You bet your life

The measles are back with a vengeance, and so are the protests.

So far this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking six outbreaks affecting more than 100 people, with 68 cases in the Pacific Northwest alone, according to the CDC, Associated Press and Washington Post.

Yet despite the demonstrable success of vaccines—the near worldwide eradication of polio a case in point—anti-vaccination fervor is spreading like a virus. Some lawmakers are pushing legislation that would allow parents to opt out of childhood vaccinations, a move that could jeopardize not only the health of their children but others with whom they come into contact.

None of this is new. In 1897, Dr. Richard Slee, founder of the firm that would evolve into the U.S. operations of biologics company Sanofi Pasteur, faced a similar backlash when he introduced to the United States a vaccine to prevent smallpox.

The story of his struggle is told in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the fight to eradicate vaccine-preventable disease in the 20th Century. The story is a timely reminder of the efficacy and controversy of this form of medicine:

The new science of immunology had proven vaccines could save lives. It had progressed quickly from the late 1700s, when British physician Dr. Edward Jenner discovered that smallpox could be prevented by inoculating people with the substance from cowpox lesions. The vaccine worked. According to the New York City Health Department, the death rate from smallpox in 1869 was 21.9 per 100,000 people. In 1876, New York’s Vaccination Corps fanned out to inoculate the city. The following year, the death rate per 100,000 people had dropped to 0.18.

That did little to convince parents who’d heard reports that bacteria from the lesions had caused serious infections in some children.

Even with a tacit endorsement from the federal government, the fledgling biologicals industry still faced a daunting problem not related to finance — a public backlash against vaccination. Despite the reduction in mortality that immunization had brought to the nation, not all of its citizens were convinced this was good public policy, or even effective health care.

In 1908, a medical doctor from Niagara Falls, New York, J. W. Hodge, wrote that compulsory vaccination was “the crime of the century,” citing evidence that the process not only violated an American’s freedom but that it was ineffective. “The accumulated experience of more than one hundred years has conclusively demonstrated that vaccinia neither prevents smallpox nor mitigates that disease when it attacks the vaccinated.”

Slee countered those attacks and others in a letter to the Bergen County, New Jersey, Medical Society in 1910:

The growth of the anti-vaccination societies in this country is largely due to the undeniable fact that the protection by vaccination was sometimes followed by results that were more serious than would be a mild attack of smallpox. We are now passing through the transition state, so to speak, and in a short time physicians will begin to realize that the regulations of the government are wise and that the failures from time to time are more than offset by the undeniable elimination of many severe and unpleasant sequelae [an abnormality following a disease, like paralysis following polio].

Unless lawmakers take the decision out of the hands of the experts.

[Measles vaccine doesn’t cause autism, says a decade-long study of half a million people.]

 

Mapping the Novels of CW McCoy

Readers of the CW McCoy series of crime novels are treating the books like a treasure hunt. Many have fun comparing the scenes with places they know in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Some locations correspond, like the infamous Route 41, aka the Tamiami Trail. Others are inventions created to simplify the landscape for people living beyond the borders of Florida.

If you are reading the latest book, Permanent Vacation, you’ve discovered something new to the series: a map that guides visitors around downtown Spanish Point, the fictional mashup of the cities of Sarasota and Bradenton.

For readers who haven’t ordered a copy and are curious about the geography depicted in the first three novels–Peak Season, Tourist in Paradise and Curb Appeal–here’s a full-color version of the map. (The print edition features a black-and-white image.) Click here for a downloadable PDF file.

Published by Allusion Books, Permanent Vacation is available from Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords, and by request from bookstores everywhere.

Happy trails.

 

Come Hell or High Water

In the luxurious resort town of Spanish Point, Florida, sea levels are rising. So is the body count. Both threaten the real estate industry, and its agents. Including a former detective who’s jumped in over her head.

In her fourth outing (after Peak Season, Tourist in Paradise and Curb Appeal), CW (Candace) McCoy relishes a fresh start—a new agency, a stellar property and a second chance at love. But opportunity turns tragic as she confronts the city elite and their web of deception and greed.

CW knows who’s guilty. She just has to prove it—before someone sends her on a permanent vacation.

Join her on a wild ride through a rising tide of crime and corruption in Permanent Vacation. The book is available from Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Smashwords, and by request from bookstores everywhere.

Riders on the storm: a scooter braves the water on Florida State Road A1A in Fort Lauderdale in 2013

The return of CW McCoy

Florida’s detective turned real estate agent returns to determine if you really can fight city hall.

In the tony beach-side town of Spanish Point, CW (Candace) McCoy tackles a crime waves that’s rising faster than the tide. But that’s not her biggest dilemma, as trouble comes in threes. Will she keep her job? Can she choose between Tony and Mitch? And will she ever see Walter again?

Permanent Vacation, the fourth in the crime series, launches Dec 12, but you can preorder the ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books, Kobo and Smashwords.

After D-Day, memories live on

Months after D-Day and all’s quiet on the Western Front. The parades are over, the stories told. The parachutists who reenacted their jump over France landed safely. The Yanks came marching home and Americans moved on to other issues.

But things weren’t this calm in 1944, when days after the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, the danger ran as high as the tide on the beaches of Utah and Omaha.

The French town of Cherbourg, overlooking Omaha Beach, still lay in German hands. German gunners manned the Channel Islands between England and France. And E-boats tried to torpedo their way into French harbors to reinforce the German army.

On a day of gray skies and choppy seas, PT 512 set sail from its base in England toward the French coast to survey the damage and observe the German gun placements. Sixteen young men, some just out of high school, took the 80-foot wooden boat across the channel into enemy waters.

My father, Radioman 3rd Class Robert Widmer of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, was on board PT 512 that blustery day in June. He and his crew had seen the bodies washing onto shore, the firefights with E-boats and the bigger German R-boats. They knew there would be high-ranking officers on board their vessel that day, maybe even a general, to observe the beaches. What they didn’t know was that instead of a routine patrol, they’d be taking the supreme Allied commander, Gen. Omar Bradley, and other Army and Naval brass for a ride.

Dwight D. Eisenhower came aboard early, smiled at the men and assumed a position behind the cockpit in the middle of the boat. “We were topside, except for the motor macs (the motor machinist mates),” my father said. “It was very crowded. And we were extremely nervous. Ike was very talkative. He said the usual things: ‘Where are you from, sailor?’ But it was obvious he was the boss. He had that bearing.”

Once they got underway, the talk subsided.

“Most of the brass stood behind the cockpit — it was protected from the waves splashing over the bow,” he said. “They tried to stay dry and hold on.”

With three Packard marine engines, the PT (patrol torpedo) boat could hit speeds of 45 knots, fast enough to lift the bow from the water. They raced across the channel to Cherbourg, then north to the beaches.

The view of Omaha sobered everyone. “It looked like plowed land from the bombardment. It was filled with damaged vehicles and landing craft.”

Over the next few weeks, four PT squadrons formed the Mason Line around the beaches, keeping the Germans in the harbors and preventing their country from attacking the beachhead and resupplying their troops. “No single German convoy got through that line from the invasion on,” my father said.

The squadrons lost two boats.

Like others in the armed forces, Dad wrote to his mother and father, the late Kathryn and Arthur “Shorty” Widmer. And like other letters, his were censored. His parents had to guess about the events overseas.

But on July 20, 1944, he was able to tell his folks what had happened.

“Now it can be told,” he wrote. “Shortly after the invasion began our boat and crew was bestowed quite an honor. We had several top-notch admirals and generals aboard and among them was the big boy himself — General ‘Ike’ Eisenhower. He is a very likable person and very friendly with everybody, and you can see why he is noted for his smile. He got a kick out of riding on a PT boat and we showed him plenty of speed.”

And pride.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, third from left, aboard a PT boat

Reading, Florida style

My wonderful friend and fellow writer Jeanne Johansen sent me this photo of two members of her husband’s book club reading Peak Season on Florida’s Treasure Coast.

Peak Season marks the first of a trilogy of crime novels featuring real estate agent turned investigator CW (Candace) McCoy. You can find it and the other novels in the series at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes and Kobo, with the audio version at Audible.

Thank you, readers, everywhere.

Have a photo of you or your friends reading a CW or a Brinker novel? Feel free to send the image to editor (at) allusionbooks (dot) com.

 

Gardner’s Ghosts

On a warm Tuesday in September of 1982, I received a letter from the novelist John Gardner about a collection of my short stories he’d been gracious enough to critique. That evening, as I sat in the newsroom editing copy, the city editor swiveled his computer monitor and said, “You should read this.”

Gardner had died that day, the 14th, in a motorcycle accident. The description in the story that had moved over the wire read like something from his novels. It didn’t make sense. I’d just seen him, on my first and only visit to his house in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, standing in his makeshift office, touring his home, speaking to his fiancée. He was a living legend among writers, his novel October Light a bestseller, his newest at the time, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, leading the book review section of the New York Times. Unlike many celebrities, he was approachable, hospitable to emerging writers. And now he was gone.

John Champlin Gardner Jr. was born on July 21, 1933. His death 36 years ago came as a blow. The author of 14 novels and numerous others works, he taught at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the State University of New York’s Binghamton University. All notable achievements, but a CV hardly describes his influence.

Over the course of his career, he evolved from ardent critic to mentor who embraced veterans and novitiates alike. Still, his true north was in storytelling. He eschewed labels, focusing on the ancient art, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view and putting people at the heart of great philosophical debates. He strove to create what he called “a vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, writing novels with an intensity often reserved for short stories and poetry.

His passion overflowed in his nonfiction, too. Gardner seemed obsessed with the collision of philosophy and culture. He constantly argued against nihilism, a doctrine that claims nothing is knowable and rejects all distinctions in moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” It’s likely he deeply identified with Grendel, the monster in Beowulf, who finds itself cast from heaven because it is ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions—possibly a comment on the maligned state of humans, as Gardner’s father was a lay preacher.

While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner treated students and aspiring writers with a generosity and grace consistent with his values. I first met him in May of 1982 after he spoke, at the invitation of professor and novelist Fred Misurella, at East Stroudsburg State College, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Gardner looked the part of the Great Writer, sporting a shock of white hair overflowing his forehead and small, wrinkled bags under his eyes. His ubiquitous pipe kept winking out as he talked. He also acted the part. After reading aloud the first page of one of my stories, he invited me to his home in Susquehanna for a longer critique.

* * *

Gardner lived across an open metal bridge on the edge of town, in a farmhouse nestled among the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house resembled an old train station, with curlicues over the porch. Inside sat Gardner’s son, Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married that Saturday. A colleague of his handed him a few short stories and a novel for Gardner’s comments. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.

Then it was my turn. Gardner retreated to his study, a spare room with big windows, to concentrate on the story I’d brought. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and stacks of papers. He hunched over the work, making quick notes in pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave, Gardner apologizing repeatedly for offering me so little time.

In the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical. Not much, he said, but then opened the door to the dining room. With its thick beams and sparkling new plaster, it resembled something out of Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

There were other similarities. The main character in that novel, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at SUNY Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, as well as his wife, son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father invented most of the book.

* * *

John Gardner was born in Batavia, in northwestern New York. His father worked as a dairy farmer, his mother as a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about a thousand copies, but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He was an academic but not an elitist. Playboy paid top dollar for his short stories. (“Julius Caesar and the Werewolf” appeared in September 1984). He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and was married several times. He settled in rural Susquehanna on a 30-acre farm and continued to work.

A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he always wrote interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts, he had completed his evolution, merging philosophy with a vital narrative, tempered by a humility that bordered on self-doubt. By the time he got to Susquehanna, he’d turned the ferocious critic into a man who wanted to say good things about others. People believed he was trying to find his place.

That day at his house, he seemed subdued. Seated on the couch, he spoke in a smooth and quiet voice about future projects. As an aside, I said I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. The novels weren’t filed under the category of “Fiction.” I’d asked the clerk if she carried the author and she led me to the back of the store. We found his books filed under “Literature.”

Gardner listened intently, without expression, then threw back his head and laughed.

Stars and Stripes and Sousa forever

John Philip Sousa III (1913-1991) did not follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, but those who met him discovered a spirit as creative as the famous march king. I interviewed Sousa the younger in the summer of 1987, when he visited Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, for a concert in honor of the man who wrote what many consider to be America’s second national anthem.

John Philip Sousa III marches to the beat of a different drummer than his famous grandfather. It isn’t that the New York City resident doesn’t thrill to the stirring marches of his illustrious forbearer. It’s just that he’s more inclined toward the written word.

“I love hearing them,” Sousa said of the marches during a concert featuring “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps anthem, and other favorites. “But writing always has been my enthusiasm.”

The New York resident is the author of two books, both nonfiction, of which one was a bestseller. He was assistant publisher of Fortune and formerly head of public affairs for Time magazine and in charge of long-range development for the Time-Life Book Division.

“Right now, I’m writing a book on good taste in management,” he said. “Then I think I’ll write my memoirs.”

John Philip Sousa III relaxes during a concert in honor of his grandfather

He is also head of the Sousa Foundation, which controls the rights to his grandfather’s work, although he admits that, when he was young, he wasn’t aware of the music.

“I paid no attention to it at all. As far as I was concerned, he might not have existed. Then, when a certain aunt died, I got stuck with the whole Sousa Corporation. It’s just something I have to do every day. I think I owe it to my grandfather.”

As a youth, Sousa may not have been familiar with the music, but he has fond memories of his paternal ancestor.

“He was charming, relaxed. He had a good sense of humor. He smoked cigars all day long, but back then, it was good for you.”

The elder Sousa wore mismatched clothes and “always had a piece of music in front of him.”

He’s familiar with the music now. “I love it. I have the same favorites everybody else does, ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ and the ‘Washington Post March.’” But one piece stands out. “It’s ‘El Capitan,’ from the operetta. He wrote 20 operettas, you know.”

Although Sousa has heard the marches hundreds of times and is used to the fireworks and fanfare, he still marvels at the reception with which audiences greet his grandfather’s music.

“Last summer I was in [New York’s] Central Park for a concert with Leonard Bernstein. There were about 100,000 people there. They cheered and applauded him and he played a number of his own compositions, but they wouldn’t let him go. And finally he turned around and what did he play? ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’”

During a speaking engagement in Toledo, Sousa was asked about the connection between John Philip Sousa and the Fourth of July. “I said, ‘Funny you don’t know that. He invented the Fourth of July.’”

Does he see a resurgence in Sousa’s popularity together with heightened interest in patriotism?

“No, they are just good marches. Yes, they make everybody cheer and clap, but if the marches weren’t that good, everybody wouldn’t be cheering and clapping.”

Sousa saves his sentiment for other things. He will not divulge his age. He will not even discuss it. Once, when he bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad, the ticket agent asked if Sousa was over 65 and eligible for the discount rate.

“I asked for a ticket, not a discussion of my age,” Sousa fired back.

He seemed more relaxed at a tribute to his grandfather’s music in the tiny borough of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., lounging in a director’s chair in a white suit that matched his hair. “I thought it over and the concert just sounded so enchanting, with everybody up here knocking themselves out. And it wouldn’t kill me to come up, you know.”

Sousa appreciates music but never learned to play an instrument. “I blame this on my mother, if blame is the right word. She couldn’t carry a tune. Talking to myself I said, ‘He did it better than anybody. Do something else, John.’ So I did.”

Pat Dorian directs the band on Aug. 20, 1987, 75 years to the day when John Philip Sousa conducted a similar concert on that spot in Delaware Water Gap, Pa.

This land was made for you and me

In doing research for a book that deals with property rights, I came across this missing verse from Woody Guthrie’s classic folk song, “This Land is Your Land.”

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie wrote the lyrics in 1940. The earliest known recording of the song (a March 1944 version now part of the Smithsonian collection) includes the verse. Subsequent versions omit it.

What do you make of that?