Richmond author’s final book chronicles World War I fighter pilots

May 30, 2015

RICHMOND — The new book First to Flychronicles the Lafayette Escadrille, a group of young Americans who flew primitive fighter planes for France before America entered the First World War.

They were a fearless and colorful bunch who lived as if there were no tomorrow. For many of them, there wouldn’t be. Their dogfights with German aviators were often suicide missions.

Charles Bracelen Flood, the best-selling author and historian who moved to his wife’s Madison County farm in 1975, chose these men as the subject of his 15th book. (Atlantic Monthly Press, $25.)

Cover of the book "First to Fly" by Charles Bracelen Flood.  Photo provided

But as Flood was completing the manuscript last year, he discovered he shared their brief life expectancy. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer June 15 and died two months later at age 84.

“He went out like he would have wanted to,” said his widow, Katherine. “Writing right to the end.”

Flood’s final book is a page-turner, written in a spare, vivid style like that of his literary hero, Ernest Hemingway. He told friends about meeting Hemingway in a Paris bar in the 1950s and being surprised to hear the famous author had read his first novel, Love is a Bridge, a best-seller published to critical acclaim when Flood was a 23-year-old Harvard graduate.

After six novels, Flood wrote a controversial book about his year as an embedded reporter with American troops in Vietnam and covered several Olympics for The Associated Press. He then began a series of non-fiction history books about Abraham Lincoln, Adolph Hitler, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, William Tecumseh Sherman and the American Revolution.

The New York native’s last book grew out of reading a few memoirs by Escadrille veterans. Flood began the project in 2011, searching out other pilots’ diaries and letters. He and his daughter, Lucy, went to France in 2013 for more research.

“He would tell us about them, and you could just see his eyes light up,” said Lucy Flood, a freelance writer and editor in California. “They had such amazing stories.”

First to Fly weaves together short biographies of these men and their experiences flying flimsy, open-cockpit airplanes made of wood and canvas, with engines and machine guns that were anything but reliable.

The 38 members of the Lafayette Escadrille came from a dozen states. Their average age was 24. They were race car drivers, athletes, gamblers, soldiers of fortune and idealistic Ivy League university graduates from wealthy families. Several transferred to the unit after fighting in the trenches with the French Foreign Legion. They were looking for adventure, and they found it.

An undated photo of Charles Bracelen Flood (1929-2014), author of "First to Fly: The Story of the Lafayette Escadrille, the American Heroes Who Flew for France in World War I." Photo provided

Charles Bracelen Flood

Aviation was such a novelty that fighter pilots were celebrities. When they weren’t flying, they were drinking or enjoying the company of legions of female admirers, whose silk stockings they wore under their leather helmets for good luck. They acquired two lion cubs, named Whiskey and Soda, as mascots and wrestled with them as if they were big dogs.

Eleven Escadrille pilots would not survive the war. Others suffered numerous wounds and injuries. Post-traumatic stress led some to later die of suicide, alcohol and drugs. But others went on to become successful businessmen and military officers in the next war. Four wounded fliers married their French nurses. Three others married movie stars.

An additional 231 American pilots served in French aviation units between 1914 and 1917, when the United States entered the war. Many of them sought transfers to the Escadrille, including the first black American fighter pilot.

Eugene Bullard was born in Georgia, left home with $1.50 in his pocket and joined the Foreign Legion on his 19th birthday. He was a machine gunner in the trenches until he was wounded. After recovery, he applied for pilot training and flew 20 combat missions.

Bullard stayed in Paris after the war, managed a nightclub and fought with the French underground during World War II. In 1954, the winner of 15 medals was asked to help two French veterans rekindle the eternal flame at the tomb of France’s Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe. Bullard died in 1961 in New York.

Flood had planned to write his memoirs after finishing First to Fly. So, on the day of his fatal diagnosis, he began working with his daughter to make audio recordings about his adventurous life as a writer, teacher and mentor.

Lucy Flood has almost finished transcribing those five hours of interviews, which she and her mother plan to turn into the memoir Flood ran out of time to write.

“He just had an unbelievable enthusiasm for life,” Katherine Flood said. “He loved people, could talk to anyone and was interested in everything.”

Wendell Berry first living inductee in Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame

January 10, 2015

111218WendellBerryTE0032AWendell Berry at home, December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen


When the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning announced plans in July to select the first living member of its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, I wrote that the process should be a search for Wendell Berry.

Kentucky has many fine writers working today, but none can match the range, craftsmanship and international acclaim of Berry, 80, who writes and farms in Henry County, where his family has lived for five generations.

So the Carnegie Center’s announcement this week should come as no surprise. Berry will be inducted into the Hall of Fame at 7 p.m. Jan. 28 along with five deceased writers, who will be identified that night.

The ceremony at the Carnegie Center, 251 West Second Street, is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Kentucky Educational Television plans to live-stream the event on

“To be recognized in that way at home is a very pleasing thing,” Berry said when I talked with him by phone last week. “And a relieving thing, actually.”

The Carnegie Center, a non-profit organization that promotes literacy education, reading and writing, created the Hall of Fame three years ago to draw attention to Kentucky’s rich literary legacy.

In its first two years, 13 deceased writers were honored: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

hall-of-fame-logo-final-300x165Neil Chethik, executive director of the Carnegie Center, said about 200 members of the public nominated more than 75 writers for the honor this year, including about 25 living writers. A short list was sent to a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council, which made the selections along with the Carnegie Center staff.

“Everybody pretty much said, ‘It’s going to be Wendell, right?'” Chethik said. “His command of all three major areas of writing — fiction, non-fiction and poetry — and his influence statewide and internationally brought us to him.”

Chethik said future classes of inductees may include a living writer, but not always. The criteria for all nominations is that a writer must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a strong tie to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

All of which makes Berry a natural for the honor. The former University of Kentucky English professor has written more than 60 volumes: novels, poetry, short-story collections and essays. A fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he received the National Humanities Medal in 2010 and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The major theme of Berry’s work is that people should live and work in harmony with the land and their community. “He is so rooted in Kentucky,” Chethik said. “He speaks for a lot of Kentuckians.”

The-Unsettling-of-America (1)Berry’s 1971 book, The Unforeseen Wilderness helped rally public opposition to a plan to flood Red River Gorge. His 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, is a bible of the international movements for sustainable agriculture and locally produced food.

Over the years, Berry has participated in protests against nuclear power and coal strip-mining. He was among a group of environmental activists who camped in Gov. Steve Beshear’s outer office in 2011 to protest state government support for the coal industry’s destruction of Eastern Kentucky mountains.

A year earlier, Berry cut his ties to UK and withdrew his papers to protest the university’s renaming of the basketball team residence hall Wildcat Coal Lodge in exchange for $7 million in donations from coal executives.

“The actual influence of writers in Kentucky is in doubt,” Berry said when I asked about his activism, and whether he thought it would ever sway public policy.

“As far as the future is concerned, I don’t sit around and think about the future in regard to what I’ve done,” he said. “It seems to me to be a distraction from the things I ought to be doing.”

Berry said he has been busy writing poetry and working on several long-term projects. He also is writing a short speech for his Hall of Fame ceremony about “Kentucky writing and what it means to be a Kentucky writer.”

“Kentucky writers over the years have given us a kind of record of life in this state, what it has been like to live in it,” he said. “Sometimes they have given us very important testimony about things that were wrong.

“They have been an extremely diverse set of people, and I think the quality of their work has been remarkable,” he added. “I don’t think there’s any worry about it continuing.”

Carnegie Center asks: Who is Kentucky’s greatest living writer?

July 5, 2014

WendellBerryThe Carnegie Center is asking for nominations of Kentucky’s greatest living writer for its Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. My nomination is Wendell Berry, shown here at his Henry County home in December 2011.  Whom would you choose?  Photo by Tom Eblen


The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning has a new message as it seeks public nominations for its third class of inductees into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame: We’re not just for dead folks anymore.

In January, the center plans to add four more Kentucky writers who are no longer living to the 13 already in the Hall of Fame, plus its first living writer. So here is the question: Who is Kentucky’s greatest living writer?

“We are ready to show that great Kentucky writing is being created now,” said Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center’s director. “It just doesn’t exist in the past.”

halloffamelogoThe criteria for all nominations is that a writer, living or dead, must be published; must have lived in Kentucky for a significant period or have a significant connection to the state; and must have produced writing of “enduring stature.”

Since he became director in 2011, Chethik has expanded the Carnegie Center’s mission of promoting literacy education, reading and writing to celebrating Kentucky’s literary heritage. One way has been by creating the Hall of Fame.

“People like lists,” he said. “They like awards.”

Nominations to the Hall of Fame are vetted by the Carnegie Center staff and inductees are chosen by a committee of writers and readers headed by Lori Meadows, director of the Kentucky Arts Council.

The first 13 inductees have reflected a diverse group of great writers spanning two centuries: Harriette Arnow, William Wells Brown, Harry Caudill, Rebecca Caudill, Thomas D. Clark, Janice Holt Giles, James Baker Hall, Etheridge Knight, Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Madox Roberts, James Still, Jesse Stuart and Robert Penn Warren.

“People have a lot of passion about who gets named to the Hall of Fame,” Chethik said. “We’ve even had some protests.”

For example, fans of two popular novelists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr., have lobbied for their inclusion. So have fans of the late “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

They and others will be considered in the future, Chethik said, along with perhaps one living writer each year.

“I think we’ve got five-to-10 who are truly great writers working right now who are nationally known,” he said. “You can start making a list, but as soon as you start … well, I’ll leave it to you and others to make the list.”

I can think of several Kentucky writers who have produced impressive bodies of work over several decades, including Barbara Kingsolver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Sena Jeter Naslund, Nikky Finney, Gurney Norman and Gloria Jean Watkins, whose pen name is bell hooks.

Kim Edwards of Lexington has won many awards for her short stories and best-selling novel, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Louisville native Sue Grafton has attracted a national following with her detective novels.

There are many fine up-and-coming Kentucky writers, such as Frank X. Walker, Silas House, C.E. Morgan, Erik Reece, Crystal Wilkinson, Maurice Manning and Bianca Spriggs.

You probably can think of others worthy of consideration, too. But for me, this competition comes down to a search for Wendell Berry. No other Kentucky writer can match the quality, breadth and impact of his work over the past half-century.

Berry, who turns 80 on Aug. 5, has written dozens of novels, poems, short stories and influential essays and non-fiction books. A fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he won the National Humanities Medal and gave the prestigious Jefferson Lecture in 2012.

The Henry County native and resident is revered internationally for elegant, no-nonsense writing that helped inspire the environmental, local food and sustainable agriculture movements.

Berry’s 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, has become a classic. The Unforeseen Wilderness in 1971 helped rally public opposition to flooding the Red River Gorge. In recent years, he has been an eloquent voice against destructive strip-mining practices in Appalachia.

That’s my nomination for Kentucky’s greatest living writer. What’s yours? Email your suggestion, plus your reasoning and any supporting material, before July 15 to Chethik at:

“We figure that when you’re arguing about who the best writers are, you’re in the right conversation,” Chethik said. “We want to spark conversations that will get more people to read more.”

Calumet book author to speak at Carnegie Center about writing

June 3, 2014

When Ann Hagedorn was growing up in Dayton, Ohio, her father would bring her to Lexington each spring break and they would visit horse farms. The most memorable one was Calumet.

“Calumet was always what he told us was the example of excellence,” she recalled, from the farm’s freshly painted white fences to its spotlessly clean barns.

So in 1991, when she was a Wall Street Journal reporter covering major corporate bankruptcies, she was both heartbroken and curious when she read that Calumet had filed for bankruptcy.

Hagedorn came to Lexington to read through the court file, figuring there was a good front-page story to be written. She soon realized this story of greed would also make a good book. Wild Ride: The Rise and Fall of Calumet Farm Inc. was published in 1994.

HagedornHagedorn will return to Lexington on Friday to be the keynote speaker at the third annual Books in Progress Conference at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. Other speakers include Frank X. Walker, Kentucky’s current poet laureate, and beekeeping mystery writer Abigail Keam.

The conference is designed to help people through the challenging process of writing a book and getting it published. For more information, and to register to attend, go to:

“What we’re trying to do is create a sense of community among writers,” said Neil Chethik, the Carnegie Center’s director. “While writing is a solitary endeavor, writers need a lot of help and support.”

Hagedorn, who has known Chethik since they were both reporters at the San Jose Mercury News in California, said she never planned to leave daily journalism for book writing; it was a natural evolution.

After Wild Ride was published, she returned to the Wall Street Journal and soon became fascinated with the subject of her second book, Ransom: The Untold Story of International Kidnapping, published in 1998.

“As much as I missed the newsroom, I decided this is what I was meant to do,” she said. “I started believing in the importance of narrative non-fiction books and kept finding topics.”

Her next three books were on diverse topics, but they shared a theme: periods of American history, from the 1830s to the present, when democracy has been under severe stress.

Hagedorn’s third book, published in 2003, was Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. It told about men and women in southern Ohio who risked their lives for years to end slavery. The American Library Association named it one of the 25 most notable books of the year.

Next, she wrote Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919. Through narratives of key individuals, it told the story of the tumultuous year after World War I ended that gave birth to modern civil liberties. The 2007 book was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

On Sept. 2, Simon & Shuster will publish Hagedorn’s fifth book, The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security. She said the book explores the recent rise of the private military and security industry, how these companies operate and why Americans should be concerned.

“I try to find stories or topics that I feel are important and need to be told through the narrative, non-fiction genre to make them more accessible,” she said.

Hagedorn said her talk Friday will focus on the lives of writers: “Who we are, what we do and how we can do it the very best we can. The larger theme is that we’re all in this together in terms of our quest, and in terms of the learning process.”

She also will lead a session on story structure, which she finds both the most challenging and rewarding part of writing.

Hagedorn said many people want to write, but success requires practice, hard work and a desire to keep learning. Even successful writers struggle, she said, recalling an interview she once had with the late Norman Mailer.

“He said he could not believe that every single time he did a book he felt challenged and scared and he learned a lot of new things about writing,” she said. “That’s the wonderful part. That’s the scary part. That’s what discourages people and makes them stop sometimes. It’s really what should drive you. Always around the corner there’s something new to learn. It shouldn’t defeat you, it should empower you.”

A glimpse behind Dollmaker author’s creativity

November 8, 2011

It is tempting to assume that great authors just sit down and write great books. The writing is so good, they make it look easy.

“Mrs. Arnow writes so well, with so little apparent effort, that critical examination seems almost irrelevant,” author Joyce Carol Oates once wrote about Harriette Simpson Arnow’s most famous novel, The Dollmaker. “It is a tribute to her talent that one is convinced, partway through the book, that it is a masterpiece.”

But nothing came easy to Arnow (1908-1986), a native of Appalachian Kentucky whose five novels, three non-fiction books and many short stories earned her acclaim as one of the 20th century’s great American writers.

Arnow was a tiny, tough woman whose prolific literary output was a testament to determination. She overcame many obstacles, from economic hardship and the sexism of her era to the everyday distractions of being a wife and mother.

Evidence of Arnow’s struggles will be on display soon at the University of Kentucky’s Margaret I. King Library. The exhibit marks the completion of a 20-year effort by UK’s Special Collections Division to sort, catalog and, in some cases, make sense of 145 boxes of Arnow’s personal papers.

The exhibit opens with a program that includes remarks by Appalachian Journal editor Sandy Ballard, who is writing a biography of Arnow, and Gurney Norman, a UK English professor and former Kentucky poet laureate.

Later in life, Arnow became an encouraging but demanding teacher at writing workshops in Murray and Hindman, where Norman became her friend. “She could be very intimidating,” he said. “She was not, shall we say, a warm and fuzzy personality, but she was very generous.”

Arnow’s books are not warm and fuzzy, either: most are gritty tragedies about mountain people struggling against their circumstances. Don’t expect happy endings. In The Dollmaker, Gertie Nevels leaves her beloved Kentucky farm to follow her husband to a factory job in Detroit. They find only hardship and despair.

Still, in a 1979 Kentucky Educational Television documentary, Arnow insisted to interviewer Al Smith that she was not a pessimist. “If I were a pessimist,” she said, “I would have never have tried to write, because writing is such a gamble.”

The UK exhibit, organized by graduate student Amber Surface, uses notebooks, drafts and letters related to Arnow’s novel Hunter’s Horn to show her creative process. Memorabilia from The Dollmaker will be used to show how that novel was prepared for publication and became a best seller.

Arnow’s papers include the dime-store composition books she used to write first drafts in barely legible pencil scrawl, and her intense correspondence with editors. She made notes on both sides of everything. Her manuscripts show exhaustive rewriting and rearranging — cut-and-pasted paragraphs with editing marks everywhere. Her children drew pictures on some manuscripts.

Norman said Arnow’s jumbled papers could never have been made useful to scholars without 20 years of hard work by Kate Black, curator of UK’s Appalachia collection, and a parade of graduate students.

“It was as if someone had taken all of these papers and thrown them up in the air,” Black said. “We did a lot of piecing together.”

Black also found a carefully arranged scrapbook of reviews, letters and memorabilia related to publication of The Dollmaker in 1954. She said a family member must have put it together; it was too organized to have been Arnow’s work.

The collection includes Arnow’s baby shoe, diplomas, fan mail and an odd assortment of news clippings, saved perhaps as inspiration for future stories. Arnow also kept her membership materials from the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Civil Liberties Union. “She was a complicated woman,” Black said.

The papers offer a glimpse into the intense ambition and conflicted emotions of this early feminist — who did not call herself a feminist. Writing masterpieces while caring for husband Harold, a newspaper reporter, daughter Marcella and son Thomas made for a demanding life.

“I may be more housewife than writer,” Arnow told Smith in their 1979 interview.

On the back of one page of manuscript, UK archivists found this scribbled note from her husband: Harriette — The burners on stove do not work. The oven does work: Can you cook a bite in it? H.

If you go

An exhibit and program marking the opening of the papers of Harriette Simpson Arnow

When: 4 p.m. Nov. 17

Where: The Great Hall, Margaret I. King Building, University of Kentucky

Click here for more information.

Click on each thumbnail to see complete photo:


‘Captain Kentucky’ is back with two new books

May 31, 2011

After lying low for a few years, Captain Kentucky is back, resuming his epic quest to make the world safe for quirky characters and good storytelling.

Lexington author Ed McClanahan this week publishes a collection of stories from a creative writing class he taught at the University of Kentucky. And, in October, he will mark his 79th birthday with the publication of I Just Hitched In From the Coast: The Ed McClanahan Reader (Counterpoint, $18.95).

McClanahan might be known best for his 1983 novel, The Natural Man, the hilarious story of a teenage boy’s coming of age in 1950s small-town Kentucky. But McClanahan also is famous for the company he kept during the 1960s and 1970s.

Known by his hippie moniker Captain Kentucky, McClanahan was one of author Ken Kesey’s band of “merry pranksters.” Their psychedelic drug-induced shenanigans were chronicled by Tom Wolfe in his landmark “new journalism” story, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

McClanahan first attracted attention as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University in 1962, which put him in California just as the counter-culture scene was blooming. He has published nine previous books and many magazine stories. In 1974, Playboy published his profile of Lexington music legend Carlos Toadvine, aka Little Enis, the left-handed, backwards, upside-down guitar player.

McClanahan’s long hair turned white years ago, but he has lost little of his zeal. That was clear as we chatted in his home office, which is stuffed with memorabilia from a colorful life enthusiastically lived.

McClanahan said he had tired of teaching after a long academic career at Oregon State, Stanford, the University of Montana, Northern Kentucky and UK. But he returned to UK to teach a creative writing class in fall 2009 after a two-decade absence.

Once he got to know his eclectic class of 13 students, McClanahan decided they should write and edit a book. The result is Horsefeathers: Stories From Room 241 (Wind Publications, $15), with a cover illustration by Lexington artist John Lackey.

McClanahan had been intrigued by the concept of writers editing one another’s work since he helped publish a California literary magazine four decades ago. “Our editorial policy then was that we never turned anything down,” he said. “We did have someone send in a 400-page novel that was awful. We managed to lose it.”

The writing students who contributed to Horsefeathers included a UK management professor and a 69-year-old woman “who wrote the raciest story in the book.” Class member Scotty Adkins, an English graduate student, helped organize the project.

Class discussions often continued over dinner, with McClanahan entertaining everyone with his tales about hanging out with writers such as Kesey, Hunter Thompson and Truman Capote. “Ed doesn’t have a snooty bone in his body,” Adkins said. “He takes the craft seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously.”

Readers can have their own McClanahan experience this fall. His new anthology includes 14 new and previously published pieces of fiction, non-fiction and stories that fall somewhere in between.

I Just Hitched In From the Coast includes the 2002 story, Fondelle, Or: The Whore with a Heart of Gold. It was inspired by an incident that happened to McClanahan during his first big adventure, hitchhiking back to Kentucky in 1954 from a summer of working on road crews in California’s Yosemite National Park.

McClanahan said a preacher had just left him in a swamp near Beaumont, Texas, when he was picked up by a one-armed asphalt salesman. The salesman was driving a new car he had bought for the prostitute he was taking to New Orleans to marry. McClanahan was quickly recruited to be the best man.

The wedding plans fell apart, and McClanahan, hung over from heavy drinking on Bourbon Street, decided a Greyhound bus would be an easier way to get home. Still, he had the presence of mind to have the bus driver drop him off just short of Maysville so he could thumb a ride for the last few miles.

The strategy paid off when a high school buddy witnessed his triumphal return. “Where you been?” the friend asked, giving McClanahan the opportunity to reply with all the sophistication a 22-year-old could muster: “I just hitched in from the coast.”