A journalist, historian, and biographer, David Halberstam brought his idiosyncratic and stylistic approach to heavy subjects: the Vietnam War (in 1972's The Best and the Brightest); the shaping of American politics (in 1979's The Powers That Be); the American economy's relationship with the automobile industry (in 1986's The Reckoning); and the civil rights movement (in 1998's Freedom Riders).
His books were loaded with anecdotes, metaphors, suspense, and a narrative tone most writers reserve for fiction. The resulting books -- many of them huge bestsellers -- gave Halberstam heavyweight status (he won the Pulitzer for international reporting in 1964) and established him as an important commentator on American politics and power.
Halberstam was also known for his sports books. In The Breaks of the Game, which a critic for The New York Times called "one of the best books I've ever read about American sports," he took on professional basketball.
In The Amateurs, he examined the world of sculling; in Summer of '49 and October 1964, he focused on two pivotal baseball events: the Boston Red Sox's exasperating near victory over the New York Yankees for the 1949 pennant, and the 1964 season, when the Yankees lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. In 1999's Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, Halberstam documented the making of a legend.
Always happy to extend his reach well beyond the subject at hand, Halberstam packed his books with social commentary as well as sports detail.
His writing routine was as strenuous and disciplined as that of any of the athletes he wrote about. To sustain his steady output of extensively researched, almost-always-massive books, he allows no unscheduled interruptions: "Most of us who have survived here [New York] after a number of years have ironclad work rules. Nothing interrupts us. Nothing," he once wrote in The New York Times. "We surface only at certain hours of the day."
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David Halberstam's first job was as a reporter for a small-town Mississippi newspaper.
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Halberstam discussed his book Firehouse with Barnes & Noble.
Firehouse is about a single Manhattan firehouse and what befell its men on 9/11. You normally write on a much larger scale -- what prompted you to write this story?
I think a writer should be able to write on any scale, large or small, adjusting the mood and texture of the writing to the events he or she is writing about. I've written on a small scale before -- in any number of my sports books and to some degree in a book I wrote on the civil rights kids I knew, The Children. I think the writing should fit the needs of the story. In this case, an apocalyptic event hit one intensely human institution located very near my home, and I wanted to tell the story of the men and the women who had their lives torn apart by that terrible day -- who they were and why they did what they did. And I suppose I wanted to do it because I'm a New Yorker and the assault on the World Trade Center was very personal, an assault on the city I live in.
From reading your book, it almost seems that the men who were off duty that day have suffered as much, if not more than, those who perished. Why do you think that is?
It's because the firehouse is so much an extended family. The men live together and eat together and risk their lives together, and so in any real sense they are family. The relationships are very close. The very nature of the job brings out a rare dependency -- if you don't do your job well, the fireman next to you may lose his life. You can't say that about many peacetime jobs. And of course, the firemen always knew there were going to be bad days when sometimes you lose a man, or very bad days when you might lose two. But to lose 12 men from a house and 343 from a department -- so large a part of an immediate family -- that's something none of them could have imagined, not in their wildest, darkest nightmare.
So it's very hard to lose so many loved ones, and of course there's always survivor's guilt. That is, the other men who were off that day wondering why they lived and their closest friends died.
What kind of man walks into a burning building, when everyone else is running out?
I think there's a nobility to the men I dealt with, a certain unstated religious calling to what they do. It's not something they talk about, but it's there. I think it has to be -- after all, there's a willingness to sacrifice your life for complete strangers. When I was a young reporter in Vietnam almost 40 years ago, I saw great acts of heroism, but when someone scrambled under fire to rescue another grunt, he was always saving a buddy. But the firemen do it for strangers. So it's part of a calling, and I feel it has serious religious overtones.
Many of the lost firefighters were following in their fathers' footsteps. Do you think the sons of those who died saving others will carry on that tradition?
I think there is a code to the firemen that I've dealt with, and from the time they go into the department, they have made the decision to take a certain kind of risk. And the risk can be terrifying, even though it is not necessarily a daily thing. But it's always there -- the sense that the next fire might be the one that you don't come back from, that there are no immunities. And so I think the firehouse has codes that work toward sustaining that special unflinching quality of courage, toward making almost reflexive those traditional values and willingness to take risks. You have to do the right thing because you may endanger your fellow firemen if you don't.
What was it like spending so much time with the surviving firefighters, as they coped with the tragedy?
I liked the men very much, and I liked all the families very much. I liked the sense of humor and how straightforward everyone was. I liked the high sense of civic virtue -- that these are men who feel they want to use their lives for something larger than themselves. If you work as a reporter for 47 years in a democratic society as I have, one of the things that keep you going, is, for lack of a better phrase, the nobility of ordinary people. It's what democracy is premised on -- that at difficult moments, ordinary people will stand up and do uncommon things. And I found that at the firehouse.
In addition, the fact that no one there does "spin" -- that is, try to con you -- is thrilling. So all in all it was very rewarding for me as a journalist; I felt very much like the young reporter that I had been in Vietnam a long time ago, that being a journalist really mattered. And I like the raucous, sardonic nature of firehouse humor. Just the other day, one of my pals who likes to drink a bit was undergoing blood tests. There was fear he had hepatitis C. And the joke at the firehouse was that they all hoped that the tests would show that it was only cancer because then he could keep on drinking.
What's the mood at the firehouse right now?
I think it's a very hard time. I think for a time the men were all carried forward by how much they had to do -- looking for the bodies, dealing with the families of their dead colleagues, dealing with all the public rituals and ceremonies. And now that that's all done with the reality really starts sinking in -- that they lost 12 good friends and it's never going to change. Never. In the end the reality is unbearable. Their friends are never coming back. And that's very hard.
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