, a cattle truck, stuff like that. I had family down in Milwaukee who said, ’Hey, the fire department’s hiring. Why don’t you think about joining the fire department?’ I’d never thought about being a fireman. I went down and applied and got in.
It turned out to be one heck of a blessing. Being a firefighter turned out to be the greatest career I could have imagined. I’d found my passion.
I spent twenty-eight years at the Milwaukee Fire Department, which was a lot of work with a lot of really amazing people, very colorful characters. When I say colorful, I’m being kind because the fire department kind of attracts renegades—we’re not nine-to-fivers. We crawl into burning buildings when people are running out. So there’s probably something wrong with us.
I worked with some of the most amazing storytellers you could imagine. There are hours of down-time when firefighters need something to do, and storytelling is one of the ways we pass the time. Storytelling is ingrained in the culture of the fire service. We spent a lot of time entertaining each other with stories, and they better be good or you might get stuff thrown at you.
Some of those characters probably couldn’t write a proper sentence, but they inherently knew story structure: things I learned later when I started pursuing the craft of writing. They knew plot points and how to work in a twist. It’s just amazing when I think back on their stories.
I was always an avid reader. When I retired, I thought about writing my own novel and setting it in the Milwaukee fire department. You know, how hard could that really be?
We were about halfway there when the dispatcher said, ’Engine 24, be advised we have a report of two children trapped in a burning basement.’ That’s when the adrenaline kicked in.
We were going to be the very first rig on scene, which means we’re going to have to make some split-second decisions on how to rescue the kids and fight a fire. We turned onto North 67th Street and the entire street was packed with smoke, so we really couldn’t tell which house was on fire. The clock was ticking. If we took too much time, those children were probably not going to make it. But if we went too fast, went past the house and had to circle back, they absolutely weren’t going to make it.
It was tense. As we got to the middle of the block, a lady came running out of the smoke and toward the rig. I opened the door, jumped out, and she said, ’There’s two boys trapped in the basement, please, please, please get them out!’ The battalion chief met us at the back door.
When I saw the heavy black and gray smoke billowing out of the back door, I thought there was no chance those kids could be alive down there. But the lady said, ‘Those boys were calling for help right before you got here, please don’t let them die down there!’
Our number one rule of firefighting is to never go into a burning building alone. But I had to get down there. Thankfully, the chief didn’t order me to not go down. It took some courage on his part because I was breaking protocols. I was doing the wrong thing, hopefully for the right reason.
I got to the bottom of the stairs and was on my hands and knees, sweeping around, thinking that the boys were probably close to the bottom of the stairs because they’d been heard calling for help. I wasn’t finding them.
There was no way I was going back upstairs without them. I couldn’t have lived with myself. So I went into search and rescue mode, which we trained on extensively in pitch black situations. And this was pitch black; I couldn’t see a thing. I went to the back wall and kept sweeping my arms and legs across the floor and touching the wall with my left hand. That’s the plan—to go around the basement in an organized manner.
I came to a bed. Kids often hide under beds or crawl under sheets when they are panicking. I rifled through the sheets, flipped the mattress over, and checked under the bed. Nothing. At the foot of the bed there was a pile of what felt like bedding. I started rifling through that and found what felt like a huge rag doll. I picked the rag doll up and sure enough, it was one of the boys.
He was limp. Lifeless. My crew was coming down the stairway with the hose line and I handed off the boy. I made my way back to the foot of the bed and found another rag doll that was much smaller. He was limp and lifeless, too. I made my way back to the stairwell and handed the little one off, and we proceeded to fight the fire.
About forty-five minutes later, the fire was out and the smoke had cleared. I knew what I was going to see when I went back outside. It was going to be two little bundles covered by bright yellow plastic sheets. The medical examiner was going to be there taking information. The family was going to be wailing.
We got up the stairs, I stepped outside, and was really confused. There was nothing there. The paramedic units were gone. Where did they take the boys? Our battalion chief came running across the lawn and said, ’Great job. Both boys were resuscitated on-scene. They’re breathing on their own and are on the way to Children’s Hospital right now.’
We went back to the firehouse, and I went to my office to write the report. A wave of emotions swept over me as I started going through the events. Something far greater than a firefighter rescuing two boys had happened in that basement. Looking at the dispatcher’s printout, the boys were out of that basement in a little over a minute from our arrival. That’s impossible. It just never happens that quickly. Something pulled me right to that bed. It wasn’t my training. It wasn’t my years of experience. I wasn’t in control down there.
During the following two weeks I worried about the impact of that much smoke and carbon monoxide. Would the boys wind up in a nursing home? We rarely hear what happens to the people we rescue because of privacy laws. They go on with their lives and we go on with our work. But I thought about those boys a lot. Two weeks after the rescue, I was in the kitchen of the firehouse and heard rustling coming from way down at the end of the hallway. I saw two bright television camera lights coming up the hallway. In front of those two white lights were the silhouettes of two little boys running down the hallway. It was amazing to see. From the look on their faces and the way they were moving, I could tell that those kids were just fine.
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Reporters were there. I told the story about responding to the fire and the miraculous rescue of the two boys. I saw tears coming down folks’ eyes and I could feel the energy and how they were reacting to the story. It was an epiphany that if I could learn how to do that on the page, what a wonderful thing it would be to touch people like that.
As I thought more about writing, I remembered two little girls who lived across the street from Engine Company Five, a company I was stationed at for three years. That’s right in the inner city of Milwaukee, right in the core. One evening they came over about two o’clock in the morning and knocked on the door. Their mom was sending them over to the firehouse because she was getting beaten up by her boyfriend. The mom sent them to the firehouse for safety, so they wouldn’t get involved. I sat down and talked with the girls and just started asking them about their lives.
The girls shared stories about what their lives were like growing up in this crushing poverty and the violence in the inner city. They said it in such a matter-of-fact way, like this is just the way of the world, that it tore my heart out. When the police came, and they were getting ready to go, I asked if they had to be to school in the morning: They just said, ’Yeah, we’re used to it.’ I remembered going into schools for fire drills and prevention talks and all that, seeing a lot of kids with their heads on their desks. Listening to the girls, it occurred to me that there were times when I judged the school kids because they weren’t paying attention, and I didn’t understand the whole situation.
Those two little girls are two of the main characters in my book. They stayed in my head for years, basically pleading with me to write this story. Finally, when I sat down and decided I needed to write it, I realized I really didn’t know how to write.
I got help from the UW-Madison Continuing Studies program in literature. That’s where I found out I really knew nothing about literature, because I would get assignments back that were all marked up with things like, ’Greg, you really need to work on your grammar, punctuation, syntax; your points of views are all over the place.’ But they’d also be marked with, ‘These stories are wonderful; please keep writing.’ So I did.
After several years, my writing mentor, Christine DeSmet, told me I needed to enter some of my work in the UW Writers Institute writing contest. It’s a huge conference with people from all over the country, some from overseas. Here I am, this retired firefighter, and I’m going to submit my work? I won first place in fiction and first place in non-fiction, just the validation I needed to really get serious about writing.
My mentor said I had to look at writing as my career; it was no longer a hobby. I had to set hours for writing, just like I had hours on the fire department. It was ten years of attending conferences, workshops and creative writing courses before I finally published my first novel, “Beneath the Flames.”
The book is a hero’s journey. It starts in rural Wisconsin; I drew on my experiences visiting my grandmother’s farm up in Chetek. The story takes the hero into the inner city of Milwaukee and then back to rural Wisconsin. I didn’t want to just write an adventure novel about firefighters rescuing kids in the inner city.
Advance copies of “Beneath the Flames” were sent to reviewers, and they loved it. I started doing book talks. I had my book launch at Boswell Book Company and it was standing room only. All of this was just a wonderful experience. But real validation came when the book started being read by first responders. Their validation was important to me.
After my book was published, I started hearing from first responders–guys that might’ve been retired ten-plus years saying, ‘I’m sure glad I read your book. There are things I haven’t talked about ever. After reading your book, I realized maybe I should be talking about this stuff.’
These are heavy stories. I started hearing dark stories from people talking about things they had seen. One person was at a fire where I think they lost fourteen people: children, men and women. He said that’s something he’ll never get out of his head. Another person failed at a rescue. He found a mom in an upper bedroom; the mom had draped her body over a child. He said, ’I can’t get that vision out of my head. They were gone when I got there. I know I couldn’t have done anything to save them, but the other side of me just beats myself up and I can’t get the vision out of my head.’
I’m hearing all these stories from these folks and realizing it wasn’t the main theme of the book. The main theme was more about overcoming cultural biases. But the PTSD is certainly a part of it.
I realized this book was really touching people. I had a firefighter sit down next to me after everybody was gone. He looked really disturbed. You could see the pain in his face. And he said, ’Yeah, the stuff you’re talking about with, you know, the PTSD and stuff it does, I’m dealing with that. I don’t know what to do about it because if I go for help, I don’t think my crew will trust me anymore.’ So I just said, ‘Well, tell me about it.’ We sat for forty-five minutes and he told me some pretty dark stories. He agreed to get help.
A firefighter friend of mine in Milwaukee had a 9mm gun in his dresser drawer and on a regular basis, he would stop and look at it. He actually put the gun to his head twice. Fortunately, he went for help before pulling the trigger. When I first came to the department, we never talked about this stuff. It was all dark humor if we did say anything, which really didn’t help.
I was at a talk up in Rhinelander and this old firefighter who I worked with many years ago was there. He was one of those real tough characters. He always said things like, ’There’s no crying on a job; tough it up kid, what the hell is the matter with you?’ When I saw him at this event he came up to me, stuck his finger in my chest and said, ’I hate you. You made me cry.’
PTSD doesn’t only impact first responders. All those kids growing up in the inner city—I mean, they’re living right in the middle of all this violence, they are seeing it all. It’s a huge issue. And according to different things that I’ve read, exposure to violence at a young age actually changes your brain chemistry, especially as you’re growing up.
My book is also opening eyes about race. An example is an eighty-year-old white lady who read it and told me, ’I’ve lived my entire life on a farm; all I knew about the inner city was what I read in the newspapers and saw on television. I thought those are really horrible people down there. How can they live like that? Then I read your book, and realized those kids have a tough time in that inner city. So I had no right to judge.’
I wrote this story exactly the way I wanted to. It might not sell a million copies or be a best-seller, but this novel is doing what it was meant to do. Had I been accepted into medical school, there would be no book, at least not this one. My twenty-eight-year career provided me with a deep well of experiences and stories to draw from. Working with extraordinary storytellers fueled my desire to create compelling stories of my own. Honing my craft through the University of Wisconsin was critical in my growth as a writer. If any of the links in this chain to publication had been broken, no book.
How do you go from experiences to the page? That’s the mystery and joy of writing. And that’s the creative process all writers understand, where it just comes out of who-knows-where.
It just comes. Thank God it does.
Channel TMJ4 coverage of the Milwaukee Fire Department rescue.