Nurse’s daughter wonders: whatever happened to ‘Baby Strand’?

July 19, 2014

140720BabyStrand0001Edna Lester was a nursing student at Good Samaritan Hospital when the Lexington Herald photographed her holding “Baby Strand”, an infant abandoned in Lexington’s Strand Theater on the afternoon of Aug. 24, 1945. Lester’s daughter, Ann Riegl of Seattle, had heard about Baby Strand all of her life. She found the Herald clipping while cleaning out a drawer after her mother’s death and created a Facebook page to try to find out whatever happened.

 

Every family has a drawer of important papers and keepsakes. When Ann Riegl of Seattle was growing up, her family’s drawer included a front-page clipping from The Lexington Herald of Aug. 25, 1945. It showed her mother holding “Baby Strand.”

Edna Lester of Perryville was a nursing student at Good Samaritan Hospital when Lexington police brought in a 5-week-old baby boy. He was thin and sickly, but neatly dressed and wrapped in a blanket. Nurses nicknamed him Baby Strand.

The clipping said witnesses told police they found the child in the darkened Strand Theatre on Main Street after he started crying. They remembered having seen a young woman handling a bundle, then leaving the matinee.

“This is something she always kept,” Riegl said of her mother’s newspaper clipping. “We talked about it a few times, and she told about how the nurses doted on Baby Strand. I think she wondered about whatever happened to him.”

Edna Lester Norris died in 2008. Among the things Riegl kept from her mother’s keepsake drawer were the clipping and a print of the newspaper photograph.

“But those things don’t do much good if they’re just sitting in a drawer,” Riegl said. “So I thought I would at least put this information out there in case Baby Strand, who would be 69 years old now, might be looking for it, or his family might be.

“It would be good to know if you were in that situation that while Baby Strand was abandoned, he wasn’t discarded,” she added. “He was left fully clothed in a place where he would be found, with an extra gown tucked into his little blanket.”

I contacted Riegl after she created a Facebook page called “Baby Strand’s Story.” Wayne Johnson, a researcher at the Lexington Public Library, found more stories about the case in 1945 issues of the Herald and The Lexington Leader. At the Mercer County Public Library, I combed through Harrodsburg Herald microfilm from that year. Here is what we found:

Six days after Baby Strand was left in the theater, his mother was arrested in Mercer County. She was brought to Lexington, charged with child desertion and jailed after being granted a request to visit her child in the hospital.

The woman told police she grew up near Harrodsburg and that her parents were dead. She said she was engaged to the baby’s father, a soldier from her hometown, but he had been shipped off to fight the Japanese before they could marry.

She had left Kentucky a year earlier to work in a munitions factory in Indiana, but got sick and had to quit her job before she gave birth. The child was malnourished, she said, because he wouldn’t take formula.

Alone with an infant and little money, she got a bus ticket home. But when she arrived in Lexington, she discovered her luggage was lost. After several hours in the bus station that hot day, she took her baby to the air-conditioned Strand Theatre. Then, on an impulse, she walked out alone. Police identified her after her luggage arrived.

“I don’t know why I abandoned my baby and I wish I hadn’t done it,” she told a Lexington Herald reporter. “I haven’t been well since he was born and haven’t been able to work. I didn’t have much money and I thought if I left him somebody might find him who would give him a good home.”

She told the reporter that police had promised to find and contact the baby’s father, who didn’t know about his son’s birth. “And I hope they’ll let me have him back so I can take him home,” she said of the child.

The woman was soon released to the custody of relatives. While she awaited a court hearing, Baby Strand stayed at Good Samaritan, where he gained weight and charmed the hospital staff. When the hearing date arrived in October, the prosecutor dismissed the charges and indicated that Baby Strand would be returned to his mother.

That’s where the story seems to end. The Lexington and Danville papers had a lot of other news to report: World War II was ending and servicemen were coming home from battle. In Mercer County, many were returning from prisoner-of-war camps after having survived the infamous Bataan Death March.

A couple of things are worth noting about the press coverage of Baby Strand. Newspapers gave different last names for the mother. The Lexington papers called her Valley Collins, while the Harrodsburg Herald identified her as Valley Collier. Some of the reporting would now be considered unacceptably sexist. The mother is described as an “attractive 23-year-old blonde … unwed mother. Her hair was curled, her nails polished.” The father’s name was never reported.

Many questions remain. Did the child go back to his mother? Did the father survive the war? Did they marry? What became of Baby Strand?

When I called Riegl back to tell her what we found, she wondered if her mother might have unknowingly crossed paths with Baby Strand again. Thomas and Edna Norris moved to Harrodsburg in 1952. He was principal of Harrodsburg High School and she was a public health nurse. They left for Sedalia, Mo., in 1958.

“I hope if someone is looking, or wants to be found, this will help them,” Riegl said. “I hope Baby Strand has had a long and happy life.”

 


Recording World War II memories before it is too late

November 9, 2013

Elams0001Willie J. Elam, 94, talks with his son, Mark, at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore, where he lives. Mark Elam interviewed his father over eight years about his combat experiences in the South Pacific during World War II, which earned him a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts.  Photos by Tom Eblen 

 

Mark Elam was sitting in Turfland Mall a decade ago, waiting for his wife to finish shopping, when he struck up a conversation with an old man who mentioned he was a World War II veteran. Elam said his father fought in the war, too.

“Then he asked what outfit my Dad was in,” Elam said. “I had to admit I didn’t know. I was embarrassed.”

That encounter led Elam to start asking his father about the war. Soon he was bringing a tape recorder and a list of questions each Sunday when he visited his father, who is now 94 and lives at the Thomson-Hood Veterans Center in Wilmore.

“He was apprehensive at first, but then he opened up,” Elam said. “The more I asked, the more he told me, and it just grew and grew.”

Elams0004After eight years of interviews, plus a lot of research on his own, Elam published a spiral-bound book in June for his sister, Marta Dorton, and their families. He titled the book after the motto of his father’s unit: To the Last Man.

“It was a fun project,” he said. “I spent a lot of time with him, and it brought us closer together.”

Elam, 57, said the project made him realize how important it is to preserve stories, especially those of the rapidly disappearing generation of veterans who fought World War II.

As a graphic artist and printer, Elam knew how to scan old photographs and assemble a book. But he didn’t consider himself a writer, so he told his father’s story chronologically, mixing his own prose with sections of questions and answers from their interviews.

The result is quite readable — and fascinating. It provides a detailed and vivid account of what combat and everyday life was like for American soldiers who fought the Japanese in the South Pacific.

Willie Junior Elam was a farm boy from Morgan County when he enlisted in the Army four months before Pearl Harbor. He was a private first class in the 43rd Division, 103rd Infantry, Company K, serving through 1946. Two brothers also fought in the war.

Elam was a field radio operator who saw a lot of combat, earning the Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. The second time he was wounded, in an artillery strike that killed several officers around him, he was so badly hurt that doctors nicknamed him “the miracle kid.”

Elams0005“There was a lot of stuff he can’t talk about and won’t talk about,” Elam said. “He still has nightmares about some of it 70 years later. I didn’t want to push him too much.”

As Elam discovered, the most important part of such a project is simply asking questions and recording answers. When it comes to preserving those stories in a book or other form, a lot of helpful resources are available.

One is a book, A Veterans Legacy: Field Kit Journal ($15. Veteranslegacyjournal.com). It was written three years ago by Jay McChord, a former Lexington Urban County Council member, and offers a step-by-step guide to compiling a service history.

The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning next year will offer several classes that could be helpful. Writing Your Family Stories is a daylong seminar March 8. Another class, Life Writing: Generating and Revising Autobiographical Prose, will meet Tuesday evenings from April 15 to May 20.

The Carnegie Center also offers individual writing mentors and a nonfiction writing group that meets Tuesdays at lunch from Jan. 9 to March 25. For more information, call (859) 254-4157 ext. 21 or go to Carnegiecenterlex.org.

Dorton said she is glad her brother preserved their father’s wartime memories.

“Dad told stories when we were growing up, but I had forgotten a lot of them,” she said. “I think it was good for Dad psychologically to get some of that out.”

Recording family history is important, she said, and not just for veterans. As we spoke by phone, she was driving to Menifee County to visit a 104-year-old aunt, Rella Mullins, who until recently could tell stories about living on a farm during the Great Depression and working in a factory during World War II.

“It’s amazing what all she witnessed,” said Dorton, who gave her aunt a journal several years ago and has written down some of her stories.

“It’s an easy thing to do,” Elam said of preserving family members’ memories. “But after they’re gone, it’s too late.”

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Doctor has seen a lot, from World War II to 1,000 newborns

July 31, 2013

FRANKFORT — When we recall history, we often think of famous leaders, pioneers and heroes. But history is mostly shaped by ordinary men and women just trying to do their best under the circumstances.

I was reminded of that recently when a friend introduced me to Dr. James T. Ramsey of Frankfort. Ramsey, 91, was a child of the Great Depression who grew up in a small, northeast Ohio town.

“We had a general store, a blacksmith shop, a cider mill and that was about it,” he said.

“We were Methodists, and my mother was bent on me being a Methodist minister,” he said. “She somehow located Asbury College in Wilmore. Spent all of her inheritance on the first year’s tuition. After that, I was on my own.”

ramseyBut Ramsey preferred chemistry and physics to theology. He wanted to become a doctor. “I guess it was my admiration for the old country doctor who delivered me in the home,” he said.

Ramsey’s senior year ended early when Japanese warplanes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Like virtually all of his classmates, he joined the military.

“But I didn’t want to die in the trenches,” he said. “I always felt it was a cowardly decision that I wanted to fly.”

He was hardly a coward. Ramsey joined the Army Air Corps and proved to be a talented pilot. By May 1944, he was in Italy piloting a B-24 Liberator. He and his crew flew 50 bombing missions all over occupied Europe. Then he returned stateside to train other bomber pilots.

What did Ramsey learn from World War II?

“Do the best you can with what assignment you get,” he said.

After he had completed cadet training, but before he went to war, Ramsey made a quick trip back to Central Kentucky. Kathleen Horn of Lexington was assigned to meet him at the train station. After that meeting, they began a correspondence.

“She was instructed by her friends that she ought to write to service people,” he said. “I happened to be the service person she wrote to. I came back through Lexington and we spent some time together on furloughs.”

After the war, they married and he enrolled in medical school at the University of Louisville. Like most of his classmates, the government paid for his education. Otherwise, he said, he could never have afforded to become a doctor.

“I think the GI Bill was great,” Ramsey said. “I’m sure the cost has been repaid in taxes many times over.”

After a residency in Cincinnati, Ramsey began a medical practice in Owen County, where there was then no hospital, x-ray machine or laboratory. He did his own lab work, with help from a local veterinarian.

Two years later, Ramsey completed a mini-residency in anesthesiology and moved to Frankfort. Over the next three decades, he practiced anesthesiology, general medicine and obstetrics, delivering more than 1,000 babies.

“A baby’s birth is a miracle, and I felt that way with every one,” Ramsey said, adding that many of them have kept in contact with him over the years.

Ramsey served on the school board, helped start Frankfort’s first nursing home and admitted the first black patient to King’s Daughters Hospital in 1959 after a federal loan for an expansion required that the hospital be desegregated.

“Prior to that, the only hospitalization we had available to black people was a dwelling house, and not a very good one,” he said, referring to a frame house that in 1915 had become Winnie A. Scott Memorial Hospital.

“It was two-story and we had rigged an operating and delivery room on the second floor, so we had to carry people up the stairs,” he said. “I thought that was disgraceful for the whole community.”

Ramsey and his wife had seven children — five boys and two girls — all of whom went on to successful careers. He retired from medical practice in 1993, but continued doing consulting work until a year ago. His wife died in May 2010.

When we sat down in his living room to talk recently, Ramsey said he didn’t see anything remarkable about his life. Yet, he fought a war, raised a family and took care of a community. Like many of his generation, Jim Ramsey helped make America what it is today.

 


Book project hopes to capture veterans’ love stories

June 20, 2012

 

Jay McChord's drawing of a photo that inspired his proposed book, which will collect the love stories of military veterans.

Jennifer Bryant was 16 when her grandmother died in 1991. As she helped her grandfather choose family photographs for the funeral visitation, she noticed a stack of small pictures and letters on the top of his dresser.

Kenneth and Dale Johnson were married for 46 years and raised three children in Webster County, where he worked as an underground coal miner.

The small stack of correspondence represented much of their first two years of marriage, which they spent apart. He was an Army machine-gunner during World War II and fought on the front lines in Europe, including the Battle of the Bulge.

One picture caught Bryant’s eye. It showed her grandparents on their wedding day, kissing along a roadside. Two days later, he left for the Army.

“He told me to just put that picture back in the stack; we weren’t going to use any of those at the funeral home and I didn’t need to mess with them,” she said. “Then he turned around and walked out of the room, and I put that picture in the back pocket of my jeans.”

A couple of days after Dale Johnson’s funeral, her husband burned all of those letters and pictures. The war and separation had been painful for them, he told Bryant later, “and those memories don’t need to be in this house anymore.”

Johnson never knew that Bryant saved the one photo. For most of the two decades since then, it has stood framed in a curio cabinet that had belonged to her grandmother.

When Bryant showed the picture to her friend Jay McChord last year and told him the story behind it, he got an idea: why not collect veterans’ love stories and pictures from across the generations and publish them in an inspirational book?

McChord and Bryant have launched a fund-raising campaign at Kickstarter.com to publish A Veteran’s Legacy … in Love. Their goal is to raise $30,013 by July 19 on the crowd-funding Web site to create an online platform for people to submit their stories and photos, and to produce the book. Unless they reach the goal, they won’t receive any of the Kickstarter pledges.

“I think this project and book can preserve some powerful stories and offer encouragement for what sacrifice and commitment look like,” McChord said. He envisions the book as a combination of inspirational love stories and a place where veterans may record their love stories for posterity.

Bryant and McChord already have the art for their book’s cover: McChord, a former University of Kentucky art major, made a drawing of the picture of Bryant’s grandparents kissing on their wedding day.

Much of McChord’s artistic work in recent years has focused on veterans. Most pieces are drawings of snapshots that soldiers took of themselves and friends while in service.

McChord, who is stepping down this year after eight years as the 9th District representative on Lexington’s Urban County Council, wasn’t in the military, and his family doesn’t have a strong military tradition.

But McChord said he has always loved military history, and he is inspired by veterans’ service and stories, especially those who fought in World War II. He just returned from a “Victory in Europe” trip organized by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, which included tours of sites in London, Paris and the beaches of Normandy. An 86-year-old American who fought in Normandy was their guide there.

In 2010, McChord published a book, A Veteran’s Legacy: Field Kit Journal (Gracie Mae Publications, $15). Illustrated with his drawings, the book helps veterans record the stories of their military service based on questions McChord developed from the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project.

McChord sees these book projects as a way to honor those who served, preserve their stories so future generations can learn from them and offer a measure of healing, he said.

Bryant said it would be a shame if more stories of love, commitment and persistence disappeared in time, as her grandparents’ story did.

“Our children are not going to know the true stories of these veterans unless we tell them,” she said. “These people are here now, and we need to capture these stories.”


Couple who served keep WWII memories alive

May 28, 2012

 

Time is accomplishing what the combined forces of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan could never do: wipe out the generation of Americans who won World War II.

Nearly 16 million U.S. veterans came home after the war ended in 1945. Only about 1.5 million of them are still alive, including about 3,100 in Kentucky. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that these men and women in their 80s and 90s are passing at the rate of 740 a day.

So when I got a call recently from Donald and Mary Jane Roser of Lexington, who both served in the military during World War II and have been married for 65 years, I figured they would have interesting stories to tell.

Donald Roser, 93, was in the First Marine Division in the South Pacific, including nearly five months in the Guadalcanal campaign. “I always say I must be going to heaven because I’ve already been to hell,” he said.

Mary Jane Roser, 91, was one of 350,000 women accepted into military service during the war. She joined a new Navy unit called the WAVES, which stood for Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service.

They grew up only 10 miles apart; he on a family farm that is now part of Masterson Station Park, she in Midway. They graduated from high school in 1937; he at Bryan Station, she as valedictorian of the 14-member class of the old Midway High School.

After two years at the University of Kentucky and an unsuccessful attempt to become an Army aviator, Donald Roser followed his uncle into the Marine Corps two months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After basic training, he went to communications school to learn how to set up battlefield radio and telephone networks.

After sailing to New Zealand and training near the island of Fiji, Roser became part of the invasion force on Guadalcanal on Aug. 7, 1942. He spent the next four months setting up phone lines around the island, making him an easy target for Japanese snipers.

“I never got wounded, even though I got shot at a lot,” he said. “They bombed us every day and shelled us every night for months, and we didn’t get much sleep and didn’t have any food to amount to anything for a while. It was a nasty place.”

Roser kept a daily diary during his first six weeks on Guadalcanal. “Expecting Japs to try to make night landing haven’t slept much for a week need a bath and haven’t had clothes changed for a week pretty cruddy,” he wrote Sept. 2, 1942.

“Received mail from home,” he wrote two days later. “Got word of Mom’s death from cancer on July 12. Don’t seem to care anymore. Hope and pray I can snap out of it soon.”

Among later entries that month: “Some of us are cracking up. General MacArthur better hurry and give us some relief. … You just wait for the shells to come. … Still raining. Our fox holes are full of water. … No retreat for us — hell no. Everyone is resigned to the fate that seems to await us. God help us all.”

While Roser was in the Pacific, Mary Jane Diamond was teaching school near Dayton, Ohio. In 1943, she decided to enlist in the WAVES. “I just got this bug to go into the service,” she said. “My children wrote in their little school paper, ‘The war will soon be over; Miss Diamond has joined the WAVES!”

After learning to march in basic training, she spent two years processing mail in San Francisco and New York City, where she once saw President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a parade. “It was an adventure,” she said.

She worked mostly with Victory Mail. Families wrote letters to their servicemen on special forms that were microfilmed, then enlarged and reprinted once they reached their destination, eliminating shipping bulk and costs. “That was V-mail,” she said. “Now we have email.”

After a few more months of battle on other South Pacific islands, Roser returned home to find his pre-war girlfriend had married an Army officer. Roser and Diamond were fixed up by their aunts, who belonged to the same Scott County homemaker’s club. The aunts arranged a dinner for them on New Year’s Day 1946.

“That really took, right off,” Roser said. The couple were married Oct. 12 that year.

He had a career farming and working in a hardware store and harness shops. She taught in public schools in Fayette County, mostly at Jesse Clark Middle. They raised four children and have been members of Hunter Presbyterian Church since the early 1950s.

The Rosers were never active in veterans’ organizations. But around Memorial Day each year, he will read through his copy of The Old Breed, the First Marine Division’s official history of World War II.

Showing me the book last week, Roser slowly turned the last 16 pages, labeled “In Memoriam”. Each page had four columns of names. “We lost a lot of good men,” he said softly.

“I think sometimes about what I’ve been through; well, I just never give up. I’m not that type of guy,” he said. “But now it’s getting that way — when you get to be 93 years old, you have to give up sometime.”

“He’s a tough ol’ dude,” Mary Jane Roser said. “But I took good care of him.”

Her husband smiled. “Put a Marine and a Navy together,” he said, “and you can’t beat ’em.”

 


Honoring WWII Lexington Platoon’s sole survivor

May 16, 2012

James Cecil may be platoon’s last member. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

Eight months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, hundreds of people gathered around the steps of the Fayette County Courthouse to honor James T. Cecil and 69 other local boys.

The recent graduates of Henry Clay, Lafayette and other Central Kentucky high schools were forming the Lexington Platoon of the United States Marine Corps. Mayor T. Ward Havely and other dignitaries spoke at the mass-induction ceremony. A young lady sang the Marine Hymn, and women and children wept, the Lexington Herald and Leader reported in late August 1942.

Platoon members left in buses that day for processing in Louisville and training in San Diego. From there, they joined some of the bloodiest battles of the Pacific Theater: Okinawa, Saipan, Tinian and Guadalcanal.

The Lexington Platoon will be honored again Thursday at the Urban County Council meeting. This time, Cecil, 88, will be the only platoon member present. “As best we can tell, I’m the only one left,” he said.

Mayor Jim Gray will present a proclamation declaring James Cecil Day. Councilman Jay McChord will speak about how he met Cecil and other World War II veterans while writing and illustrating his 2010 book, A Veteran’s Legacy: Field Kit Journal.

“We’re losing so many of these guys every day, it’s good any time we can honor them,” McChord said. “We need to remind ourselves of who they are and what they did.”

Cecil and Mitch Alcorn, his Lafayette High School buddy and the longtime Midway postmaster, began tracking down their fellow Lexington Platoon members several years ago, searching the Internet and running ads in veterans magazines.

By this time last year, the group had dwindled to the two of them and Elwood Watkins, who earned a Silver Star and three Purple Hearts in battle. Watkins died July 12. Alcorn, who earned a Purple Heart and later fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars as an Army officer, died Feb. 18.

Cecil grew up on a tobacco farm off Nicholasville Road. “We didn’t have any money, but we had plenty to eat,” he said. “We had milk cows, chickens and a big garden.”

When the war came, he decided to join the Marines rather than wait to be drafted. After training, platoon members were scattered to various units of the 2nd Marine Division, although Cecil served alongside Alcorn and a few others from Lexington. “We were just like a big family,” he said.

As I talked with Cecil last week, he pulled out a small envelope. Inside was a portrait of a Japanese officer he killed, and money and a ration card he found in the officer’s pocket. That wasn’t all: The officer was carrying a map of artillery positions, a find that got Cecil promoted from private to corporal.

Cecil earned a Purple Heart for wounds suffered in the battle of Saipan on June 20, 1944. He survived several Japanese suicide attacks on his camps at night.

“The next morning you couldn’t walk without walking on a dead Marine or a dead Japanese,” he said.

At the battle of Okinawa, a Japanese suicide pilot hit the USS Hinsdale before Cecil’s unit could land on the beach. Cecil spent 45 minutes in the cold water, watching for sharks, before a Navy destroyer rescued him.

“We had so many killed and wounded,” Cecil said. “Every battle, you just didn’t know who was going to be next.”

Cecil’s only trip stateside came in August 1945, when he was recommended for officer candidate school. Before he could begin, though, U.S. forces dropped atomic bombs on Japan, and World War II ended.

After the war, Cecil had a successful career as the owner of an Ohio-based trucking company. He moved back to Lexington after Janet, his wife of 52 years, died in 1998. In his apartment, he proudly displays photos of her, their sons and their grandsons.

Cecil’s health is good, his mind sharp. He finds himself thinking a lot these days about his wartime experiences, including the occasional nightmare with Japanese soldiers “getting after me.”

“I just felt honored and proud that I served my country,” Cecil said. “Coming off a tobacco patch and going into battle, that was a hell of a change. We were just a bunch of brave boys.”

The Lexington Platoon at basic training in San Diego, 1942.


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.


Veterans’ sacrifice often continues after wars end

May 28, 2011

The men and women we honor on Memorial Day weekend are not all lost on the battlefield.

Veterans who survive combat too often have been denied care for their damaged bodies and minds. In every war, including the American Revolution, caring for wounded veterans has been a cost this nation’s leaders have been reluctant to pay.

That is the story told in a new book by Lexington authors Robert J. Topmiller and T. Kerby Neill, Binding Their Wounds, America’s Assault on Its Veterans (Paradigm Publishers, $22.95).

Topmiller served as a Navy hospital corpsman with the Marines at Khe Sanh, one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. He wrote about his horrific experience in a previous book, Red Clay on My Boots. Topmiller earned a doctorate in history from the University of Kentucky and taught at Eastern Kentucky University.

Binding Their Wounds grew out of Topmiller’s combat experience, his study of the Vietnam War and veterans’ issues, his many trips to Vietnam to help orphans with birth defects likely caused by Agent Orange, the defoliant used by the U.S. military, and his outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq.

But friends think this was a book too painful for Topmiller to finish. In August 2008, he left home with the manuscript, checked into a motel and killed himself. Neill asked Topmiller’s widow and publisher for permission to finish the book.

“I had lunch with Bob about 10 days before he died, and he was talking about the book,” Neill said. “I’m a clinical psychologist and I had no inkling at our lunch that he was in the kind of distress he was in.”

Neill and Topmiller, who was 59 when he died, became friends through their work as peace activists and a shared passion for veterans’ issues. Neill, a Navy veteran and retired psychologist, had worked several years in the Veterans Administration.

Neill finished this book with help from many people, including Peter Berres, a Vietnam veteran and scholar who wrote a chapter about Agent Orange. George Herring, a University of Kentucky historian and leading expert on the Vietnam War, wrote the forward.

After telling Topmiller’s compelling story, this well-written book chronicles the history of broken promises to and mistreatment of America’s veterans. In every war, veterans have had to lobby, protest and even fight to get promised compensation and care from politicians who wanted to save money or “move on.” Minority and women veterans fared even worse than white men.

The book explores the government’s attempts to deny care to veterans exposed to radiation, Agent Orange and other chemical hazards. And it details how the Bush administration was unprepared to care for so many injured soldiers in the early years of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today’s combat veterans return home with physical wounds that would have killed previous generations on the battlefield. But perhaps the biggest challenges now, as always, are the unseen wounds.

This psychological damage has gone by different names throughout history: “soldier’s heart” in the Civil War, “shell shock” in World War I, “battle fatigue” in World War II and Korea. Now referred to as “post-traumatic stress,” these injuries have been a huge issue for Vietnam veterans and those returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Senate Veterans Affairs Committee last week grilled VA officials about rampant suicide, which has surpassed combat as the leading cause of death among active military personnel. Veterans now account for about 20 percent of the nation’s 30,000 suicides each year.

Neill said significant progress has been made in care for veterans in recent years, from electronic medical records and post-traumatic stress treatment to training and pay for family caregivers. But he said more must be done, despite projections that veterans’ care will push the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan past $3 trillion.

Toward the end of his life, Topmiller seemed more distressed by what was then happening in Iraq than what had happened in Vietnam. “He had hoped we had learned the lesson of wars of choice,” Neill said.

As with any medical issue, the cheapest and most effective treatment is prevention.

That is why Neill focused the book’s last chapter on how to prevent future wars.

War has become too easy, Neill said. Powerful economic interests encourage military adventurism, and an all-volunteer military distances most affluent Americans from the tragic consequences.

“The size of our military and what we invest in it is perhaps one of the reasons we use it so carelessly,” he said.

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