After a 30-year career as a U.S. counterintelligence agent, Mike Ramsdell and his wife, Bonnie, retired to a new home, the racquetball courts and lots of leisure time.
Writing a national bestselling book was nowhere on the 68-year-old Mormon's radar.
Then a freak accident left Ramsdell in a hospital room with a neck injury and considerable time on his hands. At some point, a laptop was turned on and fingers began to type.
Five years later, more than 1 million people have read "A Train to Potevka." Comrade Ramsdell has traveled around the world and told his story via hundreds of church, civic and corporate functions, not to mention the cruise lectures. A major motion picture with a multimillion-dollar budget is also in the pre-production stages.
On more than one occasion, Ramsdell has asked himself, "How did retirement come to this?"
"If someone had shown me a crystal ball when I was a little boy in Bear River and said, 'Mike, this is going to be your life,' I would have wagered my soul to the devil," said Ramsdell, who served an LDS mission to Germany. "It's just a miracle that this has happened. I am grateful to my Heavenly Father every day for my many blessings."
'A Train to Potevka'
He had survived several brawls and gunfights, but he was no match for a wall.
The retired intelligence agent was playing racquetball in 2005 when he collided with the wall and fractured his neck. More than 14 months later, he had written "A Train to Potevka," a story which chronicles how he survived a Russian mafia attack and escaped on the Trans-Siberian railway only to nearly die of starvation in Siberia. He was saved by a mysterious package sent to him by his sister. How it found him was miraculous.
More than four years later, the story has touched countless lives. Why? Ramsdell doesn't know, but it may have to do with the book's honesty.
"The message of the book resonates with the common, everyday person. I am not James Bond or Matt Damon, I am a Bear River boy. I show my warts, low self-esteem, failed first marriage," Ramsdell said. "We get so many e-mails where people say, 'I was there with you, I could relate.'"
Ramsdell's story has even given new hope and life to individuals on their deathbeds. Many want to share it with others.
"Most of the e-mails are congratulatory," he said. "And there have been individuals that were in the hospital looking at the grim reaper. They got a copy and were inspired to keep going. For whatever reason, the book has had a significant impact on their life."
If possible, Ramsdell would gladly share the book with everyone. But he just can't afford it. In self-publishing and marketing his book, he has discovered a scary trend among the Mormon audience — families like to buy one copy and pass it around.
More than once, individuals have told Ramsdell their spouse and kids loved the book, the grandkids loved the book, the neighbors and friends loved the book and other church members in the stake loved the book. "Then they say, 'You should see the book,'" Ramsdell said with displeasure. "Dean Hughes warned me not to quit my day job when becoming an author in Utah."
Using library records, sales numbers and other means, Ramsdell estimates more than 1 million have read the book.
Fortunately, after being honored by the John Steinbeck Foundation and signing on with the Margret McBride Literary Agency, the book will be polished to reach a larger audience.
A movie and a sequel
For now, the screenplay is finished and the movie is in the pre-production stage. When ready, the production, with its multimillion-dollar budget, will be filmed in the old Soviet city of Vilnius, Lithunia, by Audience Alliance Motion Picture Studios.
Kieth Merrill, a Mormon filmmaker, is working on the project.
"We are upbeat, optimistic and committed. The screenplay takes it to the next level," Merrill said over the phone while on a cruise in Alaska.
The actor who plays Ramsdell will not be a Hollywood action figure, Merrill said.
"What makes his story interesting is he is not the romantic action leading hero, he is the common man. We don't want to lose that. We're looking for a new face," he said.
Prior to the release of the movie, the sequel to "Potevka" will hit the shelves. The new book reveals more details about how his sister's heaven-sent package found him in rural Russia, the orphan boy Sasha who led Mike and the missionaries to McDonalds in Moscow, and how Ramsdell was accused of being a traitorous double agent at the end of his career. To his relief, Robert Hanssen was caught in the act and charged with the crimes (Hanssen's story was made into a 2007 movie called "Breach").
Ramsdell is also releasing a book of 25 short stories this fall titled "Potevka's Gifts."
"These are interesting little stories that have happened since I wrote the first book," said Ramsdell, a graduate of the University of Utah Law School.
Our speaker tonight …
Since the release of "Potevka," Ramsdell has been invited to share his story all over the country. He estimates he has spoken at more than 350 firesides, book clubs, civic groups and corporate gatherings in the last four years.
Bonnie will attest that her husband is in demand, especially in the Intermountain West. The couple also lectures on six cruises a year with Ldstravel.com.
"It's never too late to cultivate your talents and gifts; wait patiently for the Lord and dreams will come true; be a patriot and a hero to others and make a difference," he said. "Despite negative circumstances, have a good attitude and celebrate the goodness of life."
"Look at what happened to me — I turned 60 and I write a national bestselling book. Look at this gift I didn't know I had," he said. 'To think this all came about because I tripped and fractured my neck. There is no doubt who fractured my neck. We do have adversity, but if we have a good attitude, who knows where it will take us?"
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