Sunday, December 4, 2016

No Time for Sergeants by Mac Hyman

Why I Read It: Totally an outgrowth of reading a dual biography of Don Knotts and Andy Griffith (both of whom are in the movie version of the story).

Summary: Will Stockdale is drafted, completely unsuited for life in the military, and unwittingly torments his superior officers.

My Thoughts: While I loved this book to pieces, I wondered as I was reading it what it would have been like to read it when it was released.

Millions of men and women had shared the military experience in World War II, and for decades to come would also share the humor that grew out of its commonly identified moments of ridiculousness. They would laugh about KP, about latrine duties, bad food and much more. As an historian, I get it, and I laugh, But I wonder what it would have been like to have been in the know, in the moment.

It's all in this book, wrapped around the story of a country bumpkin drafted into the Air Force against his father's will, as his father, even more of a bumpkin, can't understand why a recruiter feels he has the right to come onto his land and order his son around. The son, Will Stockdale, is logical and level-headed, if under-educated. He thinks through every situation, oftentimes in his naivete exposing the silliness of aspects of military life. In doing so, he drives the people around him crazy, forever happily advancing through his life in a sort of fog, unaware of his effects on people. His superhuman strength and his ability to intake huge amounts of alcohol seemingly without effect make him that much harder to bring down.

Stockdale befriends Ben Whitledge, a young man descended from a long line of military men, including one who served under Stonewall Jackson in the Civil War. Whitledge believes he is destined to face glory as an infantryman, and is depressed when he finds out that he is heading to the Air Force.

Will and Ben are separated for a while, but eventually reunite for the book's crescendo, a comical series of events that ends with great foreboding, but leaves the reader with an informed fatalistic smile. Will and Ben made it through some tough scrapes; they'll make it through this one.

One topic I'd like to read about further is this book's effect on the future interpretation of World War II and the era. For instance, Will, as latrine orderly, rigs the seats to salute during inspection. Two decades later Major Frank Burns does the same on M*A*S*H. I'll bet there are plenty more such influences.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Frances and Joseph Gies

Why I Read It: I took a medieval history class in college and was inspired. I've never been able to shake it.

Summary: Subtitle: "Technology and Invention in the Middles Ages." We tend to think of the Middle Ages in Europe as dark, dim, unproductive. Were they?

My Thoughts: I've said it before, and I'm sure I will say it again in the future when I get to the next book on the list. I love the Gies and their contribution to medieval history research. Their books are so readable, even after, in this case, 80 years, that it makes you feel like they are across the table from you happily sharing a conversation on the topic.

As a quick aside, my own love for medieval history was solidified when I was a student at UMASS Amherst, studying under Professor R. Dean Ware. I'll never forget another student challenging him, haughtily commenting about how he wouldn't deign to study medieval history, that it was American history all the way. Professor Ware quickly shot back. "What's that, 400 years of one language?"

And that's the opposite of what we are faced with in this book - 1000 years, in many languages, and sometimes no language at all. For much of the historical period referenced here, there was no written information (its own form of darkness). Historical inferences were drawn from images, tapestries, portraits drawings and more. It's certainly an interesting way to do business.

So, what is their ultimate answer to the question posed above? Well, what do you think? Would they spend 300 pages disparaging the Middle Ages, as medievalists? Of course not! And they make quite a case - several dozen, actually - that describes the ways in which technology, in huge sweeping terms, advanced during the period from 500 to 1500 C.E. Not all successes were European. As trade routes opened, the flow of goods from the Middle East brought new technologies that could either be adopted or modified as needed.

Not everything worked, of course, but advances in road building, shipbuilding, navigation, milling and so many other disciplines took place, helping forge the modern world by incrementally moving us forward so that those technologies could be improved upon, as we are doing for generations to come. The Gies argue that it was sometimes reckless, often without thought for the future, but it was in the true spirit of invention, trial and error, much like at any other period in history.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show by Daniel de Vise

Why I Read It: Both actors were big - in re-runs - during my childhood.

Summary: A dual biography of Don Knotts and Andy Griffith, highlighting their years in Mayberry.

My Thoughts: Don Knotts was Mr. Furley to me, first, and then he was Mr. Limpet. Boston's two main UHF local television stations - when stations truly were local - in the late '70s and early '80s ran nightly movies. To keep perspectives fresh, they had theme weeks, like Don Knotts Week. If allowed to stay up past the 7 o'clock hour, we could catch The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, or perhaps The Shakiest Gun in the West. Knotts' bugged-out eyes were all it took to get us rolling on the floor laughing as kids.

I didn't appreciate Andy Griffith 'til much later. It took the coming of the superstation, TBS, to bring the Andy Griffith Show into my home. I knew the theme song - everybody did - but had never really watched the show. Now, TV Land has brought it into my living room every late afternoon. Let's just say that it matched the hype.

Let's face it; it's old. It's black-and-white in the early years. And when it debuted, it told of a simpler time. That was in the mid-60s. For folks then, it was nostalgic. It was about friendship, honor, small-town life and the power of community. Today, folks who lived in the days it represented - people who longed for a return to those days - are almost gone. When I watch the show, I get nostalgic, but it's more like time travel for me, as it's definitely not reminiscence.

The story goes that Don and Andy met each other on Broadway in the 1950s, two southern boys with shared memories from different childhoods. Andy took the lead role in No Time for Sergeants, with Don getting a supporting role (Don having served in the Pacific in World War II). Later, when Andy lands his role as the sheriff of Mayberry - technically a spinoff from Danny Thomas' Make Room for Daddy - Don, freshly out of work, calls Andy and asks if his sheriff needs a deputy.

One wonders how the trajectories of both lives might have been different had that not happened.

Don clearly becomes the star of the show, with the Emmy's to prove it. Andy becomes his straight man, and when Don chooses to leave to pursue a movie career, Andy forges on, but the show is not the same. Neither is Andy's career. Don is a breakout star, riding his fame into the 1970s. Andy motors along from project to project, but never gets over the top again until Matlock comes along. Even then, who does he invite along to play a supporting character? Yup, Andy Taylor and Barney Fife are reunited. Had Andy never invited Don to Mayberry, would Don Knotts have become the star we all lovingly remember today? Would Andy Taylor have evolved differently, and Andy Griffith become the bigger star? Did Andy put his own career unwittingly on hold to boost that of Don?

The friendship was beautiful and lasted 'til the sad end, when Andy said goodbye to Don. On screen they were magic together, and that magic carried into their personal lives. They were so different, in stature, in voice, in comedic style, but they understood each other because they grew up together, in different places. They understood the value of sitting on the porch on a summer night, and the humor, as the author says, of old ladies fretting about their entries for the county fair pickle contest.

The author weaves together two biographies and carries us through both the public and private lives of both men, telling us more than we ever thought we would know about Andy's temper, Don's nerves, their six wives, their relationships with their own parents and kids and more. Through it all we feel a slight bit of shock - would Barney Fife really do something like that? - when we read about transgressions, or dirty jokes, unable to pull ourselves away from Andy Taylor and his deputy, as we have come to know and love Andy Griffith and Don Knotts.

Would you go back if you could? Would you walk the streets of Mayberry, stop to say hi to Opie on the way to Goober or Gomer's shop to check on your car before visiting Floyd's barber shop? Would you sit on the porch with Thelma Lou and Aunt Bee and let the time tick by, if just for a few hours? More importantly, could you do it, with the fast-paced life you lead today?

Mayberry, and Don, and Andy and Aunt Bee and all the rest, still have lessons to teach us today, a half century later.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim DeFede

Why I Read It: Re-read it, actually. A friend had lent it to me about a decade ago, I loved it then, and recently realized I didn't have my own copy.

Summary: Planes heading across the Atlantic on 9/11 were ordered down, and to avoid U.S. airspace. Many landed in Gander, a small Newfie town with a regional airport that was suddenly overwhelmed by thousands of confused and even terrified people.

My Thoughts: It's amazing what happens when money is no longer an issue, when life is placed in front of all else.

Gander, population 9,651 at the time of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, welcomed 42 planes (38 civilian and 4 military) that day, really through no choice of their own. The planes brought an extra 6,600 people to town, people who needed to be fed, housed - indefinitely - and entertained. The town opened its schools, its church, its fraternal organization halls, every place the locals could think up, including their own homes.

They lined up at these places with sheets and blankets pulled right from their own beds, with home-cooked meals and with toys for the children on the flights. They gave, and they gave, and they gave, and they smiled as they did so. The "plane people" were worried and disconnected from loved ones, anxious to make phone calls. And they came from everywhere across Europe and North America. Stores opened up their doors and delivered anything and everything the plane people needed, at no charge.

9/11 had a strange effect on all of us. There was a certain survivor mentality among many of us, though most of us were never in danger. We pulled together and bonded in ways we definitely haven't since. We gave whatever we had - money for the firefighters' funds in New York City; volunteer time in so many ways; food and water; and so much more - and never considered the aftereffects, like a lightened bank account. It was just the right thing to do.

And so it was in Gander. They consider it the "Newfie way" to extend a hand to a stranger in town in need. While many of us were wondering how we could help, removed from the scenes of the attacks, distant from the people who died as a result, the people of Gander were helping a community almost the size of their own, squeezing them into every possible space in town.

The author regales us with the details, the names, the faces, the remarkable frozen-in-time situations that made each individual's story unique. He reminds us that in the face of evil, when the world is at its darkest, hope and love can still outshine everything else.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Age Curve by Kenneth W. Gronbach

Why I Read It: I heard the author speak at a conference, and immediately bought in.

Summary: Demographic changes on the horizon should make us all look closely at how we conduct businesses of many kinds.

My Thoughts: It's simple math, but it's math that many of us are overlooking. I know this for a fact, because I tried to throw out some long-term demographic thinking at a meeting recently that was brushed off as quickly as I got it out. It's the difference between thinking short-term and thinking long-term. For instance, I recently went to buy a car and was told that now was a good time to buy a hybrid, because the dealer was offering heavy incentives to do so. Why? Gas prices had dropped from a few months ago. Really, people are that short-sighted? They go back to Hummers because gas is $2.50 a gallon instead of $3? Doesn't the long-term forecast - as with every other consumable in the world - show that gas prices will eventually rise? With my extra $3000 off, I scooped up the hybrid and started saving money on gas immediately, knowing I was not only paying $2.50 a gallon now, but was only getting gas once a month. Long-term, not short-term.

The author's point is that time moves forward, inexorably, and we can't change the past to create the future we want. When we look at the chart of U.S. live births from 1905 forward, we see definite 20-year patterns - the G.I. Generation, the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, Generation X - and what looks like a 25-year grouping of Generation Y births, the Millenials. The main story we are faced with now is that the Boomers are retiring and Generation X is taking charge of the country's infrastructure, but there are 11% fewer of them (or, "us," I should say) than there were of the Boomers. Generation X won't be able to fill the shoes of the Boomers, not because of quality issues like work ethic, but because there were just way too many shoes in comparison. For every ten Boomer retirees, nine Gen X'ers stand ready to take their places.

So what does this mean for the country? If it's a service the Boomers want or need as retirees, expect a fifteen-or-so-year run, but then be faced with the fact that the population of retirees falls off the cliff when Generation X starts to hit 65. Businesses providing those services will need to consider consolidation, mergers or getting out of the business and moving into services that Generation Y can use, because that's where the greatest portion of the population will be.

Let me give you an example that I have been thinking about (not from the author's work, but inspired by his thinking). For many years I have worked with local historical societies. They have had a strong run since the beginning of the twentieth century (a reaction to immigration and the potential loss of local identity), but have always found it hard to do two things: find new board members and attract young families. The running joke is that local societies have always been run by "little old ladies in white tennis shoes" (women, on average, outliving men). And they've done a good job, but can they, as a force, sustain the pattern?

Consider what I stated above. Once Generation X hits 65, there will quickly become a dearth of retirees in comparison to the previous generation. That's strike one. There will simply be fewer people around who typically fit the description of local historical society leaders. Sadly, this also takes away a large portion of the membership that attends lectures, nostalgic programs and more. Fewer people will be available to run historical societies, and fewer will be interested in what they have to offer.

But there are more factors involved. The typical local historical society board member has strong ties to his or her community. He can say, "I was born on Main Street, right between the Smith house and the Washington house. My dad ran the local gas station, right over there, and my mom taught at the elementary school for 36 years." How many of us can say that any more? We have become transient as a society and no longer can claim that the old adage "you marry someone born within 25 miles of where you were born" is absolutely true. We're not local in nature any more. There will be fewer and fewer people with long, deep knowledge of local landscapes, people who are really dedicated to the preservation of their hometown history. That's strike two.

Can you see a pattern? Now, consider this final pitch. Local historical societies are just that - local. I had the pleasure of working with a friend who was as fiercely dedicated to his hometown as anybody I have ever met. He had this beat-up old pickup truck that he bumped all over town, and we used to joke that it had never seen the neighboring towns. Wouldn't you know it, one day he was driving it to next next town over, and it died on the town border. Local historical societies as they currently operate are just that myopic; they can't see beyond the borders of their towns. In coming years, with the factors above brewing, the first best course of action for historical societies will be consolidation of governance into regional boards of directors covering several local towns. But Springfield wants nothing to do with Shelbyville, and Shelbyville definitely wants nothing to do with North Haverbrook. The only saving grace here is that the generation that will be in charge, Generation X, will not have the fierce local fidelity of the Boomers, and might actually consider consolidation. But what happens if local towns can't work and play well together? A lot of padlocked buildings, the redistribution of artifacts to regional, state and national level institutions (there will still be costs like insurance that will have to be met, without revenue coming in from membership) and a loss of local identity.

So, what's the answer, to avoid the strikeout? Engage Generation Y. Exhibits will have to become less static, more digital. Programs will have to become kid-friendly, catering to young families. Membership packages must have perks the whole family can enjoy. Societies will have to teach history through fun at an early age, as kids no longer get it in school. Elementary schools now teach to standardized math and English tests and have made science and history sidelights of the school year. The STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) movement has arisen as a counterculture for the science side, and science museums and nature centers have become integral partners in science education; history has no such counterpart movement. And - most importantly - understand that American history is not as "white" as it used to be. Societies will have to embrace all of the cultures that make - and have made - their communities great, so that they might become a part of the future of the local history world. We are growing more diverse as a country, not less, and that must be reflected in our local historical societies. Then, with families engaged, and a broader spectrum of cultures involved, Generation Y may provide the leadership needed. If it benefits their kids, they will be willing to support it.

So, yes, once you understand the march of the generations through time, you can see how things have to change. Thank you, Ken Gronbach. My eyes have been opened!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Stars and Strikes by Dan Epstein

Why I Read It: Read Big Hair and Plastic Grass, and grooved on it.

Summary: Major League Baseball and the summer of 1976.

My Thoughts: I lived it - barely. To be truthful, I can't say that I remember anything specifically about the 1976 baseball season - I had just turned five years old - but just about everything about it is familiar.

I remember the names, especially those of the Red Sox. I remember hearing about Mark Fidrych from friends. But I definitely have no memories of Reggie Jackson in a Baltimore Orioles uniform. My earliest memories of him are with the Yankees.

But, I had the baseball cards.

Dan Epstein brings the season back to life, straight form the faces of those Topps cards, from the shaggy locks of Randy Jones (remember the card of him with his hat flying off?) to the mutton chops, from the stark white and black collared shirts of the White Sox to the rainbow of colors being worn around the leagues. He mixes in the stories of the Bicentennial, when America celebrated its founding with event after event, some of which went well, some, not so much. He revels in the music of the summer, of the slow birth of Disc, the emergence of FM rock, the growth of punk. He wraps it all into the baseball season, following the stories of owners like Bill Veeck and Ted Turner (and, of course, George Steinbrenner), managers like Billy Martin and Walter Alston, and players like George Foster, Thurman Munson and so many more that it makes your head spin with beloved nostalgia. If you love the game like I do, you'll remember most immediately, but a few names will make you say, "Holy crap...I almost forgot about that guy."

The book has no choice but to be funky in the best of ways. Every Mick Schmidt home run, George Brett ripped single and Pete Rose slap double, every twist of El Tiante's wind-up screams the '70s in its multi-hued, brash, outspoken glory.

We all know the ending - Big Red Machine over the Yanks - but this book is not about the ending. It's about enjoying the ride. And it's a top-down, slow cruise through the neighborhood with Boston's "More Than a Feeling" blaring at unacceptable levels.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

So Close to Home by Michael Tougias and Alison O'Leary

Why I Read It: Michael is an acquaintance, and a good guy. I read everything he publishes.

Summary: A family leaving Central America in the early days of World War II meets with disaster at sea.

My Thoughts: We've moved on from World War II in many ways, but, there's one thing I've always found odd about the way that we have treated its history. The average, knee-jerk reaction to the notion that German U-boats were off our coasts is unequivocally negative. There's no way they were here, I've been told time and again.

Perhaps it was the wartime press blackouts, the fact that newspapers and magazines and radio stations stayed away from publishing such news, at the urging of the federal government. But they were there, and there are hundreds of American families who can claim lost loved ones off our very own coasts thanks to U-boat attacks.

Tougias and O'Leary detail the pathways of the U-boats lurking in the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 1942 with exact precision, recapturing the horrors of the true terror attacks of World War II. Survivors tell of explosions, abandoning ship, and strange encounters with U-boat captains who say they are sorry, but this is war, before delivering cigarettes and even baked goods to survivors in life rafts.

This story focuses on one family and their struggle to remain alive and together after the freighter on which they are heading home is torpedoed. It captures the darkness of the spring of 1942, when the U-boats controlled the seas, taking out ships at will, racking up tonnage at an alarming rate. The Germans celebrated their U-boat heroes; the Americans lived in abject fear of them.

Yes, the U-boat threat was real off the American coast in World War II. Let Tougias and O'Leary prove to you how real it was.