Tag Archives: history

422. Little Bitty White Hunters

When he got back to his apartment, Neil dug around in his still packed boxes to find the few books he had kept as personal treasures from his childhood. The formula books had not worn well; they held little that the adult Neil McCrae could find worthwhile. But there were others that had kept their value, and he spent the next four hours accompanying the young Hunt brothers as they continued the expedition their father had had to abandon, collecting zoo animals while floating downriver on their Amazon Adventure.

That is a quote from Symphony In a Minor Key. It was the opening paragraph of Symphony 13, over in Serial.

Neil McCrae and I have a lot in common — duh — but I also kept him as a separate person. He has more patience than I do, for example. Another thing I did was give him an English class, while I was teaching science. This lets him read to kids and read their papers, and that gives me — through him — the chance to tease out what is going on in their minds.

More than any other subject, literature is about involvement and about demonstrating that involvement by writing. But please! Sixth grade papers are awful. You’ll see when you have to read some of them with Neil. I’ll be over here with my bunsen burner; call me when you are through.

I’ve done my share of teaching reading and literature, which aren’t quite the same thing. Neil encounters a ton of difficulties, and solves them, more or less. I encountered all the same problems in my first fifteen years of teaching, and the same good, bad, and ugly solutions, before science largely pushed reading out of my curriculum.

Teaching reading is tough in a school where the children have widely ranging skill levels. Teaching literature is relatively easy, if you have good literature to teach. Accepted literature is not the same as good literature. I don’t have the guts to teach Where The Red Fern Grows. If you had that piece of pornography of violence foisted on you as a child, you’ll get the pun. On the other hand, I loved teaching Fog Magic.

Truthfully, most of the children’s literature I know, I read as a teacher. There were no bookstores which featured children’s books where I grew up, and besides, most of the children’s books I read when I was a teacher hadn’t been written yet when I was a child.

Like most children who are given the choice, I read books for children, books for young adults, and books for adults, indiscriminately. I still do. Just a couple of years ago I made it half way through my childhood set of Rick Brant books before I ran out of time and steam. Any time I see a Howard Pease juvenile, I snatch it up. His popularity has waned and they are getting scarce.

So Neil looks back at his childhood (which was my childhood — Neil was born full grown on the Ides of March) and remembers the books he read. Willard Price wrote the “___ Adventure” books starting with Amazon Adventure in 1949, and continuing for an additional thirteen books, ending in 1980. I only read the first four; by the time he wrote the rest, I had outgrown them. They all followed the pattern Neil later recounts, someone young went somewhere interesting and did something exciting, without adult supervision. That isn’t much, but that is all it takes.

In some cursory research today, I ran across an interesting phenomenon. I don’t want to make too much stew out of one oyster, but the critics in the day when the “___ Adventure” books were written, said that they were full of cruelty to non-Western people and animals. That is a problem in anything written before books were sanitized in the name of political correctness. If I were a cynic, I could say that this makes the eligible to join the rest of Western literature. Fortunately, I’m not a cynic, but I did note that comments written recently by men who grew up reading the “___ Adventure” books, then became adult writers of today, praised those books. Hmmm.

The truth is, when I wrote Symphony originally, I wasn’t thinking of Amazon Adventure at all. I was thinking of Zane Grey’s Ken Ward in the Jungle, but I didn’t have a copy, and had no way to get one to cross-check my memory. Amazon Adventure was in the local library, so it was the one to be immortalized.

Today things are different. I went to the other Amazon and ordered an eBook containing all three Ken Ward stories. Kindle is my new favorite word beginning with a K. It lets me romp through my out-of-print childhood at a buck a pop, without ever leaving the chair in front of my computer.

The world has changed, and my tastes have changed as well, so I don’t have much hope, but I’m going to give Ken Ward another try.


420. Created Equal, Not Likely

I made Neil McCrae an English teacher. This has quite a few advantages in that English teachers deal with emotions and hidden meanings. That works out well in writing about teaching.

Personally, I wouldn’t teach English for five times what they paid me. It is too hard. Any question you pose has fifty answers, and you have to read all of those awful student papers. I read my share one year when the English teacher, the History teacher, and I set up a cooperative teaching situation. Every student researched and wrote a paper on some nineteenth century scientific innovation.

In case you never thought about it, the nineteenth century is when science took over mankind. 1800 if far more different from 1900, than 1900 is from 2000. Look it up.

Our kids had to look it up. This was only ten years ago — we only did it one year — and for the first time our computer lab was fully connected to the internet. We gave them the time they needed to do the work in school, since many of our students were too poor to be connected at home. While they worked, we walked around to see that they weren’t playing the latest game or copying a student paper on their subject from half-way around the world.

When all was finished, all three teachers read the papers separately, with different criteria, and the papers got grades in all three classes. They got a grade for writing and grammar from the English teacher, a grade for how their innovation affected history from the History teacher, and a grade for scientific accuracy from me. That made for some odd moments.

On student, used to all As, bright, skillful, and cocky wrote a paper on a scientific innovation without doing any research. The paper was beautifully written, carefully printed, neatly bound, and grammatical, but she had faked it. I understand that; a good writer can fake his way out of a Federal prison, and it can become addictive.

All her scientific facts were dead wrong. The paper got an A in English, an A in History, and a D in Science, along with a half-page explanation of why, and a red circle around all her errors.

Does Middle School exist do teach you how to avoid getting caught in High School? Could be.

I taught everything my first year, and a little more science every year thereafter until I was finally down to just science. It’s surprising how many people don’t feel comfortable in science. The imposter syndrome is rampant. Personally, I loved it; it was my favorite subject from the first, and there were a lot of other teachers who were glad to let me do it.

The only other subject with more people who don’t want to teach it, is math. But even math has its advantages. “The answer to the problem is 9.72, Johnny. It doesn’t matter if you think it shouldn’t be. That’s what it is!”

Try saying that in a Civics class when you are discussing Republicans and Democrats.

PE teachers get a bad rap. I’m sure there are some lousy ones out there, but the ones in my school were excellent. Still, thirty years of playing Tate-ball (invented by our PE teacher Mr. Tate) seven hours a day can get to you. Adriana, my friend and the other PE teacher, enjoyed fifteen years of outdoor teaching, but all those early autumns and late springs in the blazing sun finally took their toll. She switched to science. There will be more on this Wednesday.

410. An Honest Novel

I wrote an honest story. Everything that happened, could have happened in my real world. Many of these things were close analogs to things that did happen.

That is what I said in Symphony 2 and I stand by it, but I also have to explain it.

I wrote Symphony in 1988 and 1989, about a middle school much like the one in which I taught. That means it was small, underfunded, understaffed and blessed or cursed (you decide) with a racial mix of about half Hispanic and half Anglo. Keirnan School in my fictional world is on Keirnan Road, north of Modesto, California, in a mixed agricultural and industrial area.

Kiernan Road is real. Every road and most structures in my fictional world existed in the real world as well, although much has changed since then. The place where my fictional school exists was open agricultural land in 1988. On Kiernan Road, west of my fictional school, was and is a school of a different name which is part of the Modesto School District. My fictional school is not that school. Mine exists in a tiny two-school district, much as the school where I taught. That means severely restricted resources, which will become apparent as the story progresses.

The opening sequence of chapters The Ides of March and May 1988 may seem unbelievable to any modern teachers who reads this, or to any retired teachers who were teaching in the same era in large school districts. Yes, the police should have been involved, but in those days a powerful board member like Alice’s father could easily sway his board. Yes, Child Protective Services should have been notified and they should have made determinations. Again, this was a questionable judgement call. Clearly, similar to calls are still being made my some universities today.

If things had gone as they should have, Neil would have escaped censure and there would have been no novel. However, things often don’t go as they should, in fiction and in the real world.

Under these circumstances, Neil could not have been hired for a year by any large district, even in 1988. But a small district, with minimal pay, constantly struggling to hold on to its teachers, is in a very different place. It could easily have happened in such a real district, as it did in the novel. I have seen far more questionable hires go through.

Symphony faces a conundrum. Every movie or TV show about teaching is wildly inaccurate in dozens of ways. Since that is what readers regularly see, Symphony, which looks very different, seems questionable precisely because it is accurate.

I ran every situation in Symphony through this truth test: Could that incident have happened in the school where I worked? If the answer was no, I changed the story.

Anything that seems strange to you — sorry, I’ve seen weirder.

409. Man Stuff

I wrote this last Thursday. The post, not the quotation.

          Marquart and Dael took a bench in a completed corner. “Tell me how you have things arranged,” he said.
          “None of the wardens will leave their houses until late in the morning. The first will arrive here about midday. We will have roast krytes ready by then . . .” Marquart waved away her recitation. He didn’t care about preparations for food and drink; he was satisfied that there would be plenty of both.
          “Who will sleep where? Who will arrive first, who will stay latest, who will want to get me alone to talk to, who will get drunk quickest, who is likely to pick a fight, and with whom?”
          “Oh, man stuff.”
                                          from Valley of the Menhir

Today, I was writing chapter eleven of my latest steampunk novel. So far my hero (I don’t do wimpy protagonists) has served aboard four dirigibles and has risen in rank from Sub Lieutenant to Lieutenant Commander, brevet, in the British air service. These craft are the result of an unscrupulous Brit who, through theft, intimidation, and assassination has crippled the German airship effort and stolen all their ideas.

Earlier this morning (as I wrote) Lieutenant Commander David James and I settled thirty passengers into their berths on the Henry V, a dirigible of war acting as a passenger vessel carrying diplomats the the Grand Durbar in Delhi. If you don’t know what a durbar is, you’ll find out in coming months. David hated every minute of it.

Then we got a break of several hours as he got to go back to his real job as the lowest member of the group of senior officers, seeing to details as the dirigible, nicknamed Harry in reference to Shakespeare, leaves London for Paris. We have been following David’s career for eleven chapters now, and he has done a little bit of everything as he worked his way up. He will do even more in the future, and we will (metaphorically) stand at his shoulder and give him our moral support.

Man stuff.

The year is 1887, Victoria is on the throne, and our Britain is even stronger than the real one was since they just won the German War, largely through a squad of spies and assassins that remains Britain’s guilty secret. David is one of the few Brits who knows this.

Now its time for me to take David by the shoulders and march him down to the lounge to preside, as a stand-in for the massively scarred Commander VanHoek, over the first evening meal of the cruise. He hates the idea. Actually, so do I. In writing, as in life, sometimes if you want to go to a certain place, the path to get there passes through places you would rather avoid.

I’ve been researching Victorian aristocratic gossip in order to build a world like yet unlike our own. It’s not my cup of Earl Grey, but it is the job I’ve taken on, and I will do it well. Well enough, in fact, to move my readers through the event without arousing their distaste. That’s the writer’s equivalent of “never let them see you sweat”.

Still, I’ll be glad when the dinner is over so David and I can get back down to the engineroom where we can try to get another horsepower out of those damned, recalcitrant McFarland engines.

Man stuff.

405. Blondel’s Future

You really should go to Serial and finish Blondel of Arden before you read this post.

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I enjoyed writing Blondel of Arden. I like formal language, and I don’t get to use it often. I also rarely get the chance to write something completely light.

Blondel was pure fun, with every possible cliché in place. Quite sexist, actually. Somewhat like John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in McClintock or in The Quiet Man. She gives him hell in both movies, and he paddles her at the end. (Pun unintended, but noted.) That is actually more than I can tolerate and I usually turn the TV off somewhere short of the end.

I understand the bondage symbolism in this kind of fiction. The climax of McClintock when O’Hara is running from her husband with all the town cheering him on is too much like a rape scene with spectators for my taste. I stopped well short of that in Blondel of Arden.

Blondel is a cynic, Grat is an innocent, and Sylvia is a twit. That’s thin characterization, but adequate for a short semi-comic piece. I enjoyed this brief encounter with more-or-less cardboard characters.

However, I’m a sucker for people, even people on paper. I thought Sylvia had some quality hidden beneath her flirtatious exterior. I liked her. I thought she had potential.

You have to understand that I wrote this many years ago. I thought of turning it into a novel, but I never will. I have four or five novels waiting in the wings now, and by the time I finish them, I’ll have a half-dozen more tugging at my sleeve.

But when I was considering a novel, this is what I had in mind —

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Sylvia returns home, sans broach, to a pointless round of “women stuff”. She hates it. She misses the one great adventure of her life. She also reviews he own behavior, and finds it wanting. Grat and Blondel served her well and she served them with contempt. She broods about her behavior, and works to make herself better in her everyday round.

This is not enough. She owes a debt. (See, I told you she had quality.) If she can’t pay it, she can at least acknowledge it.

Something – I don’t know what – happens which frees her from her obligations at home. She sets out to find Blondel and Grat, to do something for them if she can, or at least to say thank you and I’m sorry I was such a twit.

Blondel and Grat have become companions. Grat is beginning to lose his innocence. Blondel fears that it is from associating too closely with him. Grat is also lovesick; Sylvia was his first romance and he can’t forget her. Blondel finds this alternatively endearing and irritating.

Blondel’s crust is thinning, and that is dangerous. He is a smart, little guy in a world of ignorant, thundering clods. His ability to “do unto them” quietly and unnoticed is his only defense. Every time he does something self-serving – which is basically how he survives – Grat looks on, once again disappointed in his friend.

Sylvia eventually finds them and joins them. Nobody is really happy with the arrangement. Any pair of the three could find a way to coexist, but the three-way relationship cuts too close to each of their hidden weaknesses.

Each person finds him/herself in peril and escapes that peril only through the aid of the other two. Grat and Sylvia grow in romantic love, while Grat has to wrestle with the understanding that Sylvia is no longer a damsel in distress. Blondel, to his external disgust and his disguised satisfaction, find himself in an avuncular relationship with these two innocents.

What perils? How do they overcome them? Beats me. Writing peril and escape are the easiest parts of writing a novel. They will present themselves as needed, if you know your characters and where they are going to end up.

I was also planning to use this as an excuse to build a story around a fantasy version of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a real event in 1520 when Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France held an extravagant series of jousts in the fading days of classical knighthood. Think kings in golden plate armor whacking each other for sport and bragging rights, in a world where cannon balls could blow fist sized holes through either of them if the battle were real.

This gives us three real and relatable people trying to survive on the fringes of empty magnificence. Now the kings are cardboard — which is their normal state of being.

I don’t have time to take six months to write this novel, but I would love to spend two days reading it.

402. Nuclear Spacecraft

I taught middle school science for twenty-seven years, and always, whether I was supposed to or not, I taught the space program.

I grew up with space travel, first in fiction, then in fact. I loved it, and the kids I taught loved it, too. How much of that rubbed off from me, I’ll never know.

By the time I started teaching, the big show was over. When Gene Cernan stepped back into his LEM in 1972, it was the high water mark of manned space exploration. It’s been downhill since.

In the classic science fiction novel I had planned to serialize, Rip Foster is heading out toward the asteroid belt on the nuclear powered spacecraft Scorpius. That’s how we all thought the future would look. That’s how the future should have looked. Chemically powered rockets are simply not sufficient for exploring the solar system.

We have have nuclear power plants for electricity, nuclear submarines, nuclear aircraft carriers, even a nuclear cargo ship. Why not nuclear spacecraft? Weight? Do you really think we couldn’t have overcome that problem? Maybe it was the danger, but . . .

Here is a quiz for you. How many nuclear submarines are lying on the bottom of the ocean, tombs for sailors and ecological time bombs for the rest of us? Two from America and six from Russia. An additional Russian nuclear sub sank twice, but was raised both times.

How many nuclear and thermonuclear bombs have gone missing? The U.S. admits to eight. How many more are hidden under the umbrella of security? Your guess is as good as mine. How many have the Soviet’s lost? You ask them, I’m keeping my head down.

Did I mention Chernobyl and Fukushima?

Let me put it another way. When the Soviets launched Sputnik and initiated the space race, then followed up with a man in orbit before we could even launch a sub-orbital flight, we did an end-around and went to the moon.

If the Soviets had launched a nuclear powered space craft, we would have launched a nuclear powered space craft. Technology would not have stopped us. Fear of radiation would not have stopped us.

That was then, this is now. The best thing for manned space exploration today – though not for American interests or world peace – would be for the Chinese to launch a nuclear powered space craft. It wouldn’t even have to be a good one. Just the threat would be enough, and in a few decades ships like the Scorpius would be filling the solar system.

401. Harold Goodwin

Harold Goodwin was a diver, worked for Civil Defense, NASA, NOAA and other agencies, and said that his books “were often a spinoff from my technical work.” He wrote forty-three books in all. His popular science books were written under his own name, and included Space: Frontier Unlimited and Challenge of the Seven Seas. I have not been able to find a full list, but it hardly matters. They would be hopelessly out of date.

If you plan to look in Goodreads, look up his pseudonyms. The Harold Goodwin they feature isn’t our guy.

Try this: look up The Rocket’s Shadow on Goodreads. You will find three authors on the by-line — John Blaine, Harold Leland Goodwin, Peter J. Harkins. Harkins co-wrote the first three Rick Brants with Goodwin. Clicking on H. L. G will take you nowhere useful, but clicking on John Blaine will take you to his Washington Post obituary. For a man who is hard to track down, this is the most accessible mini-biography. Or just click here.

Goodwin’s twenty-four volume Rick Brant series of science adventures for young people were written under the name John Blaine. His only true science fiction novel, also for the young, was Rip Foster’s story, written under the pseudonym Blake Savage.

Goodwin served as a combat correspondent in the Marine Corps in the Pacific during World Was II. By no coincidence, Scotty, Rick Brant’s companion, was an ex-marine who also served in the Pacific. And Rip Foster’s Planeteers from the Rip Foster book are basically space marines.

Goodwin served as a State Department official in Manila after the war; Rick and Scotty end up in the Pacific and islands of the East Indies in several stories.

Goodwin wrote on the cutting edge of science, but he started writing in the late forties, so most of what he wrote seems dated today. He was generally accurate, with a couple of goofs. In his first Rick Brant The Rocket’s Shadow, he fouled up the calculations and got his rocket to the moon in hours instead of days. He later expressed embarrassment at his error. In the Rip Foster book, he has Rip conversing freely with Earth from a point near the Sun — he forgot that pesky speed-of-light communications delay.

When the Rip Foster book came out, we all expected to see nuclear spacecraft and a rapid expansion of the manned exploration of our solar system. Heinlein made an early career out of the same assumption, but it never happened. in that sense, the sixty-plus year old Rip Foster book is still out ahead of us.