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.