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Testing 'Full Moon Fever' With Chesapeake Firefighters

The Virginian-Pilot via YellowBrix

July 27, 2010

CHESAPEAKE, VA – Tim Woodland does not believe the moon is a barometer of human behavior.

He has been with the Chesapeake Fire Department for 30 years and can give you plenty of anecdotal evidence to back this up. He will not say he has seen it all, but he has seen enough to tell you that crazy can happen whether the moon is full or smiling like a Cheshire cat.

Still, Woodland notices the moon one sultry Saturday morning in June as he drives to Fire Station 2 in the city’s Portlock section for a 24-hour shift. It is a perfect orb glowing blood-red in the early light.

It looks, well, ominous — the kind of moon that brings out the craziness.

We’re here to test that theory.

The full moon made them do it.

Savvy English lawyers used that defense 200 years ago, arguing that our natural satellite spurred a kind of temporary insanity and caused people to do, well, unnatural things.

We’ve heard the lore: More babies are born under a full moon. Dogs bite and werewolves come out. There are more shootings and suicide attempts.

Car crashes spike, and inmates get rowdy. Emergency call centers light up, and emergency rooms fill up.

The full moon can turn a stable person into a lunatic. Just look at the word — from the Roman goddess of the moon, Luna. That’s how people referred to the insane centuries ago, and they believed such a state waxed and waned with the moon.

To some degree, we still buy it.

Psychology Today cites a 15-year-old study claiming that 80 percent of mental health workers believe in the power of the moon.

Emergency responders also give credence to the notion. They are front-line soldiers who see the best and the worst of us.

Anything strong enough to control ocean tides is strong enough to control us, or so the logic goes. We are, after all, mostly water.

Ask just about any of the guys on Woodland’s shift.

You’re answering call after call. There’s been a shooting and a stabbing and a car wreck and a heart attack. It’s like everybody’s gone nuts, and at first it doesn’t make sense. Then you look up and notice it: a shining moon as round as you’ve ever seen it.

Call it an old wives’ tale, says Lt. Lawrence Matthews, but “I think there’s some truth to it.”

Maybe it’s the gravitational pull. Maybe the moonlight keeps people out longer and up later. Or maybe people see the full moon and take it as a license to let loose a little.

“You certainly don’t look forward to it,” says Lt. David King of Fire Station 1. “I can’t say we look at the calendar and plot it.”

This day, firefighters have given little thought to celestial matters. Now, they are watching Team USA end its run in the World Cup on a corner television in the kitchen.

Woodland returns from a medical call. As battalion medical supervisor, the captain oversees a chunk of the city where emergency calls include murders, fatal car crashes, falls, suicide attempts and a whole lot in between. Fire Station 2 is one of the busiest in the city.

Woodland’s call was about a woman wielding a knife. It sounds bizarre, he confesses, but it isn’t.

The station knows her well. She is in crisis most days.

So far, the shift has been slow. Woodland might even say that out loud if he acknowledged such things.

But he is not without superstition. To utter a word like “slow” or “quiet,” to say “I haven’t run a call all day” or “we haven’t had a shooting lately,” is to unleash the opposite.