Friday, November 27, 2015

The Sea Mark by Russell M. Lawson

Why I Read It: Reviewed it for Sea History magazine for the National Maritime Historical Society.

Summary: A scrutinizing look at what John Smith, adventurer, said about his journey to New England in 1614, and not what critics have said since.

My Thoughts: John Smith certainly left a paper trail, but unfortunately, most of it was written with audiences in mind. His journals were meant for public consumption, for future funders to consider backing one of his excursions or his proposed settlements; for future adventurers to think about joining him in the New World; and for other men of what he believed to be his class to sweat when mulling their comparison to his manliness. He wrote with technical skill where needed, he grovelled before kings and princes when necessary, and, most of all he boasted.

Not every boast was self-directed. Smith boasted widely about the lands and waters of New England, beckoning others to come across the Atlantic and see for themselves the potential for fortunes to be made in fishing, whaling and mining. It must have been hard to sit by in England and not make at least one journey to the New World, for the adventurous spirited. I know that given the right circumstances, I might have been swayed.

Consider it! An entire continent of open space. We today try to find nooks and crannies of nature on which to walk for a half an hour (ask me about my books on the topic), and so it was in early seventeenth century London. There may have not been an environmentalist ethos in those days, but there was overcrowding. And plague. And pestilence. And lack of opportunity.

So, when we read his work, says author Russell Lawson, we should read his words only and take them for what they are. Critics have had 400 unfettered years to jab at him, and have piled on each others' words. Give John Smith a chance to speak for himself.

That said, try to think about a few things. He campaigned for the job that went to Myles Standish, to be the military escort of the Pilgrims in 1620. How different a world would that have been? Would relations with the Native American have been different at the start, with Smith already having years of good rapport? Consider the depths to which he had explored the New England region. If he had been on the journey to Boston Harbor in 1621, he would have been going back to Boston Harbor. But the Pilgrims turned him down for a military man who came with less personal fanfare.

Then again, there is the skirmish with the natives at what became the town of Cohasset, north of Plymouth. Lawson reports on the confrontation and says that there were no casualties; locals have always believed that Smith's men killed one of the Natives attacking them on the way out of the harbor. As Lawson states, Smith was a violent man in a violent age.

Lawson's book reopens the story of  John Smith in New England by starting us back at page 1. We see the rocky coast of Maine through only Smith's eyes, and live only in his world. We are not jaded by what naysayers, both contemporary and modern, have had to say. It's a refreshing way to look at an four century old tale.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dusty: Reflections of Wrestling's American Dream by Dusty Rhodes with Howard Brody

Why I Read It: I've been kind of stuck on memory lane, reliving my childhood, all the way down to Saturday morning television.

Summary: The life and times of one of pro wrestling's unlikeliest heroes.

My Thoughts: I took two things away from this book. Dusty Rhodes had a huge ego, but he balanced it with a self-deprecation that sprang from his own awareness of that ego. Second, there was an overall sadness to the book that stemmed from the fact that late in life Dusty lived in the past and couldn't shake it.

But what a fun ride.

Dusty's career spanned the 1960s to the 2000s, and as such he crossed paths with all the greats of the last half century. He moved from the territorial era to the modern day in which the industry is generally controlled by one man. He likened the old system to one run by the mafia - an idea I've since seen echoed on a film about World Class Championship Wrestling. Each local boss was a don, and you didn't cross him whatever you did. Ironically, a second theme - itinerant wrestlers being screwed out of money by local promoters - was echoed in a book I read by a stand-up comedian who lived the same sort of travel-by-day, perform-by-night life. Perhaps it was his simple upbringing in Austin, Texas (a place of dusty roads) or maybe that early struggle to collect what was owed to him, but Dusty definitely sticks to the theme of money throughout the book.

The most beautiful aspect of this book for me is the voice, and I don't mean that in the traditional artsy way of an author searching for one. Dusty had his speech patterns and mannerisms (and his lisp) that made you know, without even seeing the screen, that you were tuned into the right place. His voice was unmistakable. And so it was in this book. I could hear his words as if they were coming directly out of his mouth. It made the book fly. One line has stuck with me, making me giggle every time I think of it, but I can't repeat it here because of a few words in the sentence. It was just so Dusty.

Dusty Rhodes came, too, with a blurred racial story. He grew up in a mixed neighborhood, where the upbringing meant that race meant nothing to him; people were just people. He picked up a lot of African-American mannerisms that stayed with him throughout his career. It was something lost on me at the time, but I understand it now. In order to mock him, Vince McMahon, Jr., took a white wrestler known as the One Man Gang and turned him into a mumu-wearing "African Dream." When Ted DiBiase needed a "valet" to go with his "Million Dollar Man" gimmick, Vince assigned a black wrestler he named Virgil - as in Virgil Riley Runnels, Jr., Dusty's real name. When Virgil went to the rival company, WCW, he became Vincent.

Aside from the frustrations of an aging wrestler seeing his era pass, and once you get past the obvious ego issues, Dusty's recounting of his life is filled with love and good times. The man knew how to party and to just generally have fun. He makes outrageous claims throughout the book about his escapades that are supported by quotes from others involved in the episodes. His carriage race with Andre the Giant must have been a sight to see, two gigantic men with humongous afros dueling their way down a New York City street. One of my favorites is from Mike Graham, a Florida wrestler who took Dusty out on a boat. He instructed Dusty to hop off the bow and carry the anchor up the beach so they could ground the boat, and Dusty jumped too early. Sinking to the bottom, he turned and marched out of the water and up the beach, still clutching the anchor and without losing his baseball hat and cigar. Turning, he said, "Damn, is that really what you wanted me to do?"

There are touching aspects to the book as well, especially as they concern his family and his relationship with his son Dustin. If nothing else, Dusty lays it all out in this book, and doesn't mince words. And his legacy lives on, through his sons Dustin ("Goldust") and Cody ("Stardust").

Reading this book, one gets the notion that despite the odds, being born the plumber's son, digging ditches to earn his first wages, Dusty Rhodes laughed his way through life, like I laughed my way through his book.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Foxcatcher by Mark Schultz with David Thomas

Why I Read It: I was an amateur wrestler.

Summary: The story of the rise to prominence of the Schultz brothers, Mark and Dave, and Dave's murder, all seen through the eyes of Mark.

My Thoughts: The year that Mark won his gold medal at the Olympics, I was an amateur wrestler. My career was brief, really just that one year as a Bulldog 157 at Rockland (MA) High School, but I still carry the highs and lows of that year with me wherever I go.

I wish I could say the Schultz brothers inspired me in some way, but I was too obsessed with other things happening in my life at that point, including my parents' divorce. In all honesty, my dad encouraged me to get involved with the sport, knowing I was a budding pro wrestling fan. He wanted me to see what wrestling, not "rasslin'," as he would say in an over-pronounced way, was all about. I loved the sport, the teamwork and the league championship that our varsity won that year. And I did more than hold my own against my opponents, some of whom I remember to this day, 31 years later.

It's always odd to me to consider where I was in my life when other events in other people's lives were playing out.

There's a strange wall that goes up when we consider our Olympic heroes. We tend to see them on stage, on TV, geared up with all the sponsored equipment from their chosen sports, and see dollar signs. The Schultz brothers story flips that imagery on its head. At least for the wrestlers, support was always minimal. Life was tough. As a non-revenue college sport (when compared to football, for instance), it never translated into big dollars after NCAA eligibility ended. While outstanding wrestlers could still compete on the national and world stages after college, the best jobs they could hope for in the sport were coaching gigs at the diminishing number of universities that hadn't canned their programs in the face of Title IX. A few of the bigger amateur wrestlers could go pro - Steve Williams, a teammate of Dave and Mark became "Dr. Death" to a generation of fans - but going "pro" in wrestling is not the same as going pro in football or baseball. In 2013, the IOC announced wrestling was done as an Olympic sport, only to reinstate it seven months later. It all had to do with its money-generating capabilities.

Faced with these financial barriers, Mark and Dave put up with a lot to follow their passion when they signed on with John du Pont's Team Foxcatcher. Du Pont's madness is a central theme of the book, and is somewhat parallel to the madness of King George. Du Pont's money and fame bought him any indiscretions he wanted, save for murder.

One of saddest aspects of this book, apart from the obvious one, is Mark's personal history of distrust for his fellow human beings. There were undoubtedly people in his past who had his best interests at heart, but whom he targeted as enemies. It worked for him; it fueled his fire and got him three world championships. But one wonders if he could have found his inner peace, the stability he craved so much, had he just let down his guard a little.

I hope he's found his peace.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

When the Balls Drop by Brad Garrett


Why I Read It: I'm a huge Everybody Loves Raymond fan, and I loved what Brad Garrett brought to the show

Summary: Half the book is biographical, half the book is opinion; from the start, all of it pushes the envelope.

My Thoughts: If you've ever watched a stand-up comedian on Comedy Central and thought, "That guy's pretty funny - I'd like to see him live," then you know what I'm talking about here. There are actually two comedians per performer: TV and live.

On TV, they are observational, witty and cleanly funny. Live, they are foul-mouthed and fixated on topics they know are edgy, or, as Hawkeye Pierce once said on M*A*S*H, "over-the-edgy." Sex, drugs, race, everything is on the table for discussion.

In other words, if you came to this book looking to find "Robert Barone, New York City Police Department," you will be surprised to find he's not here. This is Brad Garrett, the stand-up comic.

The author does a wonderful job of telling the story of how he got to this point in his career, from local stages to his first Tonight Show appearances (although he doesn't mention that he was the voice of Hulk Hogan on the Saturday morning cartoon Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, which is how as a 13-year-old I first heard his voice!). He walks us through his days of running with the Rat Pack, or at least opening for Sammy Davis, Jr. and Frank Sinatra, and occasionally being invited in for pizza after the shows.

Mostly, though, the book is about Brad's tackling of midlife. I stop short of calling it a crisis, because that's the point of his book; he thinks he has it figured out, and is telling all the men reading his book his plan for beating it: get a pre-nup, marry a 31-year-old and if you have an opinion, let it fly.