My Obsession with Rockets

My father, Harold Kaufman, is in the NASA Hall of Fame for his work on ion rocket engines. Ion propulsion uses vaporized, ionized mercury fired through charged grids. The actual mass of ionized particles is small, so the engine can’t lift a rocket out of the earth’s gravitational pull. But in space, the accelerated particles could theoretically propel a craft at speeds approaching twenty miles per second.

The Kaufman Engine has additional applications, from satellite orbit maintenance to depositing thin layers of materials used in integrated circuit processing. Growing up, my father brought home versions of his engine. I took them to show-and-tell.

We studied the skies, too. Dad saved lunch money to buy a telescope. Together, we  built a wheel-within-a-wheel contraption that, with the help of star charts, could pinpoint locations for a telescope. Saturn. Jupiter. The Pleiades. The Andromeda Galaxy. All a part of my childhood.

In second grade, I designed a rocket, meant to carry me to the moon. Though I’d barely begun construction, I felt it was time to solve the problem of fuel, so I headed to the corner gas station with a five gallon can. Dad quickly put an end to that project, but in its place, we began building model rockets. We discovered Estes, a Colorado company that sold kits and solid fuel. I launched a hundred of these models—some with cameras and payload compartments. (My apologies to the earthworm.)

As an adult, I continued to design rockets, each one sillier than the last. One issue with real rockets involves drag (less drag means better acceleration). But model rockets leapt off of the launch rod, almost too fast to follow. I began designing drag into my rockets to make the launches seem more “realistic.”

Dad’s gone now, but my obsession with rockets remains. Like my other obsessions (baseball, the Alamo, blues guitar), I am best at expressing that fixation through writing. This week, my novel Dread Tribunal of Last Resort will be released by Five Star/Cengage. Set during the Civil War, the novel follows Decker Brown, a would-be fireworks manufacturer who finds himself at key moments in  Civil War history having to do with rocketry.

A novice rocketeer with unusual ideas was easy to imagine.

The Civil War was an interesting time for technology. Submarine warfare, rocketry, trench warfare and aircraft carriers are things normally associated with other wars. But they were part of the Civil War story.

Civil War rockets were notoriously inaccurate. Great attention was paid to the design of the rocket, and almost none to the fuel. Odd, since black powder propellant had pockets that doled out thrust in fits and starts—a major contributor to inaccuracy Decker Brown is very interested in what he calls chemisms. This interest is a natural result of his knowledge of illuminations (fireworks), which use various chemical substances to create colored light effects.

Dad was encouraging of all my obsessions. (Though he disliked sports, we played catch most every summer evening.) But the obsession that was closest to his heart involved rockets. When I think back to time spent with him, I think of nights bent over a telescope and rockets hurtling through space. I hope that readers can glean a hint of those wonderful memories in the story of Decker Brown.

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Book Trailer for “Dread Tribunal of Last Resort”

My Civil War novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort, will be released on January 20, 2021. The idea for the novel came two decades ago. The challenges of researching historical fiction kept the project on the back burner for years. Because the story was close to my heart, I kept returning to the pages. I finally finished the manuscript in 2018.

Then came the challenge of finding a publisher. Five Star (a Cengage company) agreed to publish the book and scheduled the release for last July.

COVID had other plans.

Luckily, the company scheduled a second date, and the book is available on Amazon for pre-orders.

The short, sweet book trailer is the work of fantasy author Morgan Wright.

The Historical Novel Society had this to say about Dread Tribunal:

In 1861, Decker Brown returns home to Richmond, Virginia after having spent two years studying rocketry and illumination science in Boston. Decker has big dreams to open his own fireworks business and marry his sweetheart. The outbreak of the Civil War puts a damper on those plans, though. Strongly opposed to slavery, and defying his father, Decker decides to head west. He would rather join up with the Yankees, betraying his fellow Virginians, than fight for a cause he can’t support.

This is the story of the consequences of Decker’s decision. It details the horrors of the war, his travels, plights, and heroic endeavors. Kaufman weaves in a lot about illumination and fireworks, adding a bit of sparkle to a rather dark plot. This is also the story of Paula, on the home front, torn between two men she loves, and her attempts to find some semblance of a normal life amidst a worn torn city.

Kaufman does an impressive job detailing the inner conflict of each character. Paula loves Decker, but she cannot understand why he would choose to turn against his fellow Virginians and fight for the enemy. Decker struggles with this choice as well but remains stolid and determined to fight for liberty and freedom for all men. The pace is quick and speedy; the story spans the full length of the war and even into post-war life despite its mere 300-odd pages. With a lot of lively secondary characters, there’s a lot here for readers to enjoy. Recommended.

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Book Trailer for “Sins in Blue”

Fantasy author Morgan Wright also creates book trailer animations. She recently took a crack at a short, sweet book trailer for Sins in Blue. Here’s the result:

I have mixed feelings about book trailers. I’m not convinced they help sell books. Worse, they can be very pricey, and often drag on too long. Not so with Morgan. To authors who follow this blog, I would highly recommend her service – quick, sharp, and inexpensive. (

For my tastes, the trailer has pleasant, appropriate music, a quick message, and clever graphics. What do you think?

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Paul Simon and Cultural Appropriation

paulsimonSins in Blue is my novel about an old, Depression-era bluesman. The story explores themes involving the problem of cultural appropriation—the inappropriate adoption of customs or ideas of one people by members of a more dominant people.

The 1987 Grammy Award for best album of the year went to Paul Simon for Graceland. The album was a departure for Simon, who had slipped in popularity. Simon had a relatively free hand in the project. Original tracks were recorded in Johannesburg at the height of apartheid. Simon wrote lyrics later, jamming with the original tracks. When the finished songs were rerecorded, Simon flew South African musicians to New York to complete the project. Simon’s music introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a South African group, to a wider audience.

The initial controversy over the album had to do with breaking the cultural boycott against an apartheid regime. Simon sought the advice of other American artists like Harry Belafonte—advice he subsequently ignored. Simon felt that the cooperation between black and white musicians made a more powerful anti-apartheid statement, adding that “when there are radical transfers of power on either the left or the right, the artists always get screwed.”[i] The finished album was supported by the United Nations Anti-Apartheid Committee for promoting South African artists without supporting the South African regime.

But additional controversies plagued the album, possibly because it became a high-profile commercial success. For the duet “Under African Skies,” Simon enlisted the aid of longtime friend Linda Ronstadt. The choice was criticized because Ronstadt had performed in South Africa three years earlier. (In live concerts, Ronstadt was replaced by Miriam Makeba, one of a number of black South African musicians who toured with Simon.)

Some criticized the album for being “colonial,” accusing Simon of appropriating music to market to a global audience. As Tris Mccall asked in the Star-Ledger:

Does it complicate matters to realize that these musicians were second-class citizens in their own country, one groaning under the weight of apartheid? How could Simon approach them as equal partners when their own government demanded that they treat him as a superior?[ii]

It’s worth noting that Simon paid South African musicians as much as triple the union wage, offering songwriting royalties to those who made a contribution to his songs—something a number of modern artists would never consider.

South African jazz artist Joseph Gwangwa criticized the notion that Simon’s album had helped popularize South African music, stating, “So, it has taken another white man to discover my people?”[iii]

And here is where I will leave the argument. Those looking for a quick and definitive answer to the questions raised should listen to the album. (I’ve provided a video of one live performance.) For a more detailed response, read Sins in Blue.

(This post features original art from Wade Dillon.)


[i] Denselow, Robin. “Paul Simon’s Graceland: The acclaim and the outrage.” The Guardian. 19 Apr. 2012. Guardian News and Media. 10 Oct. 2019 <>.

[ii] Mccall, Tris. “Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ boxed set revisits controversial and brilliant album.” Nj. 03 June 2012. 10 Oct. 2019 <>.

[iii] Denselow, Robin. “Paul Simon’s Graceland: The acclaim and the outrage.” The Guardian. 19 Apr. 2012. Guardian News and Media. 10 Oct. 2019 <>.


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The Music Art of Wade Dillon


Harmonica Frank

Selling a novel in a glutted market is a tough proposition. One important part of my marketing plan for Sins in Blue involved a series of blog posts. Rather than bludgeon people with a hard sell, I thought I’d write a series of thoughtful articles on the novel’s themes. I’d drive traffic to my homepage by promoting the blog posts on Facebook, both through the use of ads and by posting in Blues groups I’d joined. I asked illustrator and friend Wade Dillon to do some original art for the posts.


Sonny Terry

But things don’t always work out as planned. Facebook rejected my ads because they discussed social issues (clearly a faux pas), failing to recognize that my purpose was to sell books. The Blues groups I joined rejected the articles because they had rules against self-promotion, regardless of the issues I discussed. Fair enough. I can’t have it both ways (though I see the irony of not being able to have it either way).

The sad part is, I have access to these wonderful pieces of art, suddenly irrelevant to my novel’s promotion efforts. It occurred to me that I should post them anyway, if only to share.


Paul Simon

I’ve known Wade since he was a kid living in Texas. Now, he’s a professional illustrator who channels thoughts and ideas into visual art. I am particularly partial to the picture of Billie Holiday, though every piece is frame-worthy.

As for my novel, give it a thought. I think it’s my best. (Link to the right.)



I hope you enjoyed the showing. If you wanted to contact Wade, you’ll find him at


Billie Holiday


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billieholidaybluemoonSinger Billie Holiday was a known drug user. Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was a known racist. Anslinger believed that drugs caused black artists to “step out of line.” One song of Billie’s particularly offended him and he ordered Holiday not to perform it. When she refused, he had his men sell her heroin in order to arrest her. After she spent a year and a half in prison, the feds declined to renew her cabaret license, ending her career as a nightclub singer.[i]

Holiday did not stop performing—she could sell out Carnegie Hall, always performing the song that offended Anslinger. When she fell back to her heroin habit, ending up in a New York City hospital, he sent his men to handcuff her to the bed, forbidding the doctors to treat her. She died within days.[ii]

An ugly, heartbreaking story. But one that I’m using to introduce a complex, politically charged topic, which explains my segue from Billie Holiday to the slogan, “Buy American.”

Consider Toyota trucks. The company is Japanese owned. The Tundra, a full-sized pickup, is manufactured in Texas. A 2012 study revealed that, for example, Chevrolet’s Silverado had considerably less American materials than did the Tundra.[iii] So, is the truck American or Japanese?

And consider tariffs, meant to protect American manufacturing. In the late 1980s, Ronald Reagan imposed a huge tariff on Japanese-manufactured crystal display screens. One of the first casualties to this protectionist move was American computer manufacturers. The Japanese product was a necessary component of this country’s computers. The tariff raised prices, and American sales plummeted. This isn’t just the law of unintended consequences in action—this is an illustration of the difficulty of sorting out elements of origin.

It’s simple enough to say, “Buy American,” but when examining all things human, anomalies abound. We humans are messy and intertwined. Claims of purity are phony. Adults know this. Children and ideologues do not.

“Race theorists, who are as old as imperialism itself, want to achieve racial purity in peoples whose interbreeding, as a result of the expansion of world economy, is so far advanced that racial purity can have meaning only to a numbskull.”

― Wilhelm Reich, The Mass Psychology of Fascism

Now, consider the great American music form that traces its roots to West African tradition and slavery. Call and response, polyrhythms, blue notes and field hollers led directly to what we now call the blues.[iv]

But the blues had European influences as well.

The harmonica, a mainstay instrument of the blues, was invented in Vienna, Austria. The tuning (as well as the blow-and-draw mechanism) was invented by Joseph Richter in 1826. A German clock maker, Matthias Hohner, began producing harmonicas and shipping them to the United States in 1857. The instrument was immediately popular. Abraham Lincoln carried a harmonica in his pocket throughout the Civil War.[v]

Likewise, the guitar comes from Europe, credited to Spanish guitar maker Antonio Torres Jurado.[vi]

The twelve-bar progression is also European. Bob Brozman, the guitarist and ethnomusicologist, characterizes the blues as “a hand-built compromise between the modal music of Africa and the diatonic (chord changes) music of Europe.”[vii]

White blues players contributed to the music. Author Imran Rahman-Jones notes that playing the blues was “one of the only times whites and blacks would mix.”[viii]

My novel, Sins in Blue, explores themes of cultural appropriation. It’s my sense that the current debate suffers from the same problem as tariffs and Toyota trucks. The quest for purity, racial or cultural, is essentially flawed. Claims of cultural appropriation presuppose pure origins. And pure origins aren’t common, either in the creative process or the human condition.

Blues themes of love, injustice, and whiskey are not limited to one race. As for the element of slavery, music conveys things that words can’t. Perhaps there’s a different kind of awareness to be had for musicians who look beyond the three chords.

Which brings me back to Billie Holiday. Consider her iconic song, “Strange Fruit”the piece that Anslinger hated. Imagine the courage necessary to risk everything for a song! Playing to pitch-dark rooms with a single spotlight on her face, Holiday placed America’s shame center stage:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees[ix]

The songwriter was Abel Meeropol, a white, Jewish-American man born in the Bronx. He taught English at DeWitt Clinton for seventeen years. His inspiration for the song was a historical photograph that disturbed him. During his lifetime, he never visited the Deep South.[x]

The Holiday/Meeropol collaboration has since been covered by other musicians including Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Those embracing diversity might well consider that trio of artists to be a just measure of Billie Holiday’s triumph.

Note: The beautiful depiction of Billie Holiday is the work of Wade Dillon, a professional illustrator living in Texas. (


[i] Pak, Eudie. “The Tragic Story Behind Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit.’”, A&E Networks Television, 27 May 2020,

[ii] Pak, Eudie. “The Tragic Story Behind Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit.’”, A&E Networks Television, 27 May 2020,

[iii] “What Percentage of Your Truck Is Made in America?”,

[iv] Rahman-Jones, Imran. “White people, blues music and the problem of cultural appropriation.” Medium. 27 Apr. 2019. Medium. 11 Oct. 2019 <>.


[vi] A Brief History of the Guitar. 11 Oct. 2019 <>.

[vii] Bob Brozman: The Evolution of the 12 Bar Blues Progression. 11 Oct. 2019 <>.

[viii] Rahman-Jones, Imran. “White people, blues music and the problem of cultural appropriation.” Medium. 27 Apr. 2019. Medium. 11 Oct. 2019 <>.

[ix] Strange Fruit lyrics © Music Sales Corporation

[x] [x] Rahman-Jones, Imran. “White people, blues music and the problem of cultural appropriation.” Medium. 27 Apr. 2019. Medium. 11 Oct. 2019 <>.

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The Real Willie Johnson

blindwilliejohnsonThe story goes that Willie’s stepmother was sleeping around. Willie’s father caught her with another man and beat her. Seven-year-old Willie Johnson became collateral damage—his stepmother splashed Willie in the eyes with lye water, blinding him for life. Another story places the blame for his blindness on gazing at a solar eclipse. Both stories might be true.

Blind Willie Johnson was born in 1897 in Pendleton, Texas. His father gave him a cigar box guitar when he was five. Willie began his musical journey playing church hymnals. After he lost his sight, Willie met another blind preacher/vocalist (Madkin Butler) who probably had an influence on his style.

That style included slide guitar skills (often performed with a pocketknife), a harsh “chest voice” (lower register singing with thick, low, warm tones), and an evangelical bent. Willie did most of his singing on street corners, which explains his vocal style—the sound was meant to travel outdoors without a microphone.

Willie’s recording career included 30 songs. His unique style caught the attention of blues critic Edward Abbe Niles, who praised his “violent, tortured, and abysmal shouts and groans, and his inspired guitar playing.”

Though Willie’s records sold reasonably well, the Great Depression finished his financial hopes. With no money and few prospects, he moved back to Texas to run a house of prayer. A fire burned his home, but he stayed on in the ruins, eventually contracting malarial fever. The death certificate listed syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.

In the 1960s, Johnson’s music was recorded by Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, and Eric Clapton. When Carl Sagan and his team selected music for the Voyager probe in 1977, Willie’s “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground” was among the 27 songs chosen to represent the human experience.

The protagonist of my novel, Sins in Blue, is named Willie Johnson, too. I chose the name because of an off-color joke I wanted to tell. Discovering the story of the real Willie, a gospel blues giant, did not dissuade me from using the name. The Blues is replete with name repetition. (One famous example—two men performed with the name Sonny Boy Williamson. Both were great harmonica players.) I liked the idea of multiple Willie’s—mine being a secondary figure, tucked into the back pages of Blues history.

As for the real Willie, I hope you’ll follow the link and take a listen to the man.

Note: This is one of a series of articles about that great American art form, the Blues. The illustrations were done by Wade Dillon, a professional illustrator who lives in Texas. You can find Wade at

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Discovering the Blues with Sonny Terry


Art by Wade Dillon

I used to haunt a little record store across from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Back in the day, I’d sift through stacks of vinyl, looking for something good. One afternoon, I found a four-song EP by bluesman Sonny Terry. My first thought was that I’d found a collector’s item, and might turn the record for a profit. That impression was reinforced when another shopper spotted the EP in my hand, and asked if he could please have it!

I didn’t know what was coming. Back in my basement apartment, I put the disc on my turntable. The first song was Women’s Blues (Corinna). I heard a lyric line that, on the face of it, might seem nonsensical. That isn’t how I took it. The words and the soulful vocal, backed by some killer harmonica licks, simply blew me away:

I ain’t got no sweet potato/frost done killed the vine/Blues ain’t nothing/but a little Corinna on my mind.

Who can tell what will resonate in advance? Those lines started a lifelong love affair with the blues.

Sonny Terry was born Saunders Teddell (or Terrell) in Greensboro, Georgia (1911). Injuries suffered as a teen took his sight, so he learned music to be able to make a living. In the 1930s, he established a partnership of sorts with a guitarist named Blind Boy Fuller. When Fuller died, Terry linked up with Brownie McGhee. Over the next two decades, the pair made a name for themselves among both blues and folk artists.

Terry’s harmonica style featured a lot of whooping between notes, a trick best featured on the video that follows. (Lost John was another of the four songs on my little EP.) The breath control Terry demonstrates is mind-boggling.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that after listening to Sonny Terry, I spent a while trying to learn blues harp. Like my subsequent guitar adventures, I learned just how little talent I had for music.

But as with my love for baseball, my obsession with the blues led to a novel.

Sins in Blue (Black Rose Writing) tells the story of a Depression-era blues guitarist hoping to be “rediscovered” in the 1960s. The novel released today, and is available on Amazon.

Given that my novels tend to come out of personal fixation, I think Sins in Blue can trace its lineage straight back to a four-song EP hidden in the bargain bin of a long-ago record store. For that, and for the music, I’ll be forever grateful to Mr. Terry and his blues harp.

Note: This is one of a series of articles about that great American art form, the Blues. The illustrations were done by Wade Dillon, a professional illustrator who lives in Texas. You can find Wade at

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Available for Pre-Order

Cover ImageDread Tribunal of Last Resort (Five Star/Cengage) is now available for pre-order at both and Barnes & Noble.

Decker Brown is a proud young Virginian, educated in Boston, with plans to manufacture illuminations (fireworks) and raise a family. He loves Paula Crane, the daughter of the flour mill owner. When the country is divided by Civil War, their loyalty to each other is put to the ultimate test. Decker believes in the Republic’s promise of liberty, while Paula can’t fathom taking up arms against her friends and neighbors. Decker struggles to protect his dreams from a catastrophic war that will cost more than half a million lives. What happens when the runaway train of history shatters every hope for the future? Even as postwar Richmond rebuilds, Decker Brown faces his most important challenge…building a new life from the rubble of war.

“Brian Kaufman’s Dread Tribunal of Last Resort is historical fiction like none other… I have nothing but love for this book.” (Four stars out of four) ~Online Book Club

Dread Tribunal of Last Resort is an extremely well-written and well-researched page turner…Kaufman brings in the unexpected perspectives of the slaves, the women, and those other conflicted individuals caught in the middle…”~Peter Bridgford, author of Where Eagles Dare Not Perch

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Available for Pre-order

Front CoverSins in Blue is available for pre-order at

A young man on a mission. An aging musician with a dream. Society perched over a racial divide.

It’s the 1960s, and nothing reflects the cultural revolution more than music. When Kennedy Barnes, a runaway teen, stumbles upon a rock and roll song recorded by a blues musician in the 1930s, he heads west in search of the man behind the music.

Willie Johnson, ex-bluesman, is a motel laundry worker with a bad hip and a dark past. When Kennedy arrives with the promise of riches, Willie wonders if he’s finally getting his shot at the big time. But is fame worth the cost of dredging up past sorrows?

Sins in Blue is a novel about lost dreams, crippling grief, and the healing power of an unlikely friendship.

“Like that song, the story will play in your head unbidden. This story – it rocks!” ~Miriam Molina, Online BookClub

Sins in Blue is a poignant, gripping tale of shattered hopes and dreams and the ultimate acceptance that life goes on.” ~Pat Stoltey, author of Wishing Caswell Dead

“Kaufman’s prose is textured and full of personality.” ~Kirkus Reviews

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