Early in March 1927, 500 pounds of black powder was stolen from a mining company south of Pittsburgh. A few days later, an armored car proceeding through my community on Brightwood Road, then a dirt path, was blown into the air and flipped over by an IED constructed from that black powder. Although neither guard was killed, rifling of the armored car netted the notorious Flathead Gang $103,834.38 in cash and coin, and off they sped in a blue Sterns Knight.
This event occurred about one mile (as the crow flies) to the northeast of where I’m sitting, and every time I drive over that stretch of roadway I think of the overturned armored car and the ingenious killer Paul Jawarski and his Flathead Gang.
About two miles in the other direction is the site of a plane crash. A TWA DC-2 airliner that had taken off from Newark was on final approach to Allegheny County Airport when apparent ice buildup on the wings forced it down in a patch of land off McMurray Road near Route 19 on March 25, 1937. All 13 on board (10 passengers and a crew of 3) died on impact. Every time I go past that spot I glance down and imagine the wreck as it was first reported—nose buried in the swampy earth and bodies littering the landscape.
In a world of short attentions spans, political upheaval, and of course zombies, I can’t help but live in the past because history is everywhere, all around us, and I am there as much as I can manage. My brain isn’t sapped by reality television or hour dramas and particularly not by what passes today for “sitcoms.” I spend my evenings lost in World War II, learning about the rise and rule of Hitler, or in movies made before I was born. To me the past is endlessly fascinating; it’s the present that exasperates me.
One of my best friends emailed me this week concerned because I haven’t written anything on my blog of late and wondering if I was suffering from post-partum depression following the release of Mission. His message reached my body in Pittsburgh, although my brain has been wandering around 1944 Europe for a few months now as I’ve been conducting research for my next book. I assured him that I haven’t written anything recently not because of depression; rather my one-track mind is consumed by this new project, the third and final installment of my Hollywood in World War II trilogy. As much as I love Mission for its slam-bang excitement and as much as I love Fireball for its stoicism and romance, this next one already has me hooked and I haven’t yet written a word. It’s my tried and true process, learning more and more and more as the story builds and builds in my head until it comes spilling out night after night in marathon writing sessions.
When I go to Holland this June, I will be armed with enough preliminary research that my mind’s eye will see a landscape not as it exists today but rather what stood during the war when Nazis ruled. That spot over there? Well, you can’t see it but a three-story hotel occupies that corner lot. It was the nicest in town until the S.S. took it over as its local headquarters. A P-47 Thunderbolt saw the red S.S. flag on the front of the hotel and blew it up with rockets in April 1945, but in my mind’s eye it’s still standing as handsome as ever. And over there? Well, that was a sturdy cut-stone bank building that the Wehrmacht converted into a jail to imprison subversives—that is, those subversives they didn’t shoot outright. It was razed in 1972 for an office complex, but in my mind there is no modern building, only the old bank.
I do that a lot, and I do it everywhere. I suspect I’m not alone, because you wouldn’t be reading my books or this column if you didn’t love history. If you go that far, then you probably use your imagination to picture things as they once were.
As for the Flathead Gang and what became known as America’s first armored-car robbery, well, unfortunately for them, one of the guards got their license number, and they were rounded up after a manhunt. Gang leader Paul Jawarski led police to $38,000 hidden in milk containers and buried on a nearby farm, but the other $65,800+? Well, Jawarski promptly busted out of jail and remained on the lam for another two years, so maybe he retrieved that loot, or maybe it’s still buried within a mile or two of my house. Who knows, but I’d much rather spend my driving-around time thinking about the romance of the 60-foot hole blown in Brightwood Road, that lost treasure, and those Roaring Twenties bandits than anything labeled news and entertainment in 2017.