Each weekend, I try to visit a fleamarket near my apartment called "The Garage." On weekdays, it's a parking garage. On weekends, it is transformed into a multi-tiered fleamarket with vendors who never fail to amaze me at what different things they can bring each week.
I have two huge (as in book-like) research projects that have been keeping me really busy. One is generally about the homefront during World War II, and the other focuses on NYC history during the 1800s. Not much overlap. But, anyway, I've been using my visits to the Garage to look for source material or stuff (I try to be open-minded since you never know what you might see) that might be useful to better understand each of these time periods.
A few weeks ago, one of my favorite vendors promised to bring a box of letters from WWII that he had found at an estate sale in upstate New York. As soon as I saw the heaping box of documents and letters, I knew I had to buy it. After several hours of organizing and cataloging them by date, I can now read through them in the order that they were written.
It seems a little sad to me that I, a stranger, now have the personal letters of this couple. I can't help but wonder if they had children who didn't care to keep the letters, or perhaps it was their grandchildren who were willing to part with them? As I organized the box, I felt even sadder, since I discovered that there are photographs, and even Mr. Allan W. Ames's Navy id card mixed in.
A photo of Mr. Ames--I assume with his wife and mother--either as he was about to leave for service, or perhaps while on a furlough:
And these just scratch the surface.... I have an entire envelope of photographs (here are just a few):
As well as notepads that Mr. Ames carried with him during the war, jotting down notes along the way...
I've decided that this treasure trove of letters is too good to keep to myself. My plan is to share parts of the story behind Mr. Ames' war service on this blog, and also what his wife was up to with her War Bond work and adjusting to the homefront as wartime measures (such as rationing) were taken and made life very different from what it had been before the war.
This whole experience leaves me to wonder what happens to other boxes of old letters--whether some are just thrown away and lost forever. Wouldn't it be incredible if there were a Museum of Abandoned Letters, a repository for boxes like the one I just bought, where letters too precious to throw away (and perhaps too precious to even sell) could be stored and read by curious visitors wondering what life was like at some other point in time? I'd happily volunteer to be the curator.
For now, I am off to the Garage, to see what wonders might be lying in wait for me.
I found this letter for sale in an online auction, purchased it, and thought I'd share it here. One of my favorite parts of researching and writing The Myth of Ephraim Tutt involved reading all of the letters from Train/Tutt fans, telling how much Train's stories meant to them. These heartfelt letters frequently included a request for Train's or Tutt's autograph--and Train always supplied one. It seems that readers wanted a physical memento of the man responsible for the books that they so enjoyed.
Although the letter written above was mailed about 15 years before the publication of the contentious Yankee Lawyer, it goes to show that Train had developed a strong following more than a decade before he unleashed his literary mischief. The 1920s proved to be one of the most significant decades for Train's writing career, as three of his best-selling novels were made into movies, and it was during the 1920s that Train truly became a household name. Despite the fame he met, and his continued success throughout the 1930s and 40s, Train always made time for his fans, and letters like the one above (and postcards signed by Train like the one below) were received by many to their great delight.
If you are ever in San Francisco, and are wondering whether it's worth the trip to Alcatraz, let me help you out: Go! My husband and I visited California recently, and it was one of our favorite parts of the trip. It's very dramatic, taking the ferry over to the island, and immediately being met by the sign above. Really sets the mood for a prison tour (and the sign is 100% authentic, not made for tourists).
It's a bizzare place. On the one hand, Alcatraz housed some of the most dangerous and notorious criminals of the mid-1900s--Al Capone, "Creepy" Karpis, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Robert Stroud "Birdman of Alcatraz," to name a few. It was a brutal place. In 29 years, 36 prisoners tried to escape. Eight inmates were murdered by other inmates. Five inmates committed suicide. Fifteen died of "natural causes." The prison only held around 240 prisoners on average during the time it served as a federal penitentiary. A typical cell for these prisoners is below:
Typical Prison Cell
An "isolation" cell on D block--confinement here-- in a cell behind a closed door-- was perhaps the most punishing experience.
The prisoners could enjoy the library and a recreation area, but these "perks" did not do much to diminish the fact that they were living amongst some of the most dangerous criminals in the United States.
The library then....
The recreation area (see the baseball diamond?)
But, there was another side to Alcatraz. Ninety correctional officers worked in the prison, and many of them lived on Alcatraz Island with their families--wives and children. The children would take a boat to and from San Francisco to attend school, and, apparently they were considered the coolest kids in school because they lived on an exclusive island with a prison. They were allowed to bring classmates to the island for sleepovers, and these lucky children were among the few visitors that were allowed on the island while it served as a federal prison.
For these families, the island offered a completely different experience than the dangerous and deadly one that the prisoners faced. The island is incredibly beautiful, with views that are breathtaking.
There are incredible gardens on the island--accessible to the families, not the prisoners.
Now that you have the gist of the island, let's get to the good stuff. The escape plot. On June 11, 1962, Frank Morris and two brothers living in Alcatraz--John and Clarence Anglin--made good on a long-time plan to break out of the joint. For months, they had used homemade drills and spoons to dig around the pipe where their cell sink entered the wall.
Normal sink & wall
An escapee's cell--the hole was made by slowly chipping away at the wall with a spoon and homemade drill.
To cover up the holes they were making in each of their cells, the men fashioned cardboard and tobacco boxes so that they looked like the vent that should've been there.
Convincing cardboard vent used to cover-up the growing hole behind it.
In the meantime, the men made "dummy heads" out of soap, cement, and paint, so that on the night of their escape, they could evade detection during overnight head-counts.
On June 11, 1962, the three men finally acted on their plan. The placed their dummy heads under their blankets, and then crawled through the holes they had made in their cells, scaled the pipes in the utility corridor behind their cells, made it to the roof of Alcatraz, and then slid down a stove pipe outside and crept to the shoreline. Once they reached the water, the men inflated a raft they had made out of a raincoat, and drifted out into the bay. There's been no sign of them ever since.
The cell of an escapee, complete with the "dummy head" made to evade detection overnight.
A photo of an escapee's cell after he was discovered to be gone; a representation of how the escapees got out of Alcatraz.
A second notable episode in the prison's history was the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946. Basically, two prisoners had agreed that, as they returned to their cells after working for the day, when a corrections officer performed a routine frisk of one of them, the other would attack the officer and they would both then subdue the officer and free other conspiring prisoners.
The mastermind of this plot, Bernard Coy, a bank robber, had noticed that certain bars in Alcatraz were deformed in such a way that they could be bent. He created a device that could be used to spread the bars wider so that he could slip through and get into an area restricted for corrections officers only. He starved himself for some time so that he would have been able to squeeze through the small space between the widened bars. Coy's plan worked seamlessly (thus far), and he essentially gained control of much of the inside of the prison by capturing corrections officers and placing them all in a cell.
Coy needed to secure a certain key to get out into the yard, as their escape plan involved taking the daily boat from Alcatraz to San Francisco. However, in the process of trying several keys, the prisoners jammed the door lock and effectively locked themselves into the very room they were trying to escape from.
Things soon became deadly. When corrections officers tried to retake the prison, they were shot at by the prisoners, who had taken guns from the corrections officers they were holding captive. The captivity lasted two days, and in the end, three prisoners died and two corrections officers were killed. Marines were called in to gain control of the prison, and they did so by dropping grenades into the prison--the damage is still apparent today.
The floor still shows signs of where the grenades were dropped
In 1963, Alcatraz closed as a federal prison, but this was not the last chapter for this island. In fact, a year later, it became the site of a Native American "occupy" movement. Five years later, Native American activists moved to the island, and remained their for 19 months. The activists claimed Alcatraz in the name of "Indians of All Tribes," and the group offered to pay the United States $24 in beads and trade goods--modeling their offer after the terms of the purchase of the island of Manhattan. Graffiti from the period of the occupiers can still be seen.
Do you see the word "Free" written within the red and white stripes?
In 1971, federal agents removed the remaining activists from Alcatraz; the Native Americans received no land despite their occupation, but they did gain a lot of publicity from the media, and were able to raise awareness of their perspective.
After the occupation, the federal government began bulldozing buildings on the island, but this stopped when Congress created the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in 1972, and Alcatraz Island was taken under the management of the National Park Service.
So, if you are ever in San Francisco, you should definitely go to Alcatraz. It's a fascinating place, the audio tour that is free is very good, and the garden walks (if they are open) are really beautiful.
Well, after ten years in the making, it's finally (almost) here. My book will be officially released next Monday, November 19th (although I've been told that Amazon is already shipping it out, so if you are anxious for a copy, that might be your fastest way of getting one). And, the book has received its first press--as you can see, the Colonie Spotlight published a really nice feature article on the book in this week's paper.
I've been working on scheduling book signings and other appearances, and will have an update on what I've got planned soon. There's a new page on my website--"upcoming events"--that will list my schedule. If you can make it to any of my book events, it would be wonderful to see old friends and to make some new ones.
Besides getting a grip on the publicity side of things, and fighting a mean cold/sinus infection that's been hanging on for a week, I am looking forward to seeing how things shake out, and am obviously hoping the book meets some success.
Thanks for your support and words of encouragement!
Want to score a copy of The Myth of Ephraim Tutt
before it hits stores? Goodreads is offering you a chance to do just that! Enter their giveaway to win one of two copies of The Myth of Ephraim Tutt
. The giveaway ends on November 5, 2012, so act now!
A Building in the Neighborhood--Windows Taped to Prepare for the Hurricane
The last few days have been harrowing and unforgettable. My husband and I live in a highrise below midtown Manhattan, and our apartment is not near the shores of the East River or the Hudson River. Since we're not near the water, we have not experienced flooding. Both of our jobs, however, are located in lower Manhattan, and our workplaces have been closed all week. Between power outages and the flooding of lower Manhattan, it's difficult to know when we'll be able to go back to work.
The night of the hurricane was pretty scary--our building was making terrible sounds as it was strained by the wind, we could hear our window panes creaking as gusts of wind pressed against them (and our blinds were blowing from wind seeping into our apartment even though our windows were shut and locked), we heard what sounded like an explosion at one point, and we felt as though our building was swaying slightly. It was an unsettling experience.
The main thing that affects us now is the lack of power in our neighborhood--there are no supermarkets that are open, and since they do not have power, it's not really clear when they will reopen. We stocked up on food, so we should be fine.
We realized today that the infamous crane is actually visible from our apartment--it's 30ish blocks away, but you can see it in this picture (I circled it to help you spot it--it is over a mile away, so not the easiest to see, but you should be able to make out the crane toppled over on the left-hand side of the building).
And, strangely, our apartment seems to be running the line between the part of the city that has power, and the part that doesn't. Our view to the north (notice the lights!!!):
Our view to the south (notice hardly any lights--the ones in the distance are in New Jersey):
So, we're generally fine, hanging out in our apartment, and waiting for subways and electricity to come back to our neighborhood so we can go on with our lives, go to work, and do basic things like get groceries. But, we're safe and that's really what matters most.
In case you didn't hear about the latest literary fraud, last week, Jonah Lehrer admitted that he had invented quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works Until this literary mischief, he seemed to have a lot going for him--he's a Rhodes scholar, a neuroscientist, and was a staff writer for "The New Yorker." For whatever reason, he decided his book wouldn't be good enough with manufacturing the quotes he wanted Dylan to have said.
Now, he's resigned from "The New Yorker" and has issued a public apology. According to the New York Times, Lehrer stated "The lies are over now. . . . I understand the gravity of my position. I want to apologize to everyone I have let down, especially my editors and readers." In my opinion, he should have stopped there. However, he added: "I will do my best to correct the record and ensure that my misquotations and mistakes are fixed." Really? Misquotations? He makes it sound like he made an innocent mistake, as if the whole thing were a misunderstanding or an innocent accident.
The man who exposed the fraud was a Dylan aficionado, Michael Moynihan; he read Imagine, searched for the source of one of Lehrer's Dylan quotes, and after Lehrer responded to Moynihan's inquiries with several lies, Lehrer ultimately confessed "that he had made it up." According to Moynihan, "Lehrer had spliced together Dylan quotes from separate published interviews, [and] when the quotes were accurate, he took them well out of context." Sounds intentional, not a case of mere "misquotation."
An apology from a hoaxer doesn't seem to cut it these days. Already, Lehrer's publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has announced that it would recall printed copies of Imagine. If this hoax becomes anything like James Frey's, it wouldn't be surprising if it results in the issuance of refunds to readers who had bought Imagine thinking if was non-fiction, only to find it was not all it is supposed to be.
It will be interesting to see how this pans out. His book sales are likely to dwindle (people tend to be less interested in reading non-fiction when it actually isn't true), and it is unclear if he will be able to salvage his writing career.
The tradition of the literary hoax is alive and well. And once again, a hoaxer has fooled his publisher, reviewers, and readers before the hoax was revealed.
"Jonah Lehrer Resigned From New Yorker After Making Up Dylan Quotes for His Book," by Julie Bosman, New York Times, July 30, 2012 (appearing on Media Decoder Blog).
"Due Diligence on Dylan: Writer Found Fraud in First Chapter," by Christine Kearney, Chicago Tribune, Aug. 1, 2012.
Birthday wishes go out today to Ephraim Tutt, born July 4, 1869, in Leeds, Vermont. Tutt's birthday--on Independence Day--fit him well, as Tutt dedicated his life to representing people who were caught in legal traps from which escape seemed impossible. He strove to seek justice by unconventional methods that kept his fans and foes at the edge of their seats to see just how Tutt would prevail in seemingly helpless cases.
In Tutt's own words, he was born “a natural rebel,” as he spent his life rebelling against “privilege, despotism, and the perversion of the law to selfish ends.” Just as the nation celebrates its successful fight for its independence, a salute should also go out to Ephraim Tutt, for his lifelong rebellion against injustice.
Happy birthday Tutt!
A few months ago, my mother came to visit me in New York City and she brought a bag with a few old things she thought might interest me. Several days passed before I gave the bag a second look. But, one night, feeling bored and a little curious, I discovered this among other things:
Thanks to the Civil War letters, I was familiar with Edward McCleary, so it seemed likely that Samuel McCleary was a relation (and a second look at the letters showed that Samuel was Edward's father). As it was bound by string, it seemed something must have been inside of it. But what? It is only about 1/4 or 1/2 an inch wide and made of wood. I looked to the back of it to see if it gave any clues, and this is what it looked like:
Moving it, a few pieces of wood fell from it, and when I untied the string, I realized I had a puzzle on my hands. A puzzle of New York State and all of its counties. Since I have lived in New York for my entire life, I thought I might as well try to put the thing together and see if I had all of the pieces. But, New York is a tricky state, with counties that are ridiculously small (and several of them were barely familiar to me). I went to work, but the puzzle was harder than I thought. Maybe 45 minutes or so into trying to put it together, I finally caved in and googled a map of the counties of NYS, and ultimately I got the whole thing together. Well, almost.
I was missing Schenectady. I wondered if the missing piece was the type of thing I could find on ebay, so I turned to the computer to do a little investigating and I found out that there does not appear to be another puzzle exactly like the one I have. You see, Samuel McCleary was actually one of the first jigsaw puzzle makers in the United States. What I had before me appeared to be his floor model. Samuel McCleary partnered with John Pierce to create McCleary & Pierce, and they patented in 1849 a special diecast method of cutting jigsaw puzzle pieces. The puzzle itself was created in 1850, winning the acclaim of esteemed educator Emma Willard, as well as the Governor of New York State.
The only other copy of this puzzle I have been able to find online has a different cover than mine, and the puzzle pieces are different colors. (To see the collector's copy, click here
) As for the cover, rather than advertising that all inquiries about the puzzle were to be made to Samuel McCleary (like my copy), the cover of the collector's copy reads: "Dissecting Map of the State of New York." So, as far as I can tell, the copy of the puzzle that I have is the most likely the first one made. Pretty amazing.
But, what about the missing piece? After my time-consuming attempt to put the puzzle together, plus my time researching what it was and its significance, it was past 11pm, and so I decided NOT to call my mother to ask if she had any idea where Schenectady (the puzzle piece) might be. I told my husband that we could not vacuum or otherwise clean our floors until Schenectady was found. We may have crept around the floor (on more than one occasion) to be sure that the missing piece--no bigger than a pea--had not fallen out of the bag that my mother had carried it in. We searched everywhere, but, alas, Schenectady was not to be found in our apartment.
The next day, waiting until the civilized hour of 7am, I called my mother, frantic, asking whether she could check to see if Schenectady had somehow been left where she had found the rest of the puzzle, or if she could otherwise search everywhere for the missing piece. Unfortunately, it was too late. She said that she had vacuumed the closet where she had found the puzzle, and she didn't know where else the piece would be (note: cleanliness can be overrated, especially when looking for very small things). I was crushed. As a lover of history, holding in my hands something so old and significant as perhaps the first jigsaw puzzle made in the United States for educational purposes, I felt that the whole puzzle needed to be preserved. Including Schenectady.
I told my mother all about the history of the puzzle, and she was very excited and promised to be on the lookout for an orange triangular piece of wood, but the search seemed futile.
About one and one-half months later, on my mother's birthday no less, she called my cell phone and left a message (I was at work). I figured she had called to thank me for the card I had sent, but when I listened to her voicemail, I could hardly believe what she had said. She had found Schenectady! When she first found the puzzle, it had been inside of a cardboard box. By the time she gave it to me, she had no idea what had come of that box. But, on that fateful birthday morning, she was putting a few things in a box to give to my sister when she caught a glimmer of a little orange piece of wood on the bottom! Schenectady! The puzzle would be complete! And this amazing piece of history is intact (or will be--after all, considering what we have been through searching for it, with the vacuuming moratoriums and countless phone calls pining away over a 1/4 inch piece of wood, it's not like she could just mail it to me--this is the type of thing that can only be delivered in person).
I am planning to visit my parents sometime this month, and when I do, my mother has promised to hand over one of the smallest counties in New York State (thanks to the puzzle, I know such NYS county trivia) so the whole puzzle can be together again. So, for now, I leave you with a final picture of the incomplete puzzle. The gaping whole is, of course, Schenectady.
(I found that there are actually t-shirts for sale with a picture of Samuel McCleary's & John Pierce's Dissecting Map of the State of New York. My mother received a belated birthday present of this t-shirt--after all, we were basically obsessed with finding the missing piece for over a month and sort of bonded with the puzzle in the process. The t-shirt is available here
I made a short preview of what my book is about. Enjoy!