John U. Bacon's latest book tour takes him to Boston - to witness the lighting of a Christmas tree.
by Jan Schlain
From the November, 2017 issue
After four best-sellers about Michigan football, Bacon dropped back 100 years to write The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism. What led him to revisit a century-old disaster?
The connection leads through Canada, and the U-M hockey team. As a little boy, Bacon explains, he spent summers at his grandparents' house in New Brunswick, on Canada's Atlantic coast. He recalls how his grandfather "would tell me about this two-ton anchor being blown two-and-a-half miles this way and another part being blown three miles that way, and it was interesting to me, but I had no idea what he was talking about."
Fast forward to 1999, when Bacon was researching his first book, Blue Ice: The Story of Michigan Hockey. "I discovered that Michigan's first hockey coach, Joseph Barss, was a survivor of it, if you will--the Halifax explosion ... I realized that is what my grandfather was talking about."
On December 6, 1917, a French munitions ship packed with high explosives blew up in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was, Bacon writes, "the most destructive man-made explosion until Hiroshima, one that blew out windows 50 miles away, rendered 25,000 people homeless in an instant, wounded 9,000 more, often horrifically, and killed 2,000, most of them in a flash."
Bacon recalls thinking "it is a hell of a story, and someone should tell it." He knocked out a fifty-page sketch and pitched it to his agent. But other projects intervened, and he forgot it until he finished Playing Hurt: My Journey from Despair to Hope, written with ESPN sportscaster John Saunders (Saunders died last year, before the book was published).
Bacon researched the explosion at the Nova Scotia archives and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. And Joseph Barss's descendants gave him access to his letters. "He was a great writer," Bacon says. "He's the star of the book."
Wounded in WWI, Barss was recuperating at his parents' home near
Halifax when the ship blew up. He boarded a train carrying relief workers, and though he had only basic first-aid training, worked for three days straight helping the injured. He returned home determined to become a doctor--and did, earning his degree at Michigan at the same time he was coaching its fledgling hockey team.
Bacon, who will do a reading at Rackham on November 7 (see Events), says those are the kinds of stories he hopes readers will remember: "how good people respond to a horrible tragedy." In Halifax, across Canada, and even in the U.S., "individuals rallied for each other in amazing ways."
Boston, America's closest major port, was especially generous. The city, Bacon writes, sent "a Red Cross contingent of twenty-two doctors, sixty-nine nurses, and fourteen civilians, plus enough equipment and supplies to set up a temporary 560 bed hospital ... they stayed for almost a month."
In 1918, the people of Halifax expressed their gratitude by sending Boston the most perfect Christmas tree they could find. The tradition was revived in 1976, and has continued ever since.
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