Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Dead Are Mine

Earlier this summer, we were called to help clean the books out an estate here in York. There were hundreds and hundreds of paperbacks involved; nearly 600 as I recall.

In the heat of battle, as it were, you don’t stop and examine every book in detail. There simply isn’t time. Often we’re one of the last calls, and when we get there we’re informed that everything has got to be out in just a few days, so it is either us or the dumpster. And if the book isn’t falling apart, it goes into the box to be sorted out later.

Such was the case with this estate. When I did finally get around to going through the boxes I came across a rather interesting novel, published in 1965, The Dead Are Mine by James E. Ross.

It is the story of a combat man, a sergeant of the regular army during World War II; specifically during the action at the Anzio beachhead during the early months of 1944. That was a particularly brutal period of the war, and this is a particularly brutal book about the everyday life and duties of a grave registration squad. It was their job to pick-up the bodies, German as well as American, and deliver them to the cemeteries for internment.

The Dead Are Mine is an extremely well written book. Originally published by David McKay Company, Inc. in 1963, the paperback edition from the estate (Cardinal #50075) was published in 1965. As far as I can determine, there was only one printing of each edition.

It tells a bleak and depressing story. And it has the ring of authority, with the sort of detail and color that doesn’t come from sterile research. Unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example (who never saw a plantation nor had met a slave prior to writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin), it was clear to me that Mr. Ross had seen this side of the war.

Which led me to wonder what else he had written. The answer, apparently, is nothing. Searches on various online databases only made reference to this one book. And there is virtually no biographical information available at all. There was one reference, however, to a story about him published in the December 3, 1963 edition of Life magazine.

Finding an old issue of Life isn’t that big a problem, if you happen to be in the used book business. One of the fringe benefits of the business is that I often come in contact with old issues of magazines. And this past Tuesday, while visiting yet another estate, the issue presented itself. And there was the article, buried deep (page 110) within.

It turns out that Mr. Ross wasn’t a particularly nice man. The article was written because the book was just being published. He was 43 at the time, and had spent 20 of those 43 years in prison for a variety of reasons. He was a pool hustler, a con man, a thief and a murderer. As a sideline, he was also an alcoholic and borderline drug addict. He wrote the book in his cell, on a dare.

The book really was his story.

He was in the army, as a sergeant, and he was at Anzio. As punishment for deserting the battlefield, he had been assigned to pick-up bodies and deliver them to the cemetery at the beachhead. There is no black humor here, as there is in Catch 22, or in Bill Mauldin’s Willy and Joe cartoons. There is no we’ll-get-through-this-togetherness, as there is in Audie Murphy’s To Hell And Back. But there is detail and color--the mud and the slime, the bleak occurrences, the descriptions of newly-dead bodies and mangled body parts and wounds and bloody, burned uniforms and the aftermath of sudden and violent death. And the outlook of a short and bleak future with no end, other than the very real probability of adding yet another body to the pile, in sight.

Mr. Ross’ descriptions were accurate because they were real. He had seen and experienced them all firsthand. There was little that came from his imagination; most of it just came from his memory. And the man had a talent for putting it all down on paper in vivid and horrible detail.

I don’t know what happened to Mr. Ross; I can find nothing more recent than that one article. He may be living still, perhaps in a prison cell. If he is, he would be close to 90 now.

Life said an agent was attempting to sell the book to a movie studio, but no movie was ever made. Life also said that Mr. Ross was working on a second novel, but if that was ever finished it was never published.

But I do know that, if he did nothing else, Mr. Ross delivered one truly remarkable book. Maybe that was enough.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Virginia Project

For the better part of the past two years, Pam and I have been involved in The Virginia Project. Our moonlighting efforts were wrapped up a week or two ago, and now the story can be told.

The project involves the work of novelist Robert A. Heinlein, and our small part in it is something of which we are really quite proud.

Robert A. Heinlein, of course, was one of the biggest names in science fiction during the middle years of the 20th century. If he wasn’t the biggest, he was certainly up there in the top 5, or even the top 3…his only real competition came from the likes of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov.

Heinlein (pronounced Hine-line) is probably best known for Stranger in a Strange Land. Originally published in 1961, the novel relates the experiences of Valentine Michael Smith, a human raised on Mars who journeys back to Earth and makes some profound changes in our alleged culture. The book tackles a variety of topics including organized religion, big government, individual responsibility, money, sexual freedom and morality offering (for the time) some rather radical views. It was a certified BIG DEAL during the 60s and wildly popular among the counter-culture of the time.

Since its original publication, it has never been out of print. In 1991 an unexpunged edition was published. Putnam, who first published the book, had demanded some 60,000 words (nearly one quarter of the original manuscript) be deleted because they feared some of the references were just too far over the top. Critics are still quibbling about whether or not it was a good idea to put those 60,000 words back.

It wasn’t his only book, of course. Heinlein’s first professional publication came in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1939 with a short story, “Life Line.” He was prolific, turning out short stories, novels and screen plays through the 40s (with time off to serve during World War II), 50s, 60s, 70s and into the 80s. He died in 1988.

Upon his death, Virginia, his wife of 40 years, had the presence of mind to renew his copyrights. She supervised the posthumous publication of a number of his short stores with such works as For Us The Living, Tramp Royale, Grumbles From The Grave and Requiem. She died in 2003.

The work of the Heinlein Trust continues. Called “The Virginia Project” in honor of Mrs. Heinlein, the Trust is reissuing the complete works of Robert A. Heinlein as a set of premium quality (acid-free paper; leather bound) books. There will be 44 volumes when it is complete, and the set carries a rather hefty price tag of $1,500. The press run is limited to 2,000 copies of each volume.

Each volume is going back to the original-original, just the way Robert and God had intended…and before various editors got their hands on it. To do this, scholars are working with the Heinlein archives, sometimes pouring over the typewritten manuscripts, to ensure that everything is, indeed, original.

The heavy-lifting on the project is being undertaken by Windhaven Press of Auburn, NH. Nancy Hanger and Andrew Phillips, owners of Windhaven, are well-qualified for the task. Authors in their own right, they bring years of editing and production experience to the project. Nancy is the person we thank for allowing us to participate.

In preparing the various volumes for the printing press, 1st printings of 1st editions have been secured. The good news is that hardcopies of these books have been found (a number of them, Robert’s personal copies). The bad news is that these are hardcopies, produced long before contemporary electronic print production methods were developed. The hardcopies needed to be converted to digital files before production could proceed.

And that’s where we came in. We did the conversions.

Every couple of months a box would arrive at our doorstep (well, actually to the shop). Contained in each box were 1st-1st’s. We actually had Heinlein’s personal copies of some of his books in our hot little hands. We would clean them, scan them and do first-pass editing (spell-checking, etc.). The completed files would be compiled onto CDs and returned (along with the hardcopies, alas) so Nancy and Andrew could work their additional magic.

We did 32 titles in the series. Our names won’t appear anywhere in the credits; our roles were minor and downstream. Still, they were our roles. We did it. And there is a degree of quiet satisfaction that comes from knowing that we had a part in preserving the work of the Grand Master.

Thank you Robert, for the work you gave us. Thank you Virginia, for preserving it. And thank you Nancy and Andrew, for allowing us to participate.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Codici Segreti

A week or so ago, the more-or-less daily mail delivery brought us a happy little package from HarperCollins Publishers.

Does it sound too high-falutin’ to say that HarperCollins is our publisher? Perhaps. It is not quite accurate in any case. More properly, I should say that HarperCollins was our publisher.

Pam and I were fortunate enough to have signed a multiple book deal with HarperCollins several years ago. Under the pen names of “P.J. Huff and J.G. Lewin” we wrote four books of popular history: How To Feed An Army, Witness To The Civil War, How To Tell A Secret and Lines of Contention: Political Cartoons of the Civil War. In conjunction with The Smithsonian Institution, HarperCollins was the publisher.

The genre was “popular history”, which means the books were long on stories and short on footnotes. They were all accurate, of course. Various curators from The Smithsonian read the pre-publication drafts and made suggestions and requested changes; we needed their approval before going to press. Everything we said required documentation and we were prepared with at least two sources to backup the facts and conclusions we made. Still, the books were designed to be fun reads, and not serious, ground-breaking works of history. (Although I pride myself as having been first to make the connection in print between Watergate's "Deep Throat" and the so-called "Smoking Gun" tape.)

Writing the books was a fun exercise. And we made a few bucks. But not a lot, actually. The contracts stated that HarperCollins would pay us an advance against future royalties. But in order for us to actually get any future royalties, the books would need to sell-though their initial print runs. That makes sense. The publishing company is in it for profit, after all, and you can’t expect them to give away money if they’re not making any. Maybe if we'd had an agent we could've gotten a better deal. But that wasn't as important at the time as just getting a deal.

None of the books sold-through. One of them, Witness To The Civil War, did generate additional revenues. It was featured one month by the History Book Club and Easton Press bought the rights (from HarperCollins) to produce a beautiful leather-bound edition. We didn’t get anything extra for that, other than a copy of that edition (now on display inside the shop), and, perhaps, some bragging rights.

But it was all a pretty wild ride.

How To Feed An Army got us on national television when the Food Network did a show on military cookery. We were on for all of about 90-seconds. But…we were on.

And, when How To Tell A Secret was published, we did a national radio tour. For a period of about three weeks, we were guests on radio shows across the country. Over the phone interviews with upwards of 40 radio talk shows. One was at 5:30 on a Sunday morning (live, or as live as I could be at that hour), but most were mid-day. And they were in some pretty big markets…Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles. One interview was supposed to last 15-minutes, but went on for the better part of an hour-and-a-half (we were a pretty big deal in Cleveland that afternoon). It was all kinda fun.

The last of the books, Lines of Contention, was published in November 2007; just about two years ago now. And while all are still available on, chances are you won’t find many on the shelves of the national chains of book sellers. And that’s OK; they’ve run their course.

But that’s also why the package from HarperCollins was happy. For it contained authors’ copies of Codici Segreti. It seems that an Italian publisher, AVALLARDI, bought the reprint rights of How To Tell A Secret and issued it in Italian.

Yet another notch in the belt, as it were: international publishing. Again, we don’t get a nickel out of it. But that’s OK. We do get more braggin’ rights.

And I’ve just exercised those rights. Thank you for participating.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Time to 'bite the bullet'

Our cabinet of curiosities at the front of the shop (I refer to it as my little museum of historical insignificia), contains several Civil War-era bullets. Both are lead. One appears to be a .69 caliber round shot; the other is a Minie Ball. They are moderately interesting in themselves, although not particularly uncommon in this part of the world.

What makes these two particularly interesting, at least to me, is that both carry teeth marks.

These bullets have a history. Someone, sometime, chewed on them. And that begs the question: why would anyone chew on a lead bullet? Or, in other words, why would anyone, literally, bite the bullet?

In common use, “to bite the bullet” means to bear down on a project, usually an onerous one, and just get it done. No matter how unpleasant the prospect is, you’ve got to just bite the bullet and do it.

The story goes that the phrase actually originated during the Civil War. On the battlefield, if a soldier was hit in an arm or a leg by a bullet, the bone would just shatter with shards and splinters of bone spreading in all directions. There was no way to repair the damage and the wound was actually life-threatening. The only remedy was amputation.

At the same time, anesthesia was rare. So when a soldier saw the surgeon approach in blood-splattered apron, he knew he was in for a hard couple of minutes. He would be laid on what passed for an operating table and his buddies would hold him down while the surgeon would wipe off his saw and begin.

Since there were no pain killers, the soldier would have a bullet placed between his teeth so he wouldn’t bite off his tongue or scream with the pain. Hence, teeth marks on the bullets.

It is a compelling story. It makes sense. It conforms to our notions of the Civil War and of the then-state of medicine. It conjures images of battlefields and of the times.

Turns out it is also wrong.

Civil War historian Janet Bucklew was our guest for "First Friday" this past weekend. She’s just written a book about Henry Janes, a country doctor from Vermont who served during the war. Janet, a Research Historian, is a veteran ranger at the Gettysburg National Military Park, and is also on staff at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD. You'd think she knows whereof she speaks.

Janet's presentation focused on Dr. Janes as a platform for discussing Civil War medicine in general. During the Q&A following her talk, she made a comment—almost as an afterthought—that belied the myth and burst my bubble. Soldiers never chewed bullets during the procedures, she said. The danger of swallowing was too great. Besides, there was anesthesia, so there was no real need.

The teeth marks probably came from pigs. According to Janet, the human jaw simply isn’t strong enough to cause the indentations in the bullets, while a pig’s jaw is. She said that swine would root around the battlefield following action, and would dine upon the corpses there and would at times wind up with a bullet in their mouth. That’s rather grizzly, but that makes sense.

Frankly, I like my story better. It certainly conjures a more romantic mental image.

I’ve tried to verify my version, but I can’t. The sources I’ve checked do repeat my version, but there are no attributions; in fact they all seem to be quoting one another, or talk about “common knowledge”. That’s simply not good enough when it comes to historical accuracy.

At the same time, I cannot verify Janet’s version either. But it does make more sense when you stop and think about it.

The problem with history is that you’re always studying someone else’s version of the facts. Even if you go back to primary sources, you’re dealing with someone’s impression or memory or view of what was said or what happened where. And you have to judge the source: how close were they to the event? Is their story self-serving or embellished? Are they telling the entire story or just what they want their audience to know?

So which version of the story do I tell when showing off our cabinet of curiosities? Maybe both, with an emphasis on history being what you make of it.

And that’s pretty much the point anyway, isn’t it?