20. January 2020 · Comments Off on Ice Cold In Alex · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , ,

It’s one of those old books, popular in the 1950ies; probably made most notably famous when they made a move out of it. That’s when I probably first came aware – that notable all-stars Brit movie, starring anyone who was anyone in Brit-theatre at the time, a movie which showed on one of the late-night broadcast channels when I was a teenager and a bit obsessed with World War II. Oddly enough, it’s not readily available in the US format in DVD, although it was one of the very best and most popular post-war movies, filmed as it was on location in Libya and Egypt. The Daughter Unit and I were watching the documentary series WWII in HD Color, and the episode covering the war in North Africa, and I was moved to take down my copy of Ice Cold in Alex and re-read it … just because.

It’s a road trip, basically – a road trip through the Libyan desert in a battered military ambulance named Katy, in the summer of 1942. A pair of British Army Medical chaps, company commander Captain Anson, and driver/mechanic Sergeant Major Pugh are assigned to transport two nurses out of Tobruk to presumed safety in Alexandria, since Tobruk is about to fall to a renewed and ferocious German advance. The nurses had become separated from their party and left behind in the confusion, mostly because the younger of the two is a piece of hysterical baggage. Captain Anson, Sergeant Pugh and the surviving nurse, Sister Murdoch, meet up with a Captain Zimmerman, ostensibly of the South African expeditionary force, and set off through the desert, hoping to be able to evade the German forces about to invest Tobruk and make it safely through the inhospitable desert to Alexandria.

The North African desert: for your average English soldier, fresh from the soggy green meadows of the rural British Isles or the equally wet and eternally soot-stained urban regions, it must have seemed as alien as the moon … and three times deadlier. Captain Anson, who has been out in the thick of it for more than two years, is coping with PTSD by pouring alcohol on his shattered nerves, and keeping himself going by focusing on the ice-cold beer served up at a little bar in Alexandria – beers which he has promised to buy for his little party – if they make it through that desert. Sergeant Pugh, his able NCO, copes by mechanically babying the ambulance which they all depend upon for survival … and doing his best to unobtrusively support his officer. Sister Diana Murdoch, whose home-life growing up was not a happy one, finds herself falling for the taciturn enlisted man, Sergeant Pugh, himself a widower. And then there is Captain Zimmerman, who from the very beginning is obviously not who he says he is … but against the indifferent desert, does it really matter?

And author Christopher Landon wrote so very movingly of the North African desert; the harsh alien beauty of the place, which I think made a mark on him that lasted to end of his own life. It’s a good read, most of all for the descriptions of the desert, and the conditions under which the British and allies in North Africa fought and lived.  

What I Got at the PTA Book Sale

When the house that my parents had built for their retirement retreat burned in a catastrophic brushfire in 2003, they had only about half-an-hour warning, and so there were a good many things they simply did not have time to pack into the car, or even to remember certain items that would have been easy enough – if they had thought of them in that half-hour. One of those items was my mothers’ nearly-complete collection of the run of American Heritage Magazine. She had all but the first two or three years of issue, back when the enterprise was under the supervision of Civil War historian Bruce Catton – Mom also had a complete collection of his books – as well as the full run of their companion publication, Horizon. I grew up reading American Heritage – of course, I delved into them as soon as I could read, and possibly even before then, as the articles within were all beautifully illustration with contemporary paintings, portrait photographs, lithographs and modern photographs of the relevant relics. Even if I couldn’t grasp the meaning of the bigger words, much less pronounce any of them, I was still intrigued.

Until the late 1970s, the regular issues all had a uniform look; a pale ivory-white cover, matte finish, with an illustration on the front cover to do with the main article and a smaller one, sometimes as a kind of humorous coda on the back cover. The ivory-white yellowed over time, and given heavy reading, the spine usually began to peel away from the rest. In the late 1970s, they flirted with dropping the standard ivory-white cover – now the cover picture spread beyond the formerly conscribed margins and wrapped around the spine. That lasted a year or so, and then it was an edge-to-edge illustration with a black, or sometimes a dark brown spine – the last gasp before it went to paperback, accepted advertising, and looked like just about everything else on the newsstand. The big articles of note seemed to concentrate on the 20th century, which became rather tiresome for Mom, and she had dropped the subscription entirely around the time the house burned, with all the back issues.

But I have begun to reconstruct Mom’s collection, especially my favorites – the issues from the late 1950s, up to when they abandoned the ivory-white covers and went to worshipping strange designer gods. Once a year, my daughter and I head for the massive PTA book sale which is held in a regional school sports and recreational facility; the entire floor of the basketball arena is covered with tables piled with donated books. I head for the Texiana, mostly – and then to the general history; most shoppers head for the novels, kid’s books and YA, so I usually don’t have to get there early and elbow my way to the good stuff. Last year I found about a dozen issues of the old American Heritage, and snapped them up – the wonderful thing about the sale is that the PTA prices to sell; a flat $1 for a hardbound book (even lavish coffee-table books) and 50¢ for a paperback. This year, I found another twenty-five or so, and it’s a darned good thing that I added three shelves to the wall next to my desk; for the printer, and the paper supplies – and now one of them filled with American Heritages. Next year, I’ll have to make up a list of the issues that I have, so as to avoid duplication. But every issue is an old friend; and many of the articles are as sublime as when I first read them.

20. March 2013 · Comments Off on Up to the Minute: The Lady Spy and Library Action · Categories: Book Event · Tags: , , , , ,

First up – I have a post up at the Unusual Historicals website, as part of their series on women in war. My post is about Elizabeth van Lew, the Union’s lady spy in Richmond, during the Civil war.

And on Saturday, March 23rd, I’ll be one of thirty or so local authors at the Bedford Public Library as part of their “Romancing the Books” event. I’ll be doing a reading from one of my books – and many of the authors will have their books for sale. Check it out, if you are in the Dallas-Fort Worth area this weekend!

14. November 2012 · Comments Off on The First Draft of History · Categories: Random Book and Media Musings · Tags: , , ,

While pursuing a BA at California State U. Northridge, yea on several decades ago,  I began a self-directed history project, beginning in the periodical stacks, where a hundred years worth of old magazines perfumed the air with the smell of dusty paper. From there, I went down to the basement where the newspaper archives lived, two weeks worth of dailies on each microfilm reel. I would thread the reels through the microfilm viewer, and turn the crank to move the pages steadily while I skimmed, every day of every week from 1935 to 1945. It was a semester-long project, taking in a whole decade in daily bites. To go back and read about an event as it happened, to see it as people would have seen it happening, made me realize what a small, limited view we have of events day to day. It’s like looking at the Sistine Chapel through a pin-hole.

This was my grandparents’ era, of sportster cars with wide running boards, where ladies wore gloves, and hats, and fur stoles, where dress patterns cost a quarter, the bad news came by telegram and bicycle messenger, before air conditioning and the Bomb. A two line story, buried on a back page early in my venture noted that the atom had been split, while the front page that day concerned a tragic natural gas explosion in a consolidated rural school in Texas. Politicians politicked, Hollywood produced glamour, the economy slowly recovered from the Great Crash, Hitler annexed the Rhineland and I became addicted to Milt Caniff’s Terry And The Pirates.

(Wonderful comic strip, WHY has no one ever done a movie of it?)

Crime and bad weather made as big a splash on the front pages then as it does now, even when Big Media meant a handful of radio stations and Life Magazine. And war crept closer. Squabbles on the editorial pages gave way to debate on the draft, on Lend-Lease, on staying out of European squabbles, until one December Sunday morning it all crashed in, and neutrality was as dead in the water as the USS Arizona and sunk even farther down.

Occasionally, stories about what was happening in Germany and in Occupied Europe to Jews would bubble up to the surface. It was clear that something very bad was going on, but the consensus reflected in the newspaper was that Nazi mistreatment consisted of ghettoes and forced labor, interspersed with degrading laws and now and then some deportations and maybe a massacre. Every time a story hinted at something much more sinister, the responsible sober editorials, and the letters to the editor urged skeptical caution: remember, we were taken in by false atrocity stories in the First World War. Don’t be fooled by propaganda, take it with a grain of salt, the Germans are a civilized people, they couldn’t possibly be doing this, the people telling these stories have their own motives.

And then, May 1945: Allied forces began liberating the camps, and finding the ovens and gas chambers, the bales of human hair, warehouses of neatly sorted personal possessions, the meticulous records and the few survivors, and trying to get a grip on the idea that the worse stories were true. No, worse than that: the most fevered imagination of the most dedicated anti-Nazi propagandist still didn’t come anywhere what the Allies found behind the barbed wire and guard towers. Soldiers and generals, reporters and editorial writers, and the folks at home all tried to get their minds around the fact that a civilized country, the home of Bach and Goethe had turned science and technology to the systematic, orderly extermination of those persons designated as sub-human.

But all the clues had been there all along, trickling out of Occupied Europe and published in the papers. With a bit of hindsight, anyone could have put it all together, but an evil this enormous defied imagination. Even to think it possible somehow violated people’s sense of human decency. One doesn’t like to think that the next-door neighbor may be a serial killer, or the next country over is committing genocide.

In the last 60 years we have gotten better at disseminating information, and possibly better at sifting it for the truly important stuff. Anyone with internet access has information sources available on a score undreamed of in 1945. One thing remains unchanging: we still have trouble with acknowledging the existence of evil. Only when circumstances force us, can we recognize it and deal accordingly.

The more things change, the more some things remain the same. It was just a curious coincidence that as I was coming down to the end of the project, some few stories about the Cambodia and the atrocities being committed by Khmer Rouge were trickling out into the media… and I saw the exact same reaction in the letters to the editor, and in the editorials, the same “Don’t be fooled by propaganda created by insidious agencies, the people pushing this line have their own motives!” party line. And I felt the same kind of “Oh, oh,” feeling.

When they actually began liberating camps. in the spring of 1945 and found it all… it was absolutely stunning, to the reporters and the newspaper readers. There was no way around it, the evidence was just so irrefutable, and spread everywhere across Germany. All the awful rumors that tricked out during the war were not only true, they were the smallest part of the horror.

“From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.”

When I was deep in the midst of researching and writing the Adelsverein Trilogy, of course I wound up reading a great towering pile of books about the Civil War. I had to do that – even though my trilogy isn’t really about the Civil War, per se. It’s about the German settlements in mid-19th century Texas. But for the final volume, I had to put myself into the mind of a character who has come home from it all; weary, maimed and heartsick – to find upon arriving (on foot and with no fanfare) that everything has changed. His mother and stepfather are dead, his brothers have all fallen on various battlefields and his sister-in-law is a bitter last-stand Confederate. He isn’t fit enough to get work as a laborer, and being attainted as an ex-rebel soldier, can’t do the work he was schooled for, before the war began.  (Interesting work, this; putting myself into the minds of people who were seeing things as they developed, day by day and close up; with out the comforting overview of hindsight.) This was all in the service of advancing my story, of how great cattle baronies came to be established in Texas and in the West, after the war and before the spread of barbed wire,  rail transport to practically every little town and several years of atrociously bad winters. So are legends born, but to me a close look at the real basis for the legends is totally fascinating and much more nuanced – the Civil War and the cattle ranching empires, both.

Nuance; now that’s a forty-dollar word, usually used to imply a reaction that is a great deal more complex than one might think at first glance. At first glance the Civil War has only two sides, North and South, blue and grey, slavery and freedom, sectional agrarian interests against sectional industrial interests, rebels and… well, not. A closer look at it reveals as many sides as those dodecahedrons that they roll to determine Dungeons and Dragons outcomes. It was a long time brewing, and as far as historical pivot-points go, it’s about the most single significant one of the American 19th century. For it was a war which had a thousand faces, battlefronts and aspects.

There was the War that split Border   States like Kentucky and Virginia – which actually did split, so marked were the differences between the lowlands gentry and the hardscrabble mountaineers. There was the war between free-Soil settlers and pro-slavery factions in Missouri and in Kansas; Kansas which bled for years and contributed no small part to the split. There was even the war between factions of the Cherokee Indian nation, between classmates of various classes at West Point, between neighbors and yes, between members of families.

How that must have broken the hearts of men like Sam Houston, who refused to take a loyalty oath to the Confederacy, and Winfield Scott, the old soldier who commanded the Federal Army at the start of the war. Scott’s officers’ commission had been signed by Thomas Jefferson: he and Houston had both fought bravely for a fledgling United   States. Indeed, at the time of the Civil War, there were those living still who could remember the Revolution, even a bare handful of centenarians who had supposedly fought in it. For every Southern fireater like Edmund Ruffin and Preston Brooks (famous for beating a anti-slave politician to unconsciousness in the US Senate) and every Northern critic of so-called ‘Slave power” like William Lloyd Garrison and John Brown… and for every young spark on either side who could hardly wait to put on a uniform of whatever color, there must have been as many sober citizens who looked on the prospect of it all with dread and foreboding.

There are memories, as was said of a certain English king, which “laid like lees in the bottom of men’s hearts and if the vessels were once stirred, it would rise.” So is it with the memory of the American Civil War. The last living veterans are long gone, the monuments grown with moss and half forgotten themselves; even some of the battlefields themselves are built-over, or overgrown.  But still, the memories, the interest as well as the resentments linger, waiting for the slightest motion to stir them up. The Civil War is still very much with us. Consider books like Cold Mountain, The Killer Angels, and Gone With the Wind, and documentaries like Ken Burns The Civil War. Every weekend, somewhere across the United States there are re-enactor groups, putting on the blue or the grey and shooting black-powder blanks at each other.

An argument about the causes of it all tends to be just as noisy and inconclusive, and boils down to the academic version of the above. The participants agree on some combination of slavery (or its extension beyond the boundaries of certain limits), states’ rights and the competing economic interests which would favor a rural and agricultural region or an urban and industrial one. What are the proper proportion and combination of these causes? And was chattel slavery a root cause or merely a symptom?

Whatever the answer, sentiment about slavery, or “the peculiar institution” hardened like crystals forming on a thread suspended in a sugar solution for  some twenty or thirty years before the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In a large part, that hardening of attitudes was driven, as such things usually are, by the extremists on either end of the great lump of relative indifference in the middle. At the time of the Revolution, one has the impression that chattel slavery in the American colonies was something of an embarrassment to the founding fathers. No less than the eminent Doctor Johnson had acidly pointed out the hypocrisy of those who owned slaves insisting on rights and freedom for themselves. For quite some decades it seemed that slavery was on the way out.

Of course it cannot just slip out of mind, this war so savagely fought that lead minie-balls fell like hailstones, and the dead went down in ranks, like so much wheat cut down by a scythe blade, on battlefield after battlefield. Units had been recruited by localities; men and boys enlisted together with their friends and brothers, and went off in high spirits, commanded by officers chosen from among them. At any time over the following four years, and in the space of an hour of hot fighting before some contested strong point, there went all or most of the men from some little town in Massachusetts and Ohio, Tennessee or Georgia. Call to mind the wrenching passage in Gone With the Wind, describing the arrival of casualty lists from Gettysburg, posted on the front windows of the newspaper office for the crowd of onlookers to read, and the heroine realizing that all of the young men whom she flirted and danced with, all the brothers of her friends and sons of her mothers’ friends  . . .  they are all gone. As an unreconstructed Yankee, GWTW usually moves me to throw it across the room. But Margaret Mitchell grew up listening to vivid stories from the older generation and that scene has the feel of something that really happened, and if not in Atlanta, then in hundreds of other places across the North and South.

No wonder the memory of the Civil War is still so fresh, so terribly vivid in our minds. A cataclysm that all-encompassing, and passions for secession, for abolishing slavery, for free soil and a hundred other catch-phrases of the early 19th century  . . .  of course it will still reach out and touch us, with icy fingers, a not-quite clearly seen shadow, draped in ghostly shades of grey and blue.