Jeff Spevak, Writer

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Tag: 22 Minutes

Show some respect, trees died for this

Free words, at the door of The Little Theatre.

The internet is of limited authenticity. Anyone with access to a computer can type a manifesto, oblivious to spelling, grammar and logic, and launch it into the clouds.

Printed books are so much more superior. The book has been passed from the writer to editors, to designers who select type faces and the weight of paper and a photo for the cover, to marketers who decide the best way to present the finished product to the public.

Book are the gems of our culture, treasures. We give them as gifts. We quote from them. We recommend books to friends, what we’re reading is always a subject of conversation.

So when we walked out of The Little Theatre on Sunday night, after watching the excellent documentary “David Crosby: Remember My Name,” I took a moment to peer into the free library box at the front door. One of those sprightly painted cabinets where people can drop off books they no longer want or need, and someone else stops by, browses for a moment and maybe walks off with a book on trimming shrubs. Useful stuff. Or a copy of Mikhail Bulgakov’s hallucinogenic, anti-Soviet novel, “The Master and Margarita.” Heady stuff. Free books, a person-to-person transaction of advice or literature. Just as I always look at a book store’s display of picks by its employees, I’m curious as to what readers have taken the time to pass on to a stranger.

And there, in The Little’s free library box… was my book, “22 Minutes.” The story of my friend, Ernie Coleman, the legendary Lake Ontario sailor, carpenter, dancer, survivor of the worst defeat in the history of the United States Navy, the Battle of Savo Island.

What did this mean, stumbling across something I’d written, on a Sunday night, right next to a James Patterson novel, and a Ralph Compton western, “Ride the Hard Trail,” free for the taking? Perhaps someone bought it, started reading and then decided, “Nah, it’s not for me.”

Was it one of the copies I’d autographed? I pulled it from the shelf and opened the book. Yes, someone had written something on the blank first page. But it wasn’t my autograph.

A great read by local author Jeff Spevak about a Rochesterian of note! Also follow Jeff on Facebook and at jeffspevak.com for regular thoughtful blog posts! Enjoy!

Perhaps the words of a friend, I don’t know. The second sentence reads like a commercial. The best review I could have ever asked for. And then, a second comment, in printing that looks like it might have come from a different hand:

Remember: Trees died for this!

Was this a criticism of the book, as a waste of paper? Or the wail of a millennial coming to the defense of eBooks? Read into it what you want. I prefer to think those words were the work of a conscientious human, a defender of the environment, offering yet another reason to pass on a book to the next reader.

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My book, but not my story

Ernie Coleman.

I look out the front-room windows. Damp, foggy, just another Rochester day. But it’s not, it’s not just any other day for me.

This is the official publication day for my book, “22 Minutes.” I use the word “official” because the books have already been printed, they’ve been sitting in a Pennsylvania warehouse, waiting for you.

And I use the words “my book,” even though it’s not my story. In 2012 I sat down with a 93-year-old man, Ernie Coleman, and listened to him talk. “22 Minutes” is his story.

Like most good stories, Ernie’s story was actually several stories, all intertwined.

There is the story of Ernie as a teenager from East Rochester High School who takes a series of jobs to help the family through The Great Depression: hustling as a golf-course caddy, working a fox farm to provide furs for women’s coats, assembling explosives in a fireworks factory.

There is the story of Ernie the carpenter. Building houses, building sailboats.

There is the story of Ernie the sailor, a legend on Lake Ontario.

There is the story of Ernie the family man. He built that family through four marriages, adoption, stepchildren. Ernie was candid, he told of the affair that destroyed his first marriage, the tragic deaths of his second and third wives. Some of the kids zigged this way, some zagged that way, there were successes and strife. One of his daughters was gay, and fell into a life of drugs and abuse at the hands of her partner. There were reconciliations.

There is the story of Ernie joining the Navy during World War II. Tales of going AWOL, of getting in a brawl with zoot-suiters, of running a Navy carpenter’s shop at Pearl Harbor that brings to mind the scamps of the old TV show “McHale’s Navy.”

And there is Vincennes. Ernie’s ship. One month after Ernie was assigned to the cruiser, after it had sailed out of Pearl Harbor, Vincennes was sunk in a brutal battle that was a part of the Guadalcanal campaign. Three American cruisers and one Australian cruiser were sunk, about 1,000 men died, 332 of them on Vincennes. It was the worst open-sea defeat in the history of the United States Navy. And it took the Imperial Japanese Navy only 22 minutes.

That’s the 22 minutes of “22 Minutes.” A brief moment that haunted Ernie for the rest of his life.

When we sat down together that first morning in 2012, that’s what I really wanted to talk to Ernie about. The Battle of Savo Island. But it brought back the nightmares. And we never spoke of Vincennes and Savo Island again.

The book we produced together, “Chasing the Wind,” was filled with details that Ernie summoned from his remarkable memory. But Vincennes? That became my detective story. And over time, I pieced together what had happened to Ernie that night off Savo Island.

We self published “Chasing the Wind,” and I took Ernie all over the city with the book. Book clubs, readings, even folk-music concerts. We sold 1,200 copies, pretty good for a self-published book. Ernie couldn’t believe people were so interested in his story, that they wanted him to sign the book. He was happy to talk about sailing, and other aspects of his life. But he never talked about Vincennes. “It’s in there,” he’d say, pointing to the book. He never read those chapters.

It wasn’t over. I had several literary agents tell me that I needed to re-write “Chasing the Wind.” Put myself, and my relationship with Ernie, in the book. And keep alive this chapter of American history, Savo Island, and the heroism in defeat, that is overshadowed by the final successes of the Guadalcanal campaign.

“Chasing the Wind” became the book within the new book, “22 Minutes.” The new book fills out Ernie’s story, adds my own impressions of this hero, our trips to retirement homes and book signings, and how he dealt with his own approaching mortality. We even see that Paul Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, led a 2015 expedition that found Vincennes on the Pacific Ocean floor, where it had rested in the quiet darkness for decades. Billionaires have those kinds of resources at their disposal. We just can’t help ourselves, gawking at our tragic histories.

So, with all of that, this long process, “22 Minutes” isn’t simply, “My first book.”

We’ll have a party next week to celebrate the publication, 6 p.m. May 9, at the fabulous Record Archive Backroom Lounge. You’re invited.

Mondays with Ernie

 

Long rumored, now inevitable. Lyons Press will publish 22 Minutes, my book on the life of Ernie Coleman.

Hardcover, $26.95, 224 pages, weighs 1.7 pounds, official publication date May 1, 2019. You can pre-order it now from amazon.com. No salesman will visit your home.

A local sailing legend on Lake Ontario, Ernie’s long life was shadowed by a terrible tragedy. He’d survived the sinking of the cruiser Vincennes during World War II’s Battle of Savo Island, the worst open-sea defeat ever suffered by the United States Navy. Four big ships and more than 1,000 sailors were lost that night, including more than 300 on Vincennes. All in a 22-minute battle, as referenced in the book’s title.

Here’s how the book came about. I was hired by one of Ernie’s daughters to write the story of his life. He was 93 years old when I met him, living in Summerville with a view of Lake Ontario from his house. Ernie was a carpenter who built a family through four marriages, adoption and stepchildren. His was a story of courage, tragedy, comedy, curiosity, brawls, an affair that ended his first marriage, his adopted daughter’s descent into drug abuse, and a relentless desire to live life to its fullest. And building boats, and sailing. We self-published the book in 2012 as Chasing the Wind. It sold more than 2,000 copies. Pretty good for a self-published book.

But agents were suggesting that I should re-write Chasing the Wind, and include my relationship with Ernie. Kind of a Tuesdays With Morrie thing. And so I did, weaving into the story of how the two of us put together Chasing the Wind over a series of Monday-morning meetings. And how I had to tell the story of what happened to Ernie on the night Vincennes was sunk, when he wouldn’t tell it himself because of his recurring nightmares. And how, after it was published, I took Ernie to book clubs and public readings, until a few months before his death at age 95.

So Chasing the Wind became the book within the book. The publishers insisted the name be changed to avoid confusion; while the two versions share some material, 22 Minutes is a much fuller, more rewarding story. I came up with the new name one morning while walking my dog, thinking of my friend Gary Craig’s book about the Rochester Brinks robbery, Seven Million. It’s all in the numbers. That’s how creativity works sometimes. Steal.

The cover of Chasing the Wind was a photo of Ernie sailing his boat, Desire. For 22 Minutes, Lyons Press went with a photo of Vincennes, and an inset of Ernie as a 24-year-old Navy man. I wasn’t excited about it, Ernie was about much more than that ship. But the Lyons Press marketing people figured it would get your attention.

And we worked hard on the subtitle, because that’s what the search engines are tuned to. World War II, Savo Island, Vincennes… Ernie had a deep life, so he gets two subtitles. That cover you’re looking at now hasn’t been adjusted for the final titles: “The USS Vincennes and the Tragedy of Savo Island” and “A Lifetime Survival Story.” Still too much of a focus on that one moment of Ernie’s life. But, hey, we’re trying to sell a book here.

I was talking to some friends about it, and we started casting the movie version. I’m looking for a Spencer Tracy type to play Ernie. I wanted Randy Quaid to play me, but he’s hard to find these days. One of my friends suggested Jeff Daniels, and I’m cool with that. Anyone got his number?

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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