An outbreak of innovation

The Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 wasn’t the first pandemic to sweep America.

In the late 1800s, smallpox ravaged the nation. In New York City, the mid-century death rate from the disease hit 21.9 people per 100,000. In nearby Pennsylvania, by 1900 the disease had killed thousands.

There was a vaccine. And it worked. Some of the time. And there were side-effects.

The solution? A cross-cultural effort that combined French ingenuity with American innovation.

You can read the full story in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought the odds to revolutionize healthcare in America.

 

 

Trial by Fire

In her fifth outing (after Permanent Vacation), former detective-turned-real-estate-agent CW McCoy rushes headlong into her most troubling case, one that will change her life forever. With Burning Man, she faces the greatest challenge of all—coming to terms with a past that continues to blaze.

Here’s the opening chapter:

I WOKE TO the smell of danger. It seeped through the floorboards and pushed under the door and crawled into my bed. It stung my eyes and clogged my nose and tasted sour as an old penny. There was another smell, too, like the time Mommy turned on the stove and forgot to light it and my brother made a joke about the house blowing up.

It was four days before Christmas, a Saturday and the start of our holiday vacation, mine from kindergarten, Colton’s from second grade, although it didn’t feel like Christmas, because there was no snow. Daddy had just put up the lights, too many, Mommy said. He’d stood on a ladder and hung them over the windows while Mommy stood on the sidewalk below, her arms crossed, telling him not to burn down the house.

This smell felt wrong. Like the time Daddy lit a fire and forgot to open the flap in the chimney, and the smoke tumbled out in swirling stripes, as if it were trying to escape. The smell was dry as the newspapers he pushed beneath the twigs, the logs making a high, hissing sound as if they were hurt by the flames.

My parents had gone to a party. They should have been back. They should have come in to check.

The light that came through the curtains made a square on the wooden floor. Beneath the door, the smoke went in and out as if something in the hall was breathing, alive, coming after me. A lizard with a flame for a tongue or the lady with her hair full of snakes. Or burglars. Daddy was always talking about burglars. Colt would say it was a dragon, breathing fire and smoke as it hunted for little children to cook and eat, but then he liked to scare me.

The smoke stung my eyes and hurt my head. I couldn’t swallow. But I had to warn everyone. And I had to see what was in the hall.

Sliding from bed, knocking over the lamp and a gold cup with curly handles that said I could count to twenty, I crept toward the door. The floor felt warm. I reached for the knob. It turned, but the door wouldn’t open. I rattled and pulled and yanked as hard as I could, but the door wouldn’t budge. I banged on it and yelled for Colt, whose bedroom was across from mine, but no one answered. I put my ear to the keyhole, but I couldn’t hear the voices I’d heard earlier, just before I’d fallen asleep. Angry voices.

Smoke curled over my feet and crept up my pajamas. Like a dusty hand, it pushed me toward the bed. Tripping over the lamp, I crawled under the quilt Nana had made for me, the one with a picture of Snoopy on his doghouse, and stared at the door, daring the monster in the hall to break it down. Its gray breath grew dark, rolling up the wall and across the ceiling. It warmed the air and stuffed my nose and made my tongue stick to the top of my mouth.

From the street below, I heard a siren and the honk honk of horns.

The smoke changed from gray to yellow-brown. It rose through the cracks in the floor and reached over the bed. My chest felt as if someone had me in a bear hug, but I would not go with the smoke. I would climb out the window and come back through the front door and run up the stairs to wake Colton. And together we would save our parents.

Pulling the quilt over my shoulders, I stumbled to the window and tried to lift it, but the window was stuck. I pounded the latch with my hands, but the latch wouldn’t budge.

The sirens got louder, and then they stopped. Red lights flashed across the window. From the street, I heard honking and shouting and the rattle of something as it scraped against the house. Then a dark shape holding a long stick appeared in the window and ducked out of sight, so I wouldn’t know what it was doing. It raised the stick and used it to smash the window and ran it around the edge, the glass flying into the curtains and bouncing across the floor. The shape had a big head that stuck out in the back and a mask like divers wore in the ocean. That’s where its breath came from, the smoke, how it blew it under the door into my room. And because the door was locked, it had climbed up the side of the house. It put a foot on the window and another on the floor and, setting the stick against the wall, stuck out its big black hands and moved toward me.

My ears stung. My heart hurt. My mouth felt as dry as paper. Falling back into the quilt, I cried for help, but nothing came out.

The dark shape wore a raincoat and gloves and had a hump on its back. As it got closer, I saw that it wasn’t a monster but a man, a fireman. He was saying something from inside his mask, but I couldn’t hear. He stomped across the floor and, like the smoke, reached for me. I got scared. I couldn’t leave before I found Colton and Mom and Dad. As I backed against the bed, my hand landed on the cup. I couldn’t stop whatever was still in the hall, Colt would have to do that, but I could stop the man. Raising the cup over my head, I rose to my knees and swung as hard as I could.

But the man was too fast. Wrapping me in the quilt, he threw me over his shoulder and lifted me through the window. I couldn’t breathe and began pounding on his hump. Opening my eyes, I looked down a ladder at firetrucks and flashing lights and people dragging big fans through our front door. The ladder bounced. I felt dizzy. The lights hurt my eyes. The man’s foot slipped.

Just when I thought he would drop me, my cellphone rang.

Burning Man is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords. You can find all of the books in the Candace McCoy series, plus other works of fiction and nonfiction, at my author page on Amazon.

An unhappy family like no other

Did CW McCoy’s father kill her mother and brother and nearly take her life? The question has haunted the former detective for nearly thirty years. When friend and mentor Walter Bishop discovers that police have arrested a suspect, CW reluctantly revisits her roots to uncover the hard truth about her family—no matter the cost.

Confronted by hostile sources and a city ravaged by a string of arsons, CW questions everything she’s come to believe about that night. Did her father commit the crime, or was he framed? Did he disappear, or was he murdered? And what about her own history with conflict? Does the family’s violent streak run in her veins, too?

In her fifth outing (after Permanent Vacation), CW rushes headlong into her most troubling case, one that will change her life forever. With Burning Man, she faces the greatest challenge of all—coming to terms with a past that continues to blaze.

Burning Man is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords.

When history repeats itself

It’s wonderful when readers are touched by something I’ve written. As Carla-Donna has given me permission, I thought I’d share her review of my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater: 100 Years at the Pocono Labs. It chronicles the history of vaccines in the 20th century, through the stories of people who helped to eradicate smallpox, among others diseases. Here’s Carla’s history, and her take on the book.
“I just purchased The Spirit of Swiftwater. The reason being, I was wondering if they were going to start work on a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. When I looked them up, somehow I was introduced to your book. Long story short, I grew up in Stroudsburg, my home town, and had once applied for a job at Swiftwater during my college years at East Stroudsburg State College. Our friend, Pete Gerard, made it his career working there. It was nice to see his name in the book.
“My name is Carla-Donna (Holmgren) Martin. My father, Donald Holmgren, had a store in Stroudsburg, Donald’s Family Shoes, for many years.
“As it turned out, I became a registered medical technologist and retired from working 40 years in the hospital laboratory at Lancaster General Hospital, Lancaster, PA. My husband and I live in Lititz now and still visit Stroudsburg several times a year.
“Kudos to you for this very informative work on the Swiftwater Lab. Doc Slee was a household name growing up and this book was enlightening on his family and wonderful achievements and the ups and downs of the lab’s growth.
“In light of what we as a nation and the world are going through right now, hopefully a vaccine will be forthcoming from Swiftwater!”

The vaccine-hunters

The novel coronavirus is sweeping the world. How does a vaccine-maker meet that challenge?

More than a hundred years ago, Dr. Richard Slee faced a similar situation with another virulent disease–smallpox. His fight provides a window into that process, and a cause for hope.

First, some background on one of the unsung pioneers of medicine. (His story appears in detail in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater.) Slee was born in 1867, a golden age of American expansion. He became a physician and went to work for the surgeon general of the Army, later the United States, a forward thinker who was concerned about the spread of smallpox. Pandemics in sixteenth-century Mexico killed 3.5 million people and accounted for nearly 9% of all deaths in nineteenth-century England. By the late 1800s, similar outbreaks were ravaging major cities in the United States.

The irony was, Americans had access to a vaccine. It just had some serious side effects, and that generated a public backlash. The French, on the other hand, had developed a safer version. The surgeon general wanted to manufacture it in the United States, and sent Slee to France to learn the secret.

Slee returned with a glowing report. Not only was the French formula more efficient, it had fewer side effects. As a bonus, it offered a longer shelf life, essential to any medicine that isn’t immediately used.

The surgeon general was so impressed, he encouraged Slee to build his own facility to manufacture the vaccine.

The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Burning down the house

It was 1967 and I was a junior in high school, hanging out at the music store after school, trying to learn that slippery instrument called the electric guitar. Across the street sat a record shop, a narrow sliver of a building with a record player in the back where the regulars could listen to LPs before buying them.

Decades before I would create the character of guitarist Hayden Quinn in Born Under a Bad Sign, I pushed aside the curtain that divided the rooms and heard a sound that set my head on fire. Nothing—not Cream, not the Who, not the Yardbirds—prepared me for that assault of Jimi Hendrix. The drums roared, the bass thundered, and the guitar cried with an agony and rage I never could have imagined.

And then there were the lyrics.

“I have only one burning desire,” Hendrix sang. “Let me stand next to your fire.”

With Noel Redding on bass and Mitch Mitchell on drums, the Jimi Hendrix Experience blazed onto the scene with 11 songs on “Are You Experienced” that spoke of the distorted reality of love, confusion and mania.

At that time, the market was dominated by the swirling studio work of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” the cheerful vocals of the 5th Dimension’s “Up, Up and Away” and the jazz organ of Jimmy Smith. Hendrix arrived like the Big Bad Wolf, blowing away our rigid notions of pop music like a house of straw.

He played like a man possessed. Unlike anyone before him, and unlike few after—Joe Satriani, B.B. King and the late Roy Buchannan come to mind—Hendrix made the guitar sing. He made it weep. He let it cry out in joy and pain.

His image became as outlandish as his music.

Hendrix mimicked the tortured soul of Vietnam-obsessed America during his Woodstock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He played louder than loud as he jacked into a wall of amps, picked a Stratocaster with his teeth and set his axe on fire, wailing away in headband and psychedelic clothes.

Assessing his influence has been difficult, although books by Mitchell and Redding have helped. There have been many packages of Hendrix’s hits. Some have offered us a solid look at his fierce style, like Ryko’s “Radio One.” Some have smacked of exploitation. Others, like the four-disc “Lifelines, The Jimi Hendrix Story,” attempt through interviews and excerpts to shed light on that unquenchable fire.

Fifty years after he brought down the curtain on Woodstock, Hendrix remains the benchmark. He is to rockers what Charlie Parker is to jazz, a musician’s musician who shattered boundaries few could even see. Born in Seattle in 1942, Hendrix’s flame burned short but fierce.

He got his first guitar after his father returned to the projects one day to find his son wailing away on a broomstick. After a stint in the Army, Jimi rose from obscure backup guitarist for the Isley Brothers to rock’s standard-bearer. Three years after he exploded onto the pop scene, on Sept. 18, 1970, he died in his London apartment.

For those of us who struggled to learn his moves, his leads proved fascinating and difficult. Each time I played the war whoops that begin “Purple Haze” I felt the soul of a man consumed by demons. Here was a mortal creating the most liberating music I’d ever heard. We tried to copy it but we never found the cool spot at the center of the flame.

The closest I’ve come is with the music of Hayden Quinn, a tribute to the scorching work of the original.

Hendrix died a lifetime ago, but his music still burns. Fifty years after I first heard you, Jimi, I have only one burning desire: let me stand next to your fire.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

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Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Birthday, Woodstock

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half-a-million strong. Minus one. I never did make it to Yasgur’s farm. For a former musician, that counts as a cardinal regret, although writing the novel Born Under a Bad Sign has enabled me to travel back in time for a visit.

The author at Bethel Woods

Years ago, I did tour the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, the calm and far less crowded tribute to the legendary festival in the Catskill Mountains of New York State. The center nestles on a hill overlooking the original location of the stage. The site features an amphitheater and museum containing historical timelines and a psychedelic bus. The area is surrounded by dense forest bisected by a two-lane macadam road, with fields and post-and-rail fences bordering the road. A green and pleasant land.

Aside from the museum and a plaque at the bottom of the hill, the land hasn’t changed much in 50 years.

From the start, the farm proved an unlikely place for a concert. There were no services within miles. To get there, you drive past abandoned summer camps whose cabin roofs have buckled with time and weather. The nearest town boasts a Walmart, a Super 8 motel and a dog track.

So why did the organizers, including promoter Michael Lang, choose a dairy farm in southeastern New York State to stage a rock festival? Because there was nowhere else to go. In 1969, the town of Wallkill, New York, feared the crowds and other venues didn’t pan out. With less than a month before the August 15 starting date, Lang scouted a farm near the town of Bethel. There, he writes in his book The Road to Woodstock, he found a kindred spirit in its owner, Max Yasgur.

Unlike Orwell, the fictional rock band in Born Under a Bad Sign, my group wasn’t famous enough to play Woodstock. But our drummer, John McAllister, had a pickup truck and an extra ticket and asked if I’d like to go.

I was set to start college in a few weeks—Penn State was on a term system and incoming freshmen were required to report a week early for orientation, which put move-in day a few hours after the close of the festival. It was raining at the site, and already there were reports of crowds and mud. So I did the safe thing: I went to college and, vowing never to look back, have spent most of my life doing that.

Until now.

Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

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Finding Woodstock is a personal reflection on a decade that changed many of our lives—the Sixties. A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the collection of short essays provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

With original photography by the author.

Finding Woodstock is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other retailers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrate Woodstock with free ebook

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the iconic music festival, my collection of essays Finding Woodstock is now free. The ebook contains twelve reflections on the music and mores of one of the most turbulent and liberating decades in American history. Each essay is accompanied by the author’s photography.

A companion to the novel Born Under a Bad Sign, the book provides the backstory to a generation that is still trying, in the words of Joni Mitchell, to get back to the garden.

You can download a free copy of Finding Woodstock from Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other ebook retailers. Born Under a Bad Sign is available through bookstores and online at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.