Unexpected gifts are often the best, and I received a wonderful present from a Chicago firefighter: the sheet music for a song that honored my great-grandfather Chief James Horan and the twenty men that fell with him on December 22, 1910. It’s called “The Heroes of the Stockyard Fire” and Horan’s face is on the cover.
Last year, on the anniversary of the fire, a monument was dedicated to these men, along with all Chicago firefighters who have died in the line of duty. We froze our butts off at the ceremony but our hearts were warmed by the recognition they finally received.
Now, a song; I couldn’t wait to hear how it sounded. So, a few hours before we hosted a party for my siblings, Ricefest we call it, I called my neighbor and asked if she was busy.
Like most women in Forest Park, she didn’t have much to do with Christmas only three days away. I brought the song to her house, which was filled with presents and wrapping paper for some reason. She put aside the paper and played it through on her piano. It sounded like ragtime, with a touch of Irish melody. She claimed she was tired of wrapping and wanted to practice it.
An hour later, my fondest dream was realized when she brought over a recording of the song. Now, I could pass out the words and we could all sing it at the party. Well, we never quite reached that stage, because it would have brought the whole shindig to a stop. But maybe we’d sing it on Christmas?
The song says that we praise heroes that fall in battle, “Yet, strange it seems, there is seldom a whisper of praise for the boys who died fighting the flames.” It recounts how, “The stockyards were burning, the firemen responded with galloping horses and clang of the bell. The scene of the fire was one of great grandeur; a sight, awe inspiring; a sight never forgot; but not among Horan’s brave squad was a coward, and each went to duty and shared the same lot.”
It speaks of how the men stuck with their duty, “until a wild yell of warning rang out; but it was too late to save them; the walls topple over; beneath them they fell.” The song ends with “Three cheers for those heroes that fell in their effort to save human life at the cost of their own.”
By Christmas, my brother-in-law had recorded the song on CD but our voices barely ventured to sing the unfamiliar words. The next day at lunch, I showed a friend the song and she sang it out beautifully. We were in Berghoff’s, not realizing this would be our last meal in a restaurant that has been our family’s favorite for more than fifty years.
Before spring comes, I’ll visit the monument to the heroes of the Chicago Fire Department. It’s not far from where “The Heroes of the Stockyard Fire” fell. I’ll be freezing my butt off but I’ll let those guys know their bravery lives on in steel, story and song. Thank God for unexpected gifts and wonderful piano-playing neighbors.