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: Ky. writers have too little impact on public discourse

January 29, 2015

150128KyWriters0027After becoming the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, Wendell Berry, right, talked with Julie Wrinn, director of the Kentucky Women Writers Conference. At left is writer Jason Howard,  editor of Appalachian Heritage, a literary quarterly. Behind them, writer Bianca Spriggs. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

As the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame, Wendell Berry lamented that many fine books the state’s authors have written about Kentucky issues have had little impact on public discussion or policy.

In most ways, Kentucky is too fragmented a state, Berry said in remarks at a ceremony Wednesday night at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, where he and five writers from the past were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

“This fragmentation is made possible, and continually made worse, by a cloud of silence that hovers over us,” Berry said. “We have in this state no instituted public dialogue, no form in which a public dialogue can take place.

“This public silence ought to be a worry, especially to writers,” he said. “What is the effect or fate, Kentucky writers may ask, of Kentucky books devoted to urgent public issues — Night Comes to the Cumberlands or Lost Mountain or Missing Mountains or The Embattled Wilderness?”

Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, who spoke earlier at the ceremony, said afterward that Berry underestimates the impact of those books and others like them. They may not have led to solutions for Kentucky’s many problems, she said, but things would be worse without them.

Before Berry’s remarks, excerpts from the work of the five deceased authors were read. The standing-room-only crowd that filled the Carnegie Center’s first floor included many writers likely to earn spots in the Hall of Fame someday.

The other new inductees were: Hunter S. Thompson (1937-2005) of Louisville, who created “gonzo journalism”; Guy Davenport (1929-2005) of Lexington, who during his lifetime won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant; Effie Waller Smith (1879-1960), a black poet from Pike County; Elizabeth Hardwick (1916-2007) of Lexington, a novelist and critic who helped found The New York Review of Books; and Jim Wayne Miller (1936-1996) of Bowling Green, an author and poet.

Watch for my column Sunday with more notes and observations from the Hall of Fame ceremony.

 150128KyWriters0009State Rep. Kelly Flood of Lexington took a picture of Wendell Berry with Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen at the Carnegie Center on Wednesday night after Berry became the first living author inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame. In the background, writer Ed McClanahan, left, talks with Steve Wrinn, director of the University Press of Kentucky.


Is Lexington the Literary Capital of Mid-America?

February 11, 2012

Tens of thousands of Kentuckians were focused last Tuesday night on cheering for the Wildcats as they thrashed the Florida Gators.

Still, a few blocks away from a packed Rupp Arena, the Carnegie Center for Literacy & Learning also was filled to capacity. The standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 was there to cheer for local writers. Basketball isn’t the only pursuit where Kentuckians play at the top of the game.

Ed McClanahan read a hilarious tale of adolescent angst from his new retrospective collection, I Just Hitched in from the Coast. Bobbie Ann Mason read from her new novel,The Girl in the Blue Beret. Nikky Finney read from her new poetry collection, Head Off & Split, which recently won the National Book Award. Before the all-stars took the microphone, several aspiring writers read from their work.

Finney’s National Book Award — and the viral Internet video of her amazing acceptance speech — could not have come at a better time for a new Carnegie Center initiative. Neil Chethik, the center’s new director, has proclaimed Lexington as the Literary Capital of Mid-America and the Carnegie Center as its statehouse.

“It’s not as if we’re trying to be something we’re not,” Chethik said. “We are the literary capital and have been for many years. Half the job is marketing what we already have, and the other half is using that energy to create more.”

Many states have rich literary traditions. But few can top what writers who were born in or moved to Kentucky have produced — and are producing.

Robert Penn Warren was the nation’s first poet laureate, as well as the first writer to win Pulitzer Prizes in more than one literary genre. William Wells Brown was the first published black novelist. Hunter S. Thompson helped create a new genre of first-person narrative, “gonzo journalism.”

Wendell Berry, whose environmental writing has attracted an international following, was selected last week to give the 2012 Jefferson Lecture on April 23 at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. It is the federal government’s most prestigious honor for intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Eastern Kentucky’s mountains have produced, nurtured and inspired many outstanding writers, including James Still, Jesse Stuart, Harriette Simpson Arnow, Harry M. Caudill, Gurney Norman, Janice Holt Giles, Verna Mae Slone, Elizabeth Madox Roberts and Silas House. Western Kentucky’s great voices have included Mason and Irvin S. Cobb.

Central Kentuckians James Lane Allen and John Fox Jr. were national best-sellers a century ago, just as Kim Edwards, Sue Grafton and Barbara Kingsolver are today.

Elizabeth Hardwick and Cleanth Brooks were two of the 20th century’s most influential literary critics. Other notable Kentucky writers from the recent past include Thomas Merton, Allen Tate, Gayle Jones and Guy Davenport.

Among today’s heavy hitters: Sena Jeter Naslund, Frank X Walker, Maurice Manning, Richard Taylor, Chris Offutt, C.E. Morgan, Crystal Wilkinson, Jane Gentry Vance and Erik Reece.

Despite a deep streak of anti-intellectualism, Kentucky has always nurtured great writing. But why? Some say it is the state’s location. Kentucky was the first Western frontier, a Civil War border state and a place always in the midst of transition, migration, clashing values and regional tensions.

“Conflict makes for great stories,” Chethik noted.

“I think it’s because we like to talk so much and tell stories on one another,” McClanahan said. “It’s so much a part of life. Maybe it’s in the water.”

It is not the water, but the land, said Finney, a South Carolina native who has lived in Kentucky for two decades. “Our greatness as writers has to do with the land. Our connection to it,” she said. “We don’t really own the land. The land owns us.”

More than anything, Finney said, it is Kentucky’s mountains: “We never credit the mountains enough for helping shape who we are, for giving us a specific lens through which to see the world, a lens to nurture what we have to say about our human presence in it.”

Writing is a solitary endeavor. But writers need a supportive community, and Kentucky has it. You see it in the attendance at huge annual book fairs in Frankfort and Bowling Green, at bookstores across the state and at events such as the monthly Holler Poets reading, which packs Al’s Bar on North Limestone Street.

You also see it in the attendance at classes and events at the non-profit Carnegie Center, housed in a beautiful old building in Gratz Park that used to be the Lexington Public Library.

“This is a sacred space; a nurturing space for writers,” said Finney, who wrote much of her book,Rice, in one of the center’s study carrels. Mason has taken French classes at the center since 2006, and they helped inspire her to turn her father-in-law’s experiences as a World War II bomber pilot into her latest novel.

The Carnegie Center will have a public forum Thursday at 6 p.m. to gather ideas for this initiative. But Chethik already has some: a marketing campaign, literary conferences and more events that combine literature, music and visual art. Kingsolver is the keynote speaker for the center’s first Books in Progress Conference for authors and aspiring authors, June 8-9.

“There is something going on here,” Finney said. “There is a community hungry for good books and good words. And it has been for a long, long time.”

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Bobbie Ann Mason’s new novel returns to WWII France

June 30, 2011

The year is 1944, and Marshall Stone is flying a B-17 back to England after a bombing run over Germany. Suddenly, everything goes wrong.

The “flying fortress” is separated from its unit. A German fighter attacks. Marshall must crash-land in a Belgian field. He and other surviving crew members are rescued and sheltered by a series of families in La Résistance Francaise, smuggled through France and across the Pyrenees mountains to Spain and safety.

It is a dangerous and memorable adventure. But once World War II ends, Marshall never looks back. He marries his sweetheart, they have two children and he becomes absorbed in his career as an airline pilot.

Then, it’s 1980. Marshall is 60, and federal regulations say he must retire. His wife has died, his children are grown and he can no longer fly airliners. Marshall realizes that the only way he can go forward is to look back.

Marshall returns to Europe, determined to find the people who saved his life, especially Annette, the young girl in a blue beret who bravely guided him through the streets of Nazi-occupied Paris. Marshall finds her, and in the process, he discovers more than he bargained for about his saviors and himself.

That is the story that Kentucky author Bobbie Ann Mason tells in her intimate and haunting new novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret (Random House, $26).

Most of Mason’s acclaimed novels and short stories have drawn on her Western Kentucky heritage. This book takes place in a landscape very different, but almost as personal. The story was inspired by the wartime experiences of her father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, and her own travels through Europe after his death to get to know the aging survivors of La Résistance who risked their lives to save his.

“I’m very proud of it, I must say,” Mason, 70, said when we met for lunch last week after her French class at Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. “I knew I was jumping in over my head.”

Rawlings, who before his death in 2004 was a Trans World Airlines captain, had talked about his World War II adventures and had written a memoir. Mason started thinking about that in 2006, when she resumed the French studies she had given up after college. “I thought there was a good premise (for a novel) in what would happen if he went back,” she said.

Rawlings had gone back in 1993; he visited his crash site and some of the people who had helped him. That included a young girl he remembered as having worn a blue beret or scarf so disguised GIs could follow her through Paris at a discreet distance. Rawlings left his reunion at that, but it provided Mason a launching point for her novel.

Mason eventually made five trips to Paris. She became friends with the girl, now a lively woman of 81, and she learned harrowing details of the woman’s own wartime experiences. “She was my model for Annette,” Mason said, “but I made up so much stuff.”

Mason traveled to Belgium and found people who had witnessed her father-in-law’s crash-landing. She met a man near Paris who, at age 15, had photographed Rawlings disguised as a Frenchman so the photo could be used for a fake ID card.

“They really helped open up the period for me in a way that books couldn’t. They made it real,” she said.

“The people welcomed me like family because I was the daughter-in-law of this bomber co-pilot and they were so grateful to the American bombers,” she said. “I was astonished by their hospitality. I didn’t know French that well, and some people didn’t speak English, but we carried on.”

The novel required intense historical research. Mason’s husband, Roger Rawlings, is an aviation buff like his father, so he helped teach her about airplanes. Mason read everything she could about World War II. She patterned characters after the Europeans she met and others they told her about.

Mason’s stories are famous for their authentic voices, steeped in the cadences of small-town Western Kentucky. Creating authentic dialog for French characters was a challenge. “In my head I could hear the voices of the people I met, and I was trying to get that sound,” she said.

Another thing about this novel was different for Mason.

“Usually when I finish a project, I just box up all the research and turn my back and it’s done; I’m through,” she said. “This subject is going to stay with me for the rest of my life, and I will keep on reading about it. The war was the biggest story of the 20th century.”

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A peek into Bobbie Ann Mason’s writing technique

June 23, 2011

I have a column in Sunday’s Herald-Leader about Bobbie Ann Mason‘s fascinating new novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret. It is a story about World War II and self-discovery, based on the experiences of her late father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, who was a B-17 pilot shot down by the Germans and rescued by civilians in the French Resistance.

As we had lunch last Tuesday at Stella’s Deli on Jefferson Street, after her regular French class at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Mason told me something about her writing technique.

“Writing is so complicated,” she said. “What I tend to do is just to go over and over it. I read it again and again, and each time I change a few things. I have trouble with radical revisions. I think in reading it over and over like that you get too close to it. I just write it and polish it until I can’t think of a single other thing to do to it. I write it until it sounds right.”

Mason, a native of Graves County who now lives in Anderson County, is the author many books, including: In Country, Shiloh and Other Stories, Clear Springs and Feather Crowns. She is the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, two Southern Book Awards and other prizes, including the O. Henry and the Pushcart.


Night of Literary Feasts is an appetizing fund-raiser

March 15, 2011

Good food. Good conversation. Good cause. That sums up A Night of Literary Feasts, the fourth annual fund-raiser for the Lexington Public Library Foundation on April 1 and 2.

The event features intimate group dinners with top authors from Kentucky and beyond, hosted in Lexington homes.

This year’s lineup includes three best-selling writers from elsewhere: Rita Mae Brown, Andre Dubus III and Jerome Tuccille. Two of them have local ties: Brown is a fox-hunting equestrian who has ridden in Central Kentucky, and Dubus has relatives here.

Kentucky authors include Ed McClanahan; Neil Chethik; Ron Pen, biographer of the famous balladeer John Jacob Niles; and Maryjean Wall, the retired Herald-Leader racing writer whose book, How Kentucky Became Southern, explains why the Thoroughbred industry flourished here after the Civil War.

Then there is former University of Kentucky basketball player Mark Krebs. His new book, Beyond a Dream, chronicles his time as a Wildcat as his mother battled deadly cancer. His dinner includes a tour of UK’s Joe Craft Center.

Jon Carloftis, a Kentuckian famous for his New York City rooftop gardens, will be at a dinner, as will Fran Taylor, who wrote Keeneland Entertains, and Margaret Lane, author of Beyond the Fence: A Culinary View of Historic Lexington.

“The dinners are small, and you really get to know the author, which is a treat,” said Meg Jewett, owner of Walnut Hall Farm and the L.V. Harkness & Co. gift shop. She has chaired the event all four years. “It’s a perfect fund-raiser for the library.”

The main event, April 1, begins with a cocktail reception, a silent auction and book signings at Central Library. Then everyone breaks into groups of about 20 for dinner with an author in the home of a library donor.

Those who buy $250 tickets get guaranteed seats at the dinner of their choice. Those who buy $150 tickets are placed as space is available, based on their author choices. For those who can’t attend the dinners, there will be free coffee and book signings the next morning at The Morris Book Shop.

This year, the foundation hopes to raise $65,000, up from $45,000 last year, foundation director William Watts said. The first two years, the event raised $14,000 and $25,000, respectively.

Authors donate their time; the foundation pays any travel costs. Dinner hosts provide the meals. Corporate sponsors include Community Trust Bank, L. V. Harkness, Evangelos S. Levas, and the law firms Stoll Keenon Ogden and Stites & Harbison.

Lexington has an excellent public library system. A big reason for that is steady funding for basic services from a small cut of local property taxes, and additional money raised by the foundation and an active “friends” organization.

Much of the money from this year’s event will go toward a new Story Time Bus. The library bought was given a school bus by from Fayette County Public Schools, and it plans to renovate it and send it to children’s day-care centers. Tens of thousands of kids now attend literacy programs at the library’s six locations, and the bus will take that work much further.

With so much information available on television and the Internet, some people might think that libraries are an anachronism. As the son, nephew, husband and father of former librarians, I know better. So do other patrons of the Lexington Public Library.

The library’s 178,233 active cardholders checked out more than 2.9 million items last year. The libraries’ 250 public-access computers were used 535,753 times. More than 5,100 people attended 748 computer classes taught by the library system.

“We have seen our visitors increase every year,” said Ann Hammond, a former naval officer, forensic scientist and California library manager who took over as executive director of the library system last September.

Hammond said fund-raising events such as A Night of Literary Feasts are essential for the future.

“We have an imaginative staff,” she said, “and they are always looking for ways to serve the community.”

If you go

A Night of Literary Feasts
When: Reception at 6 p.m. April 1 reception, dinner at 8 p.m.
Where: Central Library, 140 E. Main St., then private homes.
Tickets: $250 and $150; reservations required.
Coffee with the Authors
When: 10 a.m. April 2
Where: The Morris Book Shop, 408 Southland Dr.
Admission: Free
Reservations and more information: LexPubLib.org/feasts or (859) 231-5557.


Kentuckians love a good story – and storyteller

November 6, 2009

Kentucky doesn’t just produce writers; it celebrates them.

The biggest annual celebration is Saturday, when about 200 writers — 150 of whom are Kentuckians — will gather at the Frankfort Convention Center for the 28th annual Kentucky Book Fair.

Authors will sit behind long rows of tables so thousands of readers can stop by, meet them, buy their books and get their autographs.

This year’s lineup includes pop ular Kentucky writers Silas House, Erik Reece, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Thomas Parrish, Richard Taylor and David Dick.

Also there will be retired Courier-Journal columnist Byron Crawford, who has put together a 30-year collection of his work in Kentucky Footnotes, and journalist Leslie Guttman of Lexington, who writes about a year in the life of a race horse hospital in Equine ER.

Coach Rich Brooks and co-author Tom Leach will sign their book, Rich Tradition: How Rich Brooks Revived the Football Fortunes of the Kentucky Wildcats.

And retired Keeneland chairman Ted Bassett will autograph his memoir.

National authors at the fair will include George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, who has written a book about Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m always so proud to live in a state that supports literature the way Kentucky does, and the Kentucky Book Fair is real proof of that,” said House, who will sign his new novel, Eli the Good.

“Everywhere I go, all over the country, people assume that Kentuckians are illiterate,” House said. “And I always take that as an opportunity to correct them and tell them about our long literary history and how great the support for writers is in our state.”

When you think about that tradition and support, it makes perfect sense. Writing is about telling stories, and there are few things Kentuckians love more than a good story — and storyteller.

Jesse Stuart and me at his home, summer 1963. Photo by Marion Eblen

I’m the son of a school librarian and a bookstore manager. Writers, especially Kentucky writers, enjoyed celebrity status in our home. My first memorable encounter with that celebrity came the summer I turned 5, when my mother’s parents came up from far Western Kentucky for a visit.

My grandparents were Jesse Stuart fans and wanted to see the Greenup County he wrote about. While my father was at work one day, my mother took us to Greenup, thinking we could drive past Stuart’s home. What she didn’t know was that the narrow gravel road ended at his home.

It didn’t look as if anyone was home, so before she turned the car around, my grandparents urged her to look in the window beside the front door. When she did, Stuart looked back. Then he opened the door and invited us in to visit.

I had just learned to do somersaults, and, much to my mother’s horror, Stuart encouraged me to practice on the braided rug in his living room. I was barefoot, so when he took us to see the cabin where he wrote, he carried me out there, giving my mother a Kodak moment.

Writers such as Stuart and James Still found rich material in the people and places of Eastern Kentucky, just as Mason has explored the land and psyche of her native Jackson Purchase region, in far Western Kentucky.

I asked Mason last week about the importance of Kentucky writers, past and future. As you might expect, her response was well worth reading:

“Kentuckians have been confused about our identity, who we are and how others see us, what we have here and what there is in the larger world. Sometimes we feel smugly superior, sometimes inferior. Kentucky writers have always walked a tightrope between Kentucky and the Outside.

“Now even though the boundary lines are easing, and Kentucky is part of the wider mainstream, our writers can continue to lead the way on the most critical issues of our time, because we can write firsthand with passion and with historical perspective about what is happening to the land and its people. Our land of contrasts is an example and a warning to the rest of the world.”

IF YOU GO

Kentucky Book Fair

When: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Nov. 7.

Where: Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero St., Frankfort.

Admission: Free.

Learn more: (502) 564-8300, Ext. 297. www.kybookfair.com (there is list of all participating authors).