‘This book deserves a second read! (And maybe more).’

Amy’s Bookshelf Reviews has given Distant Early Warning, my novel of the Cold War, a five-star review:

It’s an amazing plot that has multiple subplots that help the reader get to know the Andersens and the incomprehensible events that have affected their lives. The characters had a lot of depth and were very realistic. This book deserves a second read! (And maybe more). It’s definitely un-put-downable!

You can read the full text on the review site or on Goodreads. And, if you’d like to explore the effects of natural and human disasters on a family already facing the fear and paranoia of the 1950s, you can read a sample and buy the book on Amazon.

Meeting friends, old and new

I recently had the honor of discussing fiction and publishing with the Kanaya Book Club in Sarasota, Fl. The event also gave me the opportunity to catch up with a friend from our days in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania—B. Aline Blanchard, who founded Pocono Writers circa 1981. Aline, who organized the event, is a writer, sculptor, and visual artist now living in Sarasota. She has a pair of novels, several chapbooks, and a book of poetry to her credit.

We had a lively discussion of Peak Season, my first novel and the first book (of five) in the CW McCoy series of crime novels. Given that our adopted home of Sarasota just suffered a swipe from Hurricane Ian, the conversation migrated to storms and a reading from my latest work, Distant Early Warning, a Cold War novel set in a fictionalized version of my former hometown (Stroudsburg/East Stroudsburg, Pa.) during the devastating Flood of ’55.

Despite the grim complications of crime novels, the conversation turned lively, and a good time was had by all. The wine helped.

Thank you, Aline, for your generosity, and everyone who attended.

From left: Ginny Reck of the Kanaya Book Club, myself, and B. Aline Blanchard

Propaganda to make you see Red

In the 1950s, a relatively unknown senator from Wisconsin reshaped America by alleging that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. State Department. By 1954, Joseph McCarthy was accusing the Army of harboring Reds. In riding those accusations to fame, the senator created a state of fear and paranoia that ruined careers and destroyed Americans’ trust in their own institutions.

That legacy that lives today, in the litmus tests of political loyalty.

The Red scare, which predated McCarthy, lasted well into the 1960s. It was fanned by publications such as the 1949 U.S. government pamphlet entitled 100 Things You Should Know about Communism.It defined the objectives of the Communist state and told Americans how to identify supporters and spies. “What is Communism?” the first question reads. “A system by which one small group seeks to rule the world.”

Here are two more examples:

Number sixty-two. “How can a Communist be identified? It’s easy. Ask him to name ten things wrong with the United States. Then ask him to name two things wrong with Russia. His answers will show him up even to a child.”

Number seventy-six. “Where can a Communist be found in everyday American life? Look for him in your school, your labor union, your church, or your civic club.”

Image reading this and other Cold War propaganda as a child. What kind of a world would that create? One you recognize today?

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

The sound of the Cold War

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cold War spy craft is the most innocuous-sounding: numbers stations. They broadcast seemingly random strings of numbers or letters over shortwave frequencies. The broadcasts are received by agents embedded in other countries. Because the signals are one-way, spies are able to hear and decode the messages without fear of radio-tracking.

Originating during World War I, numbers stations proliferated during the Cold War, that period of tension between eastern and western powers from 1947 through 1991.

In the novel Distant Early Warning, Wil and Glenn Andersen believe these broadcasts are aimed at a spy operating in their neighborhood.

This is what the boys might have heard on their shortwave receiver. It is a recording of a woman reading a string of numbers in German. The numbers were often read in groups of three, four, or five. The file comes from The Conant Project on SoundCloud. The Conant Project consists of dozens of recordings of numbers stations from around the world, available for listening or download. (For a look at contemporary use of the stations, see the Numbers Stations Research and Information Center.)

Soviet spy radio set (Eagle) Mark II R-350M. (Photo by Maksym Kozlenko. Used with permission under Creative Commons license.)

The band with kaleidoscope eyes

Fifty-three years ago, a group of high school kids calling themselves Shagg performed as the warmup band for the bubblegum hit machine The Ohio Express. What a contrast in musical styles, and whiplash for the audience, who’d come to hear the Top 40 classic “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and got Hendrix, Cream, and The Who. (“Yummy” hit No. 4 on the U.S. charts in April 1968. Although we eyed fortune and fame, our band never had a hit, or a recording contract. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, So it goes.)

The date was Saturday, June 22, 1968, the venue the Hullabaloo Club in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, a pole building off a four-lane highway that looked like a World War II bivouac and felt the size of an aircraft hanger. Concrete floor, metal walls. I doubt anyone heard anything except a wall of noise. It certainly sounded that way from the stage.

Shagg’s original lineup consisted of Chip Decker on bass, Bob Dittman on rhythm guitar, John McAllister on drums, and me on lead guitar. The band expanded with the addition of Joey Raynock on keyboards, Gene Gorse on the Hammond B-3, and Ron Oney and Don Chase on vocals.

I wrote about that and other formative experiences of our generation in FINDING WOODSTOCK, which you can find at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other fine retailers.

As for the poster, yes, it is the original, on neon cardboard, with additional styling by Chip, the artist in the band. He added the flowers, the smoke streaming from the locomotive, and a girl with kaleidoscope eyes (it was the Sixties). Oh, yes, and the most important element that was missing from the original: our name.

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.


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.


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.