January 10, 2013 | Volume 43, No. 1

Adventure, faith at center of Hertz book

Erwin Hertz says he realizes the stories in his recent memoir defy belief – but he believes, and he wants others to as well.

Erwin Hertz

Hertz’s own children questioned inclusion of some of the stories in his new, self-published memoir “Journey to Eternal Life – Alaska Style!” which intersperses high adventure and perilous moments with spiritual messages.

In the book, Hertz literally meets an angel, experiences a vision of Jesus, wrestles with a demon and performs an exorcism. He also survives electrocution, a fall off a cliff and a logging accident after which he was considered dead. And they were just some of his scrapes.

The logging accident broke his back, an injury he’s lived with for half of his 76 years, in contradiction of doctors who say he shouldn’t be walking around. His spine was fused, but it broke again 10 years later.

“I could not make this stuff up,” Hertz said in a recent interview. “My life was spared more than once. I didn’t understand it. I can’t explain it. I can’t even try, but it happened.”

Hertz has worked as an electrician in Haines for more than 40 years. He raised four children here and organized Fourth of July and Southeast Alaska State Fair events for decades, including competing in the logging show.

He attributes his survival and his relative good fortune to his faith. “God was faithful, as he was with every fall and every uneven step of my life,” he writes at the end of one episode.

Hertz considers himself a survivor and calls himself a “prayer warrior.” His book, he said, isn’t about him, but what God has done for him and for some of his family and neighbors. By his account, that’s amounted to a lot of protection.

Growing up with five brothers on farms in rural Montana was a boy’s dream and a kind of prep school for swashbuckling, as Hertz tells it. “We jumped off barns onto horses’ backs, leaped off cliffs into the river…sometimes on horseback. We had lots of freedom with guns… We raced horses, cars and motorcycles. We would put on cowboy chaps and played in donkey basketball games. Boy, those donkeys could bite.”

Scenes in the book include being saved from electrocution by a horse he was riding after foolishly touching two electrical lines in an attempt to impress a date, and a moment of teenage gunplay when he was spared from a shotgun blast at close range when a friend pulled a trigger – but the shell didn’t discharge.

Some of the stories not in the book include being below decks on a Navy ship when a fire threatened to explode the vessel’s boilers, and being shot in the head at age 7 while tossing aloft bottles for an older brother who was firing at them with a .22 rifle. “I thought I was bulletproof growing up. One day my brother shot me in the head and I found out I wasn’t bulletproof,” Hertz said in an interview.

That some remarkable stories get only a cursory mention in the book were decisions by an editor, who pared Hertz’s 250,000-word manuscript to 60,000 words.

Hertz said some friends and family are disappointed he wrote a religious book, but he said he couldn’t write any other kind. God saved him, literally and figuratively, Hertz said, and he’s hoping the book can save others. “People need to know what’s inside this book,” he said. “I want to go to heaven and take as many people with me as I can.”

Hertz was raised Catholic and aspired to the priesthood at a young age, but his religious study started in earnest after being crushed by a falling tree while logging near Mosquito Lake in mid-December, 1964. “I wore the Bible out,” he said.

In that accident, Hertz said he left his body and looked down from above as other loggers, including buddy Pat Sullivan, gathered around him. “All the guys came over to look at me. Nobody knew what to do. Nobody knew CPR back then. Pat said, ‘He’s dead. I’m going back to work.’”

“Where I was was very peaceful. I had complete peace with everything. It was amazing. I didn’t want to come back. I didn’t even think about my wife. I was kind of shameful about that,” Hertz said.

He describes “laying” back into his body, as the pain of his injuries moved upward from his feet. With no clinic in Haines and his wife eight months pregnant with their first child, Hertz didn’t worry much about his injuries. Juneau doctors became alarmed when he kept lying down in his pregnant wife’s hospital bed.

A spinal fracture was diagnosed when he was admitted to a Seattle hospital in February. “They said, ‘How’d you get in here?’ I said, ‘I walked in.’ They said, ‘You’ve got a broken back.’ I said, ‘I knew something was wrong.’”

For 10 years, Hertz lived with a fused spine and a drug regimen he said made him sick. When the fusion failed, he quit the drugs and started hanging upside down and taking dunks in Lynn Canal to ease the pain. He built up his abdominal muscles to support his torso and sometimes gives demonstrations of fingertip push-ups.

He said he “pretty much” has his chronic pain under control. He runs and lifts weights to keep his back limber. “When I’m feeling fragile I can feel I need to hang for a while.”

Besides his own recovery, Hertz finds God in a lot of places. His book recounts helping others find God in their personal struggles, including through a prayer group that meets regularly in the back of the Pioneer Bar. A prayer circle, he wrote, helped Haines High School secure a second state basketball championship in 2010. Star player Kyle Fossman made two remarkable steals in the final seconds of the game to ice the victory.

“Some might call it a miracle. Once again for me, God confirmed he answers prayers of every kind,” Hertz wrote.

The exorcism he describes – performed with a former Catholic priest – was of a local woman distraught after the death of a daughter. “We have the authority to cast out demons. A lot of Christians are miserable because they don’t do it. They live with crap.”

Besides religion, Hertz’s book describes athletics and outdoor recreation as an inspiration in his life, and the life of his family. Daughter Mary Hertz holds several Haines High School basketball records.

“I don’t want to be sitting in a doctor’s office in my old age. I won’t do that. It’s a great life, but you have to do things. I’m going to die with my boots on,” Hertz said in the interview.