Tag Archives: americana

611. Living Through History

I never worked for NASA. I have no actual connection with the space program, but I love it. These days, everybody is talking about the moon landing, but I’m not going to post about it directly. There is no need. I’m no expert, but every real expert left alive will be on your TV.

My connection is personal, and I first wrote about it when this website was new, in October of 2015. I don’t normally like to repeat old posts, but I can’t say it any better.

===========

It was pledge week at PBS. They ran the biography of Neil Armstrong for the upteenth time. My wife and I watched it for about the third time, and when it was over, she said, “That was my childhood.”

I knew exactly what she meant. She and I were soul mates long before we met. Pardon the corn, but it’s true. She grew up in Michigan and I grew up in Oklahoma; we met in college. But when we were children, we were both science nuts long before Sputnik. We both repeatedly checked out Vinson Brown’s How to Make a Home Nature Museum and followed the instructions. We both checked out books on how to grind the lens on your own reflecting telescope, but neither of us made one because we didn’t have the money to buy the glass blanks.

On October 4, 1957, Russia orbited their first satellite. I was in fifth grade when the teacher went up to the front of the room and wrote Sputnik on the board. She said it meant Earth-moon in Russian. It didn’t, but we knew almost nothing about the Russians then. A few days later, she wheeled a cart into the room. It had beakers beneath, a tiny sink, and a hand pump. Oklahoma schools had instituted science as a middle school and elementary subject for the first time.

I kept track of every satellite we launched and every rocket that blew up on the pad. There were a lot of them. When the Russians launched Muttnik (the nickname was American) I was fascinated to see a living creature in space. All my schoolmates said only the stinking Russians would send a dog up there to die.

I watched the Mercury astronauts first press conference and quickly got to know them all. I was thrilled when Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth. Everybody wrung their hands because a Russians got there first, but I didn’t care. We were in space — and we meant people, not Americans.

I watched Shepard’s and Grissom’s launches, and cheered when Grissom didn’t go down with his capsule. In Michigan, my future wife was collecting every magazine that covered the Mercury program.

I was at school while John Glenn was in orbit, so I missed something monumental in our family history. My father, who thought the space program was a waste of money, got off his tractor and came in to watch the televised coverage. He later said, “I just couldn’t work until we got that old boy back safe.”

The rest of Mercury, Gemini, the beginnings of Apollo — I followed every mission.

I had discovered ecology, at a time when nobody knew what the word meant. I spent my junior year building an Ecosystem Operable in Weightlessness for the regional science fair. It was complicated, cutting edge, and more than I could actually complete by fair day. I won’t bore you with the details, but it helped get me a Fleming Fellowship the following summer. That gave me a chance to work with real scientists and to see some of the world beyond my tiny town. Those were the people who suggested I should apply to Michigan State.

At MSU the Biology department cared nothing about ecology. I was a few years too early; if you didn’t need an electron microscope to see something, it wasn’t interesting — to them. The closest thing to behavioral biology was Anthropology, and that is where I ended up. And where I found my wife.

We married in 1969 and took off for a long drive around the US, visiting relatives and national parks. We got back to to East Lansing in mid-July, following Apollo 11 on the car radio. On July 20 went went in to the student lounge of her old dorm and sat with dozens of college students watching a grainy black and white TV as Neil Armstrong set his foot on the moon.

You should have been there.

Advertisements

599. Wandering Quotes

This is a follow-on from Monday’s post, but it isn’t Part 2.
Either post can be read independently.

Louis L’amour left home early, wandered the world, then settled down to be a writer. Unlike many who came at writing later in life, L’amour was set on it from the first. He said:

My intention had been to write, and consequently I had made  no effort to acquire a trade . . . All I had to offer was considerable physical strength and two hands, but for most jobs that was all that was required . . . All the while I read. There was no plan, nor at the time could there be. One had to read what was available . . .

It would be hard to live such a life today. The hard work of the world has been outsourced — within America to undocumented aliens who fear INS too much to fight back against slave-like labor, and outside America, to a world-wide cadre of peasants, living slave-like lives. 

L’amour also said of his memoir:

This is a story of an adventure in education, pursued not under the best of conditions. The idea of education has been so tied to schools, universities, and professors that many assume there is no other way, but education is available to anyone within reach of a library, a post office, or even a newsstand.

If L’amour were alive today, he would of course include the internet, with appropriate caveats.

L’amour’s westerns are full of slam bang action. There is no way to pretend that isn’t a large part of their appeal, but it isn’t enough to account for their huge popularity. There are plenty of shoot-em-ups that are briefly on the newsstand, and as quickly disappear from memory. Louis L’amour has proved as close to immortal as a genre writer can become.

I’ll take a stab at explaining why. Feel free to disagree. He was a “frontier philosopher”. Note the quotes; this term is actually insulting, but it fits. L’amour had read as widely as any author, and his understanding of human beings was profound. But when he made “philosophical” pronouncements, he couched them in simple language, and frequently put them into the mouths of uneducated characters. They sound wise, but without arrogance.

Have faith in God but keep your powder dry.

Adventure is just a romantic name for trouble. It sounds swell when you write about it, but it’s hell when you meet it face to face in a dark and lonely place.

A mistake constantly made by those who should know better is to judge people of the past by our standards rather than their own. The only way men or women can be judged is against the canvas of their own time.

Violence is an evil thing, but when the guns are all in the hands of the men without respect for human rights, then men are really in trouble.

Just because the NRA also says it, doesn’t make it wrong.

A mind, like a home, is furnished by its owner, so if one’s life is cold and bare he can blame none but himself. You have a chance to select from pretty elegant furnishings.

Knowledge was not meant to be locked behind doors. It breathes best in the open air where all men can inhale its essence.

When you go to a country, you must learn how to say two things: how to ask for food, and to tell a woman that you love her. Of these the second is more important, for if you tell a woman you love her, she will certainly feed you.

That one might not be politically correct any more.

It is often said that one has but one life to live, but that is nonsense. For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.

Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.

Just because every New Age self-help book also says it, doesn’t make it wrong.

Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.

Do not let yourself be bothered by the inconsequential. One has only so much time in this world, so devote it to the work and the people most important to you, to those you love and things that matter.

If you want the law to leave you alone, keep your hair trimmed and your boots shined.

Okay, that last one could just as easily have come out of Heinlein’s mouth. I find those two authors to be much alike, each attuned perfectly to his own era, and both as American as the flag.

—- ALSO —-

When L’amour settled down to write, he tried his hand at many different genres, and stayed with the ones that paid the rent. Early on, he wrote poetry (and you know that didn’t pay the rent).

Many years ago I discovered that his poetry had been collected in a book that sold very few copies, and those only locally. I managed to get a copy on inter-library loan, and enjoyed it. I even copied a few poems and stored them in my computer, since I never expected to see the book again.

Then, in researching this post, I discovered that Bantam had reprinted Smoke From This Altar, so I immediately bought a copy.

If you have a liking for Kipling and Robert Service, you might give him a listen. The work is not all great, but there are gems. I can’t quote a whole poem, that would violate copyright, but I’ll give you a piece of one as a taste.

I turned the leaves of an ancient book
    A book that was faded and worn —-
And there ‘tween the leaves I found a rose,
    A tiny rose, and a thorn.

In truth, they aren’t all good, but I don’t mind digging through lumps of glass for an occasional diamond. Recommended, with reservations.

598. The Education of a Wandering Man

This is a fine book, but it falls into the not-for-everybody category. I stumbled across it years ago, read it, read it again a decade later, and its about time for me to have at it a third time.

The Education of a Wandering Man is an autobiography of Louis L’amour. It doesn’t revolve about where he went or what he did — although plenty of that creeps in — but focuses on what he learned. That includes from the old guys who were there, who told him what the west was like. It also includes from the books he read — a list that would make any book geek’s mouth water.

L’amour left home at 15 to make his way in the world. That would be 1926. One might be forgiven for thinking that the depression drove him to leave but the numbers don’t add up for that interpretation. The biography in his official website attributes it to hard times specific to his North Dakota home area, but the two biographies seem to diverge in details. That appears to be a matter of simplification, rather than concealment. Check Wednesday’s post for LL’s own statement.

The Education of a Wandering Man resonated from the moment I opened the first page. It sounded a bit like my own life. I didn’t leave home early, or leave school early, and I didn’t wander the world. I did start working about age eleven, pretty much full time plus school, but working on a family farm, sleeping in your own bed, and not going hungry does not describe L’amour’s experience.

The real similarity lay in being self-educated. I stayed in school through two masters degrees, but what I learned came mostly from outside the classroom.

Here’s what LL said:

Actually, all education is self-education. A teacher is only a guide, to point out the way, and no school, no matter how excellent, can give you education. What you receive is like the outlines in a child’s coloring book. You must fill in the colors yourself.

Yes, precisely. I went to tiny schools before college. The teachers worked hard, and I thank them, but ninety percent of what I learned came from reading beyond the textbook.

The Education of a Wandering Man is a feast. Here’s a snack to whet your appetite. First on education:

Byron’s Don Juan I read on an Arab dhow sailing north from Aden up the Red Sea . . . Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson I read while broke and on the beach in San Pedro . . . Somewhere along the line I had fallen in love with learning, and it became a lifelong romance. Early on I discovered it was fun to follow along the byways of history to find those treasures that await any searcher . . . One thing has always been true: That book or that person who can give me an idea or a new slant on an old idea is my friend. And there have been many such.

Then on America, as L’amour saw it during his wandering days:

(B)efore the Depression, one must realize there was a great demand for seasonal labor, and much of this was supplied by men called hoboes . . . To begin with, a bum was a local man who did not want to work . . . but a hobo was a wandering worker and essential to the nation’s economy . . . During harvest season, when the demand for farm labor was great, the freight trains permitted the hoboes to ride, as the railroads were to ship the harvested grain and it was in their interest to see that labor was provided. Often this lot of wandering workers was mixed with college boys earning enough money for school or working to get in shape for football . . .
The Depression brought a different kind of drifter to the railroads and highways, and only one who bridged that period can grasp the depth of the change. The Depression hoboes had little of that carefree, cheerful attitude of the earlier hobo. They were serious, often frightened men.

You can read The Education of a Wandering Man several ways. It will tell you about the early life of a beloved author. It will give you a gritty, ground level view of the first half of the twentieth century that you won’t find in history books. It will give you an education in how to get an education. And it will give you enough wanna-reads to last a lifetime.

As L’amour said:

Once you have read a book you care about, some part of it is always with you.

Yep, and thanks for this one, Mr. L’amour.

*    *    *    *

Louis L’amour wrote his novels until he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Then he finally took time to write his memoir. He was editing The Education of a Wandering Man the day he died.

597. Who Speaks for Us?

A teacher in a classroom in Sierra Leone.

I had a post written for today, which I will now boot on down the road, maybe a couple of weeks.

My wife and I frequently watch a morning so-called news program, mostly because the hosts are pleasant people. This morning (that would be two days ago, Memorial Day) they took a moment from time to time to “remember those who served”, and went immediately to the men of Big Little Liars and promised an upcoming interview with Lamar Odom. Then they were going to do in in depth piece on where to find the best Memorial Day sales.

Yikes.

I left quickly. Most mornings all I wait for is a hit of good fellowship, a touch of news and weather, and I’m on to other things. Like writing this.

Their treatment of Memorial Day seemed to strike somewhere between grabbing for cheap emotions and checking off a box, but I’m going to give them a pass. I am not the one to judge, because I can’t be satisfied on the subject. Every time Memorial Day comes around I find myself caught between tears and anger, no matter how well things are presented. I have great respect for those who fought for freedom, but I don’t forget the atrocities committed in America’s name. I know that most Americans are offering genuine respect, and that some Americans are using Memorial Day to push military agendas, and a few are doing both at the same time.

I’m just going to have to let go of Memorial Day for another year. 

Lamar Odom is another matter. Mind you, I don’t know the man, and I avoid any news broadcast containing the word Kardashian. He probably has a story to tell, and certainly has the right to tell it.  Nevertheless, he represents something ugly about America — the Redemption Tour.

You are nobody in America until you’ve hit rock bottom, and clawed your way back up, in full public view.

If you’ve simply lived a wholesome, useful life, you don’t count. But if you’ve ripped off a charity, gotten dragged down by drugs, or cheated your kid’s way into college, welcome to celebrity. America is crying out to forgive you, if you can first tell them a stirring tale of depravity to keep them entertained.

Lamar Odom isn’t the problem; he just set me off. He dredged up something ugly from my past.

I was teaching middle school and we all turned out for a rally. It was one of those manufactured teaching moments, half sermon, half vaudeville, but it went wrong from the start. The presentation was by a batch of ex-cons, who had come to the school to tell our kids to go straight. Supposedly. In fact, it was anything but that. They were strutting baboons, flexing their muscles in their tight T-shirts, showing off their tattoos, and tearing phone books in half.

And, no, baboon is not a racist dog whistle this time. These were all white guys. It’s just an accurate description.

They told the kids, “Stay in school, keep on the straight and narrow, don’t end up in prison cause the guys there will eat you alive. You don’t want to end up like us.”

And the teenage boys all said under their breaths, “The hell we don’t!” These parodies of masculinity were exactly what they wanted to become.

Then one of the ex-prisoners began to harangue a tough looking Mexican-American student. He said, “I know you. I know what you’re thinking . . .” But he didn’t. He didn’t even know the boy’s name. He had never seen him before, but that didn’t stop him from calling the boy out.

It was always like that. Whenever somebody came to our school to make our students into better people, they always zeroed in on Mexicans as the ones they planned to reform.

Any teacher in the room could have told you the boy’s name. A lot of them could have told you his parents’ names, and would have had a pretty good idea of their income. Many of them would have known his sisters and brothers names, and would have taught them in years past. Some of those teacher had probably been in his home.

Any teacher in that gym could have stood in front of those children and have given them good advice about their futures — in fact they did just that every day in their classrooms. But those teachers hadn’t been to prison, so they were in the bleachers while the ex-cons cavorted like movie stars.

If you think I don’t believe in second chances, that isn’t the point. I don’t believe in parading your failures like badges of honor and I don’t believe you have to go low before you can go high.

There is nothing wrong with not going to prison.

Just go high, without bothering to go low first. Nobody will ever notice you. They won’t put you on television or in front of a gym full of kids, but that’s okay. We can live with that.

596. Memorial Day

My father was the tenth of eleven children. He had brothers and sisters much older than he was, some of whom I never met. The ones I knew were my father, his immediate older and immediate younger brothers. All three were of an age to serve in WW II.

The older brother was a welder. He spent the war working at a bomber plant in Tulsa. I never knew which one. He would have passed through the war on a deferment for someone who was essential to the war effort at home, and so he never entered the military. I didn’t say he never served. Making bombers was service, but he got to sleep in his own bed at night, and nobody was shooting at him.

My father was drafted into the Army, and joined the First Division somewhere in France, not long after D Day. He stepped into the shoes of the ones who had already fallen. He fought across France and into Belgium, where he endured the Battle of the Bulge and was wounded shortly after. When he had recuperated, the war was over and he spent the occupation in Bavaria.

My father’s younger brother was also drafted, probably after VE day. He trained and was put on a troop transport. In his words, “they put me on a ship and sent me over to Japan to die.” While he was crossing the Pacific, America dropped two atomic bombs and the war ended. His service was spent in occupation of Japan.

None of my immediate relatives died in service, but when Memorial Day comes around, I still feel the weight of those who did. I think of Frenchy, a man I never met, who was my father’s friend before I was born, and who died somewhere between France and Germany.

It was a war that had to be fought, and a lot of men never came home.

Two decades later, I was quasi-drafted. That is, my draft lottery number was up, and I joined the Navy to have some kind of say in where I served. Times were different. Viet Nam was a war without justification.

I spent my time working at a Naval Hospital that sits in the middle of Camp Pendleton Marine Base, the place Marines were trained just before deployment to Viet Nam. I was head tech in the oral surgery section, which meant I spent my days chairside assisting our oral surgeons. Over three and a half years, I helped relieve about 5000 marines of their wisdom teeth, helped set about 350 broken jaws, and assisted in about a dozen maxilo-facial reconstructions.

I often wonder how many of the Marines I worked on never made it back.

593. Flying the Good War


A note before we begin. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 10 liftoff is Saturday, but my post on that event will wait for the anniversary of the descent, next Wednesday.

For Americans, WWII was The Good War. For many of us, it was the last war we could be proud of. It is also the last war we won. There has to be a connection in that somewhere.

My father came home from the war, found a wife and had a son, all in a year. I grew up in the shadow of the war he had just fought. The idea of being a pacifist, or even questioning going into the military never came up for me until much later when America found itself in Viet Nam.

In 1956, when the Soviets invaded Hungary, my cousin and I played refugees escaping to America. In 1962, when the first theatrical movie played on TV, it was The Enemy Below. Our whole family watched together as an American destroyer played a game of wits with a German U-boat. After that, I wanted to join the Navy.

(I did, eventually, but that was an entirely different set of circumstances, and a whole different story.)

That’s how it starts for a boy, and reading can be a big part of the story. A lot of space adventure juveniles are really stories about space navy or space marines. The Bullard and Rip Foster books mentioned about a month ago (post 582) are examples, but they are much toned down compared to the juveniles about WW II, written while we were actually fighting.

God is my Co-pilot wasn’t a juvenile, but it is still that kind of book. During the days just before America entered WWII, Robert Scott was a volunteer pilot fighting the Japanese on behalf of the Chinese. Millennials will have to do a mental reset on that issue; Japan was an industrial powerhouse then, China was a backward country of peasants, and the Japanese attacks were brutal. America’s sentiments were with the Chinese.

Robert Scott wrote his memoir in 1943 and thousands of American kids read it from that time forward. I was one of them. When he shot Japanese planes out of the sky, I cheered him on. But he also strafed soldiers on the ground. That was a little tougher to read about, but they were the enemy, after all. He nicknamed his plane “Old Exterminator” . It was quite a bit different from fifties TV where the cowboy always shot the gun out of the bad guy’s hand.

Even though Scott’s tone was dispassionate, hating the enemy came through clearly. That was also true of R. Sidney Bowen, who wrote the Dave Dawson series, but there was nothing dispassionate about his way of putting things. For example:

The dark of night had come again to war besieged England, and from the northern most tip of Scotland clear south to the Isle of Wight British eyes and ears were on the alert for any and all surprise moves by Hitler’s devilish hordes on the other side of the English Channel and the North Sea. . . . At Lands End Base, however, there were two who were not waiting for “Satan,” with his trick mustache and ever drooping lock of greasy hair, to make the next move.

The Nazi was almost screaming by the time he finally came to a pause. Dave, looking at his flushed face, spittle drooling mouth, and popping eyes, knew that he was not looking at just one man but at a living symbol of the whole rotten to the core Nazi breed. Just as Air Marshal Manners had said, “Clever, cunning, and a genius at his work, but a black hearted, ruthless murderer.”                         both quotations from Dave Dawson on Convoy Patrol

Like Scott, Bowen had been a military pilot. He started out driving an ambulance during WW I. He later lost that job because he was underaged, returned to the US, and when he turned seventeen, volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps. He saw limited service as WW I wound down. He then joined the US Army Air Service.

He became a journalist, and later became editor-in-chief of Aviation Magazine. When WW II broke out in Europe, he began the Dave Dawson War Adventure series which produced fifteen volumes during the war. They were still available in one local library when I discovered them fifteen years later.

They weren’t literature. They were really pretty awful. They did have something going for them besides slam-bang action and hyper-patriotism, and that was all the airplanes. Dave and his buddy Freddy were constantly flying different Allied planes, forever getting shot down or parachuting behind enemy lines for reasons of espionage, and always escaping in a captured Nazi or Japanese plane. Over the course of fifteen volumes, they must have flown sixty types of planes.

Whatever Bowen lacked, he knew his planes.

Dave Dawson began as an American volunteer in the RAF, just as Bowen had done one war earlier. When America entered the war, Dave and Freddy bounced back and forth between flying for Britain and flying for America. Eventually, they fought in every theatre, taking young Allied readers with them.

They hated Nazis and they hated Japs (Bowen’s word), but they were never cruel. They would never have strafed troops on the ground, as the real Robert Scott did regularly. In Dave Dawson with the Pacific Fleet, two spies were escaping from the boys’ aircraft carrier, carrying vital information to the Japanese. Dave and Freddy shot down their plane, but the spies parachuted. Dave and Freddy agonized about the situation; the information the spies were carrying could cost American ships and lives, but in the end they could not bring themselves to machine gun the spies as they floated down.

Robert Scott would not have hesitated a heartbeat.

Dave and Freddy couldn’t keep the spies from reaching a pair of Japanese cruisers, but they did manage to singlehandedly sink both ships, killing thousands of Japanese with a clear conscience. (If you think you detect my tongue jammed securely into the corner of my cheek, you are quite right.)

I admit to liking the excitement, the danger, and the mystery of those books, but for me it was mostly about the planes. Before the space race started with Sputnik, I was already in love with hot planes, and there are no hotter planes than military ones. I put those sentiments into the mouth of Snap in Like Clockwork, when he said to Pakrat:

“Weapons of war are the most beautiful machines men build. I don’t know why it is so, but it is.”

The Dave Dawson books are available in an e-book megapack, which I bought while doing this post. I don’t recommend them, but one reviewer said, “I appreciate that they are clean books, but with enough adventure for a boy.”

Okay, maybe. If John Wayne shooting a few hundred Indians to save the fort was good clean fun, so was Dave Dawson.

When I was a kid, I used to watch those cowboys-and-Indians shoot-em-ups, but I can’t do that any more. I can still ignore the Dave Dawson book’s failings under the excuse of nostalgia, and read one once in a while when it’s late at night and I’m too tired to think. I’m sure it’s the planes that make the difference.

I don’t see books like these any more, but today’s youth don’t need them to get a military fix. They have video games. (There’s that tongue in cheek again.)

592. Armed Forces Week 2019

Armed Forces Week comes in May. It runs from the second to the third Saturday. The third Saturday is also Armed Forces Day.

As holidays go, Armed Forces Week isn’t particularly notable. Mother’s Day also gets caught up in the mix as the only Sunday in the week. For “right thinking people”, that probably seems appropriate. For those of us whose thinking is always a bit off center, it is ironic.

It all depends on your view of the question of the legitimacy of military force. To a very few (not including me) it is always wrong. To the average American, a simple statement that, “We support our servicemen,” ends the discussion.

It really doesn’t end anything.

We all know, whether we want to admit it or not, that every military organization in history has committed atrocities. If your answer to, “Do you support [fill in the military action of your choice?]”, is “I support our troops.”, you are just avoiding the question.

I have problems with all this. I’m no pacifist, and I believe in defending my country. Still, I see example after example of our government screwing things up and getting our servicemen and women maimed and killed for unsupportable reasons. Viet Nam comes to mind, but the problem didn’t stop when that quasi-war was over.

It hits close to home for me in a rather odd way. My wife and I make quilts, and are members of a local quilt guild. There are several organizations like Quilts of Valor which coordinate the making of quilts to be given to veterans. It would be hard to find any organization which seems more useful and harmless, but I don’t participate. Most people see these organizations’ efforts as support for troops and veterans. I respect that position and I never argue with them, but, for me, it feels too much like validating the jackass generals in all the stupid and useless things they do.

It is the same with  Armed Forces week. Most people see it as an appreciation of our soldiers and sailors, but it looks to me like a smoke screen. It tends to make legitimate questions about American military actions look like a lack of patriotism.

I came to this opinion when I was in the service. To clarify that, it was in the Viet Nam era, but I was not deployed to Viet Nam itself.

And it all starts with boot camp. I wrote a post about that experience for Armed Forces Week of 2016, That was three years ago when the blog was new and not many people were reading. I repeated it two years ago, so I won’t print it again, but if you want to know what I think of that institution,  go to 432. The Making of a Navyman.