Tom Swift Among the Fire Fighters
or, Battling Flames From the Air
By Victor Appleton ©1921 Book #24
Review by JP Karenko, September 2005
Full-color image courtesy of Carl Swanstrom
Duotone image courtesy of Mark Snyder
Note: some of the language, references & attitudes, while acceptable at the time they were written, are not Politically Correct, today.
No official summary was ever provided with any of the old Tom Swift books. However, without giving too much away, the plot can be summed up as follows:
Upstate New York is suddenly in flames! The Shopton fireworks plant and a large lumberyard go up in a colorful display. A farmer's barn is set ablaze, boats and trees mysteriously burst into fiery bloom, and finally, a skyscraper in nearby Newmarket all provide fodder for Tom's latest brain-child, an aerial fire suppression system.
In addition to the trials of perfecting a new area of inventive endeavor for Swift Construction, human interest issues also abound. A research chemist, working on a new dye formula is swindled, Eradicate Sampson is severely injured in a chemical explosion, and Tom further ingratiates himself with the Nestor family, by rescuing not one, but two family members from fiery death..
How all this transpires, you will have to read the story to determine.
This book is available on line at: Tom Swift Among the Fire Fighters
Cast of Characters (More or less in order of appearance)
Tom Swift-Intrepid inventor & mechanic. Plucky, lively, resourceful, brave and clever. Home-schooled at a college level by his father, Barton Swift. Athlete and hunter. Familiar with how to stalk game and firearms. Loves all things mechanical. Is a decent cook, too.
Ned Newton-Chum & companion of Tom. No description given. He has resumed his position as Swifts' financial advisor and CFO of Swift Construction Company.
Eradicate Andrew Jackson Abraham Lincoln Sampson, A.K.A. Rad-Aged stereotypical Negro journeyman jack-of-all-trades. "Eradicates dirt." Now is suffering the ravages of old age, including difficulty moving and "having de misery in his back." Described as "tottering." Boomerang, his faithful mule, has passed on and gone to wherever good mules go after a long life. Eradicate has now "become too old to do much," but remains faithful to Tom and helps out where he can. Constant rival and antagonist of giant Koku.
Koku-Giant manservant of Tom. Devoted, loyal, and possessed of great strength, but apparently somewhat limited cognitive facilities. Described as "simple and child like," he is antagonist and rival of Eradicate.
Officer Cassidy-NFN or description. Shopton beat cop. Irish (of course...)
Miss Mary Nestor-Betrothed love interest who lives on the east side of Shopton, next to a large Flaming Fireworks Factory. Described as a "fair young woman with flashing brown eyes." Blushes easily, especially around Tom.
Mr. and Mrs. (Amos) Nestor-Parents of Mary. No first names or descriptions, in spite of ongoing, and sometimes major roles in these stories.
Shopton Firefighter-No name or description, other than possible cardiac problems.
Shopton Hospital Doctor-No name or description. Ministering to fire victims.
Josephus Baxter-Research chemist at Shopton Fireworks Factory. Despondent after fire destroys his lab at the fireworks plant.
Mrs. Baggert-Housekeeper. Kindly, and "loves Tom like a son." Employed by the Swift family for almost 20 years at the time of this story. She is short of stature and has to stand on a soap box to kiss Tom goodbye on one of his voyages.
Barton Swift-Widower. Wealthy and conservative. Inventor master machinist and holder of numerous patents. In this episode, he is described as "suffering the infirmities of age," Mr. Swift, has failed in his health of late, and is "all but retired from business."
Mr. Wakefield Damon-Elderly & eccentric adventurer whose main purpose in life seems to be blessing everybody and everything near his person. Apparently quite wealthy.
GP Doctor-No name or description. First responder who treats Rad's eyes when he is burned in a chemical explosion.
Dr. Henderson, Oculist-NFN or description. Specialist called in to treat Rad's eyes.
Proprietress, The Meadow Inn Roadhouse-No name or description. Walk-on role.
Waiter, The Meadow Inn Roadhouse-No name or description. Walk-on role.
Amos Field-Small, short man with deep rumbly voice. Co-owner Shopton Fireworks.
Jason Melling-Large, tall man with squeaky voice. Co-owner Shopton Fireworks.
Mechanic, The Meadow Inn Roadhouse-No name or description. Helps Tom fix his disabled aeroplane.
Barton Keith-Maternal Uncle of Mary Nestor. Financier & businessman.
Deputy Chief, Shopton Fire Department-No name or description. Walk-on role.
Fish Bait Picnickers-No names or descriptions. Rescued from sinking boat on Lake Carlopa.
Uncle Jasper and Aunt Noname Blake-Mary's kin, living in Newmarket. Jasper is an antagonist of Barton Keith. Auntie is a faceless walk-on. See Errata.
Newmarket Fire Chief-No name or description. Impressed by Tom's Aerial Antics.
Newmarket Beat Cop-No name or description. Impressed by Tom's Aerial Antics.
The Scud is a generic speedy aircraft. It is fitted with Tom's silencer system, a self-starter, and seems to have a cabin for comfort in travel.
Lucifer is Tom's aerial fire-fighting platform. It holds 4 passengers and sufficient extinguisher chemical to douse a large fire. A self-starter and Swift Silencer, plus dual controls are also mounted. The frontispiece illustration shows a bi-plane configuration, a la Curtis Jenny, but it must be much larger to hold 4, plus a bomb load.
Lucifer also carries a Swift designed analog bombsight that allows the accurate placement of the extinguisher bombs. The sight will compensate for altitude, A/C speed and wind. Possibly, this is the seed idea for the famous WW2 "Norden Bombsight."
References are made to a future "cabin airplane" and a "hydroplane" able to land and take off from open water. No parts are played in this story, but a Flying Boat turns up two episodes into the future.
Commentary on Society, Attitudes, Environment & Errata
It's amazing how much technology and society have changed. Reading the old Tom Swift Sr. series has really given me an appreciation of some of the modern gadgets that I've come to take for granted. Society's attitudes have changed, greatly, too. I wonder what people will be taking for granted 100 years from now, and what they will think of our "modern" society and its' mores (or lack of them...)
Attitudes and Prejudices- Language usage was "quaint." Alembic ( a still used in chemical purification and concentration, ) Arnica ( an herbal remedy used to treat sprains & bruising ) and Murolla ( a pastry ) were all made reference to. "Taking a peep thru the hole in the grindstone" was one of the descriptive folksy tidbits quoted. Airplanes are no longer aeroplanes. Now, they have fuselages, carburetors (instead of carburettors) and make forced landings, rather than vol-planing. Tom's house still has a "piazza" instead of a porch, which leads me to think this author is the same one who wrote Big Tunnel.
I'm of the opinion that Tom's firefighting aircraft should have been named Prometheus, rather than Lucifer. Prometheus, the Greek god who brought mankind fire, also brought "signs in the sky." http://messagenet.com/myths/bios/promethe.html Lucifer brings nothing but chaos and evil. Plus, there's the "falling" part of fallen angel...
Errata- After four books in a row in Waterford, NY and two more in Waterfield, in the previous tome, Mr. Damon's home town was not mentioned at all. In this one, in one reference, Tom goes to Mr. D's home in Waterfield, but is said to have traveled from his home in Waterford, earlier. The current tally of Damon's many moves stands at 11-Waterfield, 6-not recorded or confused, and 10-Waterford, for 24 volumes, to date. The numbers don't total, because two volumes have him residing in both places at the same time and six others either do not specify a town name, or have multiple references that change. This one is classified as 'confused,' but leaning toward Waterfield...
Mary's Uncle Barton Keith is said to be her maternal uncle in the previous volume. In this tale, she also has another uncle and aunt named Blake. Auntie Noname must be the blood relative, but like almost all female characters (and virtually all medical professionals) in these stories, she is a transparent nobody that doesn't even rate a description.
Medical professionals do make house calls, but their ministrations seem limited to administering "calming potions." On the other hand, an "Oculist" pulls off a miraculous cure on Rad by unspecified means. Rad's eyes were burned in a chemical explosion.
Speaking of Rad, he would own Swift Construction lock, stock and barrel after being near-blinded while mixing chemicals at Tom's direction without due care by his employer. No safety equipment of any kind was used and "tottering" Rad should never have been tasked with this hazardous job, unsupervised. "There was a "jar, a rush of air and the dull boom of an explosion," followed by Rad crying out in pain. Tom's inane comment is "I hope nothing serious has happened..."
Engineering and Science, Fact vs. Fantasy
The concept of flying over a burning building in a slow-flying wood and fabric kite, painted with flammable lacquer, that is almost certainly leaking oil (and maybe gasoline,) frankly scares the daylights out of me. That aside, the idea of bombing a fire from above is well documented and is commonly used, today, if not for burning skyscrapers.
The practical details of aerial fire-fighting are available with the most cursory Google search. There is good info on current military technology at http://www.afrc.af.mil/302AW/maffs.htm
How the "bombs" are constructed and the fire-suppression chemicals used in the story aren't real, though. No amount of Carbon Dioxide dumped into a large blaze from above would have the slightest effect. The tornadic updraft created by the heat of a large blaze would dilute and dissipate the gas. The quantity of suppressant required to fight a large fire is in the range of 40 to 60 tons of material. Well beyond the lift capacity of any 20's style aircraft.
302nd Military Air Wing Hercules Dumping MAFF Suppression Chemicals
Geography- Shop-town (Shopton) is once again said to be named after the Swifts' factories. Swift Construction has continually grown, and is now surrounded by a high stockade fence. It is said that the proximity to the plant has made the Swifts' Victorian-style home "unpleasant in summer." A cottage, further out in the country, is said to be used as homestead during the warm months. The "residential section" of Shopton is said to be near a river. This was mentioned in the previous volume as "on the head of a bay" with apparent access to the Atlantic Ocean. Lake Carlopa is not mentioned by name, in this tale. Newmarket is said to be the nearest large city with "New York-style skyscrapers." I'd think Albany (mentioned in the 1st episode) would fit this bill, better. Shopton had previously been placed more-or-less on Lake George (Carlopa), in upstate New York "near the Canadian border." (See Giant Searchlight, Vol. #15.) The city of Denton is said to be 400 miles distant in a unspecified direction. Perhaps consistency in geographical location and detail wasn't important to the host of ghost-writers that churned out these tales. Lack of coordination has reared its' ugly head, before...I like my stories at least nominally uniform, as it makes them flow better.
JP Karenko 9/11/05
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