Three Ways That Writing Helps Us Lead Better Lives

Endless road image

Endless Road by The Friendly Fiend (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Before I delve deeply into the intended topic of this post, which is three ways that writing helps us lead better lives, I have a few things to say.

First of all, it has been a while since I posted to this blog, almost a month, in fact. Incredibly, the number of visitors to this blog has not slowed during my absence. In fact, I would say it’s even grown slightly. (I credit that to the automated tweets I scheduled out a month or so ago that continue to publish and send visitors to this site.)

However, it is now time to say, well, “I’ll see you later.”

I Won’t Say Goodbye, My Friend

“I’ll see you later” is not the same thing as goodbye. And you know what? I WON’T say goodbye. As Tom Petty once memorably sang, “You and I will meet again / when we’re least expecting it. Somewhere in some far off place / I will recognize your face. I won’t say goodbye, my friend / for you and I will meet again.”

However, I am now at a place where the road of my life bends in an unexpected direction, and I must head off down a new path.

It has been my intention over the past year or so to continue to improve my blogging skills and develop this blog to generate an audience of readers for my fiction. I am about 40 pages into a long short story called Wichita Snake, which has been exciting to write. Many of my blog posts have provided historical context for that story. I learned a lot about the history of Wichita, Kansas, I’ll tell you that much!

I won’t say goodbye to that story either, however; I will merely put it aside for a while. I also have my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, to continue to think about.

What’s Been Going On

However, a separation from my spouse earlier this year has brought me to a place where I am compelled to pursue a different endeavor, at least for a time. If it were only me in the muck, I doubt very much I would change course. However, I have a young son to think about, as well as obligations I feel are mine regarding his future welfare.

One cold winter in Carbondale, Colorado in 2007, I read How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey. One bit of advice he offers to strengthen your writing is to minimize the impact of friends and family on your time; that didn’t go over well with my sensibilities and it was all I could do not to chuck the book out into the deeply swelling piles of snow.

At the end of the day, and I suppose every writer or artistic individual must make this same kind of reckoning, I choose my family over my art. Or at least, I should say, I choose my young son, since he is in no position to make his own choices and look after his own welfare. He relies on me and I feel obliged to be there, as his father, for him.

With that said, there remains good news regarding what lies down the road for me. My future endeavor will include creating an online presence with a lot of writing. The writing will not be fiction. But I feel fortunate to say it will help support a peaceful separation for spouses who believe the end of their relationship has come.

My wife and I passed through a collaborative process of separation, which means we both met with our respective attorneys on several occasions, outside the court system, to agree upon the terms of our separation. We have not, in other words, pursued aggressive litigation and did not stand before the court to let a strange judge determine the fate of our, or our son’s, future welfare.

Not enough couples perhaps know that such a thing as collaborative divorce exists. The process brings a kind of dignity and respect to the process of separation, that can assist in the healing process that must follow for both spouses and the rest of the family.

This is Where I’m Going With It

My day job involves marketing professional services for an accounting firm in Bethesda, Maryland, and so my online presence will reflect my interest in helping attorneys who practice collaborative law to market their services. The broader the reach of such attorneys, the easier it will be for more adults to know there is an alternative to drawing a line in the sand and looking at their spouse in a faltering marriage as “the enemy”. I believe in treating others well, no matter the circumstances of the relationship.

It has been my experience that most people who disappoint others do so not out of deliberate cruelty but out of choices they have made for their own lives, which just happens not to align with the goals or dreams of those around them. Of course, there are exceptions. There are people who intentionally act to destroy the hopes of others. But I have been fortunate enough (for the most part) to not have to experience such nastiness.

I have no idea if this new business will generate clients or enjoy success. It is exciting, though terrifying too, to pursue a kind of entrepreneurial enterprise. I also feel it is the right step to take at the moment. Emotions attached to my separation and the economic challenges of my current lifestyle often interfere to cloud my judgment and make me re-think the choice I am making. Have I mentioned, this is quite scary?

But I have had friends and family support me during this time. Even if I do not now live the kind of life I ever expected to at age 42, the next day beckons and I must act. I draw upon my optimism and upon the discipline and will power which, years ago, helped me earn a black belt in tae kwon do. As I also mentioned above, one positive aspect to this path before me is the ability to continue writing.

Three Ways That Writing Helps Us Lead Better Lives

And so, to address what I have always believed is true about writing, in fiction, in essays, in poetry and in so many other forms of writing, I list here the three most important ways that I believe writing helps us lead better lives.

1. Writing reflects our ability to hope. The world is flesh and bone. It is meat and hard corners and dust that turns to flesh and then back to dust again. Life follows the laws of nature and sometimes of man, and it is unforgiving in its punishment of even small mistakes. In this tough world, writing provides sustenance to our minds, where thoughts and emotions act unshackled.

Writing offers the freedom of words, the freedom of expression, unbound from cruel walls. That humans can even be capable of this offering, as delivered through intentional language–through writing!–is a testament to the unconquerable hope of the human race.

Despite the hardships, the poverty, the wars, the struggles, the cruelties and all the malevolence that could so easily bury and defeat us beneath the weight of anguish, yet we write. We push against the wasteland laid out before us. We cry, we scream, we shout–what exists here for my five senses is not enough. Our mind’s vision blazes with a chariot of truth roaring confidently into the So Much More beyond our physical experiences. Though we have little tangible evidence of it, we write to demonstrate our hope and our unshakable faith that this greater world we forge via our words, is one in which we expect to live. It is the world, believe, we deserve. Writing reflects our eternal hope!

2. Writing reflects our ability to celebrate the accomplishments of our lives. We have no record of our lives except in writing. Each moment of our lives passes and without that record, those moments become discarded to the past. Do we not wish to treasure them, remember them, celebrate the fact that those moments happened?

Each moment we pass through is a bridge to something new, something we never could have experienced without that bridge. Our lives are composed of a series of bridges that we survive and celebrate. They are all we have and, truly, even in the occasional sorrowful moment, we live and breathe through them. Each moment is an accomplishment. Our lives are lines, leaving memories in their wake that must be recorded. We must celebrate.

3. Writing reflects our capacity to love. Yes, I borrow from the first letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, Verse 13. “And now, these three remain, hope, faith and love. And the greatest of these is love.” Truly, this blog post could have substituted the second reflection of “accomplishment” for one of “faith”. It was actually not until this very moment, as I write these words, that I am struck by the fact that the word “faith” does indeed make an appearance under my argument for hope.

Is writing a kind of religion? Have our religions not been passed down to us in written form? The Bible, the Bhagavad Vita, the Koran, the Vedas, the Torah, the Dhammapada. These have all carried the wisdom of ages, the wisdom of kind, good and sacred behavior. And the basis of so much religion, or philosophy, or of wisdom is love, love, love.

We hope because we care. If we did not care, there would be no reason to hope. If we did not believe in the value of our lives, we would not record the accomplishment of the passage of our moments. We love our lives, we love life, no matter how twisted and disappointing and cruel it is. We unstoppably believe those sorrows are something apart from us, something not meant for us.

We believe we are here to connect, to support each other through robust bonds of shared experience in this wasteland of disappointment. Our love is the flood that flows between us, that nothing can stop, that nothing would dare try. Our words flow with love: one person speaks and the other absorbs. Our eyes, our arms, our bodies, our words.

We get distracted by the sad periods of our lives. I get distracted by my failing marriage and my hard circumstances. You get distracted by some other sorrow.

Yet we write, and we love.

Nothing can ever stop that. Nothing ever will.

Amen.

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Wichita Commercial Club – Business Beginnings

Before The Wichita Commercial Club: Cattle Trade and Cowtown

“Cow Statues in Wichita” by Joseph Novak is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Old Smokey Jones is on the membership committee of the Wichita Commercial Club. I have no idea if such a committee existed at the club and my guess is that it did not. I made it up for the purposes of my story, Wichita Snake. After all, this is fiction. But Old Smokey was wise to position himself within the organization since he would end up extorting cash and assets from the club’s “members”. You need to know who you’ll be dealing with, in other words. One might wonder why anyone would join the club under such conditions. Well, as Mary at Earp’s Haven points out to Glen Marshall, non-members receive even worse treatment.

The Wichita Commercial Club, founded in 1897, is recognized as one of the first commercial organizations to emerge in Wichita following the city’s heydey as a thriving cowtown and its subsequent bust as the railroads (and the local station) moved west.

Wichita Commercial Club: Pride and Attitude

In preparing this post, I read through a 1910 entry about the Wichita Commercial Club by its president at the time, Charles Smyth. Presumably, neither Smyth nor any of the club’s other officers would have had to deal with a nefarious personality such as Old Smokey.

The personality of Smyth’s entry about the Commercial Club’s achievements in just over 10 years can, instead, be characterized with two words: pride and attitude. That may have had something to do with the fact that the club was, at the time, in the process of getting its own building after leasing space from a bank for several years.

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It also had to do with the fact that, in Smyth’s telling, the local businessmen who still remembered the thriving days of cowboys and cattle drivers, and the first Santa Fe railroad stop in town, had not lost their spirit in the lean years that followed.

Wichita’s Cattle Trade and The Lean Years

It helps to know a little something about how Wichita earned a place on the map. In the mid-19th century, a good part of the nation’s central region was still unsettled and many travelers crossed the virgin prairie on their way to the West Coast. (Nearly 60 years later, Glen Marshall and his bride Abby Maris in Wichita Snake intend to make the same journey, though by train now and not wagon, before they ran into trouble.)

But the history of so many towns and cities is tied up in the presence of a watercourse, and Wichita is no different. Many settlers heading west in the 1850 and 1860s passed by the confluence of two rivers–the Arkansas and the Little Arkansas. Many kept going but others got caught up in trade and hunting with the local Indians, who were also attracted to the presence of water. Oh, and the local Indian tribe was, naturally, the Wichita.

The town of Wichita, Kansas was incorporated in 1870 when growth was already so rampant that the town’s first newspaper, the Wichita Eagle was founded only two years later in 1872. What made the population swell was more than just the reputation among westward-bound wagoners that this was a place to check out.

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The advent of railroads in the United States earlier in the century included the development of stations in locations to facilitate the movement of cattle and agriculture to markets nationwide. Jesse Chisholm had arrived in Wichita when it was still a settlement in 1863 and forged a cattle trail (known subsequently as the Chisholm Trail) up to Wichita from Texas. Cowboys and drovers now had an easy, straightforward route for driving cattle up to the railroad, earning money for their trade and then spending it in the local vicinity, especially in the nearby and infamous vice-ridden locale of Delano. The cattle trade was what most spurred the emergence of Wichita as a well-known cowtown.

By the late 1870s, the railroads moved west and the cattle trade that had meant so much to Wichita went into fast decline. Agriculture sustained Wichita for a while throughout the 1880s and a board of trade emerged. But these were also, comparatively, the beginning of the community’s lean years.

Let’s Get Back to Business! 

The Wichita Commercial Club, when it was founded in 1897, was originally called the Coronado Club and was intended primarily as a social club for successful businessmen. But as Smyth points out in his history some 13 years later, both pride and vision spurred the founders to develop means by which Wichita could emerge again as a town to be reckoned with. Some of the group’s earliest forays were in the grain and milling business.

The club, for example, brought such businesses as the Watson Milling Company and the Kansas Milling Company to Wichita. It also helped reopen a former packing plant that had fallen on hard times and expanded a railroad connection to connect with the Union Pacific.

The Wichita Commercial Club also promoted local events such as the annual Peerless Prophets Jubilee, a civic festival held each fall starting in 1908, and sought to promote Wichita as a destination for out-of-staters seeking a new home.

In explaining the founding and investment in the Commercial Club by some of the area’s most talented business leaders, Smyth explained: “No city ever grew largely without the aid of a strong commercial organization. The modern city that outstrips her neighbors is not always the one of favored location and rich surrounded territory. Wichita prizes its commercial club.”

The Wichita Commercial Club Finds Its Own Home

It’s hard to tell from the existing document online what made Smyth write his history when he did but it could very well be that the Commercial Club was about to get its own home. In the club’s first years and leading up until the expiration of its lease, members of the club met in rooms on the upper two floors of the town’s National Bank of Commerce.

Smyth is obviously quite excited at the prospect of the club not renewing the lease but, instead, getting its own building. The club purchased property on the site of a former Baptist Church on Market and First Street. At this pivotal moment in the club’s emergence, Smyth also chose to look backward to its first roots:

“The early day commercial organizations held their meetings in wood shacks, where the members at on nail kegs and cracker boxes. But the spirit of acquisition was there in the tiny wooden quarters just as it now permeates the atmosphere about the clubrooms of any of the three Wichita commercial organizations today.

It is the same spirit that is now prompting the business men of the city to reach out for new trade by means of a trade extension excursion. Forty years ago Wichita was nothing. Today it is a city of about 60,000 inhabitants, growing at the rate of 5,000 to 10,000 persons each year. New industries of all sorts, brought in through the influence and assistance of the commercial organizations, are largely responsible for this rapid increase in population.”

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Membership, he finally notes, grew from approximately 200 individuals in 1904 to close to 400 by the time in 1910 when the Wichita Commercial Club was to have its own building.

What Was Going to Come for Wichita

Smyth did not know it but would have been even more excited to note how equally prosperous years lay ahead for Wichita, somewhat due to the accomplishments and public relations contributions of he and the club’s founders.

The plains around Wichita became a great spot for the nation’s first generation of aviation entrepreneurs and inventors such as Walter Beech, E.M. Laird and George Weaver. Wichita’s Spirit AeroSystems is the city’s largest employee today. It originated as part of the Boeing Company of Seattle, which was founded by Lloyd Stearman, another Wichita airline visionary in the first years of the 20th century.

In the early 21st century, we read routinely of cities that were made by a single industry and then struggled to re-emerge following that industry’s decline. Detroit and the automobile industry, Pittsburgh and steel, Youngstown, Ohio and coal (and steel again). The list goes on. Wichita was incorporated in a flash in the mid-19th century and, despite the fact that it is not recognized as a major metropolis such as San Francisco, New York, Washington, DC and a number of other cities (it is, in fact, listed by Wikipedia as the nation’s 49th largest metropolitan region), the community was, even at its beginning, a place that never had a problem rebounding from dips or declines in its fortune.

Wichita kept building on its earlier success with even greater achievements.

It is clear, reading President Smyth’s account of the early years of the Wichita Commercial Club, that the local business culture combined a can-do-attitude with an entrepreneurial spirit and an indefatigable optimism. In Wichita Snake, Old Smokey introduces his city to Glen Marshall in the back of a dry goods store. This was three years before the Wichita Commercial Club left the bank for its own building. But Old Smokey had ambitions of his own and, during that encounter, he had already succeeded, at least in my fiction, in bringing a good part of the town’s commercial interests under his ruthless thumb.

The real story of how Wichita prospered is even more commendable, no less because it was driven by the good guys.

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How a Major Life Change Took Me to Sri Lanka II

Sri Lanka - Joe and his students.

Sri Lanka: The author and his students (Spring 1998).

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Ernest Hemingway introduced me to the world of modernist fiction, which I studied at Fordham University, and the world of experience, which had as its pinnacle the year I spent as a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka. Read that post by clicking here.

I also wrote about how, following a year teaching English in Kandy, Sri Lanka, a suicide bomber blew himself up close to my home, which led to the evacuation of the volunteers from the country. Well, evacuation may be too strong a word, but a security officer flew over from Washington, DC to evaluate the situation and he determined that the best thing to do was send the volunteers home.

Goodbye, Sri Lanka! My Return Home.

I returned home to New York in April 1998 after a three-day layover in Bangkok just in time to re-enroll in the summer semester at Fordham University, from which I had taken a leave of absence to teach overseas. I only had one course left before having to take my comprehensive exams and graduating with a Master’s degree, so I figured it would be a breeze to finish up.

In the meantime, the Peace Corps explained they would find a new opportunity for me to serve a full two-year overseas assignment. That’s the Peace Corps for you, to their credit (or to their desire to keep their volunteer numbers up). Whenever volunteers get evacuated from a country due to a political or security situation, those volunteers are put in the front of the line, before all current applicants who haven’t served yet, to get them back overseas before they have a change of heart and decide to stay stateside.

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Well, so I ended up back at my parents’ home in upstate New York, and, as part of my cultural readjustment, this is what I went through. It was astonishing to see couples holding hands in the street (can they do that here?), to drive on paved roads, to experience hot showers and 24 hours of electricity, and to not have to step aside for gangs of scruffy-looking mongrel dogs self-importantly trotting by. There were no saffron-robe-wearing Buddhist monks, no sarongs to tie clumsily around my waist, no media stories of army advancements near Jaffna, no being stared at (because being white was no longer a phenomenon) and no British drama to give my opinion about. I mean, I was American. How can I possibly have an informed opinion about the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death or the restoration of Hong Kong to Chinese home rule?

But what I expected to happen didn’t happen. Which is to say, when I returned home, I had a pretty clear commitment to finishing my Master’s degree that summer and then returning to a new overseas assignment sometime in the fall.

This is what happened instead.

An Unexpected Turn of Events

When I got home, I started reaching out to Peace Corps communities in the New York state and metropolitan regions. It was something our close-of-service facilitators had told us to do during our final days in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The purpose of these facilitators, it must be said, was to ease our transition back home. We would feel empty and alone once we returned to the United States, we were cheerfully told, because of the intense experience we had just had. Adjustment can be challenging. So, they suggested, reach out to others in the Peace Corps community who knew what you had gone through.

That meant, of course, staying in touch with my friends who I had just served with in Sri Lanka. But it also meant local folks in New York who I might potentially connect with in person. There was about a month of down time between my arrival back in the States and the beginning of the summer semester at Fordham University, so I had time to email tons of Peace Corps-type people and institutions that I researched and found online.

(I also managed to accidentally stumble into a Sri Lankan Tamil separatist chat room and got belligerently screamed at for working with the Sinhalese, but that’s another story.)

I didn’t really expect anything from those emails other than perhaps some sympathetic replies from former volunteers who knew what I had gone through and who told me best of luck with the adjustment period. That’s what I received. And it was helpful. Really, it was.

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Well, but then I also received, unexpectedly, an email from John Coyne, the director of the New York regional Peace Corps office in the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. The office had a contract position open and would I be interested in learning more about it? Now THAT was a surprise. My parents’ home in the Hudson Valley was about 60 miles north of New York City, so I was able to take the Metro North railroad down without an issue, met John and the Peace Corps public affairs director, and pretty much had an offer to do some marketing and recruitment for the next several months.

During the train ride back upstate, I was stunned to realize this situation, if it worked out, could work out quite well, in fact. At that point, I hadn’t yet decided whether to move down to the Bronx to finish up my final class and study for my comprehensive exams at Fordham, or stay with my parents. The additional income from working for the Peace Corps would make this decision easier so I started reaching out to some friends in the Bronx, many of whom I had studied with at Fordham University before going overseas, and quickly found another graduate student named Elson was looking for a roommate.

So I got the job at the Peace Corps, I enrolled in my final modern poetry course and I moved down to the Bronx where I got a chance to socially reconnect with my friends, which greatly helped ease my transition back to the United States. Based on what I had heard from the close-of-service facilitators back in Colombo, I was expecting hardship, turmoil, anxiety and a sense of loss upon my return to the States. And well, yes, I suppose that did happen. But for the most part, I just started recreating myself in New York and had little time to invest much in those emotions. I got busy!

And I can’t take credit for it either, let’s just set the record straight on that. Sometimes shit just happens and it works out for you very well. It doesn’t happen all the time, but it does happen sometimes. If I don’t want to take the blame when things head south, I suppose I better not take credit when accidents happen that send me northbound either!

One thing to keep in mind, too, is that this was 1998, so my contract position at the World Trade Center wasn’t going to ironically send me from dangerous suicide bombings in Asia to a “safer” environment where I somehow got caught in the middle of 9/11. No, that didn’t happen. I missed the airline attacks by three years though I still have my employee tag from my tenure at the World Trade Center and will treasure it until my dying day.

Back in the Bronx

The next several months were an exciting blur. I was living a life I never imagined I would follow my tenure in Sri Lanka. I attended evening poetry classes and commuted to work via the D train from the Grand Concourse to Columbus Circle, where I transferred to the 1/9 train, which went down to the World Trade Center station. I read a lot on the train and silently mocked out-of-towners heading to the Staten Island Ferry who kept calling Houston Street “HEW-ston” Street, like the city, rather than “HOW-ston” Street, which was its accurately pronounced name. I was moving quickly from grungy, exhausted, footsore volunteer to New York snob. I started wearing black again.

John Coyne was more than my boss at the Peace Corps; he was my first mentor. He had more of an impact on me than I bet he realizes though I expect that is likely the case for a lot of returned volunteers he groomed. He served in the early 1960s and, like many volunteers from that generation, he attached deep meaning not just to the Peace Corps but to the fact that it was started by John F. Kennedy and Sargent Shriver. Peace Corps volunteers are typically known as Kennedy’s kids. Years later, I met Shriver at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and had my picture taken with him and another volunteer. I’m frustrated I can’t find the picture now, but I’m sure it’s buried in a box somewhere.

John was also a writer and an editor. If you’ve read part one of this blog series, you know my love of the written word drove me to discover Hemingway and pursue a life of experience. So John and I hit it off on the literary level too; he published a regular newsletter about Peace Corps writers and asked me to pen a book review of Paul Theroux’s latest, Sir Vidia’s Shadow, which I was reading at the time. In the months and years to follow, I would write many more reviews for John. You can link to them all from this blog, since John ultimately ended up publishing the newsletter online.

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John extended my original contract until the end of December and then at the end of the year, he….well, I’ll get to that shortly.

So my transition to the United States arguably was to have taken me away from the world of the Peace Corps and return me to the world of the United States. But based on where I ended up in the regional Peace Corps recruitment office, surrounded by other former volunteers, it didn’t quite end up that way. It only got stranger when I began to receive calls from my Peace Corps placement officer in Washington, DC. He had originally assigned me to Sri Lanka and now he began tempting (and then pleading with) me to take a new teaching assignment in either Kenya or the Philippines.

You believe that? I mean, the reason I wasn’t ready to go overseas again (aside from trying desperately to wrap up a Master’s degree in English) was because I was already working for the Peace Corps stateside. I was entrenched in one division of an organization that was trying to send me elsewhere. It was one of the more surreal experiences I have had in my life. I still don’t think my placement officer has forgiven me for staying….

There were indications at the university, too, that I wasn’t quite in re-entry mode.

During a Halloween party at a friend’s apartment, some graduate students showed up as characters from classic literature. I work a batik shirt and a sarong, a common outfit in Sri Lanka.

I had also gotten a part-time job teaching English as a Second Language at a local language school in the Bronx. Typically, when my graduate school friends and I would head down to Manhattan, we walked a quarter mile up Fordham Road from the university to the subway station, not really interacting much with the local population.

Now I had a community presence, though, and I would catch my students, who were primarily from the Dominican Republic, passing me by on the sidewalk, enthusiastically waving and calling out to me. The father of one of my Korean students owned a local convenience store and she–my student, that is–bought me an occasional cup of coffee.

You Can’t Go Home Again

And then, it happened, the incident that made me realize that I could no longer return to the university and pretend I hadn’t been changed by my time overseas.

Now keep in mind my original plan in enrolling at Fordham University several years previously was to study to become an English professor. I had studied English as an undergraduate. Two of my best friends at SUNY Binghamton had been as dedicated as I to the study of literature, and I was sure the three of us would ultimately end up teaching at universities across the land.

Well, I finished the modern poetry course and it was time to study for my comprehensive exams. My concentration, as I mentioned in Part I of this blog series, was modernist literature. My particular area of concentration was fiction but the exam would cover poetry as well, and so I had to delve into the likes of William Carlos Williams, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens William Butler Yeats….and W.H. Auden.

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One evening, I got back from work at the Peace Corps office and headed over to study at the library. It wasn’t crowded and I pulled a stack of books off the shelves and plunked myself down in a carrel toward the back. Within about 10 minutes, though, I realized this study session wasn’t going to go anywhere.

I had opened a volume of Auden to a poem entitled September 1, 1939. It starts like this:

I sit in one of the dives 
On Fifty-second Street 
Uncertain and afraid 
As the clever hopes expire 
Of a low dishonest decade; 
Waves of anger and fear 
Circulate over the bright 
And darkened lands of the earth, 
Obsessing our private lives; 
The unmentionable odour of death 
Offends the September night. 

Accurate scholarship can 
Unearth the whole offence 
From Luther until now 
That has driven a culture mad, 
Find what occurred at Linz, 
What huge image made 
A psychopathic god:  
I and the public know  
What all schoolchildren learn, 
Those to whom evil is done  
Do evil in return. 

I have never been the most gifted interpreter of poetry. But I was struck by the fact that Auden was deeply ruminating about a powerful event, in this case the outbreak of World War II, in New York City (“I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-Second Street”) and sought to understand the experience through the lens of scholarly study (“Accurate scholarship / can unearth the whole offence…”).

I had not had time to process my year in Sri Lanka nor, in particular, my close encounter with a suicide bomber. Events had happened much too fast since my return to New York. Auden’s sense of overwhelming emotion in the face of a carnage was, in other words, exactly the emotion I had not given myself time to experience since my return. I specifically remember how I stopped reading at that point, put my elbows on the desk and buried my eyes in my hands for several, long moments.

My emotions had finally seeped through the lens of academic study I had long put before most things in my life, as emotions surely overcame Auden in the face of incomprehensible slaughter. There is no comparison between the outbreak of a world war and the tragedy of a civil war in a single small country such as Sri Lanka unless you’re given to believe that the unfair, violent death of even a single human being is sufficient cause for sorrow.

Foolish me and the desire of youth! Hemingway had shoved me in the direction of worldly experience. Once I arrived, Auden showed how I must feel about the whole thing. Equally painful was the realism that emerged at the poem’s end. It was a journey for Auden as well.

In the poem’s original incarnation, Auden ends the poem with the line: “We must love one another or die”. The line began to annoy him (rose-tinted glasses perhaps?) so he removed it for a while. Then, when Auden finally restored it, the line read with the hardest realism possible: “We must love one another and die”.

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There is no escaping death but the world’s ultimate wisdom is that we must love each other in the meantime. This was not something I wanted to study. It was something I wanted to know. Living in a nation that had experienced civil war and living in a city that came close to rioting because of a suicide bomb..those things can’t help but remove you from your cerebral world to place you squarely in the world of physical being.

I ended up earning a high pass in my comprehensive exams. The results came out in late November and when I attended the English department holiday party a few weeks later, both Professors Sicker and Stadler came over to say they looked forward to continuing to work with me when I was enrolled in a doctoral program. It wasn’t even a question of “if” in their minds. I, however, felt as though I was floating above my own experience, not quite certain which way I would go, not quite sure what was next.

Back in the Peace Corps office, my contract was about to end later that month. My university crowd and my Peace Corps crowd did not know each other and had nothing in common with each other except me. I had told John about my situation at the university. I hadn’t told him about the extent of my commitment to a doctoral program, but he must have guessed, based on the way I was going out to happy hour with the recruiters, dating a former volunteer who had served in Africa, attending Peace Corps picnics in Sheep Meadow in Central Park, and staying late at the office, that I had some hesitation about remaining in academia.

My placement officer hadn’t called in some time–he had likely given up on me–but I wished he would call because I was in serious need of direction. I was ready to go anywhere if only because I had nowhere else to go. An intense seven months in New York City was ending and, with the unexpected explosion of emotion, the future was a blank page.

What’s Next? Hello, Washington, DC!

John helped out again. The editor of a Peace Corps newsletter dedicated to job postings for volunteers returning to the United States was going on maternity leave at, well, at about the time my contract in New York was ending. The job was down in Washington, DC. It was only a three-month contract and I would have to get there and find a place to live in, um, two weeks, but it was a next step if I wanted it.

Sometimes life reads like a story. Sometimes life IS a story. My parents and sister hadn’t had the chance to spend the previous Christmas and New Year with me because I was in Sri Lanka. They were less than enthralled now when, this year, I spent a good part of the holiday in my parents’ home office checking out WashingtonPost.com for a place to rent for when I arrived in the national capital.

I had never been in Washington, DC before but I was up for anything. It might be three months or, hey, I might stay longer. Who knew? The DC metropolitan region is where, 15 years later, I now write these lines.

My father drove me to the Port Authority in mid-town Manhattan to catch a Trailways bus down the I-95. We were both quiet during the drive. Things for me had been moving very fast for the past few years. Alaska, upstate New York, the Bronx, Sri Lanka, the Bronx again and now Washington, DC, all in a two-and-a-half year period. I never knew if I was coming or going. Sometimes I had to remind myself where I was.

Before I got on the bus, my father asked if I needed anything. I said thanks, I didn’t need anything, I was fine. I was 26 years old. A few minutes later, the bus crawled out of that long Port Authority tunnel into sunlight only to disappear again, moments later, into the Lincoln Tunnel. It was dark and I felt safe enough to think about September 1, 1939 and how it had made me feel. It made me feel all caught up again. I was on the move again.

I certainly wasn’t going to be a professor. I wouldn’t pursue my PhD. But my life had most certainly arrived.

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Early Railroads in the United States

69 Workmen

“69workmen” by Andrew J. Russell (1830-1902), photographer – National Park Service. The First Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869.
Celebration of completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad at what is now Golden Spike National Historic Site, Promontory Summit, Utah. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons, PD-US.

After Glen Marshall arrives in Wichita, Kansas in 1907, in Wichita Snake, he descends to the railway platform from the Will Rogers, a passenger train that represented part of the St. Louis-San Francisco Railroad, which ran from St. Louis through Oklahoma City and into Wichita. The “Frisco” line was part of the Missouri and Central Division of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. Interestingly, despite its title, the Frisco never came closer than 1,000 miles to San Francisco, the city for which the line was named.

Railroads had been a part of the American transportation infrastructure since the early 19th century and served the quickly emerging commercial and personal transportation needs of a relatively new country. The completion of the first transcontinental railroad, which joined the Central Pacific line and the Union Pacific Line in Promontory, Utah in 1869, created an astonishing new way for Americans to travel from coast to coast, as well as expanded access to markets for farmers and ranchers. The famous “cowtowns” in the 19th century, of which Wichita, Kansas was one, owed their livelihood to the availability of gas-mechanical and, after the turn of the century, gas-electric and diesel locomotives.

Early Railroads: Travel in Style!

Early railroads, meaning those that came online before the turn of the 20th century, remain impressive from a historical perspective, even today, for two reasons.

One, they very quickly accommodated themselves to the convenience of travelers with water closets, carpets, gas lamps and Pullman cars that allowed night-time travelers to convert their walkover seats into two-tiered sleeping berths. Although most such cars provided only open-section accommodation, meaning passengers had to share their sleeping quarters with strangers, curtains could be pulled between sleepers and the aisles, allowing some modicum of privacy. Only a few luxury lines provided private Pullman cars.

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This surprises for the fact that one might consider the very development of a gas-powered vehicle capable of moving great distances across steel rails enough of an accomplishment. But the fact that modern conveniences were available in early railroads hints at the likelihood that railway investors believed they had to sell more than simply a functional railroad. They had to sell a positive experience.

The second reason early passenger railways continue to be appreciated was that they could travel at fairly high speeds, even by today’s standards. Some trains could travel more than 100 miles per hour and some personalities, such as Death Valley Scotty, in 1905, pulled off a publicity stunt by riding the rails at record speeds from Los Angeles to Chicago via the Santa Fe railway line. Attention-grabbing acts like that only served to heighten awareness and interest in this emerging mode of transportation.

Scotty, incidentally, was a bit of a loudmouth regarding his prospecting and mining exploits, and it was the combination of his LA-to-Chicago adventure and his mining “experience” that first brought him to the attention of Glen Marshall’s wife, Abby Maris, which in turn led her to consider the railway as a way for her and Glen to get out of their hometown of Monongah, West Virginia, in 1907, to escape economic deprivation and hardship.

Unfortunately, while their westward journey works out well all the way through Springfield, Missouri, the hub for the multiple lines of the Frisco, they run into trouble soon after crossing the border into Kansas. By the time Glen steps down on the platform, he is alone. Abby has been killed by a local crime syndicate.

Early Railroads: Serving Farmers, or So They Say

But while the glitz and glamour of passenger trains fared well nationwide, encouraged by features such as promotional posters with attractive women who coquettishly encouraged Americans to escape to remote places like California, the commercial end of early railroads did not fare well in the public relations sphere. In fact, they were constantly derided, primarily by farmers and ranchers.

Wichita, Kansas was one of many booming American cowtowns that early railroads helped put on the map. For a time, the railways served the interests of cowboys, rustlers and cattle drivers, and of farmers and ranchers in other states.

Unfortunately, while railroad owners back east expanded their lines as quickly as possible throughout the country (sometimes going bankrupt in the process) to accommodate the availability of agricultural goods in multiple locations, they also recognized they were the only game in town to help farmers get their produce to market. Price gouging was not uncommon, nor was the shiftiness of owners in their contracts with local lease holders.

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In one particularly well-known conflict, local settlers squared off against law enforcement officers hired to protect the part of the Central Pacific Railway line that ran through California’s San Joaquin Valley. The episode, commonly referred to as the Mussel Slough Tragedy, was largely instigated by double-meaning advertising by the railroad, which offered what seemed a fixed sales price of $2.50 per acre for land immediately abutting the line. But when the value of the land rose and the Central Pacific raised the per acre purchase rate, locals intent on buying became upset to the point where a fight broke out at a farm in Tulare County, which resulted in the deaths of seven men. (A historic landmark recognizing the land title dispute still stands at a location just north of Hanford, California.)

The incident served as an inspiration for Frank Norris’ immensely successful novel, The Octopus (1901), and the overall disdain for the railways’ unsavory business practices led to more critical works such as The Railroad Question by William Larrabee in 1893. As a freshman at Virginia Tech, I enrolled in a U.S. history course, during which my professor pointed out that the two Wicked Witches in The Wizard of Oz, published in 1900, likely represented eastern industrialists….and western railroads. (The scarecrow and tin man–good characters, both, of course–metaphorically represented the exploited farmer and industrial worker.)

Early Railroads: The Good and the Bad

Glen Marshall has a pretty smooth ride in a Pullman car all the way from West Virginia to Kansas. The era of cross-country travel had begun many decades previously, and countless towns and communities throughout the nation emerged to the public sphere as a result of commercial interests served by the railroads. Glen escapes his mining community as a result of this new “octopus” of railway lines that spread itself across the country, but because he runs into trouble in Kansas, he will have to leave town, and soon.

Thank God there’s a train leaving Wichita the following morning!

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President Porfirio Diaz and the Mexican Revolution

Readers familiar with my unpublished novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot, know it is the story about a young Border Patrol agent (Billy Maddox) in southern Arizona. Billy’s father Hector was a rancher in Cochise County, Arizona before his son, Billy’s brother Matthew, was shot dead in a shootout with drug mules, and the Maddox family fled to Tucson. Throughout his life, Hector has revered his grandfather (and Billy’s great-grandfather) William Maddox who, in the early 20th century, was an Arizona Ranger.

Porfirio Diaz

Porfirio Diaz en 1867 (Public domain image, PD-US)

Wichita Snake is the story-in-progress of how William ended up in Arizona after starting life as a miner in Monongah, West Virginia. Following a tragic mining accident, which killed hundreds of miners, he leaves Monongah with his wife, Abby, and heads west. Their destination is California and they have little idea about what they will do when they get there. The couple is young and have nothing greater in mind than to get away from the economically and socially oppressive conditions of their mining community.

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Unfortunately, they become mixed up with a crime syndicate as soon as they enter Kansas. Abby is killed just east of Topeka and Glen Marshall (which is William’s real name–you’ll have to read the upcoming story to find out how and why his name changed) ends up in Wichita, trying to escape from but ultimately facing the men who killed his wife.

I won’t tell the story about how Glen Marshall ends up facing those ringleaders of the syndicate, Old Smokey Jones and Jacob Bartlett. But I will say it is a chance conversation about the emerging Mexican Revolution that plants the idea in Glen’s head to go south instead of west when he finally does have a chance to leave Wichita….and in a hurry.

The conversation Glen hears concerns the Mexican President back in 1907, Porfirio Diaz, who was a controversial figure in the late 19th and early 20th century, and remains so to this day. While generally considered a strongman in Mexican during the long years of his rule, (1877-1880, and 1884-1911), he also oversaw an era of prosperity that had been lacking in Mexico for some time following decades of international battle and internal strife.

Porfirio Diaz: Blazing a Trail to the Presidency

Diaz made a name for himself as a war hero fighting the French in the middle of the 19th century, including most famously at the Battle of Puebla, which occurred on May 5, 1862 (and from which the well-known Cinco de Mayo celebrations derived). He impressed General Ignacio Zaragoza and President Benito Juarez sufficiently to generate his own kind of national reputation. Throughout years of battle against the French and, subsequently, during the years of internal strife when Emperor Maximilian of Austria opposed the president, Diaz remained loyal to Juarez and led successful battles on his behalf.

When opposition finally disappeared in the late 1860s and Porfirio Diaz finally could stop fighting, he instead began to criticize the Juarez presidency. He had gained nationwide fame and benefited from enough ambition to demonstrate interest in his own political rise.

His first efforts at revolt  failed even if he managed to secure the position as a delegate to Congress representing the city of Veracruz. Finally, in 1876, Diaz did defeat federal troops, providing his first opportunity to serve as national president. His first tenure, which was to last four years, created a great deal of disillusionment among regular Mexicans who had until now celebrated him as a national war hero. The early years of his presidency were marked by corruption and violence, which were in some ways to become routine in his more than three long three decades as president.

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The presidency of Mexico turned briefly in 1880 to Manuel Gonzalez, who was generally considered a Diaz loyalist and his puppet figure, and who managed to outrage a good part of the Mexican population even more so than Diaz.  Diaz returned to the presidency then in 1884, following Mexicans’ general disgust with Gonzalez. From that time on, Diaz would serve as president until forced out in the face of revolutionary revolt in 1911.

The Porfiriato

The period of Diaz’s presidency is often referred to as the Porfiriato and is marked, on the one hand, by a period of economic stability, security and growing prosperity following years of devastating war. But it was clear even during these times, on the other hand, that it came at a cost to millions of poor and indigenous Mexicans.

Diaz, despite his own indigenous roots, aspired to the kind of progressive outlook he believed typified European culture and society in the 19th century. He and the upper class Mexicans who became his chief supporters benefited financially from the investments made by foreign powers during these years (including the recently despised French) — copper mines, textiles, plantations, factories and railroads.

Such investments had the effect of modernizing the nation but only along strict socioeconomic lines. As the economy began thrumming, labor poured into the country, including from such countries as Spain, competing against local workers and adding to the sense of disenfranchisement among those who lacked economic and political power.

For those who could not benefit from the advancing economy, Diaz cared little. In fact, his response to those on the lower end of the economic spectrum was violence and repression. In the early 1900s, the impact of decades of repression began to come to a boil. Wealthy writer and landowner Francisco Madero authored a book called La Succesion Presidencial en 1910, that criticized Diaz’s reign and called for him to step down in 1910, something the long-serving president had already recently (and somewhat flippantly) told an American journalist he would do.

Economy Turns South: Porfirio Diaz In Trouble

The thriving economy, in some ways, held the worst of resistance against Diaz at bay. But when mine workers began to strike, protests grew more voluble. Diaz’s iron first kept most internal resistance at bay but a movement in the southern United States among those whose lives and interests touched those of Mexico began to criticize in the press.

The writer, Madero, who had already left an impression in his critical book on Diaz, chose to oppose Diaz in the 1910 presidential elections. Diaz had already contradicted himself and announced, including to U.S. President William Howard Taft in an historic meeting between the two presidents in 1909, that he would run again, despite earlier promises. Madero lacked political prowess or the kind of vision one would expect to accompany the resume of any candidate for a national presidency. But his ideas about Diaz were powerfully cogent and well-received, and the fact that he was NOT Diaz earned him significant support. Astonished, and growing concerned that he might lose the election, Diaz had him jailed.

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The election proceeded nevertheless and when Madero received nowhere near the number of votes anticipated, and after he was freed from prison, he alleged electoral fraud and called for open revolt against the president.

Mexican warlords and peasant bandits with followings of their own and who opposed Diaz took up the call to arms including such individuals as Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and Pascual Orozco. Pay was low in Diaz’s army, which also meant low morale. In the face of growing resistance and encroaching masses of revolutionaries, Diaz formally ceded control and went into exile in 1911.

****

Although the Mexican Revolution, as it is commonly recorded, lasted the greater part of a decade and ultimately descended into a civil war of varying interests, it was largely precipitated by a revolt against the long-standing president and autocrat Porfirio Diaz.

Glen Marshall, who becomes William Maddox by the end of Wichita Snake and makes his way down to Arizona soon after overhearing a conversation in 1907 about the rising challenges to Porfirio Diaz, ultimately becomes an Arizona Ranger and participates in a battle against Pancho Villa in Nogales, Arizona.

That bit of history is recounted by Billy Maddox, William Maddox’s great-grandson, in my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. For a coal miner from Monongah, West Virginia, William ends up traveling to some interesting places and leading a pretty interesting life.

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How A Major Life Change Took Me to Sri Lanka

My most recent writing on The Write Place has focused on historical posts about Carrie Nation, Wyatt Earp and a West Virginia coal mining disaster in 1907. These personalities and events touch upon my work-in-progress, Wichita Snake. My original idea was to share nothing on this blog but historical tidbits to promote my fiction.

But there is a writer behind all his blogging–me!–and, as my friend Jon Harvey recently pointed out, some of the most engaging blog posts tell personal stories. So I’m going to shift gears and restructure The Write Place Blog. Not much, just a little. To avoid becoming a kind of ghost in the machine, I’ve decided to dedicate each third post to some personal story or idea I have about reading and literature and anything else that I believe informs my love of the written word.

Ghost in the Machine

Writing about A Life Change: The Write Place Blogger Steps Out of the Machine (Ghost in the Machine by Ky, CC BY 2.0)

So I’m going to dedicate these third posts to a new section on this blog called “Ramblings”. I’m also working on launching an e-newsletter called “Scribblings”. So there you have it. Ramblings and Scribblings will be phased in as part of this blog, starting with this post.

Okay, on to business. The topic of today’s rambling is making a major life change.

Life Change: Travel, University and Travel Again 

My love of the written word originally put me on a path to the university. I’m not just talking about going to college. A lot of people attend the university so they can become qualified to have a professional career.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

And yes, that was a part of it for me. I was an English major, first at Virginia Tech and then at SUNY Binghamton, where I ended up getting my Bachelor of Arts degree. I even had already had set my sights on graduate school and a career as an English professor. I had loved reading ever since childhood and I could think of no other profession that would allow me to spend as much time with books.

But something interesting happened after graduation. I grew restless. At a young 22 years old, did I really need to set such a clear, linear path into the future? Hell, no. So, in dramatic fashion the summer after I entered the so-called “real world”, I skipped town and moved to Alaska where I went to work on the slime line of a sockeye salmon processing center out near Bristol Bay. The shifts were 16 hours long, went all through the night and didn’t allow such a thing as weekends. Read: seven days a week. The job didn’t mess around. It was brutal.

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But I almost didn’t come back. It’s not just that the state is absolutely beautiful although my writer friend Lisa O’Kane (who I recently interviewed for this blog), just posted a stunning image of Denali National Park on her own blog. If THAT kind of scene doesn’t make you want to go to Alaska, I don’t know what will!

After gutting sockeye salmon in a perpetual zombie-like state over a period of about three months, I and the crew I had worked with were released from slime line bondage, flew back to civilization and ended up crashing in a seedy hotel room on Spenard Street in Anchorage. Around twelve of us slept two consecutive nights in one hotel room. One bed broke: don’t ask. But there were rumors coming in of another salmon run up in Cordova and Valdez. More work, in other words. So this was pretty exciting for someone at my young, impressionable age. I was actually kinda sorta starting to make it in Alaska after only a summer there. At least, for what passes as “making it” to a 22-year old.

As I said, I almost stayed.

Yet in the midst of decision-making in Anchorage, I discovered that the application I had put in to graduate school at Fordham University was accepted. I had to separate myself from the crew and take some time to myself. I went to the movies. I left the hotel room and spent a night alone in my tent at Centennial Park. I meditated on the snow-capped mountains surrounding the city in a ring. But I made my choice. I wished my salty comrades farewell, including a guy named Peter whom I had hit it off with particularly well and who had been arrested two years previously for stabbing a cop, and headed back east.

It was a blur moving from the culture of salmon processing centers to that of graduate school in the Bronx. I attended my first classes unshaven, with greasy, shoulder-length hair and wearing a black Ocean Beauty Seafoods cap (the patch of which showed a blonde mermaid with her arm around a giant red crab). But it didn’t take long for me to adjust and I quickly decided to focus my course of study on the modernist writers for whom I had always had a passionate interest.

So I began attending Fordham University the spring of 1995. And things went well. I learned to think in a way I never had before. I read great books. I read Ulysses, for god’s sake. My professors encouraged me. But then, fast forward and less than two years later, I took a leave of absence from my studies to join the Peace Corps and teach English as a Foreign Language in Sri Lanka.

Ernest Hemingway Took Me to the Library AND to the Airport

Truth be told, what informed my decision to travel AND to pursue academic studies was the same thing: books. My favorite modernist writer had always been Ernest Hemingway. I read his short stories in high school but it was a literature course I enrolled in as a freshman at Virginia Tech that really made the earth shake beneath my feet. Professor Hoge introduced me to life among the expatriates in Paris in The Sun Also Rises, to the Great War and a failed romance in A Farewell to Arms, and to safari hunting in Africa in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

What I took from Hemingway was a love of reading…and a love of life. I craved experience. What has always been a struggle for me (though less so now that I’m a father), is the struggle between the right, practical thing and doing whatever makes me a liver of life.

I didn’t think about it at the time, but that desire to live was working its magic under the surface even as I went through the motions of attending graduate school. That desire had already prompted me to head to Alaska…I should have known what was coming!

During that first year at Fordham, I can’t say I was unhappy. The life of the mind stimulated me then and continues to do so. But I took time from my studies to fill out an application for the Peace Corps and, following a long, tedious, painful federal government-driven process, I received an invitation to teach in Sri Lanka. I had shaved by this point, and had even cut and cleaned my hair. But it was nevertheless time to head off to the airport once again.

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Seven years after the discovery of Ernest Hemingway, my life started slipping away from the academic life and I moved deeper into the world of experience. I wouldn’t truly recognize what was happening until I returned to Fordham University a little over a year later and discovered, in an obscure library carrel, another writer whom I had not yet read before. Only in the discovery of a poem by the poet W.H. Auden, would I recognize what I was going through. But the realization was on its way.

I was going through a life change.

Avoiding Suicide Bombers and Other Experiences

I was a kind of expatriate in Sri Lanka, much as Hemingway, Joyce and Fitzgerald had been in Europe, though I lived in a different continent and for different reasons. In addition to volunteering (which Ernest did NOT go to Paris to do), there was booze, bleary-eyed mornings eating bananas and pineapples on the beaches of the Indian Ocean, friendships forged, cultural misunderstandings, a chronic and overwhelming sense of displacement, and intimacies that otherwise might not have occurred. A lot of those likely DID overlap with what it must have been like for those writers.

And there was war.

I lived in Kandy, the cultural capital of the Sinhalese ethnic majority of Sri Lanka. Most people who think of the Peace Corps envision mud huts and isolated villages, which had some truth to it for my fellow volunteers, though they mostly lived in cement homes smack in the middle of the jungle. But I lived in a beautiful city in Sri Lanka’s hill country, which had an amazing, cool climate. In that regard, most would say I was lucky. I also had email which, in those early days of the Internet, was about the most amazing luxury a Peace Corps volunteer could dream of!

Sri Lanka was also a nation in the middle of a civil war. Many of the Tamils who lived there had felt disenfranchised since England gave the nation independence in 1948. Freed of the yoke of the British Empire, the Sinhalese majority moved quickly into most of the powerful and influential positions in the government, education and the civil service, while the Tamil minority, originally brought over from India by the English in the 19th century to work on the tea plantations, wasn’t left with much at all.

In the early 1980s, the Tamils began fighting–literally–for their own homeland in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The Tamil Tigers were the first group internationally acknowledged to utilize suicide bombings as a political tool. Most of the “activity” between the Sinhalese army and the Tamil resistance fighters (which is how I describe them–I won’t make political overtures by designating them as terrorists or freedom fighters) took place in the north and east, and in the national capital of Colombo. So volunteers were, for the most part, not allowed in those places.

However, in 1998, Sri Lanka was celebrating 50 years of independence as a nation and the Tamil resistance decided to expand its operations. Prince Charles of England was scheduled to participate in Sri Lanka’s golden anniversary celebrations right in Kandy where I lived.

Except for one slight twist.

In early January 2008, not long before the celebrations were to begin, three Tamil Tigers drove an explosives-laden truck right into the Temple of the Tooth on a suicide mission. The Temple of the Tooth (or the Dalada Maligawa, in the Sinhala language) is the iconic heart of the Sinhalese culture in Kandy and is reputed to hold a tooth of the revered Buddha.

The Temple of the Tooth was also less than a half a mile from one of the schools where I taught. I had been in the temple twice and had walked past it more times than I could count. Sixteen people died and more than 20 were injured in the suicide attack.

Life Change: Dalada Maligawa - The Temple of the Tooth

Sixteen people were killed in an attack on the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy, Sri Lanka in January 1998. (Photo: Joe Kovacs)

When it happened, I was on vacation in the resort of Unawatuna just outside Galle on the southern coast. I rushed back to Kandy that afternoon to make sure my host family was okay. Bad move on my part: I never called the Peace Corps office to check in and let our country director know I was okay. I had to pass through more checkpoints than I could remember on the trip back up to the hill country and, while the local soldiers were usually friendly with me–a visiting foreigner–there was no humor that day and my bags were ruthlessly searched along with those of every other native person coming into Kandy.

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In the days following that traumatic event, the city was on the edge of riot. I didn’t realize how close everything came until later. But right after the temple attack, a group of Sinhalese began marching around Kandy Lake in the middle of the city, gesticulating, screaming and yelling violent curses against Tamils. It took local Buddhist monks to enter and calm the crowd; without that intervention, who knows what might have occurred.

For several days, whenever I walked to my school, I saw armed Sinhalese soldiers standing in green uniforms and carrying very big firearms outside the residences and businesses of Tamil locals. I heard two stories about their presence. First, that the Sinhalese, in collusion with the authorities, were preparing a widespread assault on local Tamils. Second, and this seems more plausible, was the theory that the authorities had stationed these soldiers in front of Tamil establishments to protect innocent citizens from furious Sinhalese seeking revenge against those aligned by ethnic identification with the attackers.

The golden anniversary celebrations in Kandy never occurred and Prince Charles never came. This disruption, likely, was one key goal of the Tigers in staging the attack.

And I was not the only volunteer who experienced the impact of the Tigers’s decision to expand their operations that year. Another volunteer, my friend Sarah, lived in another hill country city, Nuwara Eliya, where the Tigers decided to shut down the power grid. Nuwara Eliya had, previously, been mostly untouched by the civil war. Well, no longer. The Peace Corps ended up getting Sarah to a beach resort and away from potential hostilities.

(Part II of this blog series has been published and can be accessed here.)

In the weeks after my and Sarah’s experiences, the Peace Corps sent a security officer to Sri Lanka to assess the situation. In the end, that officer decided it was best to send the volunteers home. This was both annoying and embarrassing, from my point of view. It was annoying in the sense that I had chosen to be there. No one made me come to Sri Lanka and I could have left at any time. If I chose to stay, despite the dangers and challenges, well that was my choice, wasn’t it? Of course the Peace Corps’ first priority remains the safety of its volunteers…and it was with that in mind that they blew the whistle and called all the volunteers out of the pool. Still: groaning and eye-roll on my part.

And it was embarrassing because none of the other international volunteers were leaving. The British, the Australians, the Japanese–they were all staying. So we Americans looked squeamish to a ridiculous degree. And it wasn’t the Peace Corps security team who had to say goodbye to the families and friends we had made in our communities. It wasn’t them who had to explain that because of the kind of bombing event that Sri Lankans had become accustomed to as part of their lives, that we were leaving. I taught elementary school kids. Here’s a photo of some. What the hell was I supposed to say to them?

Life Change: Sri Lankan elementary school kids

Goodbye, Joe!

Reading and Traveling 

When I wasn’t teaching or trying to avoid suicide bombs, I read. I read a lot, in fact. I had a lot of down time as did the other volunteers. It became common for volunteers to read and exchange books, including such nuggets as Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, which had just been published and was causing a stir, When Memory Dies by A. Sivanandan, which was also blowing the pants off the local publishing world, novels by post-colonial writers Yasmine Gooneratne and Carl Muller, the travel diaries of R.K. Narayan and Peace Corps’ best known travel writer Paul Theroux.

But my decision to come to Sri Lanka meant, at least for a time, that I took my nose out of a book and left the university behind to live in a world of lush jungles, rogue elephants, suicide bombers, beautiful beaches, sacred Buddhism and civil war. It was a far cry from my decision, less than two years previously, to attend Fordham University and pursue a life of intellectualism.

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The worlds of the mind and of the body could not get much different.

So I wanted experience, right? Hemingway inspired me to not only study the great modernist writers but also pursue a life of experience. Well, I had it now!

I was in the middle of a life change.

Please share any thoughts you have about this story in the comments section below. Stay tuned, also, for my next personal post in mid-August (preceded by two historical posts) when I will write about my return to Fordham university, my discombobulated experience in the classroom, the discovery of an important poem by W.H. Auden, the way I said goodbye to graduate school and to a potential career as a professor, and my decision to move to Washington, DC and work for the Peace Corps.

Once again…stay tuned!

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Wyatt Earp, Wichita and a Career in Law Enforcement

Old West lawman Wyatt Earp is best-known as the central figure in the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in October 1881. That event and the larger-than-life figure of Earp have withstood the test of time as 21st century Americans continue to memorialize with wispy romanticism this nation’s history of cowboys and the lawless Old West.

When Glen Marshall arrives in 1907 Wichita, Kansas in my story Wichita Snake, he takes shelter from a local crime syndicate in a rest home called Earp’s Haven. No such place would have carried Earp’s name without his participation in the shootout at the OK Corral some 26 years previously. He managed to get his name attached to a fictional rest home in my story in particular because, approximately five years before he and his team faced down the Clanton brothers and Billy Claiborne in Tombstone, he spent a year in Wichita as a law officer.

Wyatt Earp, famed Old west Gunman

Wyatt Earp, famed Old West Gunman (This image is available for use in the public domain; {{PD-US}}).

Wyatt Earp Arrives in Wichita, Kansas

Wyatt Earp arrived in Wichita in 1875 from Peoria, Illinois, bearing a colorful and sad past. He had been arrested for stealing a horse but managed to escape jail and punishment. His first wife also died of typhoid, pregnant, less than a year following their wedding.

Earp’s arrival in Wichita also coincided with the city’s growing prominence as a railroad terminus for cattle drives up from Texas. Cowboys who had spent days or weeks driving their herds over the plains could now relax with money in hand and the satisfaction of work well done. That generally meant getting drunk and raising hell.

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Into this world, Wyatt Earp was hired as deputy city marshal and he was, according to the local Wichita Beacon newspaper, both competent and fearless in carrying out his responsibilities. The year or so that Earp spent in this role did not earn him lasting fame (the Beacon would occasionally spell his surname “Erp”), but it did kick off a career which would, ultimately, transform him into the historic personage of the fearless lawman.

Wyatt Earp: One Year As a Lawman

Earp’s year as a deputy city marshal was marked by, in addition to keeping the peace among inebriated, cattle-driving cowboys and drovers, documented instances of honesty and cold courage. Evidence that has helped historians separate fact from legend regarding Wyatt Earp’s role comes from documentation in the Beacon. Such evidence suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly in those days of the Wild West, that lawmen had a kind of public stature.

In one reported incident, Earp hauled a fallen, inebriated stranger to the “cooler” to sober up. During processing, the deputy marshal discovered $500 in the man’s possession. To Earp, who made either $60 or $100 monthly depending on various sources, this would have represented a significant amount of money and, perhaps a sore temptation. But, as the Beacon got a hold of the story, the paper stated: ”[the drunken stranger] may congratulate himself that his lines…were cast in such a pleasant place as Wichita as there are but a few other places where that $500 bankroll would have been heard from”.

An additional incident involved Earp calling for a piano to be repossessed for failure of payment. This piano, which had been purchased for a local brothel, became a sore spot among a group of cattle drovers who relaxed there and had to raise funds or face its removal. Soon after, approximately 50 drovers in nearby Delano, which at the time was a bit on  the rough side and known for hell-raising beyond what Wichita typically saw or liked to see, planned to invade the town, carouse, drink all night and cause a lot of trouble. As they approached the bridge into Wichita, they faced a long line of concerned law officers and citizens at the center of whom stood the stalwart Wyatt Earp.

Of course, no one is perfect, and even the competent, appreciated and respected Wyatt Earp had his embarrassing moments, which the Wichita Beacon was equally happy to report. In one well-publicized incident in January 1876, the single-action revolver in Earp’s possession somehow managed to slip from its holster, hit the ground and discharge. The shot narrowly missed Earp, piercing his coat before blowing through the ceiling. It’s the kind of incident that would make for slapstick in modern times but back in the 19th century, such incidents could happen and did, in fact, for one of the Old West’s most legendary gunslingers.

Politics Interferes with Policing

In the end, politics and not incompetence ended Wyatt Earp’s tenure in Wichita, Kansas. In March and April 1876, Earp’s boss, city marshal Mike Meagher was campaigning to retain his position against Bill Smith. In addition to being a political opponent of Earp, Smith nevertheless added fuel to the fire by badmouthing Earp and accusing him of attempting to use his position to hire his brothers as law officers. That was too much for Earp who resorted to fisticuffs. Meagher was forced to fire Earp and, though he won the subsequent election and attempted to have his former deputy reinstated, the city council could not conclusively agree that doing so was a good idea.

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Wyatt Earp’s first job as a law enforcement officer in Wichita, Kansas had come to an end. He soon moved on to Dodge City where, in addition to ultimately getting back into “keeping the peace”, he spent some time running a brothel with his brother, James.

Wyatt Earp and Wichita Snake

As mentioned above and as known to many Americans, Wyatt Earp’s legend was made some years later in Tombstone, Arizona. But his time in Wichita overlapped with the city’s first exciting economic boom, spurred by the cattle trade. By the time Glen Marshall of Wichita Snake arrives, the city was on the cusp of yet another economic renaissance, this one driven by manufacturing and agriculture. The local Chamber of Commerce, of which the fictional Old Smokey Jones is a member of the welcoming committee, was founded in 1901. The open plains of Kansas also appealed to some historic pioneers from the dawning age of aviation.

Glen’s stay in Wichita is cut short by unexpected trouble involving a crime boss and the revelation of who killed his wife. But, at least for his one night in town, he enjoyed the safety and hospitality of Earp’s Haven, a resting house named after the city’s most historic and well-known lawman.

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Carrie Nation, Temperance and Kansas

When Glen Marshall arrives in Wichita, Kansas in my story Wichita Snake, he foolishly asks a stranger at the train station where he can find a drink. That stranger turns out to be someone Glen should not be speaking with, but this character does share the helpful fact that Kansas was a dry state in that year of 1907, perhaps in no small way due to the ferocious temperance movement alive in the state at the time, especially as embodied in the infamous personage of Carrie Nation.

Carrie Nation with her Hatchet

Temperance Advocate Carrie Nation with her hatchet in 1910. (This image is available for use in the public domain; {{PD-US}}).

Carrie Nation: Radical Temperance Advocate 

Still something of a household name (or at least a name people have heard of) in the early 21st century, Carrie (or Carry) Nation is the most well-known, infamous figure associated with the temperance movement that thundered throughout parts of the country in the late 19th and early 20th century. As detailed below, temperance was a radical movement, calling for prohibition rather than moderation in the indulgence of alcohol. Above and beyond the movement was Ms. Nation who was most well-known for vandalizing and destroying saloons throughout Kansas. She was arrested for her methods no less than 30 times.

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The story of how she started destroying saloons in 1900 ties well with the Christian platform that helped temperance groups emerge throughout the country. That year, shortly after she and her second husband, David Nation, moved to Kansas, Carrie claimed she had a vision from God that told her to GO TO KIOWA. The following day, she smashed the window of Dobson’s Saloon in Kiowa, Kansas. Shortly thereafter, a tornado struck eastern Kansas, which Carrie claimed represented divine approval of her actions.

Carrie Nation continued to vandalize saloons and, in 1901, her oppressed husband half-jokingly suggested that using a hatchet would allow her to maximize the damage. She soon took advantage of that suggestion and began “hatchetations” where, either on her own, or with other hymn-singing women of the temperance movement in tow, Carrie would enter taverns and destroy the equipment.

Carrie Nation and Justice divorced in 1901 though Carrie kept the surname “Nation” believing, as she believed other so-called signs from above, that she had been chosen to save the nation from vice. She also liked to spell her name “Carry” so that, with the middle initial “A” indicating Amelia, her name prophetically read: “Carry A. Nation”.

Temperance in the Late 19th Century

The prohibition of alcohol in the United States eventually succeeded through passage of the 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1919. But success was not an easy road and organized efforts to oppose the consumption of alcohol began as far back as the early 1870s when what would become one of the largest, national temperance organizations, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, was founded in 1874, in Hillsboro, Ohio.

The female members of the WCTU had a flair for the dramatic in their pursuit of prohibition in the late 1800s; they actively picketed saloons, blocked the entrances to saloons and prayed for the souls of bar patrons.

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The WCTU didn’t merely oppose alcohol as a vice; they believed it was both a cause and a consequence of a number of other social and family problems. The group took an interest in such concerns, including poverty, public health and sanitation, though each of the first few presidents had a different view on the overall goal of the organization. The WCTU was successful despite its changing and evolving needs, and continues to exist to this day.

Carrie Nation: WCTU, Hatchetations and Personal History

As a founder to the Kansas chapter of the WCTU, Carrie Nation had many of the same qualities and beliefs of the other members, though her so-called religious calling to fight alcohol might also relate to a history of mental illness in her family. Her mother believed she was Queen Victoria of England and Carrie’s daughter also struggled with mental health problems.

And as  a notorious crusader, Carrie cut an imposing figure–a six-foot-tall zealout carrying a Bible as well as a hatchet, and wearing a black dress and bonnet. Her “hatchetations” became legendary even beyond the immense damage created to private establishments. Bars and saloons used to quip during the first decade of the 20th century that “all Nations were welcome except Carrie”.

And while other individuals arrested as often as she may have struggled to keep up with court fines, Carrie Nation lectured and sold souvenir hatchets to help keep herself afloat.

David Nation, who gave Carrie her memorable surname, was actually her second husband. Her first husband, Charles Gloyd, was a physician during the Civil War and also a terrible alcoholic. One year after they divorced, he drank himself to death–lending some credence perhaps, then, to the WCTU mission–and to Carrie’s own pursuit for prohibition.

Extremism of All Kinds

Old Smokey, a committee representative of the Wichita Chamber of Commerce when Glen Marshall arrives in Wichita Snake, alludes to the mission of Carrie Nation and the prohibitionists. In particular, he points out how zeal of any kind–prohibition rather than moderation–would likely lead to other extreme vices and hidden activities.

Old Smokey has a few secrets of his own, as Glen finds out. But he does have a point. After the 18th amendment passed in 1919, an era of speakeasies, contraband and violence emerged. Al Capone and other gangsters came to symbolize the unflagging desire and need for Americans to tip the bottle despite the nation’s best efforts. Prohibition was repealed with the passage of the 21st amendment in 1933.

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Extremism of all kinds will have their personalities. Glen Marshall stumbles into Wichita during the popularity of the temperance movement. But ultimately society self-corrects to some safer middle ground. Between temperance and organized crime, Glen may or may not get out of Wichita alive. It’s not always easy to navigate through the interests of individuals who believe what they believe, and will do anything to show it.

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Essence: Interview with YA Author Lisa Ann O’Kane

I was excited to recently connect with and interview Lisa Ann O’Kane whose debut young-adult novel, Essence, was released on June 3. I have known Lisa (virtually) since 2011 as we both, on different occasions, belonged to the same close-knit writers group in Denver, Colorado. Lisa has since moved to Florida and I to Maryland. However, we became friends through a mutual love of writing and it has been my pleasure to watch her exciting though sometimes challenging journey to publication. Readers may follow Lisa’s journey via her blog, Kicked, Cornered, Bitten And Chased. Her bio and links to her social networks follow the interview below.

Essence Book Cover - by Lisa O'Kane

Essence by Lisa Ann O’Kane, young adult author and adventurer

1. One of the main questions Essence poses, Lisa, is: “What is the true nature of a person’s essence?”. Outside the context of the book, what would you say is the essence of true living?

What a fantastic question, Joe, and thank you so much for interviewing me! I would say the essence of true living is the courage to distinguish between the experiences society tells us we need and the experiences we actually need in order to thrive. Everyone’s life path is different, and the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves is spend too much time comparing our personal milestones to everyone else’s.

2. Idealism pervades Essence. Different communities essentially vie for the right to broadcast and, in some cases, enforce the way they believe life should be lived by others. What do you think about idealists and idealism? Would you consider yourself an idealist?

I was definitely an idealist in my early twenties when I believed I would spend my life traveling the world and volunteering, but I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. I have had to learn some very hard life lessons as a result, but I do appreciate the fact that I had the courage to risk failing. I only think idealism becomes dangerous when it begins to override logic. It also becomes dangerous when people start imposing their beliefs on others. This is the crux of the conflict in Essence.

3. You discussed with Beth Christopher what Yosemite National Park means to you, and how your experience there helped you imagine the characters from Essence. But you have lived in other places such as Colorado and Alaska that people also think of as havens for outdoors people. The beautiful cover image from your blog, Kicked, Cornered, Bitten and Chased, says it all. What, if any, spiritual significance does the outdoors have for you? Does it make you feel centered?

Great question! The outdoors most definitely holds a spiritual significance for me. My parents are former park rangers, so I grew up hiking, camping, swimming and exploring with them. I learned to identify flora and fauna before I learned to write, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t seek solace in nature. I am pretty confident the outdoors will always be a character in my future novels.

4. One of the things you do well in Essence, which other stories either can’t or don’t think about doing, is demonstrate the evolution of characters beside the protagonist. Your protagonist, Autumn Grace, goes through one heck of a metamorphosis in the book. But another crucial character, Ryder Stone, goes through something similar. When you started writing the book, did you expect their relationship would end up as complex as it was?

I’m so glad you appreciated Ryder’s metamorphosis! He was definitely the biggest wildcard in my novel, because my original plan for him was very, very different. Once he and Autumn began interacting, however, their relationship really took on a life of its own. In many ways, they are the yin to each other’s yang, and their personal journeys ended up reflecting this.

5. Getting back to an emotion that might be considered the polar opposite of idealism and something Autumn experiences in Essence, what can you tell us about disillusionment?

In the spirit of yin and yang, I really wanted to explore emotional extremes in Essence. Idealism’s natural pair was disillusionment, so I’m excited you picked up on this! The book is all about literal and metaphorical balance: between right and wrong, good and evil, too much and too little. I wanted to demonstrate that there is really no such thing as black or white, and nearly everything is a shade of grey.

6. I was sorry to read your June 20 blog post about the fact that your publisher, Strange Chemistry, is closing its doors. You wrote in a forthright way about all the joy and the disappointment you experienced with them. Will Essence remain on sale after Strange Chemistry is no more?

Thank you so much for your condolences. The demise of Strange Chemistry was certainly an unexpected heartbreak. I am thankful for the time I got to spend with my team of professionals, and yes, the novel will continue to be available through Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com.

7. I know that, before Strange Chemistry announced it was closing, you were writing a sequel to Essence. You spent, what, about a year developing that story? Is that a project you want to finish? What other writing projects interest you at the moment?

I originally wrote Essence as a standalone novel with series potential, and the folks at Strange Chemistry jumped on the idea of its sequel right away. I have been developing that sequel for the past year, so I am definitely disappointed it will no longer be published as planned. Although I am comfortable with the way my story now ends, I am exploring other alternatives to “finish the story” for the readers who want to know what happens next. I am also working on a completely new project, so I will have to do some strategizing to decide what I should do next.

8. I expect to be in Orlando next summer for a conference. Is that far from where you are? Any chance you’ll be around if I hop in a rental car and come find you so we can meet in person for the first time, have a beer and talk about writing?

Woohooo!!! I live in St. Petersburg—less than two hours from Orlando! Name a time and place, and I’m THERE! Can’t wait to finally see you in real life! Thanks again so much for the great interview!

Lisa Ann O'Kane - young adult author

Lisa O’Kane – Young Adult Author whose debut novel, Essence, was released on June 3.

Lisa Ann O’Kane is a young adult author and former vagabond who once camped out in Yosemite National Park for an entire summer, an experience that inspired her debut novel ESSENCE (June ’14, Strange Chemistry). She is the Zookeeper-in-Residence on Jobstr.com, and she is represented by Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates. Participate in Lisa’s social networks: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and Pinterest.

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Fairmont Coal Disaster : The Day 362 Men Died

My latest blog posts have focused on the U.S.-Mexican border in an effort to help paint a picture around the characters and incidents that occur in my novel, Billy Maddox Takes His Shot. Recently, I published a new page on my blog that outlines my interest in writing a series of stories about the Maddox family men from 1907 to 1999.

My first effort in this regard will be a short story called Wichita Snake, which takes place in 1907 and in which Glen Marshall (who will become William Maddox, Billy Maddox’s great-grandfather) arrives in Wichita, Kansas less than 48 hours after the death of his wife, Abigail Maris, at the hands of a cold-blooded murderer. Glen and Abby left their home of Monongah, West Virginia, following a mine explosion that killed hundreds of men and boys.

I hope to publish Wichita Snake by the end of July 2014.

1907 Fairmont Coal Company Mining Disaster

The mine explosions that send Glen and Abby westward are not fiction. On December 6, 1907, just before 10:30 am, a series of explosions in Number 6 and 8 mines in Monongah caused chaos not only underground but above ground as well. They made buildings shudder, tossed people like rag dolls and wreaked havoc with the transportation system. Street cars were thrown off their rails like toys; horses fell on the streets as though light as feathers. Such was the force of the explosions.

In all, 362 mining men and boys were counted dead though mining companies in the early 20th century kept such notoriously poor records that many more workers were reputed to have died. In Monongah: The Tragic Story of the 1907 Monongah Mine Disaster, Davitt McAteer believes closer to 500 men were killed. What could be counted were the number of widows (250) and children (around 1,000) left without husbands and fathers.

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Varying accounts of the disaster point not only to the collapse of the mines following the explosions but to the destruction of the ventilation system which, when operational, prevented the build up of toxic fumes in the compressed spaces where miners worked underground. Rescue efforts, as a result, were hampered by the presence of black damp (which included carbon dioxide and nitrogen, but no oxygen) and whitedamp, which was primarily carbon monoxide. Rescuers could not go in and what miners may have survived the blasts presumably could not come out.

Even had survivors been able to breathe in an oxygen-free environment, their way to the surface would have been prevented by the collapse of the entrance of mine number 6 and the obstruction by wrecked ore cars of the mine’s primary entrance.

A Mining Disaster Just Waiting to Happen

Sadly, a disaster of this kind was just waiting to happen. Since the Norfolk and Western Railroad entered the state in the 1880s, West Virginia had become one of the largest coal producers, drawing African and European workers to a newly booming economy. The surname of Glen’s wife Abigail, Maris, hints at her French ancestry. The new influx of laborers to the coalfields did not, however, lead to especially robust safety measures. Up to and, for some years, through the Fairmont coal mining disaster, West Virginia remained one of the most unregulated states in the country.

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Three years afterward, however, and partly as a result of the mine explosion (along with many others in the country), the United State Congress established the U.S. Bureau of Mines to inspect mines and prevent conditions that would lead to future tragedies. As a result, history has only theory to determine the cause of the explosions at the Fairmont coal mines: either the accidental ignition of methane and coal dust, or blown-out shots.

Fairmont Coal Disaster: Reality and Fiction

In my fiction, the staggering tragedy that was the Fairmont Coal Company disaster sends William and Abigail westward. Abby, already a strong-headed and willful young woman, has long been unhappy with her parents’ decision to move to West Virginia and take advantage of the coal boom. The explosions take her brother’s life.

And while mining explosions throughout the United States were only increasing in the early 20th century, those in Europe–the continent from which Abby hails–were on the decline due to effective government intervention.

For those who lived in and around Monongah, West Virginia at the time, meaning for those outside the realm of my fiction, the tragedy was very real and devastating. The Fairmont coal mine explosions represent the worst mining disaster the nation has ever experienced and, possibly, ever will.

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