If you want to know your animal neighbors, let it snow. A fresh coating of pure powder is a perfect, unspoiled canvas on which critters paint time-lapse landscapes of their comings and goings. We were in Maine for the recent deep freeze, and while the below-zero cold was great for our nighttime star and moon gazing, a crystalline reminder of cosmological constants, the snow presented us with mystery. More on that in a moment.

I grew up in a four-room wooden farmhouse in Indiana with no central heat. We had a brown porcelain oil-fired space heater in the living room and, as far as I remember, no means of conducting the heat to other places in the house, save convection. Still, I didn’t dread the cold, not really.

Here are two things that come to mind about that old house, the cold, and growing up. First, I was afraid that a fox would gnaw his way through the wooden siding and get into the bedroom my brother and I shared. Foxes, for some reason, had taken on mythical powers in my young mind. They gave me bad dreams.

The truth is I can hardly remember seeing a fox, as a boy. But on a small isolated Indiana farm, they were a bona fide threat to chickens. So, I must have inferred an existential threat. Officially, foxes were a pest in our neck of the woods because Hendricks County agricultural authorities paid three dollars bounty for a set of their severed ears. I cashed in only once. I used a Buck pocket knife to cut my submission from a road kill.

My other cold remembrance–fox related–happened on the cusp of spring, in late March or early April. That’s when day-old baby chicks arrived from the Indiana Farm Bureau Co-op. We usually ordered a hundred, or so. They were delivered by mail via a United States Postal Service rural route carrier. The cheeping, fluffy little hatchlings would grow to be egg-layers and fryers by summer.

The chicks lived in a flimsy wooden hen house in our smokehouse lot. There, they were kept warm courtesy of the Rural Electric Membership Cooperative, because they were vulnerable and missed their natural mothers. Their heat came from two lamps that hung over their straw-floored pen and glowed red like alien suns. The chicks would huddle and bunch under these lights and often smother one of their own. Poor things, flocking was in their genes.

During a cold snap, when the heat lamps weren’t enough, mom would bring the chicks into the house. She’d lay newspapers down in front of the oil burner in our living room and build a barrier out of who knows what to pen them in. Thus, my brother and I would have a single-species petting zoo until the weather warmed.

I didn’t think, at the time, that having chicks in the living room was wildly unusual. I assumed that other farm families were doing the same thing. We weren’t a poor family, not like our nearest neighbors. They were sharecroppers. They may not have had indoor plumbing. I don’t know; I was never allowed to go into their house although I often visited to play with their oldest boy. My father had a union job at Detroit Diesel Alison, a division of General Motors. He was a proud experimental machinist. Dad liked his work, and that was good because he spent almost every day there and he worked a lot of overtime, too.

In fact, dad and mom saved enough money that we built a new house. And, I mean, we built it. It was made of Bedford Limestone and still stands today, fifty years on. As young boys, our contribution was marginal. But my mom and dad worked really hard over three years to dig a basement (with the help of a backhoe), lay the block and foundation (with the help of the first African-American I ever met), frame the house (with the help of dad’s work buddies), set the stone (with the help of a journeyman mason) and wire the electrical circuits, plumb the fixtures and install the 1960 state-of-the-art, hot-water-in-the-floor-and-ceiling heating system.

So, with the new house finished and no sentimentality to hinder further progress, my father and mother hired a bulldozer. The operator plowed a big hole in our front yard and shoved the old house in. It went down like cardboard. Then, he covered the hole with high-grade Indiana topsoil. Buried in that dark hole was the cold of my youth and my fear of foxes chewing their way into my bedroom. Foxes can’t gnaw through Bedford Limestone; everybody knows that.

Now, we have foxes in Maine, I’ve seen them. And, coyotes, unseen but not unsung. I know the tracks from both. And in Maine, we have other substantial mammals who prefer meat for dinner. So, when I came across a fresh track on our access road that was almost half the length of my size-12 Bean boot, I was curious. I like to know my neighbors, especially the larger ones.

The track didn’t match any image provided by Google. So, armed with a loaded iPhone, I queried locals at Grover’s Hardware, and Dan’s Auto, and a Sawyer Island dinner party. I asked mostly Mainers, and I received non-definitive suggestions ranging from bear to bobcat. One opinion from a life-long son of the Pine Tree State even suggested catamount, very controversial.

So, for the sake of neighborliness, and by harnessing the boundless wisdom of the internet, I open the discussion to all reading this blog. You can reach me via my contact page for your solicited wildlife analysis. Here’s thanking you in advance. – SJH

New York City is a magical place for bewitch-able people. I’m not one of them. My wife is, however, and the lure of the Great White Way, the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, shopping, and knifing through its impenetrable social medium is her forte. It makes her happy. So, she was elated when she got tickets to see Springsteen on Broadway; she had bragging rights for a month. I too was excited within the confines of my dread of crowds, of New York crowds, and my seasonal mood constraints. These constraints start on my birthday in early November, build slowly to fill the void of waning sunlight, then amplify within the confines of indoors spaces, and are in full career by the winter solstice. As I pick through old family photos and write my Christmas cards, I become reflective, introspective and socially inert. Thus, New York City in December can be a challenge, but my wife’s happiness is overriding.

Anyway, it was a good trip. Yes, I still think of New York City as a massive rats-in-a-box psychology lab 101 experiment gone wrong, but the good outweighed the bad. Amid what ethologist, John B. Calhoun, called a “behavioral sink” I found enjoyment.

Springsteen was great. And, I mean that in a wow-he’s-a-world-class-performer-with-musical-and-poetic-chops-that-we, as-a-culture, should-all-be-proud-of kind of way. His two-hour musical narrative held my interest, made me rock in my seat, and made me plumb the depth of my moral and philosophical underpinnings. Death, sex, and rock-and-roll are the new catch-phrase for aging boomers. His lessons, from my mental notes, were: We are all flawed, we run away only to come home, and we all die but don’t give up hope.

The next morning, with Bruce still in our heads, we taxied to the American Museum of Natural History and saw Dark Universe at the Hayden Planetarium. There, the lesson we gleaned from the imminently listenable Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was that we, the Earth and the human race, are small, very, very small. Not unimportant, but very, very small. And, the corollary to this is that the universe is big, really, really big.

I’ll let the reader draw any master conclusion from these two big-stage events. But wait, there’s more. New York wasn’t finished filling our heads with contemplatable goodies.

On Amtrak 71 back to D.C. the venerable New York Times tells me that “In the $600 billion annual Defense Department budgets, the $22 million spent on the Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program was almost impossible to find.” The article, well worth a read, is about funding a military UFO identification program. A freshly released Pentagon video of two U.S. fighter jocks tracking an unidentified object was embedded in the article. So, questions multiply. Are we alone in the universe? Can we be found if we aren’t? Do we want to be found, really? What are the protocols if we are found or, for that matter, what should we do if we find someone else?

Back home in Alexandria after a decent night’s sleep, I take my first cup of coffee to the study and my well-read wife who stays up later than I do has left me an annotated article. Luckily, New York once again comes to rescue my curiosity and propel my inquisitiveness. The New York Times Magazine of December 10, 2017, tells me the answer to the “are we alone” question according to 2,903 of their readers. To the question “Do you believe aliens exist?” 44 percent said no, 31 percent said I don’t know, and 25 percent said yes.

I vote for yes and not merely because I’ve been reading Liu Cixin’s Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, a hard-science, science fiction tome. But I confess that I am impressionable and susceptible to the loquacious Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Liu Cixin, a notable engineer, consultant to the China Aerospace Corporation, and the winner of nine Galaxy Awards, the Chinese Hugo Award. So, here’s the kicker on aliens, Liu Cixin believes that the iron rules of cosmic sociology lead to the conclusion that, should we identify another acculturated, inhabited planet, “Each civilization is like a hunter with a gun in a dark forest: When I see another hunter, I have no choice but to shoot him dead.”

Something to look forward to, I suppose. Meanwhile, I’m listening to Bruce who has musically resolved Mr. Liu’s Three Body Problem–the first volume of his trilogy–with his rhythm guitar and three-chords in Human Touch.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. –SJH

Please know that this is a true account of events as confirmed by a representative of Grover’s Hardware in Boothbay Harbor. The prominent characters in this abridged tale are Maine and Mainers. Some would say that’s redundant but humor the notion just for the moment.

Change is challenging especially when community consensus is a prerequisite. The weather was beautiful on March 9, 2016. The high temperature had reached into the 50s, the wind was seven knots out of the southeast, and the skies had been clear for most of the day. But, by 7:00 p.m. darkness was upon Boothbay, and a pall of skepticism advanced with the sun’s retreat. Attendance at the Boothbay Board of Selectmen meeting promised to be high, so the assembly moved from the town hall to the YMCA. True to expectations, a substantial proportion of the town’s 3,000 citizens showed up. The big draw was the vote on whether or not to vote on the proposed roundabout. Let me explain.

Mainers like to vote. They vote on everything. And that’s probably a good thing except in Wiscasset, but that’s another story involving stubbornness, lobster rolls, and traffic flow. Back to Boothbay, after robust and bounteous citizen dialogue, the selectmen voted 3-0 to allow the roundabout question to appear on the November ballot alongside the question of who would be President of the United States.

On November 8, 2016, the roundabout measure passed 1,121 to 968 and surveying and construction began almost immediately. The busy summer and early fall were tested by construction as crews labored to unravel an indiscernible tangle of stop signs and county roads intersecting in a Bermuda Triangle North, of sorts. The ancient conglomeration was a “failed intersection” characterized by no less than the Maine Department of Transportation. The plan was to superimposed a small but functional traffic circle on the mess. Now with the work mostly complete in early November 2017 and the roundabout in service, all that is left is for local motorists–because only locals are left in Boothbay this time of year–to learn how to use it.

There’s a significant backstory that I’ll summarize as follows. The story involves a flavored vodka magnate, a person from away (PFA)–that is, forty-eight miles away–who many locals believe is trying to disrupt the historic Boothbay social and economic trajectory. Yes, the magnate built a 30 million dollar mansion, luxified a sleepy old golf course and a tired hotel on the harbor, and has projected that he knows what’s best for the region. The magnate, Mr. Coulombe, was a principal supporter and financier and beneficiary of the roundabout. Hence, the roundabout was a much-discussed emotional issue.

With any change, there’s a learning curve. Since Mainers don’t travel far from home, perhaps for fear of being pegged as “from away,” many have never used a roundabout. Suffice it to say from inception to implementation; the roundabout has been on everyone’s minds and tongues.  At least it was until the Sunday before Halloween. That’s when the wind began to howl, and the rain started to sting.

The storm started around 10:00 p.m. and by 5:00 a.m., more than half a million Mainers had lost power. Virtually everyone in Boothbay lost electricity, and some were out for seven days. Barters Island, our home away from home was out for four and a half days. Thank goodness it wasn’t freezing, and the temperatures stayed between 40-60 degrees.

Now we come to the point of the story. When the people of Boothbay lost power, they stopped talking about the roundabout. All the local buzz changed to talk about the storm and trees and generators and power lines. So, if you want people to stop complaining about something, cause a bigger problem. Again, this social phenomenon has been confirmed by a credible representative of Grover’s Hardware so you can take it to the bank or if you prefer, the hardware. –SJH

The Fairfax Library Foundation supports twenty-three branches of the Fairfax County Public Library which in turn serve the 1.1 million citizens of its Northern Virginia jurisdiction.

Both the Foundation and the Library are wonderful organizations. I was honored that Rails of War could play a small part in the Foundation’s Jubilee annual fundraiser. I am also proud that my lovely and talented wife, Kathleen, serves as the Foundation’s treasurer pro bono. So, yes, who you know matters.

The Jubilee was a typical evening of schmoozing, perusing, and trying to look dignified while you casually wolf passed-hors-d’oeuvre or trundle through the food line. My wife mingles savvier and moves more elegantly than do I so I always follow her lead. If you were writing a short story about me at these events, the plot would be “fish out of water.” The Jubilee featured a silent auction, an area where you could take photos with cardboard celebrities and, thankfully, brief speeches by county politicos and acknowledgments from the podium for volunteers, and staff, and work well-done. By the way, they didn’t have a cardboard cutout of Edward Norton’s Death to Smoochy character, Sheldon Mopes, so I wasn’t interested in a picture. Kathy went with Benedict Cumberbatch.

But, before I go on, I’d like to explore the anthropological possibility that the human form has yet to evolve to take advantage of the resources offered at a Jubilee. Here’s the problem. You get a drink and begin moseying into the crowd. Then, the first passed-hors-d’oeuvres come within reach. That’s when you realize that three arms may be an evolutionary advantage. The hors d’oeuvre you’ve set your sights on is usually separate from the prerequisite paper napkin, and your drink is in your dominant hand. So, how do you arrange the morsel and napkin then make off with your bounty? The answer is, for me, awkwardly. Or, ham-fistedly. Or, at last night’s Jubilee, prosciutto-fistedly. Then, with your reward collected, what if someone wants to shake hands? Or, what if you need to clap? Luckily, this may only be a niche defect, not as looming as say dodging cheetahs on the savanna.

Back to my point, the Fairfax Library Foundation invited me to be a part of their local author presentation, and I was honored. Rails of War was offered for purchase at the Jubilee by Scrawl Books an independent bookseller who supports local literacy efforts and freedom of speech. Ms. Rachel Wood, a former librarian, is the owner. So, thank you Ms. Wood, Scrawl Books, and the Foundation for all of your work supporting the Library and our vital literary community.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KptcYK0PAks[/embedyt]

I’m proud to share this interview with my former employer the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers, a modern and sophisticated labor organization. The ‘Machinists Union’ was founded in 1888 by nineteen determined railroaders in a grimy locomotive drop pit in Atlanta, Georgia. Today, with 600,000 members in diverse industries and government agencies, the IAMAW remains on the cutting edge of communications fighting the good fight for working people in the U.S. and Canada. In Solidarity,

-SJH

How much Googling of oneself or one’s book is permissible before it becomes a problem? Or, is there a gray area before a problem overtakes you? And, when is that? How much is too much? Once a week? Daily? Hourly?

I hadn’t Googled for a month or two and what I found surprised me. Now that I’ve been reinforced, clicker trained if you will, my Googling is frequent and fervent. I’ll leave it at that. Here is the Pavlovian conditioning that started me down this slippery slope.

A week or so ago, I Googled my name and about seven pages into the search found a result that surprised and pleased me. A publication and a reviewer unknown to me had dug into Rails of War and published a complimentary assessment. In “The Professional Journal of the U.S. Army,” Military Review, Lt. Col. Joe M. Schotzko, an instructor, Department of Army Tactics, at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Leavenworth, Kansas, undertook a literary dissection and concluded his valuation with:

I recommend this book for all military professionals and railroading enthusiasts who want an understanding of how American railroading professionals affected the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II. Rails of War is a relatively quick read, giving good perspective toward the end of the war in the China-Burma-India Theater while providing good entertainment throughout.

Since there are about two million active and reserve military professionals in America, and an unknown but substantial number of railroading enthusiasts, I’d say if Lt. Col. Schotzko’s endorsement results in a 10 percent rate of compliance, Rails of War should be well on its way to bestseller status. I wait with bated breath…while I Google yet again.

-SJH

Presentation at Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club

Did you know that beer can pop-top openers weren’t invented until the 1960s? I didn’t nor did my copy editor whose otherwise excellent review of my manuscript was greatly appreciated. But, leave it to a polite and kindly soul to discreetly bring the church-key verse pop-top reference in a Rails of War vignette to my attention after my presentation at the Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club. He was right, and a church-key around the neck applied to a can of beer would have made a much more colorful depiction of World War II GI behavior than simply popping a pop-top. Live and learn.

I had two author presentations in August, one at the Rockland Library and one at the Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club, both in Maine. Both events were well attended, and that’s good because I love to meet people. Everyone has a story, and I love to hear them. What’s amazing to me is the familial proximity people have to railroading.

I know my audience is a non-representative sample of the general public but a good many attendees have someone–a father, a brother, a grandfather–who were railroaders. In 1947 there were 1.5 million railroaders in America, and by 2014 there were 235,000. Also, a single railroader in 1947 earned $5,700 for their employer, and a 2014 railroader brought in $330,000. Total industry revenue for 1947 reached $8.7 billion and $77.7 billion in 2014. The bottom line is that today’s railroaders are as scarce as hens’ teeth in our population of 320 million. But, they show up at Rails of War presentations, and I greatly appreciate meeting them.

So, here’s to crowdsource corrections, railroaders, and the connections that bring us all together.

-SJH

It’s fair to say Richard Rubin interviewed World War I veterans who were over 100 years old for his book. Mary Lawrence writes mystery novels set in the 1500s peppered with her knowledge of Cytotechnology gained at our shared alma mater, Indiana University. Kevin Hancock’s quest led to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation where he found his Center in the Land of Crazy Horse.

The Books in Boothbay Fair cobbled together a lively mélange of authors. To Charlene D’Avanzo the marine ecologist dressed in adventure gear holding a paddle who writes about solving murders with her sea kayak, I hope we can chat someday.

Why didn’t I meet Ms. D’Avanzo or the thirty other authors at the fair? Because I was busy selling books. And, people were buying. I saw one middle-aged woman head to the cash register with a stack cradled in her arms so large that she had to balance it with her chin. But, Jeff Curtis and the crew from Sherman’s Books kept the line flowing and customers happy.

Books in Boothbay Fair would not have happened without two high-quality local enterprises. So, thanks to the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library and especially Desiree Scorcia for my invitation and allowing me to meet a slew of interesting folks. And, thanks to Margaret Hoffman of the Boothbay Railway Village for keeping the trains running on time (and authors in line) and coming up with some excellent BBQ. Love it, let’s do it again next year. 

– SJH

I used a 1944 Parker 51 fountain pen to sign my mother-in-law’s copy of Rails of War. She gave the pen to me two Christmases ago because I told her how my mother and father coveted these pens during the war years. From the Parker flowed a dark and lustrous script onto the page opposite the book’s title. The ink sunk deep into the porous paper of the book in a rich vein of love and appreciation. Mary, my wife’s mother, was the first person to wade into the original 350,000-word author’s draft.

My parents often discussed the best tools for writing during the war. The writing implement of choice was agreed to be the Parker 51. And, although rationed during the war, the ink of choice was also Parker 51. But often they had to settle for second best, Parker Quink, a product that used isopropyl alcohol for solvent instead of water. The ink dried quicker with Quink, but it didn’t flow as smoothly.

Writing in other people’s books is in an author’s job description. The event where this is required is called a signing. I did two this past weekend, one at Barnes and Noble and one at my book launch in Old Town Alexandria at Lloyd House. I’m terrible at it. I’m unoriginal in prose. But, thankfully, the owner of the book probably can’t read my substandard notations because my handwriting is indecipherable. I attribute this to technologically-induced-fine-motor-neuro-muscular-atrophy (TIFMNMA). There, I’ve named it so now I’m a victim–not just lazy.

I know I had passable handwriting back in the early 1970s because Roadway Express hired me to move freight six days a week on their bulk-break truck dock in Indianapolis. I’m pretty sure that the only requirements for employment in that job were heavy lifting and legible penmanship. All DOT load manifests were handwritten back then. Now, it’s robots reading barcodes.

Anyway, to the subject at hand, signing books. It’s a new experience for me, and I’m pretty sure I can master it given enough time. After all, I’m in recovery from TIFMNMA. Finally, and I probably should have led with this, author events are fun. I had a good time this weekend. I love telling the story, and people seem to enjoy hearing it.

Click here to view upcoming author events or to schedule a Rails of War book signing.

-SJH

It’s hard to overstate how excited and thankful I am that University of Nebraska Press chose to include Rails of War in its presentation at BookExpo 2017 in New York City. For readers not familiar with BookExpo, it’s the largest annual book trade fair in the United States. I cannot say enough about the support Rails of War is receiving from UNP and its marketing staff, especially Rosemary Vestal, Publicity Manager (shown in photo) and Tayler Lord, publicist.

Rails of War at BookExpo is personally rewarding; I won’t deny it. And, in that egotistical vein, let me share a conversation I had last night with Ed Rondeau from Rhode Island. I saw Ed at a reception and later at a party and his kind words, were well received. Ed used that code phrase that every author seeks, “I started reading, and I couldn’t put it down.”

Ed is an artist, a sculptor with public works in the Northeast. He’s a sensitive guy and, as are most artists, a constructive critic by nature. So, his effusive endorsement of my “very personal narrative” carried some weight. Ed’s father served in World War II in the island-hopping Pacific offensive where he was a U.S. Army infantryman and medic. Ed said that Rails of War stimulated his interest in researching his father’s unit and better understating his father’s experience. I had heard this before, that Rails of War spurred a reader to grasp a family narrative better. It’s an incredible feeling to think that the story of the 721st can still motivate people seventy-two years on. – SJH