Most people cut school because they can’t or don’t want to learn.
Eric Hammel cut school–Central no less– because he wasn’t learning enough.
Born in June 1946, Rick, as friends call him, came of age during a period of dramatic change and innovation for the U.S.– the space race, the birth of the computer, the civil-rights movement.
But like most of those first-year Baby Boomers, this young man was shaped by World War II and its aftermath like nothing else. So a passion for military history would eventually take Rick (221) through the most exclusive halls of U.S. military records on the way to authoring an amazing 50 books. Fifty is a nice, round number and Rick is living a happy retirement in California, but there might still be some more professional writing in his future.
“I had the first inklings that I wanted to be a writer when I was in grade school,” Rick says. “I was good at it and I felt comfortable with it.”
One summer Rick and his good friend/eventual Central schoolmate Steve Burnstein, 222, began collaborating on a book about World War II. Rick would write a chapter, then Steve. Steve lost interest in the project but Rick did not.
Around that time, when he was 12, Rick contracted scarlet fever. Bedridden, he began voraciously consuming a new, hot commodity–paperback books. One of the books his father gave him to read was Walter Lord’s Day of Infamy.
“I fell in love with the book and the style, which used a lot of interviews filled with stories not from official records but recollections of people who had a role,” Rick recalls. And “I actually said to myself: This is it. This is what I want to do.'”
Fortunately one of Central’s English teachers spotted Rick’s potential and invited him into an afterschool group for young writers. “We did that for a year and a half. He retired and I was left on my own again.”
“I started cutting school regularly, because they had nothing to teach me anymore–nothing that I wanted and I did what I hope any good Centralite does. I went out and found my own career.”
The librarians knew he shouldn’t have been there on school time and Rick’s absences didn’t go unnoticed at Central. “They were on to me,” he says. “They knew what was going on but it was tolerated. The vice principal of the school knew what was going on. As long as I didn’t screw up so badly that the teachers got on his case, he was ok with that.”
Rick also used to visit Washington D.C. about once a year when he was a teen and he made the most of those trips as well. One day he entered the Navy Department’s historical division and said he was writing a book on Guadalcanal. “I was 16 years old!” he recalls incredulously. “They immediately started helping me out.”
“I did the same thing to the Marine Corps. I walked in and they said, ‘Ok, here’s how you work the card catalog. Let us know what you need.’ ”
The access to these direct sources was great for his career but skipping so much school and some problems at home were bad on Rick’s grades. He barely made it to graduation and college. A year at C.W. Post College in Long Island was unsuccessful so he transferred to Temple back home.
The best thing about that tough time was meeting his eventual wife, Barbara. The two, now parents of a son and daughter and grandparents to five, will mark 49 years of marriage in August.
To pay the bills after graduation, the young husband worked in public relations and at times even had his own advertising agencies. He was building a name for himself publishing articles and making industry connections. Finally after a start and stop with one publisher that eventually went bankrupt, Rick got his big break in 1983.
He got a call asking him to do a book on the 1983 bombing in Beirut of a U.S. Marines military barracks, which killed more than 200 Americans. “That was the first time I was ever assigned a book,” Rick says. “And it made my career.”
After a two-year process, The Root: The Marines in Beirut was published in 1985 and became a major success. Rick interviewed survivors of the bombing and rescuers. He also reported on battles fought in and around Beirut. “That is the only account of what really happened in Beirut,” he says.
As accomplished as he is as an author and publisher, Rick says, “The aspect of my career that carries with it the most pride is the number of fledgling military historians I have mentored and who have ‘made it.’ ”
See a list of Rick’s books, nonfiction and fiction, at www.erichammelbooks.com
And see the products of Rick’s other talent, digital art, at fractaldimensions.com