Electric Christmas, 20 Years Later

Twenty years ago, I wrote, and published, “Electric Christmas” in Baltimore’s Child. It was my first sold piece as a freelance writer, and it kicked off a career in submitting my original work to share with the world.

Now, 20 years later, we are still taking rides during the holidays to look at your lights. But instead of my daughter in the back seat, it’s my grandson – Holland’s beautiful son. The years have passed quickly, but the traditions I wrote about 20 years ago continue on. Now he is the one sharing his “wow’s” from the back seat as we all marvel at the timeless beauty of Christmas and family traditions.

I thank each and every one of you for providing your light shows, your celebrations of reds, greens, and whites, for all of us to enjoy. You’ve proven, once again, that no pandemic, no tragedy, will ever stop the joyful and spiritual expressions of the holidays, a spirit borne deep within the true core of who we are as human beings.

And now, I share with you, the unedited, published essay, “Electric Christmas.”

Electric Christmas, by Rus VanWestervelt (2000, originally published in Baltimore’s Child)

It is the last Friday in November, just after our dinner of leftovers and well after sunset. We leave the house with food still on our plates, lights left on. We have little time left.

“Hurry,” I say to them. “Into the car! We’ve got a lot of ground to cover. Did I remember the tapes? Oh no! Don’t tell me I forgot the tapes!” My wife double-checks our daughter’s booster seat belts, then double-pats her coat pocket with confidence.

“I have both of them, right here. Let’s go.”

Always a step ahead of me; thank goodness!

She slides into the seat next to Holland Grace’s booster, shuts the door tightly, and straps herself in. I turn over the motor and adjust the rearview mirror. My wife and I lock eyes.


She nods, and Holland Grace confirms our status. “Let’s Go, Daddy!”

I ease out of the driveway, synchronously getting a tape in handoff from my wife and inserting it into the player. The leader tape seems interminable.

“Daddy? Time yet?”

Just then, the leader ends, and Bing Crosby’s silky voice stills the air.
I’m dreaming, of a White Christ-mas….”

A chorus of sighs fills the car, and we are on our way.

No, we’re not the Von Trapp Family Singers fleeing our homeland; we’re just a Baltimore family continuing our own holiday tradition, taking to the streets and looking for beautiful displays of lights and seasonal celebrations while our daughter “oohs” and “aahs” as we pass by your creations.

When I was just a bit older than Holland Grace, who is now four, I would come downstairs from my bedroom long before daybreak replaced the streetlights in Towson, and I would wake my sister¾six years my elder¾¾with a gentle nudge and a flashlight pointed in her eyes.

“Cindy, are you awake?”

“No,” she’d grumble. “I’m sound asleep. Now leave me alone before I kill you in my dream.”

“But it’s time for Christmas,” I’d whisper, nudging her again, then peeling up an exposed eyelid and shining in a beam of light in a desperate attempt to wake her.

“No,” she’d say. “It’s time to turn off the flashlight.”

“Then you’ll get up?”

“If it means you’ll stop blinding me.”

“Cindy, it’s Christmas!”

With that said, I’d run down the hall, plug in the tree lights, and kneel before the miracle.

Wow,” I’d whisper. This was the most magical of moments, sitting alone with that illuminated tree and the multicolored wrappings, enveloped in a darkness that sealed the spirit of Christmas all around me. I could not have felt warmer, fuller of that magic.

My memory was not strengthened by what was in those boxes wrapped in the multicolored paper. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name you more than three or four toys I received in all of those childhood Christmas mornings. What I do remember is that first smell of brewed coffee mingling with the scent of the pine cones on the tree; the rustling of wrapping paper  as Dad finished wrapping a few last gifts; Cindy and I touching each package, shaking them gently and deciding which  we’d open first and which seemed mysterious enough to open last; our dog Toby sniffing out his own stocking filled with puppy crackers. These memories of Christmas mornings  never seemed to change because this was our tradition. 

Years may pass, but traditions stand the test of time. One Christmas, my sister gave me a game called “Operation,” and we thought we were on the cutting edge of space-age technology. This year, I’d like to finally return the favor and give her a virtual surgery game that puts the scalpel in your hand and lets you know if you’ve removed the wrong organ and have sent the patient into V fib. Not that there’s anything wrong with this change in what’s under the tree. We were in as much awe with an electronic board game as we are now with a virtual computer game.  But let’s face it. Gifts break, small parts disappear, and the novelty loses its luster after the lights have been taken down and the tree has been tossed on the corner for recycling.

Traditions don’t break down or lose their parts or dull over time. That’s what makes them traditions, and they end up being the greatest gifts we can pass along to our children.

When I knelt down before that great, plastic, flame-retardant tree as a child on Christmas morning, I wasn’t thinking too consciously about what it all meant. I was too overwhelmed. Rather, I thought nothing but felt everything. It was in me, radiating as much inside as outside, an electric glow which would remain forever that, someday, I would share with my own family.

As adults, we all share these memories with the ones we love. We sit over a cup of coffee or we lie in bed a few minutes longer in the morning and ask what Christmas was like as a kid. He might say it was the memory of feeling a bit older with his dad when they would go to cut down a tree, always on the second Sunday in December. She might say it was trying to stay up all night with her older brother every Christmas Eve to hear Santa rustling through his sack downstairs and drinking the soured milk that had been sitting out for hours.

It’s that electric glow that we remember, a tradition that our parents and family either continued or created for us in childhood.


I adjust the mirror in the car to look at my daughter, eyes wide open, a finger touching the window as she points out another display to her mom. “Bee-Youtiful!” she says, a duet with Crosby, both of them crooning in the back seat.

So, this is our tradition. Every night following Thanksgiving, we take a drive to look at the lights that all of you string up around your trees, your houses, your lamp posts. We look at the brilliant displays of candy canes and holly bushes and snowmen, and then we’ll head down to Baltimore’s own 34th Street, where miracles and holiday spirits (not to mention electric bills) could never be greater.

And as each night’s route becomes longer and more fulfilling than the previous evening’s drive, we hear from the back seat of our car—over and over again—that unmistakably wondrous whisper of a child experiencing yet another magical discovery, the sound of a child beaming electric inside and out, the sound from which traditions are born.

The Hope MixTape: Side A, Track 1. “Here Comes The Sun”

Earlier this year, I asked a few friends on Facebook what songs bring them hope. The response was overwhelming, and the suggestions they provided allowed me to make a 90-minute audio cassette mixtape, complete with a side A and a side B. Just as I have my characters in Fossil Five explore the process involved in making a mixtape, I enjoyed the process of breaking out the calculator to make build both sides with as little empty tape as possible.

After I completed the mixtape, I decided that it would be a good frame for me to write an essay for each song, and focus on the hope that these tunes provide. This is the first in a series of essays inspired by the songs that all of you helped me create.

Here’s to you, and to all of us, in the hope we provide, and receive, along our journeys.


The Hope MixTape: Side A, Track 1. “Here Comes The Sun” by The Beatles. Essay #1

All photos were taken by me. Please provide credit to me and this page if you use them elsewhere.

I’ve always been fascinated by sunrises, and most of my better photo shoots have come at the expense of a rising sun – usually on a mountain top or on the water’s edge. This goes way back to my early childhood where, in late days in July, my dad and I would leave the house at 3 a.m. and head to Wye Mills on the Eastern Shore, where we would rent a rowboat from Shnaitman’s Boat House to spend the early hours crabbing on the Wye River. We’d have the boat on the water by 5 a.m., a good hour before the sun actually broke the horizon. I remember clearly the reverent pause in our crabbing when sunrise was imminent. The taut hand lines that had blue crabs tugging at the fresh bait could wait a minute or two as we watched in silence the first line of light find its way over the water. When it crested, we returned to our work without a word, checking the lines and manning the nets as we culled our first dozen from the brackish waters of the Wye.

Years later, when I was in college, my friend Trina and I would take midnight road trips to the beach, watching the sun rise as we walked the foam line of the incoming or outgoing tide. With film camera in hand, I did my best to capture the moment when the sun broke the horizon line. Some of the pictures silhouetted Trina against the wet, fluid brushstrokes of crimson, violet, and gold. We were tired in those pre-dawn moments, but with the rising sun, we felt renewed, energized by the light filling the sky, and us.

As we got older and established our own families, our overnight trips turned to pre-sunrise walks on New Year’s Day. Our last jaunt, 2014, was to the Concord Point Lighthouse in Havre De Grace to see the sun rise over the upper tip of Chesapeake Bay in northeast Maryland. This time, the camera I held was a nifty digital Nikon, but the result was the same: magnificent hues with Trina silhouetted against the pre-dawn light.

Throughout my life, I have hiked mountains just to get a glimpse of the sun before anyone else. The elevation gave me the edge over the rest of the world, and I would be afforded a few extra minutes to cherish and receive the energy of the day’s new light, virgin rays of life and Chi that few others would receive. For days – maybe years – I would carry that energy deep within me. Even now, I can tap into these very precious moments and feel a new life coursing through my veins as if the rising sun were my blood, my oxygen to live fully another day.

My most recent trip was in 2015, when I hiked the Appalachian Trail in western North Carolina to watch the sun rise atop Big Bald Mountain. The pictures I got were breathtaking, but the personal experience of being there, as witness to the rising, was in itself unforgettable, caught between the full moon setting in the west and the great sun rising in the east. I was in the center of the universe. I ended up writing a longer essay (“14 Hours In Light“) that I published here on my site in a series of smaller reflections. The experience renewed my hope at a time when I was struggling mightily.

It was there that I realized the energy I had in front of me was afforded to all of us each and every day, regardless of where where we stand when that great sun makes its first appearance of the day. The light in our lives promises us just that – and it is indiscriminate, abundant, fulfilling. The sun’s energy and hope, its comfort and warmth, are boundless, unending, and open for all.

And so it is: A new day begins. For indeed, here comes the sun.

Seek hope in light – it is always there waiting to be received… by you, for you. in all ways. There is no greater way to drive out darkness. In patience, we shall always be recipients of the energy that provides hope.


Once Upon A Time: Remembering Helen Kubik

Many of us, when we approached the age of reading for ourselves, selected books that offered larger-than-life stories with fairy-tale endings to somehow make our lives a little more fantastic. For those of us who went to Pine Grove Elementary in the 1970s, we lived that fantastic fairy tale, with open-space classrooms, a large reading area, energetic and life-inspiring teachers, and Helen Kubik, a principal as beautiful and as magical as Glynda, the good witch from The Wizard of Oz.

Mrs. Kubik – known to us in our earlier years at Pine Grove as Ms. Powell before she married Mr. Alex Kubik, an assistant principal at the school – was known for her effervescent personality, matched exquisitely by the L’Origan by Coty perfume she wore each day. Her voice was soothing, supportive, and always accompanied by a glistening smile. She towered over us as young learners, and we all looked up to her in innumerable ways.

I was six when my first-grade teacher, Ms. O’Donnell, appreciated an “essay” I had written about Abraham Lincoln. I was given the chance to share my writing with the rest of my peers at Pine Grove over the PA system during a week-long celebration of our presidents. I remember vividly standing in the office, gripping my essay with both hands, as Mrs. Kubik held the heavy, silver microphone just above me.

I looked up to her as she spoke. “Boys and Girls,” she said into the microphone with that sweet, sing-song voice. “We have some special students who are going to be sharing their own writing about our presidents to celebrate Presidents’ Day.”

She introduced us, and then she lowered the microphone to my level. She gave me a nod, and I inhaled the strong scent of her L’Origan, a fruity bouquet that smelled different than any of the perfumes my mother wore.

It was a scent that represented a presence of compassion, support, and safety. Around Mrs. Kubik, we didn’t feel intimidated; we felt invincible.

I started reading my essay, and when I got to the part of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, I called her Abraham’s “beloved.” Ms. Kubik chuckled, and when I looked up, she was beaming with what I presumed was approval, and so I continued reading. When I finished, she looked at me with those eyes sparkling with hope and belief, and spent some time talking with me about how much she liked that part of my tribute to our 16th president of the United States.

And now, nearly 50 years later, I sit here realizing how much of who I am is because of this woman, the leader of my elementary school where so many other teachers from that era served as role models to me and thousands of impressionable children in the 1970s.

Helen Kubik was everywhere: in our classrooms, at our school events and plays, and in the hallways ready to offer a smile, especially to those who needed it the most. To me, as an emotional, yet happy-go-lucky kid who struggled academically but beamed on stage, she always put each one of her children first as the individuals they were, and not the statistical numbers they might add up to be for any data sheet defining success or failure in the classroom. At least that’s the way it always seemed to me.

Mrs. Kubik was a loving, compassionate individual who, above everything else, saw us as tiny, impressionable human beings that just needed somebody to believe in them. She allowed us to hold on to our fairy-tale dreams and moments of magical wonder while we worked hard at becoming lifelong learners. Instead of preparing us for any alternate “real world” where people were driven solely by numbers and bottom lines, she prepared us to believe in ourselves first, and to be there for others who needed us, for any reason. To accomplish this first would allow everything else to fall into place.

And it did. Here we are, 50 years later, living strong, productive lives where people still come first. As a teacher myself now for 30+ years, I look into the eyes of every one of my students, offering my own hope and belief in each of them as individuals who have dreams, ambitions, and simple desires to be acknowledged. I remember what it was like all those years ago when Mrs. Kubik offered that to us, and the need to be believed in is as important for our children today as it was for all of us, all those years ago.

When we completed our last year at Pine Grove in the mid-1970s and moved up to the scary and intimidating world of junior high school, Mrs. Kubik left us with the following words:


From Your Principal With Love,

Close to my heart is a secret place
Where dreams are stored away
And sturdy candles of faith are kept
Against a lonelier day.

My students are treasures I keep apart,
Cradled in hope within my heart —
Snub-nosed profiles, picture clear
Perfect moments, priceless-dear,
Etched in eternal time to be
My children,
The very soul of me.

Each child builds my world anew
A shaft of sunlight breaking through.
Each shape my tomorrow, change my life,
Banish my doubt and fear and strife.
Contentment now settles with this days sun.
My part is through, school years well done.
Pine Grove but a castle we built in the air.
Now it tumbles and leaves but a memory there.

These years that I have shared with you —
The tender, the frightened and fun times, too —
Your laughter and your precious pain,
Autumn leaves through summer rain,
My loving you — your loving me,
A kaleidoscope of memory.

Know wherever, whatever your future may be
You are treasures that none can take from me.
Now go freely to conquer your world,

Fly free,
     My students,
          My children,
               The soul of me!

There are so many of my peers whose lives were formed, strengthened, and empowered by Mrs. Helen Kubik to love ourselves, to love others, and to live our lives driven by compassion for all. She was more than a principal to us; she was magical, and will always be, faithfully and forever: Once Upon A Time.

Discovering Creative Ketosis

I’m on this new diet (I hate the connotations that are associated with that word; every one of us is on some kind of diet, right?). Anyway, it’s the Keto Diet, and I can’t have more than 27 (ideally 20) net carbs a day.

Perspective: I was downing probably 300 net carbs a day. So this is a big change for me.

The purpose of the diet, in simple terms, is to switch your body from burning carbs to burning fat. This is what is known as entering a state of ketosis, where your body becomes this incredible fat-burning machine. It’s magical, and it’s beginning to work for me.

But the transition has been tough. As my body goes through this adjustment into ketosis, it is very possible that it is resisting the change of burning carbs to burning fat. That might very well explain why I have been so fatigued these last few days. My body is searching for carbs to burn, and it hasn’t completely learned just yet that burning fat instead is a completely acceptable concept.

I’m feeling it kick in today, though, and it’s pretty magical, like I said.

A few weeks before I started the Keto Diet, I also decided to deactivate my Facebook and step away from most of the social media scene. I did this for myriad reasons, but mostly because I didn’t like the energy it was taking away from my writing. I had a bad year last year, and I’m trying to reclaim my creative game.

At first, leaving Facebook was instantly liberating, but lately, I’ve been struggling with getting the creative juices flowing. Then  this morning, it struck me: I think the resistance I was feeling in my diet can be true as well about my transition from a social media life to a writer’s life (I’m not really saying that we need to choose one or the other, but in my situation, I’ve made such a choice).

There is resistance. My creative soul is looking for social media to feed its appetite, and it is just now learning that it can be far more healthy and productive by working on meaningful pieces like my novel, Fossil Five; my blog; and other original writings and creative works.

Here’s the point: The writer (or artist, or creative) strives to stay in a complete state of creative ketosis, where the mind, body, and soul are working optimally to produce the greatest works possible. This is the very essence of Samadhi, the state of superconsciousness, for the writer: Aware of all things, in all ways, to make the most of his or her creative journey toward polished products, whatever they may be.

I have said for some time that the energy we spend on social media takes away energy that could be better spent in healthy ways. Indeed, social media is nothing more than a high-carb fast food, filling us with nothing and leaving us feel, paradoxically, empty and bloated all day long.

So, as I continue to lose weight in this dietary state of ketosis, and as I continue to forego the energy-sucking platforms of social media and stay in creative ketosis, I am eliminating the “un-creative” carbs from my life in every way, allowing my body to burn optimal creative fuel for its energy: a heightened sense of awareness and mindfulness of all around me. It’s space that fosters healthy growth for my novel and other creative endeavors. The energy is pure, accessible, clean.

It takes time. Everything does. I’m glad I’m sticking with both.

So, let’s talk

Earlier today, I had a little sit-down with myself to figure a few things out. You see, my inner critic has been working overtime in the past month or two, absolutely convincing me that the following were completely, and without question, true:

  • My words were no longer meaningful, and they no longer mattered with the masses;
  • Blogs were dead, stupid, antiquated, washed up, and no longer read (hey! just like me);
  • Your audience is sick of you;
  • You are pathetic to think otherwise; and
  • Hell, you are pathetic.

These thoughts stopped me from writing anything. I did not even write in my daybook. It was a ridiculous, self-piteous period of wallowing in negativity and doubt.

So, as I said, I had that little sit-down convo with me-truly, and I’m not going to lie, I let the expletives fly, as Seinfeld’s Kramer says.

It felt good. It really did. I needed to hear myself fight back against all that fake news that I have been self-spewing. I made the commitment to blog tonight, but with a purpose:

To not teach, preach, or inspire.


So, not only did I throw myself back into the fire, I threw away the crutches and dove in head first without a safety net.

Which brings me to what I’ll be doing here at The Baltimore Writer for the foreseeable future. Many years ago, I started writing “Rus Uncut” entries, and they were well received because they were so raw. I’ve tried a few times to get back to that, but I kept falling back into the teach-and-preach model.

Pathetic, right?

So here we are tonight, willing (desperately) to give it another shot.

What does that mean? Probably some really boring blogs, some out-there thinking, and maybe some pretty pictures to keep you coming back to see something shiny.

It means all of this, maybe none of it, maybe some Franken-mix of a bunch of different things. And I’ve opened comments for you to join in with the uncut-ness of the whole thing.

But what I can promise you is that it will be raw, uncut, and authentic. All Rus.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I need to do this for me, though, so there. You are welcome to follow along, share your thoughts, or unsubscribe entirely and vote to have The Baltimore Writer completely scrubbed from the interwebs.

We’ll see how this goes. Thanks for whatever choice you make (except for the web scrubbing. That would suck for sure).

Yours, sans teaching and preaching,


Engine 23 And The Lookout Man

Engine 23 And The Lookout Man

An Original Short Story by Rus VanWestervelt

(Note: I wrote this story last fall for a local horror story contest. Although I did not win, I am extraordinarily happy with how this story turned out. The word limit was 3,000, and I had overwritten by 1,500 words, which I had to cut from the story. I think the edits made it tighter, to be honest. Enjoy. It’s a blend of fact and fiction, as are most of my stories. ~Rus VW)

October 30, 1997

Samantha, now a senior at Towson High and desperately ready to wrap up her final year of school, left the public library and went straight to her favorite place to write: the old abutment at York and Towsontown. She jogged up the small, grassy hill and reached the top of the stone structure, where she looked across York Road and scanned the horizon south to north. The stone abutments here on each side of the road were some of the last reminders that the Ma & Pa Railroad ever ran through Towson.

Not another person in sight. She loved how the skyline of buildings in west Towson opened up a path that curved subtly to the left, just like the rails would have run for the train coming into town and through the center of Towson State College.

She sat on the cold stone, opened her backpack, pushing Focault’s Pendulum aside, and found her journal.

Samantha turned to her latest poem, “When Time Runs Out.” She stared at the messy lines below the title, with colorful edits scribbled along the margins. This had been a particularly tough poem to write about the passing of a classmate five years ago.

Samantha re-read the first stanza, made one change to the third line, then scratched it out. How do you capture the best moment with another human being when you think they will live forever?

She felt a shiver, an almost rumble below her as an invisible wind rushed past her.

Suddenly chilled, she turned away from the poem and looked up at the other stone abutment across the street.

There, a man stood on the stones, staring directly at her. He was statuesque, wearing a black peacoat, heavy work pants, and black shoes. He looked as if he was in his late 30’s, and his thick black hair waved in the October wind. His sideburns fell to his jawline, and Samantha was certain he never blinked the entire time she stared back at him.

Samantha turned to pull a marker from her bag, and when she turned her head to look at the stone structure, the man was gone.

The late October afternoon was brisk, and she was glad she had packed an extra sweater. She threw it on and thought about the man she had just seen, and how he looked at her so intently. Growing up in Towson and walking to school most of her life, Samantha knew the locals who spent time along the York Road corridor. Many were harmless; a few she kept her distance from. This stranger was no one she recognized.

The traffic light was just about to change below her, and she savored those few seconds of quiet from the usual bustle of cars desperately trying to get through the town center. She took a deep breath and exhaled, finally feeling the calm settle in after a very stressful day.

She took a sip of what was left of her after-school frap, savored the sweet, rich caramel at the bottom of the cup, and reached around to get a book from her backpack.

Samantha froze. Instead of feeling the smoothed canvas cloth of the pack, her hand fell on cold and callused fingers.

She looked up and saw the man in the black peacoat, standing over her.

“Howdy,” he said.

Samantha screamed and felt her body lunge away from him. Her back hit the ridge of the stone cliff, and she could feel her body falling over the edge and toward the street below. She waited for her head to snap against the underside of the rock, then felt a jolt as if she were on some mad fair ride, jerking her back up toward the sky.

The man had grabbed Samantha’s heavy sweater, pulling her to safety.

Thankful and terrified in the same breath, Samantha looked up. His hair was thick, black; his sideburns dropped like western boots along his jawline.

“I’m not here to harm you. I’m only interested in asking you for a little help.”

“If it’s money you want, I have change from my frap in the bottom left—“

The man chuckled, then looked a little embarrassed.

“Oh, no ma’am. It’s nothing like that. I’ve got plenty of loose change to tide me over while I’m here. The help I need is, well, different.”

Samantha’s fear eased into curiosity.

“Why were you staring at me that way from across the street?”

“I wanted to make sure you were the one who could help me. You see, when I was your age 20 years ago, I was asked to help somebody, too.”

Samantha, intrigued now, moved a little closer on the rock and wrapped her arms around her chest. “Go on.”

He motioned to take a seat on the rock. “May I?”

Samantha nodded.

“In 1977, I used to hang out here on The Rock just like you. I met a woman pretty much the same way you are meeting me now. She called me ‘The Lookout’ and smiled at me in a flattering way. I know I was being a dumb boy just graduating from high school, but I liked the name, and I liked the way she was looking at me. So I listened to what she had to say. Changed my whole life.”

“Why did she call you ‘The Lookout’?”

The man leaned in, and she studied his icy eyes as he spoke.

“Do you know anything about this pile of rocks we’re sitting on?”

Samantha shook her head. “Some railroad, but that’s it.”

“Not just any railroad. These stone abutments carried the steam locomotives from the old Ma and Pa Railroad across this busy intersection. The Rick-Rick-Rickety sound of those steel wheels clicking their way across the tracks was pure music.”

Samantha watched the man close his eyes, as if lost in some kind of dream.

“I didn’t know they were still running here twenty years ago,” she said.

The man’s face froze, and he opened his eyes and stared directly into hers.

“Barely, ma’am. They slowed down in 1954 and stopped altogether in ‘58. But my grandfather laid track through the college, and he told me stories that made me feel as if I had been a passenger all my life.”

“Of course,” Samantha said. “My great-grandfather would tell me stories when I was younger about being on the horse-drawn fire engine when he fought the fire in Baltimore in 1904, and how the sparks would fly from the horses’ shoes hitting the cobblestones at night.”

The man smiled. “I knew you would understand. I knew you were the one.”

Samantha looked at her watch. She would soon have to leave.

“I hate to rush you,” she said, “but I have to get home by four.”

“Of course,” he replied. “When that woman approached me and asked me to do her a favor, she got pretty serious, and I did too.”

“What was the favor?”

“She told me that, in 1957, when she was still in high school, they used to hide out by this abutment when the bridge was still here. It was practically abandoned after the trains slowed down, and one day, when she got there before the rest of her friends, a man approached her from the hill behind us. It was all woods then, and pretty thick, too.”

He looked around the library and beyond, and Samantha was sure she sensed a touch of melancholy.

“Anyway,” he said, turning back to her. “The man had just about the saddest story in the world. Said that 20 years ago, in 1937, his son Charlie was up there on the bridge playing chicken with Engine 23, trying to impress his girl Lorraine. He had grabbed her by the wrist beforehand, trying to convince her that they could beat the train together. But Lorraine refused, and Charlie went out there alone. He stood on the plate girders taunting her while she screamed, ‘Look out, Charlie!’ When that whistle blew from Engine 23 and drowned her out, it was probably the last sound Charlie heard before he was knocked off the flange. He was dead before he hit the road.”

Samantha was struck by the sorrow on the man’s face, and she dared not say a word.

“When the man finished telling the story, he asked a favor. He said that ever since his son was killed, he had these nightmares where his son wanted to come back in 20 years and kill that girl for making him show off. Every single time in the dream, he told her, he would meet his son by the bridge and calm him down. Tell him it wasn’t her fault. Let him know that he was still remembered and loved.”

“That is so sad,” said Samantha.

“I know. I thought the same thing. The old man pleaded her to stay with him that night, and maybe if he saw her, he would think that she was Lorraine, and she could tell him she loved him and she was sorry.”

“Did she stay with him?”

“She did. And you know what? Charlie really did show up that night. She said she heard the sound of Engine 23 coming through, and she saw him up there on the bridge, waving to them both. They started shouting at him to run, and that they would always love him.”

“Did he listen to them?”

“He did after she said she was sorry, and he ran harder than ever to the other side of the bridge and beat that train. When Engine 23 passed, he stood there on the abutment holding on to the edge of the bridge, staring across at them both. Then there was a final whistle blow, and he vanished. That was in 1957.”

“So why wasn’t that the end of it?”

“Turns out, the old man started having more nightmares when his dead son figured out he had been tricked, and he vowed to come back again in 1977 to seek revenge by any means. By that time, the bridge had been removed, and the elderly father was scared beyond measure in what to expect. In fact, just a week before Halloween night, the old man died of a heart attack. That’s when the girl — now 37 — approached me and wanted me to play the role of Charlie’s father. How could I say no? I was scared out of my mind, but she had a charm about her that made it impossible to do anything but help her.”

“That’s why she called you The Lookout?”

“Yes. That night, it was getting pretty cold and late with nothing happening. No whistle, no Charlie. Nothing. We were beginning to think his ghost had gone away with the old man when he died the week before, but just then, right before midnight, we heard the faint chug-chug of Engine 23 coming up behind us. No track. No bridge. But the train was coming nonetheless.”

“And Charlie?”

“That’s when we seen him on the other side on that abutment, staring us down, waving to us like some kind of madman. I followed the woman’s lead, shouting how much we loved him and were sorry and that he had to run away from the train. I’ll never forget Charlie looking me in the eyes, unblinking, just lingering there on the stones before vanishing with the rush of the invisible train as it blew by us. That was in 1977.”

“So that should have been the end of it then, right?”

“I had really hoped. But about a month ago, Charlie started visiting me in my dreams, still raging on about Lorraine. Said he was going to come back. I tried everything I could think of to get him out of my head, but I couldn’t do it. Horrible nightmares telling me that I had to get out here again on the 31st of October and let his ghost know we hadn’t forgotten about him.”

“That’s tomorrow night,” said Samantha.

“And that brings me to you.”

The man stared again into her eyes.

“You want me to be Lorraine?”

“You would be perfect. I gotta do this for Charlie, and for his father. I’ll even buy you one of those caramel frap drinks. What do you say? Will you help me be The Lookout?”

Samantha looked down at her hands in her lap and turned her wrist. It was nearly 4:30.

“Yes. Of course. But I have to run home now, or I’ll be grounded for a week.” Samantha stood and grabbed her pack. “See you here tomorrow night, around 8?”

The rugged man with the long sideburns smiled as he watched the girl run to and down the grassy hill.

“That would be perfect, Lorraine. It’s a date.”


*                                  *                                  *


The next night, Halloween, Samantha dressed up like the rebellious Ginger Spice of the Spice Girls and told her mother she was going to a dance at the school. Her mother bought it, and Samantha was out the door immediately.

She ran as fast as she could to the library and stopped at the bottom of the hill leading up to the edge of the abutment. She wondered if The Lookout Man was already there. She didn’t see his silhouette against the skyline, and with a deep breath, she walked up the hill and stood atop the large, flat stones.

Samantha looked around; she was completely alone. She turned to her watch every five minutes, and after a half-hour, she started to feel a little foolish, believing some stranger’s story about ghosts and a now-extinct train coming through town on Halloween Night.

“Ten more minutes,” she whispered. That’s all I’ll give him, and then I’m out of here.”

She rubbed her bare shoulders, trying to stay warm, when she felt a faint tremble and a strong, invisible wind envelop her. Samantha heard a whistle behind her, unlike any sound she had ever heard. As it grew louder, she could feel the stones under her feet begin to vibrate. She turned to see if there was actually anything coming toward her — there wasn’t — but the sound grew louder. She looked at her watch and noticed a cup at her feet. She bent down to pick it up.

A caramel frap, just as The Lookout Man had promised.

“Hello? Where are you?” She yelled, shouting above the screaming whistle behind her. Somewhere beyond the grassy hills, she could see a single beacon of light approaching.  She turned to face York Road, and there, in the illumination of the train light, was The Lookout Man on the other abutment, staring at her with an intensity that scared her to death.

“Why are you over there? Engine 23 is coming! Get over here!” she screamed. “Help me tell Charlie he is loved!”

The Lookout Man smiled before vanishing. Samantha blinked hard, and when she reopened her eyes, he was inches from her face.

“How did you— That’s impossible.”

The Lookout Man smiled, his icy eyes burning through her.

“You’ve come back for me, Lorraine. I knew you wouldn’t leave me.”

Samantha tried to turn away, but his stare was too strong.


“That’s right Lorraine. We can make it this time.” He grabbed her wrist. “We can run across the tracks together and beat the train. I know we can.”

Charlie tugged her toward the edge of the abutment.

“Charlie, No! There is no train! There isn’t even any bridge! Didn’t you learn all that 20 years ago?”

But Samantha could hardly hear herself shouting over the deafening roar of Engine 23, blowing its whistle against the Rick-Rick-Rickety run against the old tracks.

Charlie yanked Samantha’s arm, looked her in the eyes, and laughed. “Time’s Run Out, Lorraine!”

“Charlie! NO!”

But it was too late. Digging his grip deeply into her arm, he leaped off the edge, taking her with him.

The last thing Samantha heard was the sound of a whistle in the wind as she fell helplessly.

Below, the screams and screeches were quick, followed by that silence that Samantha often loved, as onlookers stood in shock at the lone body of a girl lying in the center of York Road.


*                                  *                                  *


            October 30, 2017

Kaleb sat on the cold stones next to the library, Face-timing with his friend Matt in California. It was just after noon on the west coast.

“Take a look at how beautiful it is up here, Matt.” Kaleb turned the phone around and did a pan of the skyline, a cacophonic quilt of colors covering West Towson. “The leaves piqued a few days ago, but it’s still beautiful.”

Matt laughed. “Meanwhile in Sunny Cali…” Matt showed off the shores of the Pacific. “It’s 78 degrees here. I think I win.”

Kaleb turned the phone back around to speak to Matt, whose face changed almost immediately.

“Whoa, dude. Looks like you got company.”

Kaleb turned around to see a woman dressed in a cute skirt standing behind him. Her icy blue eyes left him speechless.

“Hi,” she offered, sipping a caramel frap through a pert smile. In her other hand, she clutched a copy of Foucault’s Pendulum.

“I’m in need of a little help, a favor, really. Do you have a few minutes?”

Kaleb stood up to face the woman, who was now nearly giggling.

“My name is Kaleb,” he said. “How can I help you?”

Kaleb felt a faint rumble below his feet as a whistle blew in the distance.

The woman took another sip of the frap and held out her hand.

“I’m Lorraine,” she offered, shaking his hand. “You remind me of an old friend, and I think you will be able to help me just fine.”



Being Resolute in 2018: Begin Within

If we make happiness our primary goal instead of our secondary goal, then we easily accomplish everything else we desire. ~Deepak Chopra

Across the country and throughout the world, people are asking themselves the same question: What will my resolutions be for 2018?

The “Greatest Hits” of resolutions include weight loss, saying goodbye to cigarettes and liquor, and establishing a fitness regimen.

No doubt, these are all admirable goals to live a better life. But one hardly needs a new year to begin — or resume — being so resolute; in fact, I would argue that many of us are overweight, smoky, and out of shape because we set ourselves up for failure in some other previous new year. Resolutions have a way of making us feel horrible about ourselves before January is even over. Once we fail at keeping our resolutions, we find solace in remembering that another new year will soon be upon us — in 11 months.

I found another set of New Year’s “Greatest Hits” on my friend’s Facebook page. Chris shared the top ten “Words of Wisdom” by the late Wayne Dyer, and it paired nicely with my daily readings of Deepak Chopra.

The resolution we really need to be making is simple, requires no exercise equipment, and prepares us to accomplish any secondary goal we might have to live a more healthy, fulfilling life. It’s so simple, in fact, that we do everything we can to make it harder on ourselves, when we don’t need to.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Embrace happiness and joy in this moment, within you.

And we don’t even have to wait until January 1. It’s accessible, and doable, right now. All you need to do is shift your priorities, see the beauty within you first, and then go after any other goal or resolution you wish to pursue.

You might be asking: What’s the difference, then, if I go for my goals first? Won’t that lead me to the same goal of happiness anyway?

It seems logical that it should work that way, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it almost never does. Here’s why. When we seek things — materialistic or otherwise — to bring us happiness, we allow our well being to become dependent on achieving those things. And, as we are hardly creatures of contentment, we then seek out the next thing that will make us happy.

Thoreau, over 150 years ago, nailed it when he penned those timeless words:

“The mass of men lead their lives in quiet desperation.”

We can’t keep chasing resolutions, thinking they are going to be making us happier. They simply won’t. But, if we begin with happiness, and then pursue our resolutions, that wellness within will keep us motivated throughout the year — and beyond — to make those better choices in our lives.

So here are Dyer’s words of wisdom below, coupled with ten of my own photos from previous years. At the end of this post is a lovely 39-minute sunrise that I have been playing while writing in the early hours. Enjoy.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2018 for each of us. May you discover the beauty and joy that awaits within.

Love, Rus

10. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.


9. How people treat you is their Karma; how you react is yours.


8. When you judge another, you do not define them. You define yourself.

LR sunrise 022512

7. You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.


6. Conflict cannot survive without your participation.


5. Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.


4. Abundance is not something we acquire; it is something we tune into.


3. Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.

Goucher Easter 011

2. You’ll see it when you believe it.


1. Go for it now. The future is promised to no one.




Pedestrian Safety: An Urgent Matter in Maryland

Exclusive for Baltimore County Breaking News
By Rus VanWestervelt (@rusvw13, rus@bcobreakingnews.com)

I’ve been working with Baltimore County Breaking News for more than two years now, and we’ve covered a lot of tragic events during that time. It’s been heartbreaking to be the dispatcher sharing the news with our followers, or the writer providing the follow-up story that offers the tragic loss of human life. I’ve seen it from both sides; it was just as heartbreaking when other news agencies shared the details of my own brother’s death in a motorcycle accident in Carroll County.

The injury, or loss, of any life is tough, but when it’s senselessly brought on by the mindless ignorance of drivers or pedestrians, and the breaking of common-sense laws, it infuriates all of us even more.

One of the most abused laws in Maryland involves pedestrian traffic.

The stats are clear that we have an urgent need to address this issue more aggressively. In 2012, Maryland was rated as the seventh most dangerous state in the United States for pedestrians (Florida was the worst, with Delaware, Arizona, South Carolina, Hawaii, and North Carolina named 2-6, respectively).

And, according to recent statistics provided by multiple sources (including the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, the Maryland State Highway Administration, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), Maryland has seen, on average, about 100 pedestrian deaths each year in the last two decades (about 20% of all road-related deaths annually). Shockingly, the number of children ages 5-9 killed as pedestrians comprised 14% of all pedestrian crashes in 1998.

Annually, up to 70% of these deaths are related to pedestrian error; however, many injuries and deaths occur with pedestrians lawfully in crosswalks at intersections or in mid-block (when a crosswalk is placed in the middle of a street).

Drivers Must Follow Maryland Laws

Maryland law is clear when it comes to yielding the right-of-way to pedestrians (as summarized by the Montgomery County Government).

  • A driver of a vehicle must come to a complete stop when a pedestrian is crossing the roadway in a crosswalk.
  • It is unlawful for a driver to pass a vehicle that is stopped for a pedestrian in either a marked or unmarked crosswalk. This includes in shopping centers, especially in front of busy stores where there is high foot traffic.
  • Vehicles facing a green signal, including any vehicle turning right or left, must yield right-of-way to any pedestrian lawfully within an adjacent crosswalk.
  • Vehicles facing a red signal or red arrow signal must stop at the intersection at the clearly marked stop line or before entering the crosswalk.
  • The driver of a vehicle shall exercise due care to avoid colliding with any pedestrian, shall warn any pedestrian by sounding a horn, and shall exercise proper precaution on observing any confused or incapacitated pedestrians.
  • The driver of a vehicle shall drive at an appropriate reduced speed when any special danger exists as to pedestrians.

Pedestrians Share The Responsibility For Safety

Pedestrians need to be smart about how they walk alongside, or cross, roads.

  • A pedestrian facing a steady red traffic signal may not enter the roadway.
  • A pedestrian may not start to cross the roadway in the direction of a solid “don’t walk” or “upraised hand” signal.
  • If a pedestrian crosses a roadway at any point other than in a marked crosswalk or in an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, the pedestrian shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle.
  • In an intersection where a traffic control signal is in operation, a pedestrian may cross only in a marked crosswalk.
  • A pedestrian may not cross an intersection diagonally unless authorized by a traffic control device.
  • Where a sidewalk is provided, a pedestrian may not walk along or on an adjacent roadway.  Where no sidewalk is provided, a pedestrian may walk only on the left shoulder or on the left side of the roadway facing traffic.

Baltimore County Police Encourage Education In Pedestrian Safety

In addition to these laws, The Baltimore County Police Department provides these simple reminders for parents to speak with their children about pedestrian safety.

  • Always cross at traffic lights, marked crosswalks or intersections.
  • Obey traffic signals at all times. Don’t attempt to cross if the signal tells you to stop.
  • Stay alert when crossing. Even when the signal says WALK, you should check that the path is clear.
  • Always check in all directions for approaching vehicles before crossing the street. If there is a vehicle approaching, wait until it passes before trying to cross.
  • Try to make eye contact with drivers before stepping off the curb.
  • Walk on the sidewalk whenever possible. If there is no sidewalk, walk on the side of the road, facing traffic.
  • Wear bright or reflective clothing at night.
  • Avoid distraction when crossing. Turn off headphones and put away your cell phone before crossing.

The Baltimore County Breaking News Team would love nothing more than to report that Maryland has become the safest place in the United States for pedestrians. Let us each do our part — as drivers and as walkers — in ensuring that everyone reaches their destinations safely.

Being Relentless in Living Fully: Five Things I Have Learned

The other morning, I found myself rushing out to my car to head to school like any other weekday. The sun was just breaking the horizon, and I was juggling too many bags of work and thinking about beating the early rush along the 25-mile commute.

I could feel the tension building already: stress upon stress from two years of seemingly endless troubles and challenges that I failed to understand: family deaths, loss of work, other matters that are just a part of life itself. I’ve never lost sight on the fact that we all go through this; we’ve all got our stresses in our lives that challenge us to the very core of who we are.

For me, I could see the toll they were taking on my body and my mind; making poor dietary choices and dwelling on those stresses create a very unhealthy lifestyle. And before you know it, the troubles you are experiencing within begin to permeate other areas of your life: friendships, work, social occasions.

So on that morning, as I was fumbling with my keys to unlock my car, I heard the unmistakable song of the American Robin.

“Cheer up! Cheer Up! Cheer Up! Cheerily, Cheer Up!”

Yes. This is the actual song of the Robin.

The bird’s sing-song notes seemed so crisp against the cool Spring morning, and they pierced through the stress building upon more stress. In that one instant, I was carried back to younger days when I was living on Chesapeake Bay, and my mornings would begin with the sweet songs of morning birds like the robin, the wren, and the finch.

Those days weren’t trouble-free, by any measure. My father had just died, and money wasn’t any better, really, than it is today. But nature served as a real solace to me then, and I remained open to the things that brought me peace and that soothed me.

In the busy rush of the world we live in today, I sometimes lose sight of that. Thanks to the song of a single American Robin, I found that peace last week, and since then, I’ve been returning to a relentless approach to living a better life.

While there are so many strategies and structures out there to remain relentless in living fully, I’ve narrowed it down to a good list of five that keep me in my game. My five might be different from what you need. I guess what’s most important is that each of us figures out what works, and then stick to it.

Find Your Focus and Keep It Close. For me, it’s three things: writing, photography, and music. I’ve learned that when I’m struggling, I write less, my camera lens captures nothing but a layer of dust, and my playlists are dark and brooding. It’s almost as if my body is creating an environment to nurture the stress, to make it last as long as it possibly can. I need to be conscious of keeping my journal out in the open where I can write freely and often; I need to carry my camera with me so I can capture life as I see it; and I need to choose the songs that empower me, give me encouragement and strength, that keep my mind clear and my heart open to give, as much as to receive.

Let Go of the Past. Nothing keeps us from being relentless in our living than dwelling in the past. I’m not talking about remembering a great hike along the Appalachian Trail when you were 23 or hearing a Zeppelin song along back roads at 19 with windows down and volume up. Hold on to those moments and cherish them often. I’m talking about regret, or decisions you made hastily, or even opportunities brushed aside or declined. You have to place yourself in the present, embrace what is, and seize the songs that remind you that there is a life all around you to be lived, experienced, and celebrated.

Stay Healthy. We are so tempted to stray from what keeps us mentally and physically healthy. Just remember: The quality of every aspect of your body, mind, and heart is entirely dependent on what you put into your system. And it’s different and unique for each of us. My diet might be a catastrophe for you, and chances are pretty good that your good choices would nauseate me. We need to be mindful of what our body needs, and then give it the fuel to make us relentless machines of power, love, and balance.

Remove the Triggers That Set You Back. This is an important one, because the first three tools to remain relentless make it sound like we all lead happy, care-free lives. The truth is that the things that can stress us out are still in our lives. Staying healthy doesn’t bring back a loved one; there is still great sadness and stress associated with it. We just need to defend ourselves with these tools. Triggers are going to continue to be in our lives that remind us of what was causing us so much stress. We need to be active in removing them as much as possible from our daily routine, as they can set us back faster than a 12-inch cheese-steak sub with extra fried onions and all the fixin’s. For me, those triggers are hidden in word games, songs, and radio stations. If I’m vulnerable to these triggers, I need to be mindful of this and remove them. That might mean deleting an app on my phone (or burying it on that last screen and hiding it in an obscure folder), making a different playlist, or even turning off the radio and finding a good mystery to read. Don’t set yourself up to be vulnerable. Living relentlessly means always providing yourself a little self-check on how you are reacting to the experiences around you. Stay relentless and stay in control.

Embrace Your Spirituality. Whatever spirituality means for you, find your affinity for something greater than yourself and make it present in your life-always. Our communion with a higher entity — even if that’s in the spirit of nature itself — puts everything in context with your place in this world. It sorts through the challenges and puts them in perspective; it prioritizes the things that really matter, like health, peace, and love; it gives you greater strength to confront the things that bring stress and offers the space and faith to work on resolutions. No matter what you believe, your spiritual foundation reminds you that you aren’t alone, and you have the  strength of a higher power with you every step of the way.

If all else fails, remember this: you are most certainly not alone. Sometimes it takes a simple song of a common bird to remind us of how beautiful life is: in this moment and in the hours and days to follow. It’s all about our perspective and our choices.

Choose to embrace the relentless pursuit of a life lived fully.

Chasing Fire: Understanding the Death of Baltimore’s Mayor in 1904

 In 2003, I completed my 306-page thesis on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. In my research, I stumbled on a little-known fact about the mayor of Baltimore during that historic conflagration, and I composed a much shorter piece (below) about his death and my pursuit of the truth about how he died. In the process, I found myself trying to understand the death of my own father, who fought fires in Baltimore for 29 years before he died.

The parallels between the death of these two men were haunting, to say the least.

Read on. All of the information is true, triple-checked in multiple published sources from 1904.

And do me a favor: Let me know if you think I should pursue this story.


by Rus VanWestervelt

The more I go, the less I know.
Will the fire still burn on my return?
Keep the path lit on the only road I know.
Honey, all I know to do is go.
~The Indigo Girls~

Screen Shot 2016-02-07 at 10.55.43 AMI


Wes, as my father was known in his firehouse on Greenmount and 32nd Street in the heart of Baltimore, introduced me to fire when I was six. He was taking me to my first Orioles game and decided to park behind the station, just a few blocks from Memorial Stadium. When he opened the back door to the firehouse, the acrid rush of diesel suffused the air around me, in me as I stood before a magnificent and intimidating sign on the back of Truck 7.

He led me on a tour of the station, walked me up the black iron steps that spiraled tightly to the left, and offered me a chance to slide down the fire pole, which I declined. When we returned to street level, he lifted me with ease into the driver’s seat of the hook and ladder, where I stretched my arms around the steering wheel, peered over its edge to see the back of Engine 31 so close to me, and then reached up to pull a blackened cord that rang the fire bell loudly.

That illusion of being a firefighter–being just like my father Wes–ended before I could realize what was happening.

A booming voice echoed in the fire hall, dispatching both fire engines to a service call. Wes grabbed me out of Truck 7 as firefighters jumped into fire pants and boots and the firehouse gates rolled up, revealing a bustling Greenmount Avenue. One firefighter ran out with flags and stopped traffic as Wes carried me to the side of the station.

Sirens wailed, bells rang, horns blared.

From my father’s strong arms, I watched Engine 31 and Truck 7 rumble past us and out of the station.

I wanted to follow them, chase them out the door. And that was when the hunger, the passion for fire was born.

The front gate began rolling down just as Truck 7 cleared the house, and I looked over Wes’s shoulder to watch that magnificent, intimidating sign turn left and out of sight:




22 April 1989

Several hundred feet from where my father lies dying, I sit against painted concrete in a cold hallway at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, where I watch the EKG monitor above me. Dad’s life line is erratic, jumping from zig-zagging peaks to near-flat lines that make me think the end has finally come for him. He is taking his final breaths after a medic call three years ago infected him with hepatitis. A most prolonged, agonizing death, in the line of duty.

With me in this hallway is my brother-in-law, Rob. We have spent the last 30 minutes in silence, just a fraction, though, of the 17 hours since paramedics brought Dad here.

We are outside a small room where Mom sits with some of her children.

Dad remains on a gurney through double doors and down another hall. My brother Jim, who fights fire in Baltimore County, is with him, as is our grandmother and a few other family members.

I keep my distance. I’ve already said goodbye.

My eyes return to the monitor, where the zig-zagged peaks have become frantic. I look to Rob, who has nothing but strength for me, and I rest my head against the cold concrete and close my eyes. The monotone whispers seep from Mom’s room but have no meaning. We all pass this time a little differently.

What seems like a minute passes.

I open my eyes and catch the monitor: the peaks are gone; subtle bumps melt away into a flat line, and then the screen goes black.





13 Years Later

The screen of my lap top is black, empty. I can’t find anything to bring it back to life.

I’ve been here at the Maryland State Archives in Annapolis for just over two hours looking for new information on the Baltimore Fire of 1904. My story, about the men who fought the greatest fire in Baltimore history, is going nowhere beyond the greatly publicized facts: in early February of that year, firefighters from Baltimore and neighboring states chased fire around Baltimore’s harbor for nearly 30 hours; on the evening of February 8, more than 1,500 buildings lay charred across 140 acres of commercial land; Baltimore’s entire financial district and the original colonies established in the seventeenth century had been reduced to rubble and ashes.

I push away from the table and return the three green document boxes filled with handwritten military letters to the information desk. Should I continue this blind search or call it a day? I pay no attention to the old man taking my boxes.

“That’s a good story, that fire,” he tells me. He rocks back in his worn, wooden chair after taking my boxes and locks his hands behind his head–a makeshift headrest that seems comfortable.

I nod in kindness.

“The real story happened after the fire, you know.”

I tell him I did not.

“If you want a better story, find out what really happened to the mayor a few months later.”

I say nothing but shrug my shoulders, now mildly wondering what he is talking about.

“The mayor,” he says. “They say he killed himself after the fire, after just getting married.” He leans forward and looks up at me over the counter.

“That’s what they say, at least. You won’t find much about it.”

He pauses. We don’t blink.

“There’s a reason for that. There’s your real story.”

He smiles, jots down a few reference numbers for me to look through some more rolls of microfiche that I never asked for, and passes me the slip of paper.

“Good luck. Maybe you’ll figure out what really happened.”

I turn and head toward the drawers of microfiche just on the other side of the Archives building.

Figure out what really happened?



I spend weeks following the old man’s advice and research all that was written about the mayor’s death. Smith & Wesson .32 caliber handgun “of the latest pattern” used; bullet enters through the right temple and exits just above his left ear; powder burns are light, and estimates are that the pistol was fired at least 8 inches from his skull. All this happening 113 days after the Great Baltimore Fire, 16 days after his runaway marriage to Mary Van Bibber, and four minutes after leaving his new wife alone in her study, just 9 feet down the hall.

None of this matters to me, though. After reading dozens of articles written about the fire and the mayor, I feel detached from all of it. Just words on pages printed 100 years ago.

I feel nothing.

So I decide that, tomorrow, I will visit Mayor McLane’s row house at 29 West Preston Street.


* * *


From Maryland Avenue I turn right onto Preston, and there it is. So anticlimactic, I think. I have passed this place so many times on my way to downtown Baltimore, realizing now that, for every block I drive through Baltimore–anywhere, for that matter–I am passing by history. Events unknown. Unrevealed. Still locked up behind sheets of plywood and plaster walls.

I park on Preston and stand in front of the row house where McLane died. In the late 1960s, The Greek Orthodox Church converted the mayor’s home and three others into an annex for its congregation. The other houses to the right along Preston are still in their original state. Time-worn planks of plywood cover first-floor windows, but the second and third-floor windows all seem to be of original, uneven glass; some are shattered where rocks have been thrown through, while others are intact but show their age, holding decades of dirt, pollen, cobwebs. These houses sag with the weight of history; even a fresh coat of paint along the gingerbread trim that adorns the windows and the edges of the roof would not reignite their charm. They are tired, ready for demolition.

I am disappointed, as I know the chances of ever getting inside one of those boarded-up row homes is remote, at best. Still, I need to see for myself the layout of the rooms, where Mary rested, where her maid Lizzie Redchurch ran up the stairs when she heard gunfire, where Robert McLane died.

I have to do this. I have to find some way to get into one of those original row houses, just doors away from the row house that Mary Van Bibber and Robert McLane called home.




The Thursday after I stood in front of McLane’s home, I meet my friend Trina at our local YMCA for our usual cardio workout.

I tell her the fascinating story of the end of the mayor’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death.

I share my frustration in not being able to get into one of those row houses across from the Greek Orthodox Church.

She looks at me in disbelief.

“You mean the Greek Orthodox Church on Preston?”

I nod, suddenly realizing the serendipitous connection my Greek friend, Trina Kalathas, has with the same Greek Orthodox Church across the street from where McLane died.

The same Church that had turned McLane’s house into a Greek Annex.

And, as my luck has it, the same Church that owns the rest of the row houses along West Preston.




Next day: overcast, with sporadic light rain.  Trina parks on West Preston, across the street from the strip of row houses, and we sit in her Hyundai as I replay the last minutes of the mayor’s life. We are here to meet Father Dean, who will unlock 41 West Preston for the first time in many years.

Father Dean is very busy. He is a harried-looking man who thinks first of his church, his mission, his people. He sits behind a desk in his rectory, a room filled with papers, books, and plaques on the walls. He seems eager to help, but first he has questions. Who am I? Why am I doing this research? How did the Church play a role in the story, both in the past and now? The church is celebrating its own anniversary soon, and he is concerned that some local writer spinning stories of murder in his annex will not be good for his parish.

I answer his questions and pledge a donation in appreciation for his time and for the opportunity to enter the row house.

A few minutes later, we are on West Preston Street, facing the row houses.

I shoot a few pictures of McLane’s house as well as the home a few doors down on the right. I frame the shot, and I see the row of houses return to their natural state, looking pristine. For a moment, I hear the sounds of the horses’ hooves in front of me, the bustle of citizens passing by to my left, then to my right on this holiday afternoon. Windows seem to be opened randomly along the second and third floors on this late May day.

Perhaps, I think, we will not be alone. Perhaps in the coming minutes we will discover some truth about the mayor’s death that had not been considered 100 years ago.

And if we are not alone, perhaps what we discover inside and on the third floor of 41 West Preston Street might just bring some relief, some resolution to those who join us, perhaps, in spirit.

I snap off two pictures, happy to capture this image.

I turn to Trina and the priest and nod.



Father Dean unlocks the first door, and Trina and I step into the small foyer area while we wait for the priest to unlock the second door. Fresh air mixed with rain mingles with the damp, musty smells of this tiny area. A gust of wind seems to breathe new life into these old walls.

In the low light the priest struggles to find the right key to open the main door. After several failed attempts, Father Dean smiles.

“Got it.”

The rush of the stagnant, cool air blows through the foyer, around us, and out the front door.

Father Dean steps out of the way. Trina takes the lead.

The stairs aren’t easy to climb; bulky banisters line each rickety and narrow flight of stairs. They twist sharply, always to the left, as they spiral up to the top floor.


The weather on the morning of Monday, May 30, 1904 was cool and calm with rain showers threatening from the northwest. McLane spent the morning with his new wife, Mary. It was Memorial Day, and all city offices were closed. He had no need to go into City Hall, had no meetings scheduled, and thus spent most of the day with Mary. Early in the morning he met socially with Mr. Henry J. McGrath, who noticed that the mayor was in an excellent humor, laughing and joking.

After McGrath left, McLane spent the next hour catching up on some memos and preparing for meetings later in the week with the Burnt Fire Commission, established to handle the aftermath of the fire just three months ago.

Mid-morning, McLane and his wife took a brief walk along Preston Street. They returned home just after 11 a.m., and McLane then scratched out a memo to Judge Henry D. Harlan, informing him about a meeting he would like to have the following day regarding the status of student examination papers he was reviewing.

In the early afternoon, he enjoyed lunch with Mary and his older stepson and retired with his wife to her study in the third floor front room of their upscale row home at 29 West Preston Street.




Trina and I reach the third floor, and I cannot believe how small the rooms are. I pictured bigger rooms, longer hallways, and plenty of space to move about freely.

Instead, the hallway is only four or five steps between Mary’s study and the mayor’s dressing room, where most of his belongings were packed. We compare the layout with the published reports of Mary’s home, and the only difference we can detect is that these rooms no longer have doors.

Each room is less than 14 square feet in size. Armoires, beds, and dressing mirrors took up the majority of the space available in each room. Add a fireplace against the right wall and plenty of boxes still unpacked from the move, and the McLanes lived in one very tight space.

Father Dean seems uneasy already. He has appointments waiting for him across the street.

We mark where the pieces of furniture would have been arranged: armoire toward the back against the left side wall, tall dressing mirror in the back left corner, and a large bed against the opposite wall, with the fireplace just to its left, and a small closet tucked neatly between the fireplace and the back wall.

After we determine where the furniture would have been placed in each room, Trina assumes the role of Mary and I the role of McLane.

We are ready to reenact the mayor’s final minutes.



At 3:11 p.m., Robert McLane joked with his wife in her study about the way she had tied up a bundle of clothes, presumably to be packed away for the summer season, and he made plans to take a second walk with her later in the afternoon, before the rains came. She thought the idea of a walk was good, especially after such a big meal, and asked only that she have the chance to rest a bit in her study, alone.

The mayor honored her wish.

“Well, I’m going over and straighten some things in my wardrobe,” he said, crossing into the hallway and leaving Mary in her study.

A click of her study door. The four steps to his dressing room in the rear on the third floor. And then, a second click, this from his dressing room door closing. Inside this room, he planned to unpack summer clothes he had brought over from his father’s residence, as well as some personal papers and letters, including a congratulatory letter he had received recently from his sister in France.

Two rooms separated by nine feet.

Silence followed for four minutes. Mary would tell authorities later that she spent those moments resting, alone, in her study.


Trina and I move to the front of the house, where Mary’s dressing room was. There, we talk and joke about bundles being tied up, taking another walk, and what we might do after dinner.

“I’m going to unpack a few things while you rest,” I say. I leave Trina in the front room, close her imaginary door, and walk the few steps down the hall to the back study, which I enter and pretend to shut the door to the hallway.

Our intention is to wait in our respective rooms for four minutes so that we can see how loud a gunshot might sound in contrast with the long silence. I don’t have a gun, of course; I plan on using the journal I brought with me and merely hit it hard against the wall.

Two minutes into the reenactment, a loud “Bang!” two flights below shatters our silence. It startles all of us out of the reenactment. Father Dean calls down the stairs to see if anyone is on the ground floor, but there is no answer.

Trina, closest to the stairs, goes down to the ground floor to see if we are no longer alone.



Breaking that silence at precisely 3:15 p.m. was a loud, sharp sound that was followed by a muffled thump, as if something had fallen. Mary later said that she was startled by the sounds, which she described as something like a shutter banging once against the back of the house, causing something to fall inside the back room on the third floor, where the mayor was unpacking.

She called Lizzie Redchurch to come upstairs to check on the mayor. Lizzie was already on the way, though, believing the noise to be more alarming.

She knocked on the mayor’s dressing room door.

No answer.

Lizzie turned, took three steps to where Mary stood in the doorway to her study.

“He’s not answering, ma’am. Shall I try again?”

Mary nodded.

“Open the door, Lizzie.”

Lizzie turned, retraced those three steps to the mayor’s closed dressing room door, and turned the handle.

At first she did not see him in the small room. She panned right to left, looking first over the bed at the fireplace against the right wall, then the small closet in the corner,  the closed window against the south wall, and then the dressing mirror, which stood tall in the far left corner of the room.

It was here that she saw the mayor’s reflection, a man dressed in a dark suit who did not, could not answer his maid’s persistent rapping.

Lizzie, her face now white with fear, looked over her shoulder to Mary and whispered, almost unable to speak, “Why, Mr. McLane has fallen down!”

Mary hurried to Lizzie at the other end of the short hall. Together, they entered the room and rushed to the mayor, lying on the wooden floor in front of his dressing mirror. He lay still as Lizzie kneeled to his side.

For a moment, silence returned to the room, as they thought the mayor had suffered a brief fainting spell. Lizzie put a hand on the mayor’s shoulder to wake him. But just as she leaned in to whisper his name, to nudge him a little harder, she noticed the blood that began to seep from where McLane’s head rested against the wood.

Lizzie Redchurch gasped.

“Oh, dear God.”

She backed away from the body and showed Mary the blood that was now flowing steadily from under the mayor’s head and along the floor.

Both Mary and Lizzie left the mayor and the room, screaming.

At 3:15 p.m., just four minutes following shared laughter with his new wife only steps down the hall in her study, Mayor Robert McLane lay dying.


“Just the second door slamming in the foyer. Everything’s fine.” Trina climbs the three flights of stairs and returns to Mary’s dressing room.

Trina and I try to pick up where we left off, but the noise terrified us, derailed us, and I think that Lizzie Redchurch must have been just as startled when she was on the first floor and heard the sound of a gunshot on the third floor. If that sound had been a mere four or five steps down the hall, it would have been so alarming that there would be no other possible response but one that was swift and immediate.

Father Dean looks at his watch and realizes that we have already spent more time in the house than he had planned. Back at the Church, several colleagues are waiting for him to return, and he urges us to wrap up our reenactment.

I feel that we need at least another hour to play out several scenarios of how the gun might have been fired, who else might have fired it, and how it eventually ended up under McLane’s body before he fell to the ground.

Begrudgingly, I finish the roll of film, taking pictures of every angle of every room. Father Dean waits for us downstairs, in the foyer.



 Much like the speed with which flames consumed six full blocks within the first hour of the Great Baltimore Fire, news of a single gunshot in the mayor’s dressing room spread quickly.

Soon after leaving the room, Mary composed herself surprisingly well and immediately gave orders to everyone in the house. She called her son, Ralph, to the third floor and sent him to alert Dr. A. Trego Shertzer, a physician who lived just two doors down on the corner of Preston and Maryland Avenue, and bring him immediately to help the mayor.

Mary then sent Lizzie to the home of Mrs. Elliott Schenck, a long-time friend of hers who lived just a few blocks away for help.

Within one minute of the events that had begun to unfold, Mary was alone with Robert McLane as he lay dying.

Ralph ran into Dr. Shertzer’s front office and screamed for help. The terror that filled Ralph’s voice startled Dr. Shertzer enough that he wasted no time asking questions. He grabbed his hat, ran past the young Van Bibber, and hurried to 29 West Preston. Within three minutes, Dr. Shertzer was by the mayor’s side.

When he reached the room, he found the mayor lying on his face upon the floor. His head was twisted toward his left shoulder and rested in a pool of blood that flowed from a “horrible wound” through the right temple.

He turned to Mary, who seemed to be paralyzed with fear.

“Mary, listen carefully. I need you to send out a summons at once to all of the physicians who can be reached.”

But instead, Mary did not move. “Good heavens! Why did he do it?”

Dr. Shertzer repeated the need for her to assemble as many physicians as possible, but only with stern encouragement did Mary eventually leave the room with Shertzer’s words of hope that, perhaps, more  physicians would help the mayor’s chances for survival.

But that was not Dr. Shertzer’s intention at all. In fact, he sent Mary out of the room to occupy her, to make her feel as if she could do something of importance to help her dying husband.  Later that night, Shertzer would explain to a Baltimore Sun reporter, “The moment I examined the wound I saw that the mayor could not possibly live, and I did not want to have the responsibility of being the only physician with him when he died.”

While he waited for other physicians to arrive, he placed pillows under the mayor’s head and body to bring some comfort, if any.

It was then that Dr. Shertzer first saw the gun underneath McLane’s body. He picked it up and examined it closely. The gun was fully loaded, with the exception of one cartridge, which he assumed had just been fired.

* * *

As Shertzer tried to comfort the mayor and examine the weapon, Lizzie Redchurch had reached the home of Mary’s friend, Mrs. Elliott Schenck.

Schenck wasted no time in sending Robert Kempf, a servant, to be with Mary. On his way to Mary’s row house on West Preston, Kempf stopped by the Central District police station to tell two officers on duty of the mayor’s condition. Both men had already heard the commotion on West Preston, however, and were preparing to go to the house to see what was the matter.

Kempf, Redchurch, and the two officers raced toward 29 West Preston Street.

* * *

Just moments after Dr. Shertzer discovered the pistol and returned it underneath the mayor’s body, Dr. Nathan R. Gorter arrived at the scene and was horrified by the mayor’s wound. He looked around the room, desperate to help in any way possible.

Dr. Gorter hurried to the only window in the room, just inches from the mayor, and opened it. A rush of cool, humid air filled the room.

Gorter encouraged Shertzer to move the mayor closer to the window, where he hoped the mayor would be more comfortable.

Dr. Shertzer hesitated. He wasn’t convinced that moving the mayor a few inches was going to make a difference in his condition. But Gorter ignored Shertzer’s concern and started to move McLane’s body across the floor, dragging the revolver still under his body.

Within minutes, three more doctors joined Shertzer and Gorter. William Greene, William T. Watson, and Joseph Baborg all entered the bedroom in equal horror at the mayor’s condition. The last physician to join the others was Dr. Claude Van Bibber, the brother of Mary’s first husband. Dr. Van Bibber had remained close to his sister-in-law in the years that followed his brother’s suicide. In direct contrast with the other five physicians surrounding the mayor, Mary’s brother-in-law seemed surprisingly composed and in charge, taking such actions as meeting with friends and members of the press outside to offer that, although there was no doubt that the mayor had shot himself, it looked almost certainly that the shooting was accidental.

In the mayor’s final moments, nine men surrounded Robert McLane, including Adjutant General Clinton L. Riggs, who had led his men courageously during and immediately after the Baltimore fire in February. He had heard the news of the mayor’s condition and rushed to his friend’s room, understanding the inevitable, yet wanting to be with him in his last minutes.

No reports documented the whereabouts of Mary in the mayor’s final moments.



Back on Preston Street, Father Dean looks for keys as Trina stands nearby.

Closer to the mayor’s home, I lean against the cold brick building in the light rain and stare up at the brick façade.

All is still.




Precisely at 4:55 p.m., one hour and forty minutes after the bullet had passed through the mayor’s brain, Dr. Claude Van Bibber made his way through the crowd, found a Baltimore City police officer on the edge of West Preston Street, and informed him officially that the mayor was dead.

It was only at this time that the police were involved in any capacity in the shooting, and now the death, of Baltimore’s mayor.

A death that, within 24 hours, would be declared a suicide, a “pistol-shot wound in the head from hand of deceased while suffering with mental dementia. Contributory cause of death is shock and cerebral hemorrhage.”

Case closed.



 Father Dean pulls the door closed, turns the lock, and gives the knob an extra twist.


He hurries back to the Greek Orthodox Church, and Trina and I head back to her Hyundai. We drive along West Preston and pass row home 29, then 41. Trina turns right on to Howard Street, and West Preston disappears.

I should be grateful of what we have already learned, but I want more. Being there, acting out some of the reports of Mayor McLane’s death, was not enough.

We inch our way through the city, crawling past buildings scarred by fires–some from long ago, some only hours old, still standing in outright defiance. They hold the reminders of how vulnerable we will always be to fire.

Trina turns on Charles Street. I close my eyes and listen to the sound of the windshield wipers scraping across the front glass window. I want nothing but for it all to leave me, dry up, go away. But I see orange. And red.





I open my eyes and catch the monitor: the peaks are gone; subtle bumps melt away into a flat line, and then the screen goes black.

“Do you understand what has just happened?” my brother-in-law asks.

I nod.

Jim, my brother, comes through the double doors. Enters the small room where Mom waits. One whisper heard now as he tells Mom that Dad is dead. She stands up, leaves the room, collapses in Jim’s arms, then disappears behind the double doors that open and close now as routinely as the chambers of a heart, allowing the stream of family members to come and go, come and go.




At a red light on Charles Street, I hear the wails of a fire engine approaching the intersection just ahead of us. A hook and ladder turns left onto Charles, and the KEEP BACK 500 FEET sign fades from my view as the truck weaves its way through snarled traffic before turning right and disappearing down a side street.

Wipers sporadically clear the light mist from the windshield.

Gas fumes mixed with rain find their way into the car. Swirl around me.

Trina asks what our next move is.

I wonder how significant it is that Mary’s first husband died as mysteriously, why the Baltimore Police weren’t more involved between the time the gun was fired and when the mayor drew his last breath, and how a town, still reeling from the devastation of the fire that burned down its city, dropped this story within hours of the mayor’s graveside service.

Was it just as ridiculous for me to chase it, especially when the likes of H. L. Mencken scratched out only a few sentences about the mayor’s death decades later, alluding to McLane’s inability to handle the stress brought on by the aftermath of the fire?

I’m no Mencken, but I can’t let this one go. My research on Mary ends in New Jersey in the form of a postcard-sized picture of her, decked out in burlesque clothing and, from what I can gather, married again.

“I think our next move is to head north. See what Mary was up to after she left Baltimore. Up for the chase?”

Trina nods, the light turns green, and we go with the whish of the wipers clearing the rain.

“Fire and rain,” she says, and I laugh.

“Yeah, Fire and rain.” I add, as we drive north, suddenly in silence.



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