Sunday, July 1, 2018

Indy 500 Memories by Art Garner and Marc B. Spiegel

Why I Read It: Had a conference in Indianapolis, my first visit to the city; I always try to read something of local interest when I am away.

Summary: An oral history of the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing (also the subtitle).

My Thoughts: I believe it was the movie City Slickers in which the cowboy character, named Curly (and played by Jack Palance), said that the secret of life is "one thing." That's what this book is about.

But the thing about this "one thing" is that it has levels of interest for people all around the world. It's not my one thing, but I certainly recognize many of the players in the game. I don't know a damn thing about Indy car racing, but I know who A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears are as much as I know who Helio Castroneves, Arie Luyendyk and Emerson Fittipaldi are. That says something about the sport, and the race; even casual fans retain at least some recognition. The last Indy 500 I watched end-to-end was in 1982. I remember because Rick Mears had the pole position and I remember the TV I watched it on (he was on the pole six times, but that is the only one that fits all the criteria!).

The authors collected the memories of more than 150 people, from fans to drivers to owners to pit crew chiefs and more. Interestingly, they reiterate the same handful of items - Jim Nabors singing "Back Home Again in Indiana," the horrific 1964 crash that killed two drivers, the winning driver drinking the milk - which makes the book somewhat repetitive, but, in truth, it's what the authors asked for. What do you remember most about the Indy 500?

The authors stage the book well, with chapters on first experiences at the Indy 500, on the women who broke the gender barrier, with special attention paid to the dynastic families and superstar drivers who made the race famous. The book ends with a chapter on tragedies and rides off into the sunset with a chronological chain of triumphs, leading up to 2015.

If there's one disturbing aspect of the Indy 500 story, it's the recurring topic of  death and the nonchalance with which it was accepted in the 1960s and 1970s. One statistic, quoted in the book, said that there was a time period when one in seven drivers was expected to die in competition. One belief, also reported by one of the interviewees, stated that the World War II mentality of "we all have to go sometime" made the drivers push themselves without regard to consequences. It's difficult to accept today, the notion that a man could be killed right on front of thousands and the race would go on.

Whether the Indy 500 is your "one thing" or not is immaterial; just know that going into this book, it is the "one thing" for thousands upon thousands of Americans, and this book is their voice.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Collecting Evolution by Matthew J. James

Why I Read It: A review for Sea History magazine.

Summary: The 1905-1906 California Academy of Sciences expedition to the Galapagos Islands and its aftereffects.

My Thoughts: Oh, how the world has changed.

In 1905, it was acceptable - expected, even - to kill off the last individual of a species on an island under the notion that "if we don't kill it now, we might just lose scientific knowledge of it forever." It is possible, in the case of this particular expedition, that the collectors from the Academy (sailing on the eponymous schooner Academy) killed off one species of tortoise forever under this guiding ethic.

And so they killed. Eight young men with machetes and guns and bullets killed and killed and killed.

Ironically, had they not, the Academy might not exist today. While spending their 366 days in the Galapagos Islands, the collectors were spared the horror of the San Francisco Earthquake of April 1906, and the fires that burned for the days that followed. They missed the destruction of the Academy, and its collection. In the end, they carried the new collection in their hold. Their safe return to San Francisco kept the Academy afloat.

The author details how the expedition was guided by both the work of Charles Darwin and that of Georg Baur, a paleontologist who believed that the islands were not volcanic in nature, but instead the result of a gradual separation of land masses driven by rising waters. The notion would be debated for a few more years, but ultimately proved false. Still, it held merit as the biologists of the day debated how very similar species could be found on the various islands with slight differences. Birds could fly, sure, but could snakes swim, or lava lizards ride driftwood and colonize new islands?

The story has a modicum of testosterone, as eight young men in a ship for a year and a half eventually will blow off steam and throw some lefts and rights. It is riddled with scientific discovery and even has some maritime history credibility. It's not for the squeamish, unless one can put aside modern sensibilities and understand that the study of animals a century ago and beyond involved a whole lot of slaughter.

Doughboys on the Great War by Edward A. Gutierrez

Why I Read It: Fascination with the centennial anniversary of World War I.

Summary: A thorough, detailed study of documents filled out by returning American soldiers after World War I.

My Thoughts: Gutierrez deserves a medal.

When the boys came marching home from the trenches, from the desecrated fields of Europe in 1918 and on, some - in four states at least - were given opportunities to fill out forms detailing their experiences, even sharing their opinions.

Mostly they said the same thing. They confirmed the utterance of General William Tecumseh Sherman: "War is hell."

But it's interesting to see what else they had in common. Soldiers from Connecticut, Utah, Minnesota and Virginia left the most detailed records, because their states were the most diligent about the process. Across the country, men reacted the same way. They charged happily into service, influenced by the writings of Stephen Crane, and an ethos of manliness and devotion to country. They ignored the imagery in the newspapers of the day of war-torn cities. They came out jaded, yet they said they would do it again if their country needed them.

Gutierrez went through them all, checked with the other states, and ultimately codified and boiled down the thoughts of every soldier who left behind comments. His work considers the various groups - African-Americans, recent immigrants, etc. - who put on the AEF uniform and entered combat. He picks up the anger, the patriotism, the pensive reflection and even the humor of the war. He brings the war back to life, through the eyes of the average soldier.

For the enormity of the task and for the wonderful read he crafted for us all to enjoy, Gutierrez deserves that medal.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

My Days, Happy and Otherwise by Marion Ross

Why I Read It: Come on, she was Mrs. C! I grew up with her as a constant presence on my TV as a kid.

Summary: The autobiography of a television legend.

My Thoughts: I personally picked up n the Marion Ross story in the mid-1970s, which, coincidentally, was when her biggest break hit. She had, by then, already had quite a career, so therefore it's inevitable that reading this book filled me in on details I never knew about the acting life she had led before she joined the Happy Days cast. That last statement has to be couched, though, by the fact that we no longer have to wait for biographies to come out to put the pieces of an actor's career together; if I was more of an IMDB cruiser, I would have had more of the picture.

That said, I would have had more of the picture superficially had I taken that route, but nowhere near as deep. The author is frank about her life, and that includes all facets of it. She tells us all about her family life, from growing up through marriage and divorce. She tells us everything we need to know about the road she traveled to Hollywood (when she believed she was actually on the road to Broadway). And so, when we learn about her roles in movies and television, we read about how she got them, the ins and outs of casting, of Hollywood networking and more. One of her early crowning moments comes when she is invited to a reading at the home of the Bogarts to read with Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall and Claudette Colbert.

One of the happy surprises of this book, and there are many, is the 100-page or so block of interviews with the author's Happy Days co-stars and her children. They're almost all there (Tom Bosley, Pat Morita and Al Molinaro having already passed on), with even Garry Marshall and Erin Moran sharing some of their last words for the book. Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Anson Williams, Donny Most and more speak openly about both the show and Marion herself.

Ross' overwhelming message is "it can be done." From the time she was young she had a dream. Taking the strength of her mother's character to heart, she never gave up on that dream, forging a wonderful career for herself and instilling in her own children the same spirit.

She is correct in the notion that not all days are happy, but when you live your life like Marion Ross, they can be overwhelmingly so.

Gator by Ron Guidry

Why I Read It: Ron Guidry was one of the most dominant pitchers I ever saw play baseball.

Summary: The autobiography of one of the Yankees most legendary players.

My Thoughts: The book is obviously ghostwritten, and unfortunately not the best written work out there.

That said, Gator was one of the most fearsome pitchers of his time. I'll never forget the feeling of utter helplessness I had as a kid one night, all hyped up for a Red-Sox-Yankees game, and listening in the top of the first inning to "Strike one, strike two, strike three! Strike one, strike two, strike three! Strike one, strike two, STRIKE THREE!" coming from my radio. In that one game, he was a man playing against boys.

I don't feel this book told the full story of his life, but I do feel like I know him at least a little bit better than I did before I read it. He is a true Louisianan at heart, and takes a lot of pride in his heritage. I was touched by his relationship with Yogi Berra, something I knew nothing about. And I respect his distancing himself from the "burning Bronx" shenanigans in the George Steinbrenner - Billy Martin - Reggie Jackson days. The stories have been told several times about the interactions between these three and more in the late 1970s. Guidry's book doesn't dwell on the negativity, bit focuses instead on his personal baseball story.

Despite what he did to my Red Sox, I have high respect for the Gator, as any true baseball fan should. He was a standout in his time, someone who made the game much more interesting just by standing on the mound and firing that nasty fastball of his over the plate.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis

Why I Read It: Found it in a discount rack at a local independent bookstore, and couldn't believe it. Like most Americans, Peanuts has been a part of my life since my earliest days.

Summary: A biography of the master comic strip artist.

My Thoughts: I've waffled back and forth a bit since finishing this book when attempting to determine my true feelings about Charles Schulz. I think I've come to a decision.

But first, a few facts. The book is a monster, about 560 pages of nonstop inspection of the life of "Sparky" Schulz, the man we all better knew as Charles M. It takes him from his earliest days (and his family from their original immigration to America) through his death, as any good biography should. But it brings us to a level of perception we didn't know we needed to have about his life. It shows us how Schulz bared his emotions to us through his two-dimensional characters.

More than we know of Schulz's life played out in the dailies and Sunday strips. He was an amalgam of many of his main male characters. He thought the world was against him, or didn't love him, as does Charlie Brown; he was a classical music aficionado who wished he could tune out his wife, like Schroeder does with Lucy; he had his religious and philosophical side, like Linus; and he played out his heroic fantasies and desire to break free from societal constraints - to just be a bad boy - like Snoopy.

There was a little red-haired girl, in real life. Lucy had her real-life origins. Even his quieter, supposedly secret relationships played out through the strip. It became a medium through which he could communicate without real worry.

But there is, I believe, more than Michaelis discussed. Now, I'm no nickel-a-session psychiatrist, but it seems to me his loneliness in life had far more to do with his father's lack of closeness and his mother's early death (though Michaelis is correct in keying in on them). I've been around many "only children" in my own life, and notice the same constant desire for attention from them, almost to a fault. Schulz exhibited those behaviors, to me, in spades. It manifests itself in the same way that our great stand-up comedians display their insecurities. They constantly seek the reassurance of laughter to fight their own demons. Schulz, the man, was calling out for attention like a little boy. We can all debate whether or not we are better off with siblings, growing up, but can't deny that they at least have an effect on us as we age. Once we stop arguing about who pushed who and who ate the last cookie, we get to share memories that no one else ever can. With both his parents gone, and no siblings, Schulz had no real connections to his formative home life.

His "woe is me" routine got to me by the end of the book, and had me teetering on the edge a bit. I have a tendency to build up some harsh feelings toward such behaviors, for what reason I don't know. But I think spending so much time with him, through the pages of the book, gave me my own breakthrough. There's a hill we all have to climb to reach a state of self-confidence; Schulz' hill, for whatever reason, was bigger than most. With all his achievements, all his accolades, all his money, one would think there would reach a point of contentment, but it was not to be.

Whether he did it for his own selfish reasons or not, Charles Schulz brought - and brings - joy to millions upon millions of people. I don't go a day without seeing his characters, never mind his influence. My sons and I make up our Charlie Brown Thanksgiving dinner every year (toast, popcorn, pretzel sticks and jelly beans) as we watch Snoopy wrestle the lounge chair. Schulz' impact is not going away any time soon.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Coast Guard Heroes of New Orleans by Captain Robert Mueller

Why I Read It: I've been studying and writing about Coast Guard history since 1996.

Summary: The surface operations undertaken by the Coast Guard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

My Thoughts: As usual, there was much more to this story than meets the eye.

The problem is that the eye can only see what it can see; television news stations only cover what they want to cover. In this instance, with the largest Coast Guard rescue operation in American history, the service assisted approximately 34,000 people. Nine thousand of them were hoisted to safety by helicopters, which made for dramatic TV footage, especially when one shot might show a dozen helicopters hovering over roofs in a particular area, rescuing people one by one.

Why didn't we see the other 25,000? The answer is simple. The footage wouldn't be as homogenized and clean as that of the helicopter rescues. The rescue boats, mostly small punts, did not carry cameras because of the death factor. We didn't see dead bodies floating on TV. We didn't see dead animals floating on TV. Had there been cameras on boats, we might have, and in the case of dead humans, so, too, might have family members of the deceased watching from afar. As such, the boat crews didn't get their fair share of the plaudits for their efforts, in my opinion (not the author's).

Captain Mueller was there, overseeing those boats, and his matter-of-fact descriptions of the situation in New Orleans after Katrina are jarring. One Coast Guard station was destroyed during the storm, others severely damaged. Crews lost their own homes yet worked night and day, living in tents on station grounds. Looters ransacked the stations, with more than 60 brought to justice at Station New Orleans alone, where they had urinated on beds and smeared feces on walls.

As crews headed out to rescue anyone they could find in a house-to-house search, snipers fired at them. PSUs (Port Security Units) and MSSTs (Maritime Safety and Security Teams) arrived and their members, fully armed and armored, took up positions on the bows of the boats to deter them. Other unsung heroes arrived, like the PGA (yes, the Professional Golfers Association), which set up a massive cooking station to feed the Coasties as they worked.

Katrina was a time of unfathomable effort. Can any of us truly say we understand what it took to rescue the amount of people the Coast Guard, FEMA and other partnering agencies did? This book attempts to share that knowledge.