“A woman was in front of the house…desperately pleading for the firefighters to rescue her two nephews who were trapped inside. With heavy smoke coming from the home, Captain Gregory Lee Renz knew that if the boys were to have any chance of being rescued, he had to get to them quickly. Without regard for his own safety, he descended the basement stairs and began to search for the boys.”
What a hook to a novel about the perils of firefighting. The only thing: it isn’t.
That’s not a book excerpt. It’s a partial description of the real-life heroics that earned Gregory Lee Renz induction into the Fire and Police Hall of Fame in 2006 among those who put themselves in harm’s way for the safety of others.
Renz applies his first-hand experience as a decorated firefighter to his searing, emotional debut novel Beneath the Flames (HenschelHAUS Publishing), eight years in the making and releasing this month from Three Towers Press. With Renz, you are in the hands of a reliable guide and deft writer as he captures the fraternal bond of this unique band of heroes.
The author provides an inside look into the stereotypical locker room camaraderie, as well as the technical procedures of the profession. More importantly, though, we are able to glimpse the trials of an emotionally and physically demanding vocation – one steeped in morality, heartbreak, physical challenges and the pressure of split-second decisions that mean life or death.
Sometimes the only way to cope is with humor that might seem distasteful — but who can blame them? “Look, we see shit nobody should have to see,” says one character. “I know it’s sick…but that’s how we deal with it. Lost some good firefighters over the years who couldn’t.”
Renz is a firefighter-turned-storyteller. And how fitting, given what he describes as “an endless well of stories and colorful characters to draw from” spanning his years of fire service.
Beneath the Flames focuses on a near-perfect protagonist, Mitch Garner, an all-American type who represents all that’s good and tries to do what’s right. But Garner can’t seem to get over his few imperfections: He is human; he makes mistakes, things happen beyond his control. He is prone to wallowing in self-inflicted blame but also uses his guilt as motivation to try to give back, help others and make a better world.
Mitch works on his family farm and is a volunteer firefighter. He finds himself rushing off to a fire at a neighboring farmhouse. He does all he can, but the outcome is tragic. He blames himself for the tragedy, and, compounded with other issues, considers suicide. Yet the events of 9/11 put things in perspective for him. He is so inspired by the firefighters’ bravery that he makes a radical decision to apply to join the Milwaukee Fire Department full time, leaving behind the farm, an angry dad, and a confused girlfriend for a blighted, dangerous inner-city neighborhood.
While Mitch is a hard worker and team player, he has rookie slip-ups, with both performance and dealing with other personalities. One intriguing character is Ralph, a veteran crew member who seems to have it out for Mitch the second he enters the firehouse. It’s a fascinating relationship worth following.
As Mitch struggles with the complexities and culture of the job, he continues soul-searching and contemplating whether it is worth sticking out. But salvation comes from a strange source. As part of a fire department mentoring program, Mitch is tasked with tutoring some kids from a home in need across the street from the firehouse. Despite a difficult start, Mitch perseveres – and commits to make a difference in their lives.
Inner peace is not something Mitch can readily achieve. As he later says, “It never seems like enough. I feel I’m chasing something just out of my reach. And I don’t have a clue what it is.”
It’s easy for him to get discouraged – the kids have their issues, and there is the specter of the One-Niners street gang looming over the neighborhood, presenting threats to the children and their families.
Yet Mitch finds support from the likeable Miss Bernie, the mother of one of his firefighting friends who takes Mitch in as a border: “Let me tell you something Mr. Mitch. Think the only way to save people is pulling them out of burning buildings? These kids around here are dying just like if they are in a fire. They’re just dying slower…Want to be a hero, figure out how to help those young’uns. Might help put out what’s burning inside you.”
On one level, Beneath the Flames contains moving life lessons, sprinkled with messages about friendship, relationships, race and the perils of a dangerous profession. It’s about a personal pursuit of excellence, the obstacles in achieving said excellence, and coming to terms with sometimes falling short. It’s about rooting for the good and having faith in convincing, uplifting characters.
It’s also about taking chances and stretching the boundaries to rise to the top. As it states (in part) in his book and prominently on Renz’s website: “First rule of firefighting is to never enter a burning building alone. Sometimes rules must be broken, much like in writing.”
Beneath the Flames is available for purchase now.
About Gregory Lee Renz
In 2006, Gregory Lee Renz was inducted into the Fire and Police Hall of Fame for the dramatic rescue of two trapped boys from their burning basement bedroom. In 2008 Captain Renz retired, exchanging his turnout gear for a writing desk to pursue his passion, storytelling. After eight years, numerous creative writing courses through the University of Wisconsin, countless workshops and conferences, Gregory finally typed “the end” to his debut novel Beneath the Flames.