Tag Archives: americana

357. Mike Mars and Project Quicksilver

If you Google Mike Mars, you’ll get Mick Mars, lead guitarist for Mötley Crüe. In fact, if that is how you got here, sorry about that. The only connection, besides spelling similarity, is that Mick Mars is of the right age to have read Mike Mars when he was a kid.

Our Mike Mars is a fictional astronaut from a fictional project called Quicksilver. The series was written by Donald A. Wollheim.

The eight Mike Mars books were unique in science fiction. They were so tied to the moment that they became outmoded on publication. They were both strikingly accurate and completely false. They were less of an alternative reality than a conspiracy theory version of the early 60s.

Here’s the setup. Project Mercury has selected seven astronauts, who will conquer space for America – ostensibly. They are all military test pilots of great experience. At the same time, a second, secret space program is being formed to duplicate their work, using hot young (read: expendable) pilots just out of fighter training, but no one will know of their flights. And they will do their thing just a hair sooner than the old guys. The project is called Quicksilver.

I look at that paragraph today with awe at how dumb the notion was. When I found Mike Mars, Astronaut on the shelf at the hobby store where I bought my books, I flipped at how cool it all was. It was 1961; I was 13 years old.

Thirteen is the golden age of science fiction. (I didn’t make that up; it’s a well known cliché.) Thirteen is also the age when you like things you wouldn’t even look at a few years later.

Mike Mars is the nickname of Michael Alfred Robert Samson, one of the young pilots chosen to participate in Project Quicksilver. The first novel takes him through selection and early training until he is chosen as one of the young astronauts. It also includes a murderous saboteur and makes the reader aware that one of the seven, Rod Harger, is a traitor. After all, this is a book for boys, designed to sit on the shelf beside the Hardy Boys and Tom Swift, Jr.. Just being an astronaut isn’t exciting enough to give a climax every fifth page.

In Mike Mars Flies the X-15, the seven Quicksilver astronauts get glide flights in the X-15, and one of them will get to make a powered flight into space. (Guess who gets the powered flight.) We become more aware that six of the young astronauts are patriotic team players, but Rod Harger is in it for the power and the fame, and his father has thugs at the ready to tip the scales his way. This sets the pattern for the books — about half an accurate portrayal of training and flights and about half Hardy Boys style chasing crooks through empty hangers.

In Mike Mars at Cape Canaveral, Mike rides a Redstone rocket in a sub-orbital flight, after spending half the book fighting off more saboteurs.

In 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first man in orbit, followed shortly by John Glenn. The Russian’s had won — except that those of us reading the Mike Mars series knew that Mike beat both of them in Mike Mars in Orbit. But, of course, he could never tell.

(True believers like me knew that Rick Brant had beaten all of them into space, back in 1958 aboard the Pegasus in The Scarlet Lake Mystery, but that was an accident and, of course, he could never tell either.)

In Mike Mars Flies the Dyna-Soar (see 342. Dyna-soar) Wollheim finally ran out of reality. The first four books had involved real hardware, but the real-life Dyna-soar was never finished. Space kids all over America forgave him however, as we flew with Mike to rescue a fellow astronaut in the coolest spacecraft that was never built.

There were three additional books, Mike Mars, South Pole Spaceman, Mike Mars and the Mystery Satellite, and Mike Mars Around the Moon. They never came to my hobby shop bookshelf, so I never saw them. It would be pointless to seek them out now. Within five years, alternative versions of early space travel had gone from unthinkable to not worth thinking about. NASA and the Russians made the conquest of space real, and I had grown beyond kiddy books.

But God the ride was fun while it lasted.

_____________________

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the secret military space drone, X-37b, recently landed at Kennedy Space Center after it’s longest flight to date. We will see how the Air Force is still trying for a Mike Mars reality in tomorrow’s post.

352. A Modern Maverick

The old TV show Maverick has been on local channels lately. It was one of my favorite programs when I was twelve years old, but I’ve pretty much outgrown it. I don’t watch the reruns, but they started me thinking about an American archetype — the lovable con man.

There are a lot of them in literature, and a lot more moving among us in our everyday lives. You know him, weird Uncle Bob who always has a beer in his hand but never buys drinks. Or Uncle Jim who thinks it is wonderful that you are planting trees in your mother’s yard, and drives home to get his favorite shovel, but never comes back.

What all these slick dealers have in common is that they are funny, charming, and it is almost impossible to stay mad at them. They’ll steal your beer, or steal your heart, or steal your money, and leave you laughing at how easy you were to take.

In the movie version of Maverick, he says, “There is no more deeply moving religious experience, than cheating on a cheater.” Cute, but in point of fact, Bret and Bart and Beau cheated everybody. It doesn’t matter though, because they were charming.

There were others before Maverick. Starbuck, in The Rain Maker, teaches Lizzie that she is beautiful, but she marries her home town swain. Good thing. If she had run off with Starbuck, it would not have ended well.

Harold Hill, in The Music Man, made a career of separating suckers from their money. He was charming and slick and thinks faster than the locals. When he falls in love with the librarian, it changes his attitude. She reforms him. Okay, fine, but for me that doesn’t saves the movie; the line that saves the movie is when he tells Winthrop, “I always think there’s a band.”

See, he didn’t mean it. He thinks he’s giving something back. He’s a good Joe at heart.

If a con man believes his own lies, does that make us forgive him? In the movies it frequently does. But what if a real Marian the librarian married a real Harold Hill. We would probably find her later with eight kids, hungry and living on skid row, after Harold Hill moved on. I like the movie version better.

Does our charming American con man believe his own lies? Does he even know himself where the truth is? Does it matter to him? Does it matter to us?

If he is slick enough, and fast enough, and plausible enough — if he can tell one lie to cover another until we get lost in the shell game — there is no limit to how far he can go.

He could even become President.

327. The Lone Hero

bks275-1

                         A note before we start  ——

     Yesterday, someone searched on the sub-title of this blog (be not ashamed . . .) but my software doesn’t tell me who. For your information, unknown and curious person, I explained my relationship to this poem on the last day of 2015, and included a copy of the poem the same day.

     And now to our regularly scheduled business ——

===============

In my youth, before Star Trek and Star Wars and computer generated effects, the typical movie hero was a cowboy, riding into town alone, beholden to no one, ready to stand or fall on his own.

Even the word “beholden” seems old fashioned. Ancient. Outmoded — like the western hero himself. And to be fair, he never really existed. If you spend any time at all reading histories of the old west, you’ll find out that things were done by groups, not by lone heroes. When the Dalton gang tried to hold up two banks at once in Coffeyville, Kansas, it wasn’t a John Wayne figure standing tall in the street that stopped them. It was a dozen or so armed citizens that blew them out of the saddle from windows and doorways. Same story in Northfield, Minnesota when the James gang bit the dust.

I called them armed citizens. That sounds pretty good. Put them up on horses with Winchesters and send them as a posse after the bad guys. It still works — unless you are the one they are after. Call them vigilantes, and some people will start to feel uncomfortable, but not everyone. Call them a gang and people will start thinking about locking their doors.

Put them in white hoods. What do you think of them now?

It’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it?

The lone, self-sufficient individual or small family did exist. There were soddies on the Kansas prairie miles from the next settler. Or log cabins in the deep woods of Ohio and Indiana — back when Ohio and Indiana had deep woods. And there were the mountain men. You can’t get more independent than that — except that they moved across the prairie in companies, and only dispersed once they were in the mountains.

One thing is certain. The idea of the loner was always there.

I wrote my first book, a young adult novel called Spirit Deer, with the idea of the loner front and center. The young man Tim — he didn’t need a last name — got lost in the Sierras while deer hunting and found his way out without help despite innumerable trials and tribulations. You can still sell that kind of book (see Two Hands and a Knife), but they are becoming rare. Today’s YA novels seem to be about how to get along in the world.

There’s nothing wrong with that. It better fits the world today’s youth live in. The — ask a friend, seek companionship, don’t rock the boat, politically correct, do no harm, love yourself, make no judgments, everything is morally right as long as you don’t hurt someone’s feelings — world.

Granted, there is much good in these “civilized” changes, but whatever happened to standing up on your hind feet and saying, “I don’t agree. That’s not for me.” There’s nothing wrong with having an opinion different from the crowd.

No wonder Trump won.

He’s as fake as Rooster Cogburn, but he represents something Americans have come to miss. The cowboy hero, riding into town alone, beholden to no one, ready to stand or fall on his own.

There is one thing to remember though. When the smoke cleared and the sound of six guns faded at the end of that movie, half the town was dead in the street. That may work when you can leave the theatre and drive home to your secure suburban house. It doesn’t work so well when you have to pick up a shovel and go bury your dead.

The self-certain loner and the soft spoken conformer. As Kirk said to Spock, “The truth probably lies somewhere in between.”

308. All I Really Need to Know

dscn4338All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from my Dogs

Please don’t throw rocks at me, but that kind of prissy, perfect, and pretentious tag line activates my gag reflex. Let me suggest a different, more realistic take on life.

Everything I need to know, I learned in the dairy barn.

I’m not talking about a modern milk factory, but a real, old fashioned 1950s kind of dairy. To find one today, you’d have to go to a third world country.

You’ve all seen milk and yoghurt ads showing perfectly clean, starkly black and white Holsteins standing knee deep in green, green grass. Erase that picture from your mind. It never happened.

Holstein calves come out of the womb clean, but from three days after birth they will never be black and white again. They are brown to the knees from the dust and dirt – and other things – that boil up when they walk. Their tails become a black club of matted cockle burs – and that other thing.

The grass in the ads looks so perfect because no creature is allowed to graze there before the ad is shot. Turn a herd of cattle out and in four days it will be matted, scarred, pockmarked with hoofprints, and covered with steaming piles of the fertilizer which completes the circle of life.

No complaints, you understand. A herd of cattle on a green meadow is beautiful, but the grass will be eaten down, and the ground itself will look like a billion angry golfers have been making divots. It will be nothing like pristine.

It all comes down, finally, to this. Cows produce three things. One is a clear, yellow, somewhat odorous liquid, which they produce in copious volumes. One is a brown to green semi-solid, and they produce mountains of this. One is the thick, white liquid that feeds the nation.

You can’t get the one you want, until you figure out how to handle the other two.

Just like life.

292. I’m back

dscn5448I’m back.

It’s been a weird month. Every two years my wife and I organize her guild’s quilt show. It’s a big deal and the amount of detail work is massive, but I won’t give any details. This is a blog about A Writing Life, not about the personal, private, non-writing life that sometimes jumps in with both feet. I did put in a photo of some of the quilts from the show as a teaser.

Things are progressing with Cyan, and I’ve been working hard to keep everything moving smoothly. One of the side effects of the excess of non-writing obligations is that I haven’t been able to work as unhurriedly on Cyan as I would prefer. I hate deadlines, and I am living in the middle of a snarl of them.

On January fifth I saw the first “rough” draft of Cyan’s cover. Excellent, exciting, and it looks like it will sell some books. That is of first importance. As much as we authors complain when covers are inaccurate, a naked female that sells books is always better than an accurate depiction that leaves books unsold.

By the way, this cover is not a naked female. It is a Cyl – and a rather well envisioned one at that – in a desert landscape looking up a the landing craft from the Darwin. It will all make sense when you read the book.

In the “rough” draft – which was slick, professional, and not rough at all – the Cyl was looking down toward stage left and there was no landing craft. On the more finished version I saw next, the Cyl had turned his head slightly left to look at the landing craft.

So what? So this was done by a skilled digital artist, using a high-end illustration program. You couldn’t turn the head of such a sophisticated image in a painting without starting from scratch. I know a little about this. I have been using graphics programs almost daily since the late eighties, making drawings of things I was about to build in the woodshop, drawing illustations for my science class, and designing dozens of oddball musical instruments and hundreds of quilts. I never had the opportunity to work with a really high-end program, nor had the time to spend on their leaning curve, but I recognize quality when I see it.

Even though the image looks finished, there are still a few tweaks coming, so EDGE is not letting me show you yet. As soon as I can, I will.

I have also been told that although Cyan will be an ebook, it will also be available in print-on-demand format. I’ll tell you more as things progress. It looks like the full release will be about the time of Westercon. For those of you in the eastern half of the US and the rest of the world, that is July fourth weekend.

So, I’m back, ready to pick up where I left off with a diverse mix of posts. Tomorrow we’ll look at the contributions of Gene Cernan, the astronaut who died two weeks ago.

271. Here Comes Santa Claus

This is the last of three posts based on The Battle for Christmas, a book by Stephen Nissenbaum. You should read them in order.

Now we are on the verge of Christmas as we know it. Good old Santa Claus is about to take the stage. His midwife will be a group of stodgy old men who hated the rise of the common man, and longed for good old days that never were. Washington Irving was their leader, but a one-poem wonder named Clement Moore would be the one to change the world.

St. Nicholas and his companion delivered presents or coal to the children of Holland, but he never crossed the Atlantic to New Amsterdam. The notion that he did is a common myth, reading subsequent events backward.

John Pintard, founder of the New York Historical Society, played a role in establishing the Fourth of July and several other events as national holidays. He also brought St. Nicholas to the attention of America when he tried to make him the patron saint of New York City. In 1810, he published a broadside that showed a picture and accompanying poem with St. Nicholas delivering presents to children on St, Nicholas Day, Dec. 6.

Washington Irving’s Sketch Book came along a decade later. Everyone knows that Rip van Winkle, from that book, fell asleep and woke to a different era. Not many people remember that he hated the new America he found upon waking. So did Washington Irving and his cohorts, who called themselves the Knickerbockers, and patterned themselves after the old Dutch burghers they imagined to have inhabited New Amsterdam — all based on Irving’s fanciful Knickerbocker’s History of New York.

In the Sketch Book, Irving portrayed Old Christmas in England as a joyful celebration between good masters and their servants. In Knickerbocker’s History, he related a dream which included:

. . . and, lo! the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. . . .  And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.

St. Nicholas, giver of presents to children, had won over a group of grumpy old men, but the rest of America did not know him yet. He was still confined to the Knickerbockers who, despite their fantasies, were of British heritage, not Dutch, and were High Church Episcopalians, not post-Puritan religious conservatives.

Clement Moore changed that, not overnight, but over about a decade. He was not the first poet of St. Nicholas. You will find the text of an earlier poem near the bottom of one of last year’s posts. If you check it out, you will agree that it would never have taken the world by storm.

If you read A Visit from St. Nicholas (which I have tacked onto the bottom of this post in case you don’t have it handy), you will see that almost the whole modern Santa is there, repackaged from the Knickerbocker mold, and made charming and familly friendly. It would be wrong to say Moore invented Santa, given St. Nick’s Dutch origins and his twenty year history with the other Knickerbockers, but it would be hard to imagine Santa conquering the world without Moore’s poem.

The only major thing missing is his red suit. We can thank Thomas Nast and Coca-Cola for that.

Could even so charming a poem have so changed the world by itself? It is doubtful. It is more reasonable to see it as a perfect summing up of forces already at work. Wassailing had turned to riot, tinged with felonious assault. Peasants wandering from door to door had become masses of overcrowded urban poor spilling wildly into the streets. A few tipsy peasants had, by sheer population growth, turned into a dangerous mob.

The middle class was rising. Respectability had become something to strive for. Falling from middle class respectablity had become something to fear. Children were no longer just a source of free labor, but were quickly becoming the center of the family. Clement Moore’s poem rode that wave of change into the hearts of America.

Bacchus was still God of the street, but Santa was becoming God of the hearthside. Frankly, I like it better that way.

Postscript: They do it differently in Shetland. I’ll tell you that story on December 26th.

A Visit from St. Nicholas (AKA The Night Before Christmas)
by Clement Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds;
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from my bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow,
Gave a lustre of midday to objects below,
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
But a miniature sleigh and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donner and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too—
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl full of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.

photo by By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands (Intocht van Sinterklaas in Schiedam 2009) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

270. Colonial Christmas

puritanchristmasbanThis is the second of three posts based on The Battle for Christmas, a book by Stephen Nissenbaum. You should read yesterday’s post first.

The Battle for Christmas is not about the worldwide history of Christmas, but about American Christmas. The origin of the cult of St. Nicholas, the Christkindl, the black companion to Holland’s Sinterklass, Germanic Christmas trees and the rest are outside its view.

The Puritans of New England disliked Christmas. In fact, they outlawed it. The birth of Christ was of no particular interest to them. They were focused on his death and resurrection, and what that meant for sinners.

That was also the attitude of my childhood church. We had no Christmas services; if Sunday fell on Christmas, the sermon would begin with the story of Jesus’ birth, but would quickly turn our attention to his death and resurrection, with a full complement of fire and brimstone, and Hell to come for any who did not believe.

In point of fact, however, what the Puritans focused on was not their real problem with Christmas. They didn’t like it because it was a drunken party, with sex besides.

It comes back to leisure, full larders, and full kegs, and to the fact that the food and drink did not belong to the poor. It was the larders of the rich which were full. It was the poor who wanted some.

In agricultural times in Europe, it could be said that they wanted their share, because they had traditional rights to handouts during the season. There may have been a time when it was all respectful and friendly, as Washington Irving tried to portray it in Old Christmas (an excerpt from his Sketch Book), but the exchange was always tinged with threat, as in:

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

This, of course is wassailing, but it reeked of uppity servants, harrassment of their masters, and a general overturning of authority. Which was part of the point.

In Puritan days in New England, nobody was celebrating the nativity. The Puritans were going about their work, soberly and solemnly, with no acknowledgement of the day. The lower orders, especially the sailors down by the harbor, were making merry. Very, very merry, and the Puritans didn’t like that. They made the celebration of Christmas against the law, and you never make a law unless someone is already doing what you want to forbid.

The Puritans didn’t last, but the raucous celebrations they hated did. Newer, more liberal churches began holding religoius services on Christmas day. That didn’t last long either, the first time around.

A good, old fashioned Christmas is what a lot of people think they want today, but the real old fashioned Christmas looked a lot like what we now do on New Year’s Eve.

It got worse. As society moved from an agricultural base to an industrial one, the distance between the classes increased. The upper classes were less inclined to provide the handouts that the lower class demanded. What had looked like harmless, low level intimidation — not unlike today’s trick-or-treaters — began to look like a social revolution, especially in New York City shortly after the founding of the United States.

The rich stayed home on Christmas and feasted with their friends. It was an adult celebration; children were not yet the center of Christmas. The poor took to the streets. Where else would they have to go? Their all night, loud, drunken partying brought fear to the respectable upper crust. Gentlemen spoke of riots when they referred to the raucous Christmas season celebrations by the poor.

Riot is actually not a bad description of the state of affairs.

These poor were the mob that sometimes worried the staid burghers who wrote the Consititution. They were good at killing the British during the Revolution, but they weren’t respectable. By the late 1820s, the backwoods unwashed would put Andrew Jackson into the White House, and change the future of America. Decades earlier, their urban counterparts were already making life rough for respectable rich folks in New York City and elsewhere.

These rampaging mobs frequently broke into respectable homes, harassed the homeowners, and demanded food and, especially, drink. Wassailing, yes, but carried to a new level. One old wassailing song said:

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
Whom you have seen before.

These new urban mobs could not say that. the story continues tomorrow