Saturday, March 23, 2013

Aaron Elson Interviews Himself

Now that my new book is available (official release date, April 16), I thought it would be way cool to do one of those blog tours. Then I discovered that there's like this blog tour circuit, and there are blog tour brokers and bloggers who charge money, albeit not a heck of a lot, for you to fill out a boilerplate interview template. So I decided phooey, I can just as easily interview myself. At least I read the book.
Q. Good afternoon. Thank you for stopping by.

A. What do you mean? I live here.

Q. In that case, I wouldn’t mind a cup of coffee.

A. I only serve tea.

Q. That's right. Your book is being published in England.

A. Yes. Would like a crumpet with that?

Q. Thank you. State your name for the record, please.

A. Aaron Elson

Q. No middle initial?

A. C for Charles. That was one of my great-grandfathers. Aaron was another. Aaron was also my grandfather’s middle name, Milton Aaron Reder. He wasn’t a very good grandfather, but he was a doctor who was much-loved by his patients.

Q. Why do you say that?

A. He was in his office seven days a week, twelve hours a day and six hours each on Saturday and Sunday. He outlived all three of his children and was 92 when he died.

Q. Was he a veteran?

A. He was a doctor in World War II. It’s one of my great failures as an oral historian that I never got him to tell me about his experiences except for one story. He was on a beach treating a soldier who had an injured leg when some dirt came flying into the foxhole or wherever he was doing the treating. He said he shouted for the person to quit throwing dirt on his patient, and the person he yelled at turned out to be General Patton. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but knowing my grandfather it probably was. He may have been traumatized by the war, because he lost his voice – it was a psychological thing, there was nothing wrong with his vocal chords – and could only speak in a hoarse whisper.

Q. Was your father a veteran?

A. Yes, he was. That’s what got me started doing oral history. He was a wonderful storyteller, but he was in and out of hospitals the last few years of his life – gout, prostate problems, heart attacks, a quadruple bypass. He had a heart attack when I was 30 years old, and I realized I’d forgotten most of the stories he told about World War II. So I bought a little Sony recording Walkman and was going to take it with me when I went to visit him in the hospital. I forgot the tape recorder, he got out of the hospital, and died two weeks later. That was in 1980. Seven years later I discovered a newsletter addressed to him from the 712th Tank Battalion Association – that’s the outfit my new book is about.

Q. What did you do with the newsletter?

A. I wrote to its editor, and asked him to put a notice in the next issue saying if anybody remembered a Lieutenant Elson, would they get in touch with me?

Q. And what happened?

A. Almost by return mail I got a letter from Sam MacFarland. He said, “I didn’t know your father, but the battalion is having a reunion. It’s too late for the next newsletter, but if you come to the reunion, I’ll take you around and we’ll see if we can find anyone who remembers your dad.”

Q. Did you go?

A. Yes I did.

Q. And what happened?

A. Sam and I found three veterans who remembered my dad. I explained that I remembered very little from his stories – the name of a fellow lieutenant, Ed Forrest, who was killed, and that my dad said there was something about Ed that gave him the impression Ed either didn’t want or didn’t expect to come home. His evidence was that Ed readily volunteered for an exceptionally dangerous mission in Normandy. He speculated that Ed’s father may have been a minister who didn’t approve of him going off to war.

Q. Was that the case?

A. Actually, no. Years later I would learn that Ed’s father was an alcoholic, his mother committed suicide, he fought with his father and a minister took him in when he was 14 and raised him like a son. The minister, it turns out, was a chaplain in World War I and couldn’t have been prouder of Ed when he became a lieutenant.

Q. My goodness. How did you learn all that?

A. I interviewed Ed’s brother, as well as the woman he likely would have married if he came back. I read an unpublished memoir written by his sister, and a diary left by the priest.

Q. What else did you know about your father’s experiences?

A. He said he replaced the first lieutenant in the battalion to be killed. He was wounded in Normandy and again in December. The December wound was in a place called Dillingen. Almost everybody at that reunion had a story about Dillingen. I was like Wow.

Q. What led you to morph from reconstructing your father’s experiences to learning about the other veterans’ experiences.

A. Morph, that’s a good word. Some of the veterans asked if I’d like to go to lunch with them. One of them was telling a story on the way to the parking lot, and when we got to his car, he opened the door, but it was about five minutes before anybody got in because he had to finish the story. I entered the hospitality room in the middle of another veteran telling a story and listened to the end, kind of like when you go late to a movie and miss the beginning but still get caught up in the action. Later I asked the veteran to tell me the story from the start.

Q. Why did you write “The Armored Fist”?

A. When I began recording the veterans’ stories, I didn’t know squat. I thought the Battle of the Bulge was an American offensive (it wasn’t. It was a German counteroffensive). I looked at the battalion’s record –1,165 men, 3 Distinguished Service Crosses, 56 Silver Stars, 465 Bronze Stars, 498 Purple Hearts, three Presidential Unit Citations – and the only thing I recognized was the Purple Hearts, because my father got two of them. As I recorded the stories of its veterans, I began to realize, this outfit deserves its place in history.

Q. What makes your book different from many other books of military history.

A. You should say “many other great books of military history.” There are more great books of military history than you can shake a stick at. But I believe my book is, in some ways, unusual. When I was writing my first book, I called the Military Book Club, and the person I spoke to said there were two things readers of military history wanted: maps and pictures. So I put a couple of maps and a bunch of pictures in my first book, “Tanks for the Memories,” which I self-published. But the truth is, I couldn’t read a map if it led to a pot of gold. I’ve been lost in almost every state in the nation. There are no maps in “The Armored Fist.” There are a lot of pictures, but the pictures aren’t so big that they dwarf the text.

Q. You’ve said “This isn’t your father’s military history.”Is that because it’s your father’s story?

A. No. I say that because it has some unusual sources. Many books about World War II draw on morning reports, after action reports, oral history interviews, previously published books, etc., etc. I have some of that in “The Armored Fist,” but I also have excerpts from the diary of the priest who raised Ed Forrest. I draw on letters and high school essays of a young replacement who was killed. I quote from a memoir written by the sister of a soldier. I’ve tried to show a deeply human side of the war.

Q. What do you plan to do next?

A. My publisher wants me to write a book about the Kassel Mission, one of the most spectacular air battles of World War II. It’s also one of the great little known stories of the war.

Q. Well, that about wraps it up. Is there anything I’m forgetting to ask.

A. Yes. Now that “The Armored Fist” is out, you could ask your readers to consider donating to my Indiegogo campaign, so that I can launch the “Yanks in Tanks Tour.”

Q. I certainly will. Please check out Aaron Elson's Oral History Audiobooks Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign.

A. And if there are any other authors reading this who'd like to interview themselves, email me and I'll be happy to post your interview on my blog.

Q. One more thing. Is there an excerpt from "The Armored Fist" available?

A. There'll be one in my next blog post. Oh, one more thing.

Q. What's that?

A. I'd like to recite a little poem:
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       You'll see some
little icons
Hit the Share button
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     Thank you

Q. That doesn't rhyme.

A. It's free verse.

Q. It is?

A. It didn't cost anything, did it?

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