Necessary Background Info

When I was a teenager, I was close to my maternal grandfather, Milton M. Brown. I was fascinated by the time he spent as a "delegate" in Herbert Hoover's WWI Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). He was one of only 185 American supervisors who ever worked for the CRB. After he died in 1979, I inherited all his diaries, correspondence and photographs from that period (1916-1917).

From 1986 through 1989, I worked full time researching the time period, WWI, the CRB, and numerous delegates. From those efforts, I wrote an 850-page historical novel, Honor Bound. I had a few nibbles -- agents and publishers who asked for the entire manuscript -- but no one offered a contract. In the late 1990s, I made a half-hearted attempt to rewrite the novel, but it didn't go far.

After my second book, Facing Your Fifties: Every Man's Reference to Mid-life Health came out in 2002 (and was included in Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2002), my agent looked at Honor Bound. He suggested the topic would do well -- and fit my writing strengths -- if it was a history book written in novel-like style.

At the end of 2012, as I turned 60 years old, I came to the conclusion that it was time to take up this incredible humanitarian story again and see if I could make it work.

After more than a year of researching and writing, and with the help of a talented book team, I published Behind the Lines: WWI's little-known story of German occupation, Belgian resistance, and the band of Yanks who helped save millions from starvation. 1914. It detailed the complex and chaotic beginnings of the CRB and CN during the critical first five months of the war (August to December, 1914). It was released in October 2014 in time for the 100-year anniversary of the start of WWI and the CRB.

Since then, I'm happy to report that Behind the Lines has garnered national recognitions and reviews that include a Kirkus Starred Review (only 750 out of 10,000 books annually reviewed by Kirkus are awarded a Starred Review) and inclusion in Kirkus Reviews' Best Books of 2014. The last sentence of the review states: "An excellent history that should catapult Miller to the top tier of popular historians." You can read all the reviews at the book's website, which can be reached by clicking here.

Below are my blog posts about re-immersing myself in this important humanitarian topic. The posts start in Dec. 2012 and come up to the present. The posts are laid out with the most recent first. A "List of All My Posts" is on the bottom right of this page. I start each post with a quick snippet of history. I used to call this item "A Spot of History," but now it's titled "Don't-Forget-WWI Project."

My main forcus now is to finish researching and writing WWI Crusaders, which tells the riveting full story of the American CRB delegates from August, 1914 to April, 1917, when America entered the war and the CRB delegates had to leave Belgium and Northern France.

I hope you find something of interest within this blog. For more information about Behind the Lines and/or WWI Crusaders, please go to the books' website by clicking here.

Post #12. Touching Things, 21st Century Researching and One Reason I'm Sad My Mother's Dead

Feburary 18, 2013

But first, A Spot of History: During my 1980s initial CRB research, I collected, read and took notes from more than 80 books. One of them was War Bread by CRB delegate Edward Eyre Hunt (Henry Holt and Company, 1916). As one of the first books published by a delegate, it gave Americans some of their first glimpses into what it was like in German occupied Belgium. Here are just three items I think might interest you:

1. German beer drinking was explained to Hunt by a German who stated: "The first drink should empty the mug down to the hasp on the handle; the second to the boss of the mug; and the third to the bottom.” Hunt felt it illustrated a German's sense of order and discipline.

2. A small, very sad scene from the 1914 bombardment of Antwerp, as related by an old man, who told Hunt:  

“... in Les Jardins Botaniques [the zoo] such sadness! There the keeper of the menagerie shot down all the wild beats – all the animals of the jungle – for fear they would escape and bite the poor people in the streets.

"Oh, it was sad, so sad! When the bombshells began to fall on the Jardins, the keeper took up his gun. One by one he shot them – boom, boom – the big lions, and the wolves, and the foxes, and the panther, and the spotted leopard – they died, screaming horribly.

"Then the keeper came last to the cage of the brown bear. You remember the brown bear in the menagerie, madame? – he was so kind, so gentle. A child could pet him. And he had been taught to hold up his paws together, as the priest does in the cathedral on a Sunday, praying.
"When the keeper came with the loaded gun, this bear put up his paws, so, praying to him not to shoot. And the keeper burst out with a great cry, and went up near to the bear, and embraced him lovingly through the bars of the cage. And then he took up the gun – and – boom! boom! – he shot him.”

3. A talk with a German cavalry officer led the soldier to tell Hunt:

“'The Belgians’ are the poorest of the lot, though. They do not understand war, and they do not understand the rules of war.

"'I remember once riding into a little town down here in the South of Belgium and finding my four scouts lying dead in the streets. Civilians had butchered horses and men – shot them from behind.

"'I ordered my men to go into the houses and kill every one they found. Then I ordered them to burn the town.

“He leaned over the table and concluded quietly: 'There once was a nice little town in that place. There is no such town now.'”

My post: Like everyone else, my mother (who died in 2008) had a dual heart. It was a fact that was known far and wide about Erica Sophie Lucy (Bunge Brown) Miller.

On one hand, she was warm, welcoming, loving, nurturing, gave great hugs (especially to little kids), and always took in strays (four-legged and otherwise). She'd give you the coat off her back, then invite you home for dinner (of which her bad cooking skills were legendary).

On the other hand, she could be so practical it hurt -- two of her favorite expressions were "Don't be ridiculous" and "It's an emotional waste of time."  

What most people didn't know, however, was how good she was as an amateur historian and book editor. I was lucky enough to find out.

When I began to research WWI and the CRB it was very personal (as those who are familiar with this blog know). My grandfather,  Milton M. Brown, was a CRB delegate who fell in love with a Belgian girl, Erica Bunge.

After marrying in 1919, their first child was my mother, Erica Sophie Lucy Brown. She grew up in Belgium in a five-story chateau with a house full of servants and a stern, hawk-faced maitre d' hotel named Isadore who would have given Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey fame a run for his money.

After coming to the States and doing four years of college in three years, my mother walked away from her family's regal life to marry a self-made, self-educated Jersey boy (my Dad). Mom rarely looked back on her previous life. If she did, she did it with deep love and gratitude for having experienced such a grand lifestyle.

When I came to her with my CRB novel project, she was more than excited. Much of my novel was going take place in the chateau, Oude Gracht, and include many people that she later knew as a child and teenage girl.

Her help was invaluable. She found the architectural plans for the chateau and went over them with me, floor-by-floor, room-by-room, describing what they were like, how they were used and what furniture was in them.

She described everyone from the servants to the family members in loving detail, giving me personal characteristics and historical details I would never have discovered on my own.

And when I began writing, she was a sensitive editor, offering suggestions and advice about plot and characters in addition to correcting my errors in grammar, punctuation and spelling.

When I was struggling with the critical decision on whether or not my two main characters --  as young people in love who have to say goodbye not knowing if they'll ever see each other again -- should make love, my mother helped me think through the dilemma. (For those who want to know which way it went, you have to read my book! :)

In fact, Mom was so dedicated to my novel that she's one of only a few people who actually read my entire 850-page novel (others included my brother Eric and my cousin Evie).   

So, for all of the above, I'm sad that Mom's not around to get involved again with this great story. A story that, this time, won't be focused so much on her family (Milt Brown and Erica Bunge), but is still the story of their lives.

Which leads me to how the project is going now.

Well, for any who are keeping track of my self-imposed deadlines, the next one up was Feb. 14 to "Review/Refile all old stuff." 

Technically, I missed it by two days, but I still feel good about getting it done close to the official deadline.

What it involved was pulling all the old boxes of 1980s research files up from the basement and cramming them into my tiny (8' X 12') office. I then pulled out every file, skimmed the contents, then decided if the material was relevant to my new CRB history book, or only applied to my old CRB novel.

If it worked for my new book, it was refiled into my office filing cabinet (two drawers of which I had emptied a few weeks ago in preparation for my new research).

If the material only applied to my old novel, then it went back into a box and was relegated to the basement again.

While I knew the process would be a fascinating trip back in time -- a kind of historian's dream Christmas -- I had not reckoned on the sheer physical joy of touching some items that came from 1916.

With the excitement of opening an Egyptian tomb for the first time, I unfolded my grandfather's 1916 passport -- a single piece of paper that unfolds to 12" X 17". One side has his photo, a giant red seal and statements such as: "Nose: Medium Prominent" "Face: Oval" and "Chin: Medium." The other side is covered in national stamps from numerous countries.

It struck me that I was touching and unfolding a document that my grandfather had touched and unfolded a thousand times before. In German occupied Belgium, he would have probably clung to it during dark times because it was one of his few symbolic lifelines back to his old life. 

Then I came across his CRB ID document, that had been folded and unfolded so many times it's nearly in pieces. I could see him -- nearly feel him -- on the first day he received it (no doubt in London) and how proud he was that it bore his name. He probably pulled it out of his jacket pocket a hundred times that day, just to reconfirm he was now part of such a grand humanitarian effort. He couldn't wait to help, to make a difference...

Later, much later, on gray winter Belgian days and nights, I could imagine him weary to the bone at having to pull it out one more time for another petty stop-and-search by some bureaucratic German sentry. When it was finally, begrudgingly, given back to him, he would take it and fold it forcefully, trying hard to convey without words his frustration and anger.   

And finally, I could see him in my mind's eye when he was old and tired and his eyes could hardly focus, that he would stumble across it while going through files in his study and suddenly he would feel young and vibrant and alive again. He would struggle to his feet and wander into the living room where his Belgian wife of 50 years was sitting at her writing desk, and he would come up behind her and simply put his hand on her shoulder. She would stop, look up with a slight smile, pat his hand, then go back to what she was doing.

He would stand there for a moment more, simply remembering, then he would turn and wander back to his study, to gingerly fold up the faded paper and tuck it back into its place.

Touching. It's such a primeval thing...and  important, I believe, in historical research. And yet, now that I've started dipping my toes into new CRB research, I've found touching has been removed from much of 21th Century research.

Back in the 1980s, when I did my initial CRB work, I traveled to libraries and historical institutions and sat for days opening musty files, unfolding faded letters, and prying apart brittle pages of journals and diaries.

That is so different from the impersonal Internet screen viewing of such items.

Yes, I'm eternally grateful that the Internet has increased the reach and efficiency of everyone's research. But I'm also saddened by what it's removed from the process -- most notably the tactile experience of holding objects that were held by those who you're studying. That connection to a subject has now been largely lost.

Oh, well...I wonder if I'd trade the ease and completeness of Internet research for the ability to touch more historical items....probably not....

But, of course, as my mother would say, "Jeffrey, don't be ridiculous! Lamenting the past is just an emotional waste of time!"  Thanks, Mom!

Wow! I can't believe I've made this post so long. Sorry! I also have not kept my promise to do two posts a week. I think I need to work on doing shorter, more frequent posts. I'll try that and see if it makes me feel any better.

No comments:

Post a Comment