NEVER MORE THAN 500 FEET!
© 2000, James Likens.
It all started one
evening in 1964 when my father walked through the front door of our house with a 16mm Bolex camera under his arm. It was said that he bought it from a friend of his who had burglarized a house
. To me, a 16 year old high school student it didn’t matter because I didn’t know what a 16mm Bolex camera was anyway.
He handed it to me and told me to go make some money with it. Being an
enterprising young man, I and the camera made a trip the next day to KOCO-TV Channel 5. I went to the receptionist, asked to see someone in the news department and finally got to
meet the news director John Harrison.
He told me they needed a “stringer” on the south side of town. A “stringer?” I
thought to myself, “What in the world is a stringer?” Well, in the “business” a
“stringer” is a free lancer. Mr. Harrison showed me how the camera work, gave me two rolls of 16 mm film and told me to go shoot it up.
On the way home, I stopped at a stoplight. Looking down the alley, I saw smoke
coming out the back of a house. I pulled around the corner, pulled up in front of the house and got my Bolex out. I wound the spring-wound motor and started shooting film.
The fire truck was coming down the street. Oops! Guess whose car was parked
in front of the house.
The firemen jumped from the truck, entered the house and pulled two elderly
ladies out. The house, within a few moments was fully involved. I shot an entire roll of film, went home, called the station, and that night, October 18th, 1964 became one of
the youngest television cameraman/reporters in the country.
Throughout my high school years, whenever I heard the siren of a fire truck, I’d
call the dispatcher downtown and off I went chasing the fire truck. I was never more than 500 feet behind.
I became known as “the kid with the camera.” I became familiar with many
firemen throughout Oklahoma City. I loved the rush of adrenaline. I loved the excitement. I loved the firemen! And, I was never more than 500 feet behind them.
One night I got a call of a fire in a store in downtown Oklahoma City. Many
businesses had done extensive remodeling in an attempt to draw shoppers back to the downtown area. Many had built false fronts on their stores. Moments after I arrived at
the fire, and before I began rolling film, a three story false front fell. Two firemen were standing at the door of the building. They disappeared in the crashing debris. I stood
there in silence. I went back to my car. I sat there. I was alive and they were dead. I went home and never shot a foot of film. Ten thousands times ten thousands I have
seen that image of that wall coming down and those two firemen disappearing in the flames. It was like they were swallowed by hell.
After going to college and getting married, we moved to a small town in Western
Nebraska. It wasn’t long and I was once again a television reporter. In the early 1970s, Gordon, Nebraska was one of only two communities left in the country with an
operator assisted telephone system. In other words, we didn’t have dial telephones.
What this meant for the local volunteer firemen was that the telephone operator
on West Second was the dispatcher. When a fire happened, the victim simply picked up the phone, told the operator where the fire was, the operator set off the fire siren,
each fireman had a red light on the phone line on the switchboard, and the operator told him where the fire was.
I never got a red light put on my phone line, but the operator knew who it was
and would tell me what was going on. Again, I was never more than 500 feet behind the fire truck.
Covering fires out there in the Sandhills of Nebraska was different. It wasn’t a
stranger whose house was on fire, it was someone you knew. It wasn’t just a wild fire
on the prairie, it was a friend’s ranch on fire. It wasn’t just a dead cat, it was the cat that always got in your garbage.
One particular summer day, the temperature was at 106. The humidity was
about 8%. In the Pine Ridge area of Western Nebraska, a forest fire started. The 30 mph winds turned Chadron State Park into a living, breathing fire storm.
My wife’s uncle, Gealy Mathis, was the local fire chief. I found him at the
command post. I wanted to get on the back edge of the fire and chase it, much like I chased the fire trucks. He told me not to go back into the fire. Me? Do something that
stupid? Of course!
I found a road that led me to the back edge of the fire. The view was magnificent
. The beast had a growl and roar that shook the ground. I was watching a wall of fire work its way up a small canyon. I was standing between two Ponderosa pines, each
about 80 feet tall. The fire seemed so far away through the viewfinder of my camera. I
didn’t notice the blowing embers. I didn’t understand what “crowning” meant until the
two 80 foot pine trees instantly ignited. I was standing between the pillars of the gates of hell. The crowning trees took all of the hair off my arms, my eyebrows, eyelashes,
and much of the hair on both sides of my head.
As I turned to run, I fell. Embers were falling from the two trees and most of
them were landing on me. It hurt like hell. It seemed like every time I got up to run, I fell again. I dropped my camera and left it on the ground.
The trees were out just about as fast as they started. I retrieved my camera and
found my way back to the command area. My wife’s uncle looked at me. I told him what had happened. He just shook his head. You see, I should have never been more
than 500 feet behind the fire trucks.
In 1978 I went to a Lutheran seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN to be a Lutheran pastor.
It wasn’t long before I was, in addition to being a full time student, a reporter for the local ABC station. Again, I was chasing fire trucks, but never more than 500 feet behind.
My career as a professional reporter ended in 1981 when I took my first call to a
small Lutheran church in Western Nebraska. But I never lost my desire to follow those trucks. There was a mystery about those men and women who fought fires. They
didn’t do it be heroes, but many were. They didn’t do it to show they were brave, but bravery was seen at every fire. They did it to serve.
Nearly twenty years after chasing fire trucks, I had the opportunity to write a
song as a tribute to honor the 109 fire fighters who lost their lives in 1999. The song was to be used in a music video. We began an almost impossible task of producing a
song and editing a video. As I sat there at the editing system, once again, I found myself wanting to never be more than 500 feet behind those trucks.
Well, one morning I woke up and looked in the mirror. There were black spots
all over my face. I was terrified. I called my doctor and the nurse said to go directly to the emergency room. I went immediately.
They didn’t put me in the waiting room, they took me to a treatment room
immediately. It wasn’t long before a young doctor entered. He didn’t say much. He
looked at my face, examined the spots with a magnifying glass. He scraped a little skin off and left. When he returned he walked in and sat down.
“Mr. Likens we’ve only seen a few cases of this before.”
“Oh my God!” I thought to myself, “I’m a dead man.”
“Doctor, look I was a parish pastor for many years and I can take the bad news,”
I said. “You don’t have to beat around the bush.”
“Well, speaking of bushes, did you happen to pass any when you walked into the hospital,” he asked.
“Why would you ask that,” I quizzed.
“Did you have a desire to lift your leg and urinate on the bush?” he asked.
“What!” I said. “Raise my leg and urinate! What do you think I am, a dog.”
“Mr. Likens, bear with just a moment,” he said patiently. “Were you ever a television or newspaper reporter?”
“Yes,” I answered.
The doctor left out a sigh of relief. I was confused. What did black spots on my
face, wanting to raise my leg and urinate on a bush and being a reporter have to do with each other?
“Mr. Likens,” he asked, “how long has it been since you chased a fire truck?”
“About 20 years,” I answered.
“Have you recently come into contact with any fire fighter and had the desire to chase fire trucks again?
“Well, I wrote this song called “Warriors of the Flames” and have been editing a
video with a couple of fire fighters, and I have to admit that I really miss never being more than 500 feet behind a fire truck. But what does all of this have to do with these
spots on my face,” I asked.
“Mr. Likens, you have Dalmatian Syndrome.”
“Dalmatian Syndrome?” I asked. “What in the hell is that?”
“Mr. Likens you have an intense need to chase fire trucks. You have broken out
in what we call Dalmatian spotting. We notice it in old reporters and old fire fighters,” the doctor explained. “There seems to only be one cure.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Keep very close to a fire truck and never be more than 500 feet behind it!” he said.
Well, to all you fire fighters who are reading this, I’m right behind you. But be
assured, I’ll never be more than 500 feet behind.