Thursday 31 July 2014

A Famous Rejection Letter

"I would have given my life to save Dresden for the World's generations to come.  That is how everyone should feel about every city on Earth." (Kurt Vonnegut)

     Kurt Vonnegut submitted three samples of his writing to Edward Weeks of The Atlantic Monthly.  Mr. Weeks wrote back that while two of the samples merited commendation, "neither one is quite compelling enough for final acceptance".  It would take another twenty years, but Kurt Vonnegut's writing would be published in a little book called Slaughterhouse Five.  He framed the famous rejection letter which now hangs in the author's Memorial Library in Indianapolis, Indiana.  

     Kurt Vonnegut, a third generation German-American was a private in the U.S. Army who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium.  Taken prisoner of war by the Germans, he explained in a letter to his parents that:  "The supermen marched us without food, water or sleep, to Limberg, a distance of 60 miles."  In a POW camp, he was fed 250 grams of black bread and one pint of potato soup daily.  He and his fellow prisoners were moved to Dresden where they were housed in an old slaughterhouse meat locker converted into a detention centre.  

     On February 14, 1945, the Americans and the British fire-bombed Dresden, killing tens of thousands of civilians in 24 hours.  However, because Slaughterhouse Five was underground, the lives of the POW's were spared.  Vonnegut called the bombing "a carnage unfathomable" and described "possibly the world's most beautiful city" as looking like the surface of the moon.  While some German civilians pelted rocks at them, the Americans recovered the dead bodies in basements and air raid shelters and buried them.  Vonnegut explained:

"There were too many corpses to bury.  So the Germans sent in troops with flamethrowers.  All the civilians' remains were burned to ashes."

Dresden bombing circa 1945 courtesy

     Vonnegut and his fellow POW's were liberated by the Red Army in May of 1945.  The American soldier ended up in France where ,while waiting for the next boat home, penned a letter to his parents describing his imprisonment and the Dresden bombing.  

     Upon returning to the United States, Vonnegut got married and enrolled in the University of Chicago anthropology program.  His thesis  was rejected and he failed to graduate.  In 1951, Vonnegut took up fiction writing full time and, the following year, had his first novel published.  He experimented with different themes, but there was one story which always haunted him -- the Dresden bombing.

     However, it took years for his story to come out.  Firstly, the subject was painful to dwell on.  Secondly, the military classified the bombing as top secret for years preventing Vonnegut from doing serious research. In 1963, Vonnegut read The Destruction of Dresden which revealed again how devastating the bombing was.  Vonnegut set to work penning at least three drafts about the bombing.  The year before the book was published, was the Tet Offensive in Vietnam, a military campaign that many young Americans protested.  The American public seemed ready to receive a story written by a pacifist.  

     In 1969, all 10,000 copies of Slaughterhouse Five sold out almost immediately and the book shot to number one on the New York Times bestseller list.  It went on to become one of the most famous anti-war novels of all time.  Since Vonnegut's death in 2006, the novel has sold at least another 280,000 copies.  I'd say that Mr. Vonnegut had the last laugh on Mr. Edwards.

Note:  For more information on the Dresden bombing, read my post "Florence on the Elbe" at

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Jaws: Doubleday Refuses to Bite

"It was a first novel.  It was a first novel about a fish." (Peter Benchley)

Peter Benchley in the newsroom courtesy

     Doubleday editor Tom Congdon gave writer Peter Benchley $1000 to write the first 100 pages of a novel about a great white shark who terrorizes an oceanside town.  Benchley did the work.  Congdon read it over.  He was unimpressed and demanded that Benchley rewrite it.  Benchley spent the winter tapping away on in his typewriter in a room above a New Jersey furnace company and the summer in a converted turkey coop in Connecticut.  The result was the runaway bestseller Jaws.

     Peter Benchley had written articles for years, including stints with the Washington Post and Newsweek. He was a speechwriter for President Lyndon Johnson.  He had a dream of writing a novel.  He had read an account of a renegade shark that had terrorized the New Jersey shore back in 1916, killing 4 people in 12 days.  In 1964, he had read a newspaper article about a great white shark weighing 4,550 pounds, that was hunted and killed by fisherman Frank Mundus off the coast of Long Island.  This was fodder for his book.


Frank Mundus catches great white shark circa 1964 courtesy

     Doubleday editor Tom Congdon gave him an advance to write the book which features a fisherman named Quint who tries to hunt down a great white shark in the fictional town of Amity, Long Island.   Congdon read the first 100 pages and rejected them due to their humorous tone.  Benchley redoubled his efforts, penning a serious drama this time.  

     Reading his second manuscript, Congdon loved what he saw.  At the last minute, he and Benchley met at a New York restaurant and debated over titles for the work: The Stillness of the Water, Leviathan Rising and The Jaws of Death.  None seemed to strike a chord with Congdon.  The only word the two men could agree on was "jaws".  Congdon said it was short and would fit well on a jacket cover.  

     In February of 1974, Doubleday published the original hardcover edition of Jaws.  Congdon sent the publication tot he Book of the Month Club and it was placed on their "A" Book List.  He also sent it to Readers Digest where it was condensed for publication.  Bantam picked up the paperback rights to the book for $575,000.  

     In the meantime, movie producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown were interested in the movie rights.  They approached Stephen Spielberg to direct the film.  Leaving nothing to chance, the three men, along with some close friends, purchased 100 copies each of the novel, driving it to the top of the California bestseller list.  In no time, Jaws was a New York Times bestseller, staying there for 44 weeks.  The film debuted in June of 1975, the first of the blockbuster summer movies and the highest grossing film until "Star Wars".

     The novel about a fish went on to sell 9.5 million in the U.S. and 20 million in total.  It was time for its author to move out of his turkey coop.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

A Nail in the Wall Does Not Mean A Nail in the Coffin

"The nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejections slips impaled upon it.  I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing." (Stephen King)

Stephen King circa 1970's courtesy

Stephen King wrote not one, not two, but three novels and he still wasn't published.  He would pound away on his typewriter day after day.  And day after day he would receive rejection slips.  But that all changed with the debut of Carrie.

Carrie is a novel about a shy high school girl who is bullied.  One day she discovers she has telekinetic powers which she uses to get revenge on her tormenters, causing a disaster in her Maine hometown.

In 1974, Stephen King was living in a trailer and working as a high school English teacher.  He wrote Carrie as a short story for Cavalier magazine.  At one point, however, he was not happy with the shower scene and decided to throw the story in the garbage can.  King's wife fished the pages out and convince him to finish the story.  He went one step further and turned the story into a book.  Two weeks later, he submitted it to a publisher.  He promptly received not one, but 30 rejection slips.

He did not wait by the phone, however, for a positive response since he had his telephone service cut to save money.  Instead, he received a telegram which stated:  "Carrie officially a Double day book.  $2,500 advance against Royalites.  Congrats, Kid.  The Future Lies Ahead, Bill."

The initial hardcover version of Carrie sold a respectable 13,000 copies.  The softcover version sold a whopping one million copies in the first year.  To date Carrie has sold four million copies. 

When King received his royalty cheque, he quit his job as a teacher and became a full time writer.  Today, he has written over 120 books.  And what happened to the nail in his wall?  It's rusty.  

Monday 28 July 2014

The British Home Children Exhibit

We woke up early this morning, piled into two cars, and headed down the highway to Toronto.  Our destination was Black Creek Pioneer Village.  We arrived just in the nick of time.  We grabbed our umbrellas, rushed into the Visitor's Centre and presented our tickets.  Jacqueline immediately noticed a giant banner hanging from the ceiling with the image of a scared girl, a Union Jack in the background.  "Look Mom, it's Daisy" she announced, meaning my great-grandma, Daisy Blay, the poster child for the British Home Child Exhibit.

Photo courtesy Laurie Candela.

But first we had to get to the World War I Memorial Service for the British Home Children who served, including my great-great uncle William Blay. We rushed over to the Events Pavilion, the rain sprinkling us. Under the rooftop, we stood at attention as the cadets, soldiers and policemen filed into the Pavilion, led by four bagpipers.  Two soldiers carried flags, the Maple Leaf and the Union Jack.

With everyone in position on the stage, we sat down.  We listened to speeches by an MP responsible for the passage of the bill making September 28 British Home child Day in Ontario.  A British Home Child treated us to a heartfelt speech, delivered without notes.  At 91 years old, he told us how he arrived in Canada in 1938.  He talked about shovelling manure (not the word he used), and about serving in the Second World War.  He thanked Canada for the opportunity it gave him.  I thought that was touching.

World War I 100th

Don Cherry took the stage.  You may ask:  What does the co-host of Coach's Corner have to do with the British Home Children?  His grandfather, Richard Palamountain, was a British Home Child who fought in the First World War.  Known for not pulling any punches, Mr. Cherry pointed out how the British Home Children, who were essentially slaves, had long been overlooked -- something that likely wouldn't have happened if they were a nationality other than British.

Photo of William Blay courtesy Jill Stroud.

We sang "Those in Peril on the Sea", a hymn that the British Home Children sang on many of the trans-Atlantic voyages.  We sang O Canada and God Save the Queen.  We listened to the last post, followed by a two minute silence for the World War I Canadian veterans.

After the Memorial Service, we chatted with the other guests, while my daughter Jacqueline played in a giant puddle with her purple rain boots.  My author friend Rose McCormick Brandon's husband managed to shake Don Cherry's hand as he headed "down the fire escape".

Don Cherry photo courtesy

We headed back to the Visitor's Center, searching for some food to eat.  After a long search, we found some sandwiches and sat down to munch on them.  Then we wandered around the pioneer village from building to building:  a print shop that used to be a Temperance Hall, a doctor's residence that looked like the Bell Homestead in Brantford, a brick school from Markham, and a Presbyterian Church.  Jacqueline was delighted to see a couple of chestnut-coloured workhorses.  We also spotted clusters of children dressed in pioneer garb, racing from building to building, looking for clues as part of their day camp.

At 2:00 pm, we returned to the Visitor's Centre for the grand opening of the British Home Child Exhibit.  We heard the story of a gentleman whose father was a British Home Child.  He thanked Dr. Barnardo, the evangelical who started a program to shelter these impoverished children, for "rescuing" his father.  I was touched by his sincerity.  His father must have been one of the "lucky" ones.

Photo courtesy Laurie Candela.

After the opening, they brought out a cake which said "Grand Opening:  July 28, 2014".  And whose image do you think was on it?  My great- grandma, Daisy Blay.  My mom and my sister snapped a photo, then a lady proceeded to slice it up.

Aunty Marlene & Mom photo courtesy Laurie Candela.

We headed across the hallway to the piece de resistance, the exhibit.  Large wooden trunks, with names neatly engraved on them, sat on display.  Daisy's story, along with the stories of two other home children, was written on the wall and on story cards.  Military uniforms and medals were proudly displayed in a glass case along with photos of soldiers.  It was like stepping back in time, a century ago.  Until I saw two children, sitting in two wrought iron desks, the small one on her i-pad, the big one on his i-phone.

Daisy Blay courtesy Marlene Mason, courtesy Laurie Candela.

At 3:30 pm, we said our goodbyes and headed back to our vehicles.  The memorial service was a fitting tribute to the 10,000 British Home children who served in World War I.  The exhibit was a fitting tribute to the 100,000 British Home Children who helped build our country.  Thank you, Black Creek Pioneer Village and The British Home Children Advocacy & Research Association for your hard work in setting up the exhibit!

Thank you, Daisy!  Thank you, William! I'm proud to be a descendant of such hearty stock! Thank you, Mom, for the family history scrapbook with the haunting photo of Daisy which started me on this journey. Thank you , Aunty Marlene, for your countless hours of research on the Blay family.  Thank you, Rose, for sharing Daisy's story in your book Promises of Home!   And last but not least, thank you, to my husband and children for their support of my endless passion for telling Daisy's story.

Sunday 27 July 2014

No One Buys Short Stories

"Some people fold after making one timid request.  They quit too soon.  Keep asking until you find the answers.  In sales there are usually four or five "no's" before you get a yes." (Mark Victor Hansen)

How did a poor kid from West Virginia become the editor of the most successful non fiction series ever?  He refused to take "no" for an answer.

Mark Victor Hansen assembled a book of feel good anecdotes called "Happy Little Stories" in the early 1990's.  When it came time to market the book, he was told:  "No one buys short stories".  Besides which, it had no sex or violence.  But Mark persevered.  Rejection after rejection came in the mail until he had a total of 140.  

Mark decided it was time for a different approach.  He and his business partner Jack Canfield attended an American Booksellers Association Convention armed with 200 manuscripts.  The first day, they handed out dozens of copies, but no one seemed interested.  However, on the second day, they got their big break.  An editor from Health Communications, which was on the verge of bankruptcy, was interested in "Happy Little Stories".  

After a name change, the book was published and put on bookstore shelves.  Within fourteen months, Chicken Soup for the Soul was a New York Times bestseller, a position that it occupied for almost two years.  The original title spawned a sequel, and then another.  Someone suggested that Mark and Jack create themed Chicken Soup books:  Teenagers, Mothers, Grandparents, Cat Lovers, Dog Lovers, Teachers, Golfers. The list is endless.  There are at least 250 other Chicken Soup titles.  

Chicken Soup for the Soul has been published in 43 different languages.  It has sold over 500 million copies worldwide.  Health Communications is still its publisher (but it's not going bankrupt anymore).  

The poor kid from West Virginia has appeared on Oprah, CNN and the Today Show.  He has written other bestsellers including The One Minute Millionaire.  But success would not have happened if he had given up. His determination paid off. 

Saturday 26 July 2014

Kathryn Stockett Refused to Give Up on The Help

It was the day after September 11.  Kathryn Stockett was living in New York without a phone, without mail. She didn't know what to do with herself.  So she started writing a book.  The book, based in Jackson, Mississippi where she had grown up, was about black maids and the white women they worked for.

After a year and a half of writing, Ms. Stockett strated submitting her manuscript to agents.  Her first rejection said:  "Story did not sustain my interest."  After 15 more rejections, Kathryn's friend said:  "Maybe the next book will do better."  But the debut author was determined to sell this book, explaining that she wasn't about to move on because of "a few stupid letters".  

Rejection number 40 said:  "There is no market for this kind of tiring writing."  The comment made Kathryn cry.  She spent the entire weekend in her pajamas.  But she didn't give up.  She just dug in deeper.  Her friends started to wonder how many times she could repaint her apartment, when in reality she was working on her manuscript.  

After rejection number 45, Kathryn became neurotic:  she lived, ate and breathed her story.  In fact, one hour before her scheduled appointment to deliver her baby, she was at home rewriting the last chapter of her book.  She gave birth to a healthy baby girl, but did not give up on her literary quest.  Kathryn would leave the baby with her husband saying she was going on a girls' getaway when in fact she was around the corner at the Comfort Inn pounding away on her keyboard.  

In 2009, after five years of writing, after three and a half years of rejections, query number 61 said yes! Three weeks later, Kathryn's agent sold her manuscript to Amy Einhorn Books.  The Help landed on the New York Times bestseller list (for 100 weeks).  It has sold 500 million copies in 35 countries and three languages. The Help was made into a blockbuster movie as well.  All because Kathryn Stockett refused to give up.


Friday 25 July 2014

Alex Haley's 200 Rejection Slips

"What right had I to be sitting in a carpetted high-rise apartment writing about what it was like to be in the hold of a slave ship?" (Alex Haley)

Alex Haley wrote for eight years and received 200 rejection slips.  But that did not stop him from writing.  By 1976, he had a bestselling novel, Roots, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize.  Here is his story.

Mr. Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, in the 1920's.  He spent twenty years in the Navy from which he retired in 1959.  It was on a navy ship that he started writing.  But no one would publish his articles.  

Finally, in 1962,  after receiving 200 rejection slips, Alex got the break he'd been waiting for.  Playboy magazine offered him a feature article on jazz trumpet player Miles Davis.  In the interview, Mr. Davis talked about racism in America, an interview which led to many others including:  Martin Luther King Jr., Mohammed Ali, Sammy Davis Jr., Johnny Carson, Jim Brown and Malcolm X.  It was the latter that spawned Alex's first book in 1965 titled, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a highly successful account which sold 6 million copies in the first twelve years.

It was on a trip to England when Mr. Haley saw the Rosetta Stone in a London Museum, that his interest was peaked about his own family history.  He decided to write an account of his family.  It would take 12 years and span three continents.  Alex travelled to Gambia where a tribal historian gave him an account of his ancestor Kunta Kinte, how he was kidnapped and brought to America as a slave in the 1700's.  

But how could he possibly know what it felt like to be a slave?  He decided to play the role.  Boarding a ship in Liberia heading for America, he spent most of the passage in the ship's hold, laying on a board in his underwear.  

Finally in 1976, his account was complete.  Doubleday Books agreed to publish the manuscript..  The book, titled Roots, took off.  One and a half million copies were sold in the first six months.  The next year, Mr. Haley received the Pulitzer Prize.  Roots was adapted for television, a famous series starring LeVar Burton.  Mr. Haley asked:  "Do you know what it's like to go from the YMCA to the Waldorf?"  

Roots has since been translated into 37 languages and has sold 8 million copies worldwide.  Alex Haley's long and painful path to publication paid off.  

Thursday 24 July 2014

Anne of Green Gables Sat in a Hat Box

In the early 1900's, Lucy Maud Montgomery was working as an editor for the Halifax Morning Chronicle when she read a newspaper article about a local couple who applied to adopt a boy, but instead was sent a girl.  The wheels started turning in Miss Montgomery's head.

In 1905, she wrote a novel about an elderly sister and brother from P.E.I. who apply to adopt a boy, but instead are sent a red-headed, freckle-faced girl with a wild imagination.  Most people would assume that her story was immediately snapped up by a publisher.  But this was not the case.  After five rejections, Miss Montgomery put her manuscript in a hat box and tucked it away.  In the meantime, she got on with her life.

Three years passed.  Finally, the author resubmitted her story.  This time it was accepted by L. C. Page of Boston, Massachusetts.  Anne of Green Gables was an immediate success in bookstores, selling more than 19000 copies in the first five months.  It was translated into 20 different languages.  Miss Montgomery penned seven sequels, all of which enjoyed a certain amount of success.  Today it has sold an estimated 50 million copies worldwide.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

How Gone With the Wind Almost Didn't Get Published

Margarte Mitchell courtesy

It had been ten years since Margaret Mitchell first started writing her Civil War era novel.  The 1000-plus page manuscript was collecting dust under her sofa, replacing a broken leg.  Then fate intervened.

Margaret Mitchell was raised by a lawyer historian father and a mother in Atlanta, Georgia.  Her father would tell her endless stories about the Civil War and encourage her to further her education.  Margaret graduated from college and pursued a career in journalism at the Atlanta Journal.

In 1926, after sustaining injuries in an automobile accident, Margaret decided to take a prolonged vacation to recuperate.  Her husband got tired of bringing home stacks of books from the Atlanta Library for her to read and suggested that she write her own book.  She took him up on it.

Margaret spent several years writing the novel about Southern belle Pansy O'Hara and her Civil War soldier Rhett Butler. Drawing on her father's stories and sifting through countless old newspapers and magazines, Margaret drafted a historically accurate story about Atlanta during the Civil War years.

Margaret kept the manuscript a secret, never intending on having it published.  However, one day she revealed to a friend that she was working on a novel, to which the woman replied:  "You, write a book?!" The remark was the impetus for Margaret to market her manuscript.

In 1936, a publisher from MacMillan was travelling the South looking for new material.  When he arrived in Atlanta, Margaret gave him her precious manuscript.  He read it on the train to New Orleans and was so impressed he immediately sent it to New York City.  Within two months, Margaret had a book contract.


Margaret toyed with different titles for her novel including:  Tomorrow is Another Day, Bugles Sang True, Not in Our Stars, and Tote the Weary Lode.  She settled on a line from a favourite poem by Ernest Dowson:

"I have forgotten too much, Cynara/Gone with the wind/
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng/
Dancing to put thy pale/lost lilies out of mind.

MacMillan suggested that she change the heroine's name from Pansy to Scarlett and she agreed.

Gone W|ith the Wind went on to sell one million copies in the first six months.  The following year, Ms. Mitchell won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  The Civil War era novel went on to be translated into 40 different languages.  It has never been out of print.


Margaret Mitchell reading her famous novel courtesy

Monday 21 July 2014

The Flying Scotsman

The first Flying Scotsman, a green apple painted train, left London for Edinburgh back in 1862.  It set a record for the first steam locomotive to reach 100 miles per hour in 1934.  After a century of service, the Flying Scotsman made its last run in 1963.  

The Flying Scotsman was the dream of Nigel Gresley.  The first locomotive took ten and a half hours to travel the 392 miles from the English to the Scottish capital.  Only first and second class passengers were sold tickets; third class had to find another mode of transportation.  

Nigel Gresley and passengers on board the Flying Scotsman circa 1928 courtesy 

IN 1923, a new locomotive was built with such a large tender that it could carry nine tons of coal.  Without the need to stop for refueling the Flying Scotsman made the trip within eight hours.  By now, third class passengers were also sold tickets.  

The train featured a cocktail bar, a Louis XVI themed restaurant and even a cinema coach for a short time. In the hair salon, female passengers could get a new coif while male passengers could get shaved with a straight razor.  

In 1924 and 1925, the Flying Scotsman served as the "flagship" for the railroad company at the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley.  Four years later, the train starred in its own movie bearing the same name.  

In 1963, the Flying Scotsman made its last run from King's Cross Station to Waverley Station.  It was about to be sold for scrap, but was saved from the scrapyard by a local businessman.  Next year plans are in order to restore it once again.  

Sunday 20 July 2014

The Super Chief

Coined "The Train of the Stars", the Super Chief carried celebrities and everyday citizens from Chicago to Los Angeles from 1936 to 1971.  Offering champagne dinners and speedy service, the Super Chief was a "rolling hotel".

The Santa Fe Railway debuted the Super Chief, the first diesel powered train in the United States, on May 12, 1936.  Once a week it would pick up passengers at Dearborn Station in Chicago and transport them 2227 miles to Los Angeles in 36 hours and 49 minutes.  Travelling at an average speed of 60 miles per hour, it would peak at 112 miles per hour, making it the fastest train in America.  

Super Chief leaving the Chicago station courtesy

The Super Chief boasted a stainless steel exterior and a sleek design.  Inside, it featured rare wood panelling and American Indian artwork.  The train provided modern amenities like air conditioning.  Barbers, maids and valets were on board to meet the needs of the 500 passengers.  

In the dining car, guests clothed in suits and hats, dresses and pumps, waited to be served.  They feasted on caviar and cold salads, grilled fish and sirloin steaks, all served on the train's very own Mimbreno china.   A breakfast favourite was Santa Fe French Toast.  Over one million meals were served on the Super Chief.

Janet Leigh gets ready to board the Super Chief courtesy

For guests who made a special request, there was seating in a private dining car called the Turquoise Room, where you might find the likes of Frank Sinatra, Janet Leigh, Paul Newman or Elizabeth Taylor.  Even President Truman's daughter, Margaret, took the Super Chief.

Sadly, after its heyday in the 1940's and 1950's, the Santa Fe trains started to empty out.  By 1971, it shut down the line. 

Note:  McNeil Lehrer Newshour anchor, Jim Lehrer, remembers the Super Chief rumbling through his Kansas town as it followed the old Santa Fe and Spanish Trails.  He has written a novel Super based on the famous train.

"Santa Fe all the Way" courtesy

Saturday 19 July 2014

The Trans-Siberian Railroad

"There is no railway journey of comparable length anywhere in the world.  The Trans-Siberian is the big train ride.  All the rest are peanuts." (Eric Newby, The Big Red Train Ride)

It crosses eight time zones -- a third of the world.  It carves its way through the Ural Mountains and across the Russian Steppe.  It navigates taigas, swamps and permafrost.  It is "The Big Red Train Ride".  

The Trans-Siberian Railroad was first conceived in the 1850's.  But it was not until Tsar Alexander III came to power that the railroad was completed.  Construction was done mainly by prisoners and soldiers.  The future tsar, Nicholas II, inaugurated the railroad at the end of his around the world journey in 1891.  A Trans-Manchurian link was completed in 1901.  

However, with the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, Russia was concerned about that stretch of the railroad.  In 1916, they built another link, the Amur Railway, to replace the Manchurian section, making the entire Trans-Siberian Railway within Russia's borders.  At the time, Nicholas II was tsar.

Russia's Civil War damaged sections of the railroad which were repaired in the 1920's.  At the end of the same decade, an electrification project got underway, one that would not be completed until 2002.  

The famous railroad would serve to increase Russia's economic and military might, providing Moscow an essential link with the Pacific Ocean.  During the Second World War, China took over the Trans-Manchurian Line.  Of course, Russia fell back on its alternate route, the Amur Railway, transporting essential goods back and forth.  

Today, the 5,778 mile long journey on the Trans-Siberian Railroad takes eight days.  

Friday 18 July 2014

Japan's Bullet Train


In the two decades after World War II, Japan dug itself out from the rubble and rebuilt the country.  With lightning speed, new cities appeared on the landscape.  And with those new cities came new technology.  In preparation for the Tokyo Olympics, Emperor Hirohito launched the Bullet Train on October 1, 1964. It would be the fastest, most advanced train in the world.

At a time when the fastest British train only reached speeds of 100 miles per hour, The Shinkansen was designed to travel at an unheard of 150 miles per hour.  The train looked like nothing anyone had ever seen before with its nosecone, hidden wheels, and shiny white paint.  A railroad was built between Tokyo and Osaka that featured 67 miles of tunnels and over 3000 bridges.  Japan prepared to greet the world with its modern technological marvel.

Travelling to Japan became fashionable.  Not only athletes would take on the train but also celebrities.  At the height of Beatlemania in 1964, the British foursome made a trip to Tokyo.  Singer Ella Fitzgerald also paid a visit to Tokyo.  With its snow capped mountains and cherry blossoms, train passengers could enjoy Japan's scenery in comfort.  The train offered reclining seats, a quiet, vibration free ride, and service provided by impeccably dressed hostesses.  The Shinkansen, well ahead of its time, was the precursor to France's TGV's, Germany's ICE's and Italy's Pendolino's.

Over the decades the Bullet Train has carried 5.5 billion passengers.  Despite its speed of 199 miles per hour, it has a reputation for safety.  No fatalities have occurred on board, despite an earthquake in 2004 and a blizzard in 2013.

Japan is not finished yet.  It is developping a new train, a magnetic levitation that will run above the tracks at the blistering speed of 311 miles per hour.  And it all started with the Tokyo Olympics.


A Nozomi bullet train rests in Kyoto Station (Sean Pavone/Alamy)

Thursday 17 July 2014

The 20th Century Limited: Roll Out the Red Carpet

A crimson carpet stretched the length of a football field at New York's Grand Central Station.  Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Marshall Field and Walter Chrysler, lined up to board the train.  The Cunard Line had the Queen Mary and the New York Central Railroad had the 20th Century Limited.  It was the only way to travel from New York City to Chicago.  It was "the tycoon train".

In 1902, the New York Central Railroad was looking for a way to compete with the Pennsylvania Railroad. It came up with the idea of a high speed luxury train from New York to Chicago.  It took no time for the route to attract regular passengers like Theodore Roosevelt, William Jennings Bryan, J. P. Morgan and William Wrigley.  By the 1920's, a fare cost $51 ($604 today).  In the most profitable year, 1928, the 20th Century Limited made a $10 million profit.

By 1938, the railroad company introduced a new improved version of the 20th Century Limited.  The new train was streamlined with suites with toilets, dining cars, an observation car.  Amenities included leather upholstered seats and air conditioning -- and the red carpet, hence the term "red carpet treatment".

Passengers like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, Bette Davis and Doris Day, boarded the train at New York City.  Upon boarding, Mr. Crosby and Mr. Hope were given carnations while Ms. Davis and Ms. Day were given perfume.  They drank martinis, Manhattans and highballs in the bar as the train headed out of the metropolis.  Then they ate dinner in the dining room, featuring caviar, filet mignon and lobster, as the train steamed along the banks of the Hudson River.  By the time they bit into their apple pie a la mode, the train, travelling 60 miles per hour, would have reached Lake Erie.

Pullman porters and maids would attend to their every need.  Manicurists and barbers were available for guests who needed grooming.  Operators and secretaries were available for businessmen.  Porters would even shine shoes while their owners slept.

The following morning, at 9 am, the streamlined train would pull into LaSalle Street Station in Chicago.  It had covered 960 miles in 16 hours, a blistering speed for the 1930's.  The stars would disembark along with the businessmen and the travellers.  Some would stay in Chicago.  Others would board a second train, often the Santa Fe Express, headed for Los Angeles.

For 65 years, the 20th Century Limited was the "greatest train in the world".  It became part of American culture.  Alfred Hitchocock's "North by Northwest", starring Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant, was filmed on the famous train.  On December 2, 1967, it made its last run, pulling into the station almost 10 hours late due to a freight train derailment.  It was a not so glamourous ending to one of the most glamourous trains in history.

Note:  For more information on the 20th Century Limited Train, read --

1.  The Art of the Streamliner (Bob Johnston & Joe Welsh)
2.  20th Century:  The Greatest Train in the World (Lucius Beebe)

Wednesday 16 July 2014

The Orient Express

Spanning a continent, from Paris to Istanbul, the Orient Express was the "King of Trains".  Presidents rode it for its luxuries; spies used it as a secret weapon; businessmen rode it for its connections.  The train would be the subject of books and movies.

In the mid-1800's, Belgian businessman Nagelmackers had a dream for a train route from Paris to Constantinople.  He travelled to America where the Pullman sleeping car made quite an impression on him.  In 1883, Nagelmackers' Compangie Internationale des Wagons-Lits opened a Paris-Constantinople route.  The journey would span 1500 miles and would take 80 hours.  Newspapers dubbed the route "The Orient Express", even though it never reached the Orient.

The train resembled a fine European hotel with its wooden panelling, its deluxe leather armchairs, its silk sheets and its five-course meals.  Its elegance attracted royalty.  The king of Bulgaria, an amateur engineer, insisted on driving the train through his country.  Czar Nicholas II ordered extra cars built for his trip to France.  And one president, likely in the sauce, fell off the train.

Diplomats made history on the train:  the German surrender of 1918 took place in one of its cars.  Hitler ordered the same car for the French surrender of 1940.  Later when the tide of the war turned, the dictator ordered the famous car destroyed.

Spies conducted operations on the train.  Robert Baden Powell posed as a lepidopterist during the war.  He made intricate butterfly sketches which turned out to be coded representations of the enemy's fortifications, helping the Allies to clinch a victory.

Agatha Christie wrote her famous "Murder on the Orient Express" in the 1930's.  The movie adaptation was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starred Ingrid Bergman in the 1970's.

Shortly after Hitchcock's movie, the Orient Express stopped its service to Istanbul.  Bit by bit it cut back its service.  Finally, in 2009, it shut down completely.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

La Bestia: Death Train to America

Map of route of Death Train to America courtesy

Last August, La Bestia or the Beast, a cargo train carrying Central American migrants on its rooftop to the American border, derailed.  Out of its 250 riders, five people died and another 18 were seriously injured. Yet, 20,000 more migrants have ridden La Bestia in the first four months of 2014.  What drives these migrants to ride "the death train to America"?

The train starts its journey in Arriaga, a town in southern Mexico which is 200 kilometres from the Guatemalan border.  Inside the train are sacks of corn, cement and minerals.  On top are dirt poor migrants, men, women and children, packed in like sardines, carrying no more than a few items in a backpack.

One young widow from Honduras said that she left her children with her cousin to make a better life for them.  She was looking for a job as a dishwasher or vegetable picker.

After twelve hours of travelling along the coast, the train reaches the town of Ixtepec.  At the railroad junction, the migrants jump on another train, this one taking them to "El Norte", a journey that will take days, maybe weeks.

It is in the North that they hope to find the American dream.  In the United States, the migrants can make $5 or $6 an hour.  Back home in Central America, it takes them a day to make the same amount.  Thirty percent of the migrants are "cyclical", which means they returning to the United States after having already worked there and been deported.  He was employed at a Michigan Applebee's for a few years and made such a good impression, he received the employee of the month award.

But in order to reach America, the migrants first face the arduous journey.  Some fall off the train trying to board it while its in motion, landing under its wheels.  Others fall off due to fatigue or dehydration.  And some perish in collisions or derailments, like the one last summer.

Criminal gangs and corrupt officials in Mexico prey on the migrants.  Mexican authorities have made it difficult to travel through their country; most of the migrants are travelling illegally.  Gangs target the migrants for robberies, rapes and kidnappings, demanding ransom for their safe return.  One priest near the U.S.-Mexico border has taken pity on the migrants, offering them a free meal and bed for the night.

Even with last August's derailment, La Bestia continues to rumble up and down the coast of Mexico, its whistle blowing, its wheels screeching, its rooftop laden with immigrants.  It's poverty which brings them to the North.  It's poverty which drives them to work hard.  May God bless their journey!


Death Train to America courtesy

Monday 14 July 2014

World Cup Facts

1.  The first World Cup soccer tournament was held in Uruguay in 1930.  Thirty countries participated.

2.  Up until this year, Portugal's Ronaldo held the record for most World Cup goals scored.  Germany's Klose broke that record in 2014 by scoring 16 goals.

3.  In 1994, Cameroon's Roger Milla, at 42 years old, was the oldest player to participate in a World Cup.

4.  Italy suffered a 44 year drought between its 1938 victory and its 1982 victory in the World Cup.

5.  The first goalkeeper to win the MVP was Germany's Oliver Kahn in 2002.

6.  The only coach to lead its team to back to back World Cup victories, in 1934 and 1938, was Italy's Vittorio Pozzo.

7.  As of 2012, Germany had played 99 World Cup matches, the most for any nation.

8.  The fastest goal in World Cup history was scored by Turkey's Hakan Sukur, scored 11 seconds into the game against South Korea in 2002.

9.  The first hat trick in World Cup history was scored by American Bert Patenaude in 1930.

10.  Brazil, at five, has won the most World Cups in history.  Pele is the most successful World Cup player, having won the title three times with Brazil.


Pelee hoists the World Cup courtesy

Sunday 13 July 2014

Germany Wins World Cup

My daughter and I arrived late at Rob's cousin's house for the World Cup final.  Giant black, red and gold flags with the eagle in the middle decorated the backyard fence.  A gathering of adults hovered over the two giant TV sets, some chattering, some silent, too nervous to say anything.  Children jumped in and out of the swimming pool, splashing the adults as they did so.  Even the dog, a Labrador Retriever, got in on the act, doggy paddling his way across the pool to retrieve the soccer ball.  Soon Jacqueline joined her cousin Kirstin in the pool and I joined Rob, my son Thomas and my brother Bill, by the television.

I hadn't missed much.  The score was 0 - 0.  Now the match was in overtime.  We watched as a sea of blue and white striped shirts cheered.  We watched the white shirted players pass the ball back and forth, head it and block it.  Any attempt the blue shirted players made to put the ball in their opponent's net was stopped by a green giant.  Rob sat on the edge of his seat.  It had been 24 years since Germany won the World Cup.  It was 1990, the year I met Rob.  Someone had taken a picture of Rob in his parents' living room, wearing a white sweatshirt with the red, black and gold stripes, and lifting his hand in the air with his index finger raised.

Was it time for Rob to raise his hand in the air again?  Rob was oblivious to everything around him. Jacqueline and Kirstin giggled as they planned to cannonball into the pool.  Another dog challenged the Labrador Retriever for attention.  Women chatted on the steps of the wooden deck.  Men poured themselves drinks at the thatched roof bar.  Two teenagers texted in the corner.  The crowd seamed to a fallen into a state of disinterest.  Only the diehards remained glued to the set.

Goetze scores as Mueller celebrates courtesy

And then it happened.  Youngster Schurrle raced down the pitch, his legs pumping...a pass to fellow youngster Goetze... a quick kick into the corner and voila.  I thought maybe i was seeing things.  But no, Rob jumped up and screamed so loud, all of Brantford could hear him.  His cousins grabbed him in a bear hug. A series of high-fives scattered through the crowd like the wave.  Kirstin and Jacqueline screamed from the swimming pool.  One of the dogs barked.

The remaining minutes ticked by.  Argentina had a couple of chances, but nothing materialized.  The victory belonged to Germany.  The players marched up the steps and claimed their gold medals, bringing their World Cup total to four.  Only Brazil, with five, has more.  Captain Phillip Lam hoisted the trophy, which looks like a giant gold ice cream cone, high into the air.  Rob and his German-born brother-in-law Armin broke into a rendition of "Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles".  What an unforgettable moment!

Raising the World Cup courtesy

Saturday 12 July 2014

Grant Park: Chicago's Front Yard

Looking north on Michigan Avenue in 1868, with the homes of prosperous businessmen on the left. Grant Park was nothing more than a marsh-filled lagoon, with rail lines on the right, between Lake Michigan and the lagoon-like area. The estimated vantage point of this photo is from where Congress Avenue is now located.

Grant Park was a marsh filled lagoon in 1868 courtesy

New York City has Central Park, 820 acres of nature in the centre of a metropolis.  Chicago has Grant Park, 319 acres which runs along Lake Michigan.  Built on top of rubble from the Great Fire of 1871, Grant Park is home to a famous fountain, famous statues and famous museums.  Named after an old president, it is where the current president delivered his acceptance speech in 2008.  Here is the story of Chicago's Front Yard.

Until 1839, the land on which Grant Park sits was part of Fort Dearborn.  It was also home to many squatters and refuse sites.  In the mid-1800's, a causeway was built in Lake Michigan on which the Illinois State Railway was built.  A lagoon developped between the shoreline and the railroad.

It was on this wild, uninhabitable land that Camp Douglas was built, used as a prison camp for 25,000 Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.  At the war's end, those prisoners who survived were released.   It was along the Lake Michigan shoreline, not far from Camp Douglas, that President Lincoln's funeral procession marched in 1865.

After the Great Fire of 1871, the resulting rubble was dumped into the lagoon as landfill.  City planners claimed 319 acres between Randolph Street, to the north, Roosevelt Road, to the south, Michigan Ave. to the west and Lake Michigan to the east.  They named the site Lake Park.  Montgomery Ward declared that the public area would "forever remain vacant of buildings".  However, the one building that War did agree to, the Chicago Institute of Art, was erected in 1879.  Developpers increasingly ignored Ward's request, constructing civic buildings such as a post office on the site.  More landfill was added, jutting into Lake Michigan, to make room for structures like the Field Museum in 1893.

In 1901, Lake Park was renamed Grant Park after the Civil War general and 18th President of the United States.  More landfill was added, trees were planted, flowers bloomed.  A statue of Lincoln in the Court of Presidents was commissioned in 1926.

Seated Lincoln circa 1938 courtesy

Christopher Columbus statue, financed by a group of Italian Americans, appeared in 1933.  The piece de resistance came in 1927 when a rococo wedding cake style fountain was constructed in the middle of the park called Buckingham Fountain.  The Shedd Aquarium and Adler Plantarium both opened their doors in 1930.

Buckingham Fountain circa 1935 courtesy

Grant Park was a happening place.  In 1933, the World's Fair returned to Chicago.  Millions of guests strolled along the shores of Lake Michigan.  In 1959, Queen Elizabeth II disembarked at Queen's Landing, after celebrating the opening of the St. Lawrence River, linking the Atlantic Ocean with the Great Lakes. Demonstrators waved anti-war placards in 1968 during the Republican Convention.

Pope John Paul II led an outdoor mass in 1979.  The Chicago Bulls celebrated victories in the 1990's.  And, of course, Barack Obama delivered his acceptance speech in 2008.  All within the confines of Grant Park.

Today visitors to Chicago can attend one of several events:  The Taste of Chicago (world's largest food festival), the Music Festival, the Chicago Blues Festival, or the Chicago Jazz Festival, all held in Grant Park.


Taste of Chicago courtesy