Editor’s Note: Laura Hillenbrand’s new book, Unbroken, is available at bookstores. The story on the Bethesda native and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School graduate appeared in the March/April 2006 issue of Bethesda Magazine.
This is the story of a horse, an albatross and two people in love.
It begins in Bethesda on 5104 Moorland Lane. The stately white Colonial that once stood there is gone; in its stead is a gaping hole dug deep into the clay to accommodate a $2 million, 10,000-square-foot house that neighbors say will have an indoor basketball court. It is one of many teardowns in the Edgemoor neighborhood. Long before the old house was razed, a little girl with long blond hair played in the back yard, with two collies named Sam and Ginger and a pet chicken named Deebee. She dreamed of horses and history and becoming a great writer.
5104 Moorland is where Laura Hillenbrand, author of the publishing phenomenon, Seabiscuit, grew up. And it was three blocks away, at the Edgemoor Club, where Laura’s destiny was set.
She doesn’t remember exactly how old she was. Nine, maybe 10. It was the late 70s. She was a swimmer on the club team: backstroke and individual medley. “We had the greatest little team around,” she says.
Practice was seven days a week in the summer, except when the skies darkened and lightning flashed. Then the coach, John Lynch, would gather up his swimmers, take them to the big clubhouse porch, and tell them stories while they waited out the storm. “This guy could really spin a yarn,” Laura remembers. “Later, I learned that the stories were actually the plots of bad horror films, but at the time I thought he was making them up as he went along, and I’d walk home giddy with terror from those stories.”
One day, during a particularly dramatic storm with thunder clapping hard around the swimmers, another man came to tell them a story.
“I didn’t know who he was then,” Laura says. Years later, when she became famous for writing Seabiscuit, the storyteller wrote her an e-mail. His name was John Fox. “He brought a gorgeous illustrated version of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and he read it aloud. The storm was crashing all around us, and I sat on the floor in my wet swimsuit, curled in a towel, lost in this wondrous story. It was the first time I experienced how powerful words could be, capturing every nuance of emotion, taking me to another world.”
The tale of a man forced to carry an albatross around his neck turned out to be more than empowering; it was an ominous foreshadowing of her life. Nine years after she first heard those words, “It is an ancient Mariner, And he stoppeth one of three…” Laura would be burdened with an albatross of her own.
But that’s getting ahead of the story and Laura’s epiphany that stormy afternoon.
“I remember walking up Exeter Lane, thinking not only about this imaginary place I had just been, but about how it had been crafted entirely from language…I remember thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ It wasn’t as if I started writing that day, but a seed was planted.”
By junior high, Laura had a drawer full of short stories she’d written. “I was blowing off homework to write,” she says.
At Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, Laura left her mark on English teacher Evanthia Lambrakopoulos, now head of B-CC’s English department. “My students ask me all the time, ‘How do you tell that somebody’s going to emerge as a writer?’ The bottom line is really voice and having control of the language that allows you to hear the person’s voice through the writing. I definitely could hear Laura’s voice through her writing.”
Lambrakopoulos also remembers where Laura sat 20-some years ago—two seats away from the door—and that she was funny, inquisitive, and wore her riding boots to class.
Laura was a horse-crazy girl. She and her older sister, Susan, scraped together $400—from babysitting, camp counseling and selling a drum set—to rescue an emaciated chestnut filly named Allspice bound for slaughter. Later, she took a job at the old Swensen’s ice cream parlor in Bethesda for $2.01 an hour to cover the vet bills.
“She loved to run,” Laura says of Allspice. And Laura loved the track. Her father, Bernard Hillenbrand, then a lobbyist who later became a minister, once took Laura and two of three siblings to the track in Charles Town, W.Va. Laura was 5, but she still remembers a big roan by the name of Blue Barry who looked her in the eye, much like Seabiscuit looked at his future trainer Tom Smith. Her father let her place the bet herself. Blue Barry won the race.
“That was it,” she told an interviewer from her college magazine. “I was hooked on racing.” But it wasn’t the thrill of the bet that got her.
“I think I have placed maybe 10 bets in my whole life,” Laura says. “It was the connection to the horses and this odd world that snagged me.”
Enough so that she planned to become a jockey—even buying herself a racing saddle—until a few falls convinced her otherwise. “I’m not bold enough,” she says.
Laura’s other love was history. She’d spent her childhood going to her father’s farm, a whitewashed stone house in Sharpsburg, Md., that sits on the edge of the Antietam Battlefield. The house was built in 1810 and was used as a hospital during the Civil War.
“The farm is probably the reason why I am so enchanted by history. So much happened in that house, and when I slept there my dreams were rich with Civil War soldiers and President Lincoln and the poor slaves who built the house. I used to walk the fields as a child fantasizing about being a Union soldier, and ride my horse around pretending to be cavalry.”