BRUNSWICK — Richard Rubin sat at a table in the Curtis Memorial Library, his favorite writing spot, and opened a plastic bin full of odds and ends that looked at first glance like they were plucked from a garage sale.
But a closer looked revealed a World War I German mortar, shrapnel, five American bullets, a piece of German-made barbed wire and a rusted and bent bayonet.
“Every time I go to France I find things like this, in the fields where various divisions were,” said Rubin, 50, author of two books on America’s involvement in World War I. “I’m told, and I have no reason to doubt, that this stuff will keep turning up for the next 200 to 300 years. Here in America, it’s largely a forgotten war, but in France (America’s involvement) continues to mean so much to them.”
Rubin’s latest book on World War I, “Back Over There: One American Time-Traveler, 100 Years Since the Great War, 500 Miles of Battle-Scarred French Countryside, and Too Many Trenches, Shells, Legends and Ghosts to Count” hit stores last week. Beginning Monday, Rubin will be featured prominently in a three-part documentary called “The Great War” on “American Experience” on PBS.
“He combines the vivid writing and great storytelling of the best journalists, with a rigorous attention to detail and command of the subject found in great historians,” said Stephen Ives, producer of “The Great War.” “He helped bring the Great War alive and make it accessible to our audience, and I can’t imagine the series without him.”
The documentary series and Rubin’s book are both out in time for the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into the war, in the spring of 1917. Rubin’s first book on World War I, “The Last of the Doughboys” was based on his interviews with some three dozen veterans who were more than 100 years old when he talked with them, beginning in 2003. It came out in 2013.
Ives has a long resume of making documentaries for public television, including “The West” in 1996. He’s also made documentaries about aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh, 1930s racehorse Seabiscuit, the Panama Canal and American war correspondents.
Rubin, who lives in Brunswick, said he was impressed that Ives’ film crew included a real-time fact checker, who looked up facts as Rubin was being interviewed on camera.
“Every once in a while the fact-checker would whisper in the (interviewer’s) ear and they’d tell me I got a date wrong and ask me to do that part over,” said Rubin.
Rubin, who grew up in suburban Westchester County, New York, spent the first year of his writing career as a newspaper reporter in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the late 1980s. He covered everything from city government to high school football. Six years later, he came back to write about a high school football star he had known, Handy Campbell, who was facing a murder charge. The trial became the focus of his first book, “Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South.”
Rubin, who writes books and articles for various publications, lived in New York City for about 15 years before moving to Maine about six years ago. He was looking for a quieter place to write, and a friend said he should try renting his family’s cottage on Westport Island, near Wiscasset.
VETERANS PAST AGE 100
The idea for “The Last of the Doughboys” came to Rubin because of his fascination with the idea of being the last surviving anything. He had written a magazine article about what it meant to be the last of a kind, like the last survivor of the Titanic or the last speaker of a Native American language.
He was listening to the radio one day in 2003 when he heard a commentator say that 1,000 World War II veterans were dying every day. But what about World War I veterans? Rubin knew from reading obituaries in The New York Times that some World War I veterans were living to be well over 100. So he figured there must be some left.
He planned to try to find one or two and write an article to be published around Veterans Day. It took a long time to find the first one, but then he ended up finding about three dozen, so he decided to write a book.
Rubin said he started his search with the Veterans Affairs department, but nobody could direct him to surviving veterans. He finally got help from the French government, because they had kept copies of records of the oldest living American veterans, for awards they were giving to the veterans in the late 1990s.
He began calling veterans and then visiting them for interviews. Most of the veterans were hard of hearing, some had to be spoken to very slowly and some could only remember bits and pieces of their experiences. Rubin said he was surprised at how mentally alert many of the 100-plus-year-old veterans were. Many were wonderful storytellers. They described picking up white-hot shrapnel from the ground, or being gassed repeatedly. He videotaped his interviews with the veterans.
Rubin said the book was his attempt to tell the stories of the people who fought the war, which at the time, was supposed to be the war to end all wars and make the world safe for democracy.
The war was largely waged between old-line European empires, prompted at least in part by a fear of Germany’s plans to expand its empire and dominate its neighbors and by long-simmering grudges. America did not get involved until the last year, but its entry helped defeat the Germans and their allies.
GRATITUDE TO AMERICANS
While “The Last of the Doughboys” focuses on the Americans who fought, “Back Over There” is a look at the war itself, its lasting legacy in France, and Rubin’s own experiences as an American retracing the steps of American soldiers.
In the book, Rubin moves chronologically through the battles Americans were involved in, visiting cemeteries, blockhouses, trees still filled with bullets, and old chalk mines used as shelter by both sides. In one chalk mine he found graffiti left by Germans and Americans, including soldiers from Maine.
In the book he also talks to many locals, who guide him to battle sites and who still feel a debt of gratitude to the Americans. Though America helped free France in World War II as well, the legacy of World War I seems different there, Rubin said.
In World War I, fighting on French soil was brutal and lasted years, while in World War II most of France was conquered quickly. So the fact that Americans came in and fought side by side with the French, to victory, is still a very powerful memory, Rubin said.
Rubin wrote much of “Back Over There” at the Curtis Memorial Library and other Maine libraries. And in the book’s acknowledgments he thanks Maine libraries for not only providing a space for him to write, but for getting books that he needed from all over the state, and even some from outside the state. He said in all his years living in New York City, he never had such help. It was nearly impossible to get a book sent over from one public library branch to another, he said.
“So I really appreciate what Maine libraries have done for me,” he said. “I owe them a lot.”
Ray Routhier can be contacted at 210-1183 or at: