I’ve written several narrative nonfiction books about amazing survivors, and I’ve learned that those stories are hard to find.
Usually I learn about them through television newscasts or newspapers. A network of friends also helps me, and they can tell the difference between a story that can sustain a book (many twists and turns) or one that only has legs enough for a magazine article. But my latest co-written book, So Close To Home, was a case of the story finding me.
It all began just prior to a presentation on survivors and leadership I was going to give to the employees at a financial company. A small group of us were having breakfast before I was to speak. One of the company’s attorney’s, named Jim Hoodlet, joined us for breakfast and he and I I found we had a mutual interest in both history and fishing. Jim invited me out on his boat to fish for striped bass.
Although Jim has never said this, I think he not only wanted to catch fish, but also wanted to interest me in a story he had known about for years. During a slow part of our excursion, as we drifted over the Billingsgate shoals off Cape Cod, Jim brought up the name of a friend of his, Ray “Sonny” Downs Jr., who was a top salesman and financial advisor. Jim explained to me how Ray had survived a U-boat attack in the Gulf of Mexico when he was just 8 years old while aboard a freighter named Heredia.
Maybe it was because Jim and I were on a boat at sea, or maybe it was my life-long fascination of how people survive the most challenging of ordeals, but Jim had hooked me the same way he later did with a couple big fish. Now he just had to reel me in.
I was wary, because people pitch me ideas for books at least once a month, and most of the time I roll my eyes, because the stories never pan out to be good enough for a book. But Jim was methodical. He told me just enough to whet my appetite, but not so much that it interfered with our fishing, which turned out to be quite productive and exciting.
Later that week I received an email from Jim, and attached to it was a summary of the Heredia sinking, a 1942 newspaper article about the Downs family, and a photo of the vessel. I shared the information with my girlfriend and frequent co-author, Alison O’Leary. She said something to the effect of “What are you waiting for? This is right up your alley. Let’s meet this Ray Downs.” I wasn’t quite as sure. I’d done several works of nonfiction and knew how daunting the research could be, but I had to admit Ray’s story was intriguing.
Alison and I did a little bit of digging around on U-boat sites to see which German commander sank Ray’s ship. Part of the reason we started investigating was how surprised we were that a ship was sunk in the Gulf of Mexico by a U-boat. As we did a bit of cursory research, we were further surprised to learn that the Heredia was far from the only ship sunk in the Gulf — and realized this was a part of WWII history that most Americans know little about. Alison and I also marveled that there was a survivor of a U-boat attack living just a half-hour away from us in Massachusetts. How could we not meet him?
Jim must be a mind reader, because before I even had the chance to email him about meeting Ray, he beat me to it, suggesting that Alison and I join Jim and his wife Penny for dinner with Ray. Three weeks later we were all in a restaurant enjoying a great meal. Ray had yet to even talk about his experience on the Heredia, but I had already made up my mind that this was a story I wanted to dive into, simply because I knew Ray was someone we could work with. He was so personable, so articulate, and so full of good humor, I knew he would make a good partner. It wasn’t until after we had finished the meal and were having coffee that Ray gave us an overview of what happened to his family in May of 1942.
Jim sat back and smiled as Ray walked us through the events. Being a fisherman, Jim would likely call this part of the evening “setting the hook.” All along, Jim knew Ray’s story needed to be chronicled, and now he had his writers. So to Jim, a big thank you for recognizing a great piece of history, and introducing us to Ray. And to fellow writers this bit of advice: if a stranger asks you to go fishing, say yes, you might catch more than you bargained for.
[See a video of Ray telling a portion of his story on my website www.michaeltougias.com]