Glenn Banner:
bridging a historical gap

An interview by Daina Savage,
April 1994

After 28 years as a teacher, Glenn Banner can't shake the habit. The author of Civil War novel Flames Across the Susquehanna can't resist giving an impromptu history lesson on the June 28, 1863 burning of the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge -- which divides Lancaster and York counties in Pennsylvania and was a pivotal site leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg -- and the myriad of tunnels and secret passageways through the Wright mansion.

"This is Columbia and Wrightsville's story," he said. "I don't believe the Battle of Gettysburg would have been fought if it wasn't for the burning of the bridge. But that story is something that has been lost."

The Columbia, Pa., native ensured that future generations would be able to rediscover that story through his novel. He makes it even more accessible by seeing the event through the eyes of a 15-year-old drummer boy.

"This particular story meant so much to me as a young man growing up in Columbia," he said. "It's a story I wanted to read about myself."

He donated copies of his book to school libraries across the county and several classes are currently using it in lessons.

Growing up four blocks from the Wright mansion and a block and a-half from the bridge, Banner said the history of the area intrigued him as a child.

"I would go to school and our teachers would talk about it offhandedly -- the two major things that happened in town, which was the Underground Railroad at the Wright mansion and the burning of the bridge," he said. "I heard about it so often, and I often asked myself why no one wrote of it." So in 1960 the elementary school teacher decided to take matters into his own hands.

"My ritual everyday was, after recess I would sit my fifth-graders down and read from some children's classics for about 10 minutes," he said. "I had this feeling that it must be really super to write a book. So one day, walking home from school, I thought `why don't I write about the bridge.'"

Banner started collecting newspaper clippings on the Wright mansion and the bridge burning and began writing the story in 1961. "I read it to my sixth-grade class, and I guess my opinions are biased, but they loved it," he said.

But when he sent it to a literary agent in New York, he was told it would cost him $379 to publish it. The sum was too steep, "so I laid it on a shelf for 31 years. Fortunately I never threw it away."

It stayed on the shelf as Banner turned his attention to teaching Spanish to high school students and coaching tennis and baseball for 22 years. He retired in 1989, but didn't pick up his manuscript again until 1993. "Last March I saw it on a shelf and thought I better get writing," he said. "I was at it day and night from March to September."

Banner said his original manuscript was sketchy, without fully developed characters. But after a quarter century of working with teen-agers, Banner had no problem fleshing out his young heroes.

"A lot of prayer went into this book," he said. "I asked God to flood me with ideas and He flooded me."

Banner dedicated the book to his former students and athletes, many of whom have been reincarnated as characters in his book. "Those characters are really kids that I knew," he said. "Joey has at least three of my students involved in him, and Jon was a boy I had in sixth grade who is now living in Pittsburgh."

He said that his audience is primarily adult, even though it was written for and about teen-agers. "Teen-agers make life go round. That's where the fun is," he said. "So that's why I wanted to write about them."

Although his retirement afforded him the time to complete the manuscript, winnings from the state lottery in 1987 allowed him to publish the book himself and donate all the proceeds to the Columbia Historic Preservation Society.

"It wouldn't have been possible otherwise," he said. "We've raised over $30,000 and counting." Banner said the historical society plans to use the money to refurbish their museum on Second Street in the Old First English Lutheran Church.

The book is in its second printing with a third printing planned. His Nov. 28 first printing of 2,000 sold in two days. The Dec. 17 second printing of 3,000 is half gone. The third printing, Banner said, will include some new scenes as well as more than 12 new illustrations by Bot Roda.

Although most of the changes are in sentence structure, one additional scene for his main character Joey came at the request of his wife, Dorothy.

"She said you have no right to send that boy to a concert all dirty, so you get him washed up," he said. "So I have a funny scene where I have him getting washed up in a horse trough at the market."

[ by Daina Savage ]