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Sbarro employee publishes memoirs

Jenn Metz | Monday, September 3, 2007

Growing up in World War II-era London, George W. Porter-Young faced innumerable sufferings and sacrifices. The LaFortune Sbarro employee has worked for 13 years to record his memories in the semi-autobiographical novel “A Boy Amidst the Rubble,” which was published in March.

Porter-Young, now 73, struggled to get his novel on the shelves in the bookstore of the university he had served for seven years. As a self-published book, the novel was not originally accepted for sale at the Hammes Bookstore, Porter-Young said, a response he found alienating.

“I felt a bit like well, my name’s not Charlie Weis or Rudy or Knute Rockne, but I still should be recognized [at the University],” Porter-Young said.

So he wrote a letter to the book’s printer, Xlibris Corp., a subsidiary of Random House.

“I knew something needed to be done to help authors get their books out to the public,” he said.

The outcome of his letter was a return-ability program that would allow bookstores, like Hammes, to carry self-published books. Without this program, books could not be returned to the publisher. Porter-Young is now under contract with the return-ability program for two years.

On Friday, Porter-Young held a two-hour book signing. He was surprised by the number of students who turned up to meet him and purchase the book.

“I get along well with students,” he said. “Some had bought the book for their fathers.”

The book itself is a “sad commentary,” according to Porter-Young.

“Sixty-five million people died in World War II,” he said, “and most kids today are absolutely ignorant about the war and what people sacrificed.”

Porter-Young, who has lived in America since 1966, traveled to England to do research for the novel. An important stop was the Imperial War Museum in London, where the head of the picture gallery authorized the inclusion of historical photographs in the book.

The main character in “A Boy Amidst the Rubble,” Barry, is a young boy living in London during the German blitzkrieg, a lightning-like bomb attack used for great effect by Hitler and the Nazis. His memories of the night air raids and a nation’s experiences of grave deprivation are relived in the novel’s pages.

“We tend to forget, or we don’t want to remember bad things about the past,” Porter-Young said. “We don’t want them to haunt us.”

Iowa State professor Frankie Santos Laanan was instrumental in getting the story published, Porter-Young said.

“He told me, ‘You’ve done all this writing, what’s the point if it’s just going to sit and collect cobwebs?'” Porter-Young said. “He made the point that a lot of war books are out there, but there aren’t many with an 8- to 10-year-old reflecting upon the war years and sacrifice.”

Porter-Young grew up in Upper Norwood, a suburb at the border of London and Surrey. Sitting in LaFortune, he recalled tales of bombers coming across the countryside from France, carrying deadly weapons that hit or destroyed three out of four houses in London and the surrounding suburbs.

“We were at war,” he said. “The older people knew what that meant. We had no idea what was going on. It was very scary when the first bombers came over.”

The novel opens with “Requiem,” a poetic tribute to Londoners who died in the Blitz between 1939 and 1945. According to Porter-Young, it contains imagery reflective of that time, like “rampant fires” that describe the night air raids, one of which started the second burning of London in 1940.

Porter-Young’s father was a London fireman, so he did not see him “for a long time.” Children during the war years were transported away from the city and into the country, including Porter-Young’s sister. He, too, was sent away from his family.

“I stood in Victoria Station,” he said, “with my little gas mask and a slice of bread with jam, and I said to myself, ‘I’m not going.’ I hopped off to the train and onto the other side of the platform. When my father left, he said, ‘You’re the man of the house now – take after your mother and grandmother.’ How was I supposed to do that from the country?”

Staying in the city meant staying in the heart of the devastating Blitz. During one of the raids, the explosion of a bomb blew Porter-Young backwards into a hedge, taking his hair, eyelashes and clothes from his body. For his injuries he was hospitalized for “a little bit,” and he still retains a scar on his right leg from a piece of shrapnel.

“Anyone [in this situation] really can write this book,” he said. “A child in Afghanistan or Baghdad … they’re going through the same thing I did, but with more sophisticated weapons.”

A main aspect of the novel is the food deprivation and rationing experienced during the war years.

“How do you survive when your country is being blockaded? … Some of the meats and food rationed to us would have never been considered food years later,” he said.

Another facet is the heroism of the wartime women, who took on men’s jobs. Porter-Young cites his mother and grandmother as two very strong women who made great sacrifices during the war.

“It’s sad when you think about it,” he said. “War doesn’t solve anything. We fought over one man, and did we learn our lesson? We’re fighting today, again over one man. Now he’s gone and we’re still fighting.”

“A Boy Amidst the Rubble” has sold roughly 400 copies so far, Porter-Young said. The statistics, however, are two months behind. Self-promoting the book is “very hard,” he said.

Along with the Hammes book signing, Porter-Young has appeared on 106.5 FM. He wants to travel to his alma maters, Black Hawk College in Illinois and St. Ambrose College in Iowa, to run lecture series about his stories of the war. He soon hopes to have an audio book made, and has started working on book two of his recollections.

“The things you remember are absolutely amazing,” he said.