Sacramento Baseball

Sacramento Baseball

While it’s common knowledge that baseball is America’s favorite pastime, lesser known is that the sport was being played in California’s capitol, Sacramento, ever since the days of the Gold Rush. When the country’s first professional team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, came to play against the locals in 1869, it was just the beginning of the Delta community’s love affair with the game, a passion that still exists today in everything from neighborhood t-ball tryouts for tykes to The Sacramento River Cats, a minor league team with legions of fans. Whether you have ever played in a game, cheered in the bleachers, overindulged on hot dogs and peanuts, or just get weepy whenever Roy Hobbs puts the fictional New York Knights on the front pages in The Natural, Bill McPoil’s debut book, Sacramento Baseball, is a must-read history for sports enthusiasts’ favorite season.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: In the realm of small world coincidences, you first came on the radar screen of You Read It Here First through a mutual friend that you and I have known for years. Tell us about who he is and in what capacity the two of you came to meet each other.

A: Ernie Daniels and I met when we both worked at the Sacramento Police Department. He came on a short time after me and though we never worked as partners, we worked around each other extensively. We really got to know each other during “Pig Bowl V”. (This was an annual football game between the Police Department and the Sheriff’s Department.)  Ernie was one of the veterans of the team and it was my first, and last game; I found out I was made for baseball, not football.

Q: Following retirement, where did your career path take you?

A: After a little over thirteen years on the department I was forced to retire because of injuries I sustained making an arrest – I tackled a guy running from me and broke both my knees. My last few years on the department I served on the police union’s board of directors and as Vice President. When I retired I went back to school to finish my college degree with the intention of becoming a teacher. Right before I finished my degree a friend, and former president of the police union, who owned a labor relations firm called and asked if I might be interested in coming to work for him. The paycheck and the work sounded good so I did. I made arrangements with a couple of my professors to finish my classes while I traveled for the job – the firm represented over 60 public employee unions in California and Nevada doing contract negotiations, and representing employees in grievances and disciplinary proceedings – and although I did finish, it took an extra semester. I still had that teaching thing in the back of my mind so I went on, continuing to work between fifty and sixty hours a week, and got a master’s degree.

Q: Did you always have in mind that your love of history would one day lead you to write a book?

A: In graduate school I had to write a publishable article for my second graduate course. Since my emphasis as an undergraduate was military and naval history I decided to write about the development of Wake Island prior to World War II. The research took me to the National Archives Annex in San Bruno, about a two hour drive from Sacramento. When I finished the era search and the article, which I got an A- on, I submitted it to a couple of military journals and received rejections. Then I submitted it to Prologue: The National Archives Quarterly and they accepted it. That gave me the writing bug. I wrote a couple of more articles for periodicals, and though I thought one day I might write a book, I never really had time.

Q: What was the inspiration that caused you to say, “The time to start writing is right now?”

A: I retired from labor relations in 2007 following a heart attack so suddenly I had a lot of time on my hands. I thought about the book idea again, but didn’t really have a focus. Over Christmas, 2014, I was visiting my son and his family in Colorado when I went into one of my favorite book stores there and stumbled across an Arcadia book about baseball in Colorado Springs. When I returned home I started looking for the Sacramento version and found out there wasn’t one. I sent an email to Arcadia, not really expecting to hear from them, and received a return email the next day with a 12 or 14 page proposal package for “my book.”

Q: Did you have any writing experience prior to this particular venture?

A:  Only the articles I mentioned above and legal briefs I wrote following arbitrations. I also wrote and copywrote a training manual for labor unions while I was at the labor relations firm.

Q: Covering a century of local baseball and curating over 200 accompanying images sounds like a daunting amount of work (especially acquiring the photographs)! How did you go about collecting and organizing all of your research?

A: When I was filling out the proposal package they asked me where I would get the photos. I had no Idea so I just pulled ideas out of the air – friends, relatives, the library. When they approved the proposal, I pretty much just started panicking and scrambling. In the end I found photos from a lot of great people, the Sacramento Public Library, and the California State University, Sacramento Special Collections Archives.

Q: From the inception of the idea to its completion, how long did it take you to put the whole thing together?

A: About a year and a half – two years if you included the editing that took place after submission.

Q: Did you allow anyone to see your work-in-progress or did you make everyone wait until you were done?

A: I had a friend, who is a Sacramento Solons expert, proof the book’s introduction and the introduction to the Solon’s chapter, but other than that, my wife was the only person who saw everything that was going into it along the way.

Q: What governed your decision to make Sacramento Baseball a photo history rather than a manuscript?

A:  The fact that we didn’t have one, and to document amateur and professional baseball in a way that anyone, not just baseball historians, could enjoy.

Q: Sacramento has a rich history of adventurers, politicians and diverse industries. What made you choose baseball above all else as the topic for your book?

A: I played baseball as a youngster and have been a S.F. Giants fan since they moved to the West Coast in 1958. I went to Sacramento Solons’ games when I was eight and nine years old, and went to my first Giants game at Seals Stadium in 1959 and then to Candlestick Park the first year it opened in 1960. I “knew” Sacramento was a baseball town, but some guy on a local radio show, as I was thinking about writing this book, tried to prove it really wasn’t. By documenting the history in more than a hundred years’ worth of photos I think I proved him wrong.

Q: Did you play baseball when you were growing up? If so, what position?

A:  Only Little League, Colt League, and sandlot. I was a catcher and occasionally played center field.

Q: What’s the first pro baseball game you ever attended (and did your team win)?

A: The San Francisco Giants in 1959. I don’t remember if they won or not – too many years ago.

Q: Favorite team of all time?

A: San Francisco Giants

Q: Favorite player of all time?

A: Willie Mays

Q: Favorite movie about baseball?

A:  It’s a toss-up between A League of Their Own and Bull Durham.

Q: If you could have lunch with any famous baseball player (living or dead), who would it be and what question would you most like to ask?

A: Willie Mays. “Could I have your autograph?”  (I’ve read all of his biographies.)

Q: Just for fun, if you could be the owner/manager of a new baseball team, what name would you give them?

A: Wow, I don’t know. Maybe the Spaldings if it’s allowed. The first catcher’s mitt I owned was a Spalding.

Q: Share with us some trivia about baseball that most people wouldn’t know.

A:  In 1951 the New York Giants were trailing the Brooklyn Dodgers 3-2 in the third game of a three game play-off for the National League Championship and the right to go to the World Series. With two men on base in the bottom of the ninth inning the Giants third baseman, Bobby Thompson, came to the plate and hit a three run home run to win the game. Almost every baseball enthusiast could tell you that. But, who was on deck and would have come to bat had Thompson made an out?  A twenty year old rookie named Willie Mays, in his first year of Major League Baseball.

Q: Long before The Sacramento River Cats, the capitol’s baseball claim to fame was The Solons, a team that underwent multiple moves and name-changes. What can you tell us about them and do they still exist somewhere?

A: No, they no longer exist except in the hearts and minds of baseball historians and Sacramentans over the age of sixty. As the Sacramento Senators they were charter members of the Pacific Coast League (PCL) when it was formed in 1903. Until the Giants and the Dodgers moved west in 1958, the PCL was the professional baseball league on the West Coast. As the Senators they were often referred to by sports writers as the Solons in deference to the fact that Sacramento is the state capital and the legislators were referred to as Solons at the time. They finally got the Solon name officially in 1935 and stayed that way until 1960 when they moved to Hawaii to become the Islanders. For three years in the late 1970’s a team called the Solons tried to reclaim Sacramento, but it just didn’t take because they couldn’t come up with a suitable place to play.

Q: Back in the days when I was in theatre, it was often said that Sacramento couldn’t be taken seriously in the performing arts because of the city’s proximity to San Francisco. Could the same argument be made about sports and, specifically, baseball? 

A: Sort of. That’s why the Solons moved out in 1960. With the Giants only ninety miles away and games beginning to be televised, attendance and revenues declined so much they just couldn’t be supported here. But now we have the River Cats and they have been setting PCL records for over half of their time here. We also have the Sacramento Kings basketball team and The Sacramento Republic, our professional soccer team that we believe will become a MLS team soon.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’ve started doing research for a manuscript about the SF Giants and the Oakland A’s in the context of the turmoil in the Bay Area in the 1960’s. I’m just doing secondary research now, but I think I’ll be going into primary research in the fall at least for the first chapter which will cover the Giants and the HUAC Hearings in San Francisco in May, 1960.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?

A: I don’t know. I’m not very public. I like getting the book the publicity you and others are giving it, but I really don’t think I’m that interesting. People in Sacramento can find me at Peet’s Coffee at 38th & J most afternoons working towards the next book. Other than that, it’s baseball season and every night there’s a River Cats game I’ll be sitting behind home plate.

 

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My Name Is Resolute

Resolute Cover from B&N

On my first visit to Boston in the early 80’s to have lunch with my play publisher, I had built in plenty of time to visit the typical Beantown tourist attractions – walking the Freedom Trail, visiting Paul Revere’s House, the Old North Church, the U.S.S. Constitution. It wasn’t until I was lunching one day at Ye Olde Union Oyster House that I got the distinct impression I wasn’t alone. Situated in a building that predates the Revolutionary War, the restaurant sent my imagination into overdrive thinking about how many luminaries and common folk regularly crossed its threshold to discuss political news of the day. I was reminded of that experience when I recently immersed myself in Nancy E. Turner’s compelling page-turner, My Name Is Resolute – the story of a young girl kidnapped by pirates in her native Jamaica and taken to a bewildering new world where only the strongest, cleverest and luckiest have any chance of survival.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Tell us about your journey as a writer and when you first knew that this was what you wanted to do.

A: I told a teacher in fifth grade that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, but I always held the belief that a writer had to start with having a PhD of some sort. It wasn’t until I finally got a chance to go to college along with my children that I found this wasn’t entirely true.

Q: Were you a voracious reader when you were growing up? If so, what are some of the books we might have found on your nightstand as an adolescent and as a teen?

A: I always read. My parents kept us enrolled in library book clubs and they had walls of bookshelves crowded with volumes. I loved Harriet the Spy, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, and as a teen, anything involved with science fiction. Although I cut my “adult” teeth on Gone with the Wind at 9, I centered my teen reading on Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein books. I was a “trekky” before it was cool and read Star Trek novels too. While many of my friends loved the Hobbit books, the closest I got to Tolkein was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Morte d’Arthur and White’s Once and Future King.

Q: What/who are you reading now?

A: Just finished Jeff Shaara’s newest called The Fateful Lightning, before that Fifty Dead Men Walking by Martin McGartland and Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne. Next on the list is Circling the Sun by Paula McLain.

Q: If you could sit down for lunch with one of your favorite authors (living or dead), who would it be, where would you go, and what question would you most like to ask him or her before that meal was over?

A: I’d have a long lunch with Earnest Hemmingway on a balcony porch in Havana in the springtime. I’d like to know how he came to craft his work with the narrative voice he used – whether he’d tried other styles, admired other authors, whose work he liked to read. I suspect, however, he was his own editor from the beginning. I think he’s a fascinating character in his own right. And then, if I answered this question tomorrow, I might choose someone else.

Q: Each of your best-selling novels thus far utilizes the backdrop of bygone eras and you have a wonderful quote on your website that says, “Writing historical fiction is much like working on a term paper every day.” The level of detail that goes into so vividly recreating the past – and, in the case of My Name Is Resolute, displaying a solid understanding of British laws – requires copious amounts of research. Share with us some of your techniques for fact-finding, fact-checking, and ensuring that the text doesn’t become so overstuffed with all those facts that the fiction itself gets lost.

A: In one of the first classes I took on writing technique I learned never to “let the author dash out onto the stage and explain things like a Greek melodrama.” I’ve never forgotten that warning. There is much the author has to know to inform the writing without telling the reader all about it. In one of my novels I had come to a new chapter and wanted Charlie to have a conversation with his mother Sarah as he’s getting ready to leave home. The purpose of it was to show he was 1) a grown and determined man, not a boy; 2) an experienced hand with a gun even at twenty; and 3) eager for better technology. A week of searching historical weaponry in 1900 yielded this line of dialog: “Look at that. Krags with the rim out.” Does the reader know what he means? Not until he pushes the box of ready-made bullets toward his mother for her response. A reader doesn’t need to know what the development of rimless brass projectile casings does to the velocity and accuracy of a rifle. But, they immediately believe that Charlie and Sarah both know, and that is enough.

In each of my novels, and in My Name Is Resolute most recently, I immerse myself in their worlds. I walk the streets where they have walked. Smell the woods, steep my stories in the shadows and sunlight, the desert heat, the gloom of a New England winter. I listen to period music, and do the chores the characters do. It frames the foundation of the entire novel. You walk into a dark room and flip a switch. There is light. You don’t need a treatise about theories of electricity to use the light. But, before the room was built and furnished and the lamp placed just so, someone did need to construct it. That, to me, is the writer’s job as researcher – to construct a world in which a reader can move with alacrity, seeing what they need to see to follow the story.

Fact-finding starts with reading. It must also include traveling to the places to do it well. Photos, leaves pressed in notebooks, touring reproductions of early whaling ships, a freshening breeze off shore in Jamaica, the smell of mutton-fat candles, a barn full of goats and a murky Maine seashore, the taste of hard cider, the cobbles of old Boston. Luckily there are books, maps, and writings from the period. I’ve discovered free access online to historic works in the public domain that shed invaluable light on the world of Resolute Talbot. I kept favorite websites about British currency in the eighteenth century, clothing styles, social mores and religious and civic law, among dozens more. Until I started researching for Resolute, I had never known a person could be arrested for wearing the wrong hat or a calico gown not befitting their station in life. Imagine that cotton calico was reserved for the rich alone! I wanted to know more than the dates of battles of the American Revolution. I wanted to know what made the people tick, what kept them alive and motivated to engage in a war, when circumstances were desperate just to survive.

Q: Resolute Talbot, the heroine of this page-turning epic, undergoes an amazing character arc over the span of five tumultuous decades. From a frightened and naive young girl to a wise old woman whose eyes have seen a lion’s share of loss and heartbreak, she wavers only rarely from the belief that she was born to be a survivor. As you were developing Resolute’s character and her relationships with others, did she ever do anything that surprised you? (Because, of course, we all know as writers that our characters “talk” to us while we’re writing about them…)

A: Resolute was a wonderful character to write and to know. One of the things she surprised me with was the depth of her anguish and anger at being taken from her life of privilege and made a slave. Of course, I reminded myself she was a child, and children can be incredibly hostile in times of desperate stress. Her anger at her sister Patience was part of her desperation, and the feeling that both Patience and August had abandoned her put an edge on every choice she made. She became wary and subtle almost beyond what I imagined. I had a vague idea of where I wanted to end the story, sometime during or just after the Revolutionary War, and I was at first surprised at how old Resolute would be by that year. However, research showed that if a person survived childhood diseases which included measles, yellow fever, smallpox, great pox (chickenpox) injury, infections, and childbirth, she could easily live to a great age and still be quite vital. They ate food untainted by chemicals, vegetables from their gardens, very little sugar, and did aerobic exercise just getting through the day. Many towns had a few venerated citizens of eighty- or ninety-plus years.

Q: Did you work from an outline or allow the story to unfold in your head from chapter to chapter?

A: I knew where the story began, before I put a single word down. I started with the title, a rare occurrence in novels. I knew Resolute would survive the War, but little beyond that. One of the beginning themes was her longing to go home to Jamaica, but it wasn’t until I was almost at the end that I knew whether or not she would get there. In the end, her choice in the matter is the pivot of the story. Much of the meat of the novel developed through research in how she would have lived, the people around whom she’d have been surrounded, and the politics of the revolution.

Q: My Name Is Resolute weighs in at a hefty 585 pages. How long did it take to write from start to finish?

A: The novel was in progress a good two and a half years. The last six months I spent cutting it down to size. My original manuscript was 830 pages.

Q: This book also seems to have feature film or mini-series written all over it. If Hollywood came calling, who would comprise your dream cast?

A: That’s so much fun to imagine. I picture Karen Sheila Gillan as Resolute. Gerard Butler as Cullah. As Patience, Amy Adams. Ewan McGregor as Wallace Simpson, Russell Crowe as Cullah’s father and, Liam Neeson as Rafe MacAlister.

Q: I especially enjoy it when fictional characters cross paths with luminaries of the day – in this case, John Hancock, Paul Revere and George Washington. Have you used this device in some of your other titles (or plan to in future works)?

A: I thought long and hard about including names of real people. In general, I try to keep the true history as a backdrop for the stage upon which my characters tell the story. However, I discovered that on the dates in question, George Washington was traveling across Massachusetts, and would have stopped and eaten only with a family whose loyalties had been vouchsafed by trusted officers. There was a price on his head, as you can imagine. The Revere family was a very well known presence in Boston society, and Resolute had crossed a tenuous line from a society where everyone kept to their “level” as a weaver, when she made friends with Margaret Gage. Margaret Gage is reputed to have been the one to “spill the beans” about the imminent march of soldiers toward Concord. She knew the Reveres, and her husband, General Gage, was in command of the British Army stationed in the Colonies. I inserted Resolute as the go-between from Margaret to Paul Revere, to make her part of the story a pivot point. John Hancock was perhaps the most colorful character in real life, and hard to ignore. Anyone who knew anyone in Boston, knew him or knew of him. He was a known smuggler, a rebel, and a man not to trifle with. His efforts to defy the British rule seemed to color every account I read. To have Resolute’s daughter develop a teen-aged “crush” on the most eligible bachelor in town seemed logical. He was dashing, elegant, handsome, and the richest man on this continent at the time. I felt I could not tell Resolute’s story without including those real people, though I worked carefully not to have them do or say anything no appropriate to their real lives.

As far as using this as a device, each novel seems to take what it needs of real lives and real life. The only novel I’ve written that is purely fictional is The Water and The Blood. There are references to WWII and President Roosevelt, but no real people ever walk on stage. There are characters in each of my other books that are very real people, though a reader may not recognize their names as handily. In These Is My Words, the children go to a one-room school taught by Miss Wakefield who soon marries the owner of the general mercantile, Mr. Fish. Tucson still has a Wakefield Middle School named in her honor, and the Fish name is laced through the town history in many places. Ronstadt’s Livery Stable is owned by the great-grandfather of singer Linda Ronstadt. General Crook really commanded the Sixth Army in Tucson. Very real people. To me, it’s just a nice way to add verisimilitude to a tale. I don’t really plan to use or not use real people. It’s all about what the story needs to be present in the imagination of a reader.

Q: Tell us about your Sarah Prine series and the real-life connection that inspired it.

A: The real Sarah Agnes Prine was my great-grandmother. Stories abound among her children and grandchildren, but not much actual documentation existed when I began. All I knew was what I’d been told – that she was courageous, hard-working, smart but uneducated, and that she could out-ride and out-shoot her brothers. I changed all the names of real people except hers, just so I wouldn’t offend anyone. In 1950 the local paper in the small town where she lived ran an article about “Granny” finally retiring from active ranching at 75 because she couldn’t hit what she was aiming at with a lariat any more. Never mind she was on a horse throwing one. Also, she complained that her “little” double-barrel shotgun was “out of fix.” I imagined that her life was colorful, difficult, and strenuous. Her mother lived until she was 105 or 106. Sarah passed at 96, her youngest daughter, my grandma, was 95, and my mother is still gardening at 84.

After growing up in far distant California, isolated from most of the family by distance, once the first novel came out, I heard from people all over the country who I can now claim as cousins. I’ve been informed by some that there are plenty of “fish tales” in that novel, the dates are accurate to history but not to her life, but it was never meant to be a biography. It was simply a way to connect to a woman I wished to know, and through her to create a character I could aspire to become were I in her position. Jack Elliot, the romantic lead and Sarah’s soul mate, is modeled largely after my husband John. After serving in the Infantry in Vietnam for a year he became a police officer and retired after 33 years on the Arizona Highway Patrol as a supervisor. He’s a bit of an old lion, now, but yes, he was the inspiration. Always was and always will be a man who would run into a burning building, not away from it, to save someone he doesn’t even know.

Q: Which do you feel is more challenging for you – to pen a series with recurring characters or to do a stand-alone book?

A: I much prefer thinking about a stand alone novel than a series. I actually never meant to do a series, but the publishers were adamant that I at least make a try at it. I’m just lucky the other books sell as well as These Is My Words. The reason for me is simple. I prefer to read a stand alone book. I don’t really want to have to find out in “the next installment” what’s happened to my favorite characters. I was advised by my agent and considered splitting My Name Is Resolute into two books because of its length. However, no one, myself included, could find a place halfway through the story that made a good ending for one part and a good beginning for the next. I felt that if a person read the second installment first, it could not contain adequate examples of the motivation for Resolute and the other characters to do what they did. The first half, or first book, would have to stop when she was a child and had not really accomplished what she’d come to life to do. I finally decided the story had to remain whole, and ultimately, the editors agreed with me.

Q: What is a typical writing day like for you?

A: My writing usually doesn’t happen on a schedule. When I’m deep into research, I read into the wee hours of the night. If I read in bed I usually fall asleep with something like Lemuel Shattuck’s History of Concord on my chest. I don’t mind. I just pick it up in the morning and start over. Writing itself is not about sitting in front of a computer. I work out scenes while I’m planting flowers, or walking the dogs, or sitting in a boring meeting. The actual work of typing the story is pretty much taking dictation from the voices in my imagination who have already “run” the dialog and action several different ways. Yet, just getting it down on paper, or on a screen is never the end. Then the real work starts, the fun part. The editing. I love the work of going over each and every sentence, and deciding whether it says what it needs to say, uses the best words for the task, and if I can eliminate anything superfluous.

I ALWAYS work to a sound track of music that inspires the stories. I wouldn’t bother you with the lists, but it’s probably a result of having grown up in the television era – every good movie needs a sound track. I spend many hours assembling a list of mostly instrumental music that keeps the story playing out in my head. I rarely if ever have experienced a writing block because when the music starts, the curtains lift, and my cast take their places on cue.

Q: What would most people be surprised to learn about you?

A: I struggle after the end of each novel with whether I can do it again. It’s like giving birth to a huge baby after a two or three year gestation. You’re just not in a hurry to be “with book” very soon. You need that toddler to get out of your head before the next one comes along. I sometimes miss my characters very much once I’m done with their stories. Very much.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m doing some research on Texas history. I started the research before I saw the recent TV series called Texas Rising. It’s a good series, but while it doesn’t really have anything to do with the story I’m pondering, there is nothing wrong with letting someone else’s take on a historical situation add flavor and fire to what I’m thinking. I need to leave any more description of it there. It’s far too nebulous a bubble to expose to much scrutiny yet. Might burst.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you (and buy your books!)?

A: My website is www.nancyeturner.net. Just remember the initials, NET. There are a few fan pages around, and Facebook. I haven’t yet begun Twitter and I’ve just heard it’s passé so I don’t know if I should. The books are for sale at all major chains and local bookstores. Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com, and any place you normally buy books.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I appreciate your taking the time to feature my novel on your site. My Name Is Resolute is, I think, my finest work, and if I were never to write another, I could retire happily knowing Resolute has told her story.

You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You?

You CAme Here To Die

Nobody will ever deprive the American people of the right to vote except the American people themselves and the only way they could do this is by not voting. – Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Visit Facebook any day of the week and you’ll see no shortage of political divisiveness, rants about corrupt government, and frustrations that American life as we know it continues to go from bad to worse. Is it any wonder that when people stay away from the ballot box on Election Day, it’s usually because there are either no candidates they feel they can trust or they’re convinced that their votes won’t make even an angstrom of difference?

During the turbulent 1960s, a young white California coed seized an opportunity to step up for something she believed in and embarked on a bold mission to register black voters in the Deep South, a decision that put her face-to-face with staggering poverty, rampant illiteracy, and the Ku Klux Klan. In her moving memoir about the Civil Rights Movement – You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You? – author Sherie Labedis paints a compelling picture of an era that is only a scant 50 years in the rearview mirror but which still resonates today.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: A lot of the best writers often declare that they were voracious readers growing up. Was this the case with you?

A: I had two passions growing up. One was riding my horse and the other was reading. My students often don’t like to read, but it’s the best way to flights of fantasy and trips to foreign lands. In high school I took a class called Advanced Reading. We had to read books from a list colleges would expect us to know and we kept a journal of our responses. My favorite author was/is John Steinbeck. My father used to play in Zane Grey’s backyard and he wrote about the West, so he was a usual companion. I also enjoyed the breadth and detail in books by Tolstoy.

Q: What/who are you reading now?

A: My husband and I are reading The Thurber Carnival by James Thurber aloud to one another. I have just finished Ken Follett’s Winter of the World, book two in his Century Trilogy. South Carolina: A History by Walter Edgar helps me understand the “whys” of my book. I am just beginning Carol Ruth Silver’s Freedom Rider Diary: Smuggled Notes from Parchman Prison.

Q: Was the craft of writing something that came easily to you when you were a student at Ponderosa (coincidentally, our shared alma mater)?

A: I was a very successful English student. I loved the little creative writing I did. However, I couldn’t get the knack of writing essays and reports until I started teaching.

Q: What did you imagine yourself doing as a career after graduation and who or what was the strongest influence in shaping that dream?

A: I didn’t know “what I wanted to be.” Cowboy was high on my list and I had great math skills. I needed more information on what the possibilities were. You and I went to a small high school with limited offerings. I transferred to the University of California Berkeley. Their schedule of classes filled a book. I didn’t even know what many of the words meant. I’d found the place to discover what the possibilities were.

Q: Where did your passion for civil rights begin and what led you to volunteer?

A: I blame an English teacher and my book is dedicated to him. Television brought all the pain and suffering of the Civil Rights Movement into our living room. My English and social studies teachers considered it their responsibility to get us to pay attention. Bruce Harvey, the Advanced Reading English teacher asked the class what we were willing to die for. It was a rhetorical question for most of the students. Not for me. I wanted to know. When I arrived at UC Berkeley, I was quite aware that the answer to that question was part of the possibilities I would consider.

Two events moved me. One was in 1964 and, in the world of civil rights, it was called Freedom Summer. Black civil rights organizations recruited white college students to go to the Deep South to register black voters. Mississippi and Alabama had made it absolutely obvious that they would not allow integration and that they didn’t mind terrorizing and killing blacks to keep it from happening. Civil rights organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) thought that if white college students were beaten and killed on television, racists might back down. This was a miscalculation. Three voter registration workers, Mickey Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, disappeared in Mississippi. Schwerner and Goodman were white and Chaney was black. It was forty-five days before their bodies were found, killed by the Ku Klux Klan. How could that happen in my country?

The second event was the Selma March in March of 1965. Six hundred blacks, men, women, children and old folks determined to march from Selma, Alabama, fifty-four miles to the statehouse steps in Montgomery to get down on their knees to pray for the right to vote. They never got out of Selma. They were stopped by a wall of police on horseback, carrying clubs, guns, and tear-gas. The beatings were so severe and so widespread the day is known as Bloody Sunday. Something in me snapped. I was now eighteen and when Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at colleges asking for volunteers for a second Freedom Summer, I signed up with his Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Q: You were only eighteen, white middle-class and educated when you arrived in Pineville, South Carolina. You write that you were simultaneously horrified and overwhelmed. Why?

A: My parents were struggling to be middle class. Even so, I had a horse. We could come and go as we pleased. We had food, a warm home and, even though my mom made most of my clothes, we had all the clothes we needed. We had medical care. My dad had a car and, although it was an old clunker, my mom had one, too. When I was accepted to Berkeley my mom had to get a job at the post office to pay my way. We didn’t get what we wanted when we wanted it – sometimes we never got “it.”

The black world of South Carolina was the opposite of what I had known. In Charleston I learned that black people didn’t have health care when I met a woman dying with a rotting leg that could be smelled for blocks. Flies flew around a sore full of pus and her leg ballooned below it. I was sure “someone” in the black community would do something. I was told to report the problem to the church and they would do the best they could.

People were starving, barefoot, overworked and illiterate. They had mules and wagons, not cars. Most had no electricity or telephone in their tumbledown cabins, some of which had existed during slavery. Plumbing was outside including the pump for water. They were controlled by the white power structure and the Ku Klux Klan. We were there to help them register and vote because until they did, nothing would change.

Q: Knowing that three volunteers had been murdered during Freedom Summer in 1964, how did your family react to your wanting to leave a sheltered upbringing in Northern California and immerse yourself in the thick of poverty, racism, illiteracy and Ku Klux Klan violence?

A: Remember the adage, “You reap what you sow.” I’m afraid that is where they found themselves. They taught us to do what we thought was right. If we believed it, we had to commit to it. They had no idea where that philosophy would lead. They didn’t preach at my brother and me, they modeled the behavior for us. So, when I showed up and said I was going south, they were in a hard place. They were afraid. They were angry. They gulped and backed me up.

Q: Speaking of the KKK, what sort of tactics did they employ to try to encourage you and your fellow volunteers to leave?

A: The most frightening situations involved fire at the elementary school and the church where we had our mass meetings. They did drive-bys. They shot into our parking lot. One night several pickups pulled up and turned their lights on high and just sat there while we cringed inside the office. I was driven off the road and there were miscellaneous beatings and arrests.

Q: Looking back, what was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome as the veritable stranger in a strange land?

A: I was one of three white volunteers from the Bay Area. Our job was to get blacks to register to vote regardless of the consequences and one of those consequences might be death. Other possible consequences included losing one’s job, being taken off the food subsidy list and there was always the Klan. So here I was at eighteen going door by door trying to get these folks to believe me and trust that what I was telling them was the truth. “Trust and believe.” Now why would black Americans – they were called “colored” then – not trust white people? Two hundred and fifty years of history was part of it. A second reason was that most of them had never been “touching” close to white people before. Theirs was a world where they had to step off the sidewalk or cross the street if a white person walked toward them. Third, every rule of southern culture was supported by violence and retribution.

We were aliens. We came from 3000 miles away. We had different ideas, manners and language. Language was a major problem. The people of Pineville, where I spent most of the summer, had a Geechee or Gullah accent. The Gullah People, who came from the west coast of Africa, live on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Theirs is the most complete and oldest “African” language in the United States. I expected to hear a southern accent, not an African dialect and it was very difficult to understand. We, on the other hand, spoke collegeese – long sentences made up of big words about things that were largely unimportant to them. Stated simply, we wanted them to risk their lives on something that probably couldn’t happen and they didn’t trust us, didn’t like us, were afraid of us and couldn’t talk to us.

Q: What is something about the Civil Rights Movement that most people don’t know?

A: One thing is that it was made up of “common” people. Local black teenagers – high school students – did most of the work for our project. We didn’t have a Martin Luther King, Jr. Newspaper men weren’t hanging around to watch what happened. No photographers caught the flames when our church was burned to the ground. We were just folks who thought change was necessary and we were willing to work until that change happened.

Most of the people I knew were not nonviolent. I was in a farming community. Men carried rifles because they were hunters and because they wanted to protect their families. If we took kids to a demonstration, we frisked them first to be sure they “seemed” nonviolent.

Recently I met a black woman who was part of The Movement in Atlanta, Georgia, in the early sixties. She was interested in my book, because she didn’t know there were white people involved in The Movement. Freedom Summer recruitment was about 1000 whites. Our Second Freedom Summer recruitment was about 400. Whites were part of the Freedom Rides, but most of the demonstrations were carried out by blacks. However, whites did take part.

Q: Tell us about some of Pineville’s bright spots that reinforced your commitment to the causes you believed in.

A: Let me refer you to your “Share your favorite scene from the book” later in thisinterview.Mrs. Crawford made a conscious decision to trust me with her life. Each time someone got on the bus to go to the courthouse they trusted us. That’s incredibly heady for an eighteen-year-old considering what the dangers were. This is my best example of “connecting” with local folks. It just took months to get to this point.

Q: If you were newly graduated today, where would you go to make a difference?

A: Register and vote. Pay attention to the issues. If you want to “go” somewhere, there are still a Peace Corps and a Teacher Corps. Many churches have projects helping the poor and disadvantaged here and abroad

Q: What inspired you to write You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You?

A: I have a South Carolina family I will describe in another question. We’ve been family since 1965. In 2000 I took my husband Joe down to meet them. He made a video of the family reunion our visit engendered. Later that year I was going to have lunch with a dear friend. I wanted to give her a special gift, so I took the video and shared it with her. “You have to write a book about this,” she said. She edited every word. The book went its own way as books will and it is not about the Sarah Butler family, but it definitely started with them.

Q: What’s the story behind the title you gave your book?

A: Let me share an excerpt from my book.

Monday, June 14, 1965

“You came here to die, didn’t you.” It isn’t a question. It’s a challenge from a scrawny Negroteenager in faded bib overalls. His bare chest glistens in the hot Georgia sunshine. He reeks of body odor and my stomach lurches as I look up at his black eyes, then down to his unshod feet in the grass.

I’m standing on the sidewalk at Morris Brown, a Negro college in Atlanta. The Civil Rights Movement is front-page news across the United States. As an eighteen-year-old, white, female voter-registration volunteer from California, I’d expected to be applauded upon arrival for a week of voter-registration training. Instead of a welcoming committee and pep rally, only this young man’s almost angry dare welcomes me.

“I’m talkin’ to you,” he snaps. I force myself to meet his eyes. “If you didn’t come here to die, it’s time you git back into that car and head back to New York, Chicago or wherever you come from.”

Q: Share your favorite scene from the book.

A: Canvassing I met a lady named Rebecca Crawford. She lived alone in a little cabin. She told me she had registered, but she hadn’t. I tried to convince her to go to the courthouse with us – to help other folks register. She said she would, but I was sure she wouldn’t. When the bus pulled out of the parking lot going to the courthouse, she was walking up the road to catch it. Once on the bus she told me she had never registered and that she could neither read nor write. I told her all she had to do was write her name. She tried, but the bus ride was too short. I promised to “Come and learn me how to write so I cain regster next time.” My favorite scene is about that day.

The road is just as long and as hot as before. Far ahead, I can see someone moving toward me. I recognize the straw hat first, then a basket on her arm and finally that beaming, delighted face.

“It’s you!” She sets her basket down in the middle of the road and raises her arms to heaven as if in thanks. I shake her hand and smile back into her eyes.

Before I can say anything, she says, “Chile, Ah bin wonderin’ where you was. Sunday Ah prayed that you come an’ learn me how to write.”

I explain I have been busy trying to get other folks to register.

“When Ah gots up this mornin’ Ah was feeling something extra good was gon’ happen today. Ah clean my house real good. Ah felt so gran’ I come on down the road. Ah saw you an’ Ah knew what that good was. Look what Ah can do.”

She bends down and picks up a stick. With a steady head she writes Rebecca slowly and deliberately in the sand.

Note: I remembered this story “purely.” I’d written it down in my journal in shorthand, but I’d never forgotten Mrs. Crawford. (I actually wrote to her until she died and I still write to her daughter.) This was the first story I published. It was the lead story in Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul and it is part of You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You.

Q: Were there any surprise rewards that came to you from penning your experiences for publication?

A: There were delightful rewards. The first came before the book was even written. I was at the release weekend for Chicken Soup for the African American Woman’s Soul. There were three days of book events.  We read our stories at dinner one night. After I read mine, a black lady came up to me with tears running down her face. She took both of my hands and said, “You were talking about my mother and grandmother, my aunts and all of my relatives. You made me see them in a way I never have before and I am so proud.” It doesn’t get any better than that.

I wanted to see if other folks remembered each event as I did. So, I interviewed everyone I could find who had been involved that summer. What a marvelous experience that was. I did the interviews in person and my husband videotaped each one. Why marvelous? I hadn’t seen most of them in over forty years. We’d been “in the trenches” together and seeing them was a powerful experience.

People come to my book-signings and tell me their stories about how they dealt with discrimination in the 60s. There was much more going on than we thought.

Q: Some voter rights volunteers served, went home, and lost touch with the communities in which they had worked. Fifty years later, what is your relationship with people in Pineville, South Carolina?

A: I have mentioned Sarah Butler’s family before. I met her canvassing. She was already a voter, but she wanted me to talk to her husband. She was in her sixties and she was so sweet to me. She was the place I would go when I was just a scared kid. I desegregated a black college in Columbia, SC. At Thanksgiving and Christmas my dorm closed and I had nowhere to go. So, I went to Sarah’s. We wrote and talked on the phone until she died. On her deathbed she told her daughter Lottie that I was a good one, meaning white. She said that Lottie should keep me, that we were sisters. And, Lottie and I have acted on that request. Lottie turns 93 in September and I will be at her birthday party as I try to be each year. I am Aunt Sherie to two generations of Butler descendents. I have other relationships in the community as well. I have been blessed!

Q: What were some of the difficulties you encountered in getting the book “out there?”

A: I had just begun the book when a book agent told me that the Civil Rights Movement was over and that no one would care about what I had to say. I couldn’t get an agent. I couldn’t get a publisher, so I published myself. I am not a marketer, but I am doing the best that I can. As my southern sister Lottie would say, I’m waiting on the Lord to show me the way while I plug along.

Q: What would you say is the book’s strongest takeaway message for readers?

A: VOTE! Get involved. There are problems that need to be solved. We can’t trust that someone else will solve them for us.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m writing about my family. I come from a bunch of characters and they all told stories.

You Came Here to Die, Didn’t You is not a finished project. Making it a household word – or at least a schoolhouse word – is an enormous endeavor.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you?

A: I have a webpage at sherielabedis.com. On the webpage you can find information about the book, about me, teaching resources, discussion questions for book clubs and my blog.