Thursday, January 31, 2008

Hydrogen bombs on the moon

With the space race on between America and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s, writers and publishers tapped into the space age reader market. I like books from that era when manned space exploration had not yet begun. With nearly 50 years of hindsight to work with, and having worked at NASA myself, it's interesting and fun to read about the visions and dreams along with the fears and reservations that characterized the cradle of space exploration.

Children's books were also included in the mix. One I found not long ago is Rockets into Space, by Alexander L. Crosby and Nancy Larrick, Random House, NY, 1959. It seems to be geared toward 8 to 12 year-olds. It's pretty much a primer on rockets, satellites, man's desire to explore space, and how all that might be accomplished. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on building a space station and using it as a platform for traveling to Mars. Wow! They were thinking it out that far before man had ever left earth?

Some 30 years later, President Bush (the elder) had proposed an initiative to build Space Station Freedom and then go back to the moon and on to Mars. I think his timetable had us there by now or not long from now. Point is, that serious talk and action about getting a space station into orbit took another 30 years from the time it was talked about in this kid's book in 1959.

One thing in the book that did not happen, thankfully, is outlined in Chapter 11, Why Do We Care? Essentially, it asks why should we spend all the money and effort to go into space and even to the moon (a few years before President Kennedy declared we would do it before the 1960s ended... and we did!). The answers are adventure, knowledge, wealth, and military. Adventure and knowledge are self-explanatory.

Wealth? Well, say the authors, we don't know what kind of metals and minerals we may find on the moon. Schoolgirls one day may be wearing engagement rings made from precious gems found on the moon.

But Military is the one that will make you roll your eyes and chuckle. The authors raise the possibility of the Soviets getting to the moon first and using it as a base to fire missiles at their enemies, meaning the Americans. Talk about your Cold War paranoia! Sounds like the payload getting ahead of the rocket booster, to update an old idiom about the cart and the horse. Scare the kids with lunar annihilation and scare the rest of us by putting the U.N. in charge of the moon!

The rest of the chapter is too good not to include so here are the last several paragraphs:
The moon looks beautiful to us now. We would feel differently if it were loaded with hydrogen bombs that could be aimed at the earth.

Of course that need not happen. Mr. Pendray and other thoughtful people say the moon should be ruled by the United Nations. No one country should control the moon.

If the United Nations had charge of the moon, all countries could use it for scientific experiments.
Yeah right.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Iraan, Texas

If you’ve ever driven through West Texas on I-10, you’ve probably seen exit signs for a town named Iraan. And you’ve probably wondered if there were any kind of connection with that other Iran (different spelling). I remember hearing the story from my father about how the town acquired its name. It’s an old oil town and he was knowledgeable about such places as he was in the business.

I had forgotten about that place for a number of years until I recently came across Ozona Country, by Alan R. Bosworth, Harper & Row, 1964. In a chapter titled Annointed with Fresh Oil, he describes the oil boom that came to Crockett County, where Ozona resides, and made comparisons to other counties and fields in West Texas that were much more prolific. He offered this anecdote about the Yates field in West Texas:
Crockett County was the fourth county in West Texas to produce oil, and it was not one of the major oil counties. Across the Pecos, to the westward, the Yates field was running wild, and people told all kinds of stories about old man Yates, who had just barely managed to make a living off his ranch until the oil wells came. They said he told his wife that now she could just have anything she wanted, and that she said, 'Well, I’ve been needin’ a new ax to cut kindlin’ wood with, for a long time.'
A little town sprang up around that big oilfield and it was named for that rancher and his wife, who could finally get a new ax from all that oil revenue. Their names were Ira and Ann Yates and the town name of Iraan paid tribute to the owners of the land where all that oil was found.

For more about Iraan, Texas and its founding, see the Handbook of Texas Online entry.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Fishing ex-libris catch seeks death penalty

I fished this book out of storage the other day and found within its leaves egregious offenses I have committed, which, if the author and pending legislation of the day had its way, would have put me on death row.

Game Fish of the Northern States of America and the British Provinces, by Barnwell; Carleton, Publisher; NY; 1862.

Here’s a case of “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” Scarred with library markings, a piece of the upper spine missing, dingy and dark looking with worn spots. The most interesting aspect of the outside of the book is the thin paper cover and its fish-scale texture. A clever and appropriate design to complement the subject matter inside.

But inside… First, you’re greeted with a vintage bookplate from the Houston Public Library, circa early 1900s. Bookplates are increasingly working their way into my bibliophemera collection. This one has a nice design. I'm a collector of local history in this region, and this bookplate dovetails nicely with the other artifacts I have related to that period.

The previous owner wrote his name and date, 1882, on the title page. The name matched with the name on the bookplate, which indicates the last owner of the book was indeed the man whose name is written on the title page. A slight discrepancy to ponder: The publication date is 1862 and the previous owner indicates his ownership began in 1882. Likely, he bought the book used, unless it sat new on a shelf for 20 years. More probable is that he bought the book second-hand in a used bookshop, probably in one of the Northern states profiled in the book. Houston was a sleepy little bayou town in the 1880s, completely unconscious of the oil-boom winds of change blowing its way in the upcoming new century. So it is unlikely that there were many second-hand bookshops, and any bookstore with the latest titles would not likely have stocked a book about game fish of the Northern states and Canadian provinces.

But I spent time in a particular Northeastern state every summer growing up—New Hampshire—and I learned about the native game fish, the Brook Trout, at an early age and developed a passion for it. So upon scanning the contents of the book, I took a biased interest in Chapter 2, The American Trout. And first up in the lineup of American Trout is the Brook Trout. Reading the first few pages of Civil War-era technical prose, I felt like I was reading an early scientific treatise on the species. About what I expected—dusty old writing in a dusty old book. But the last paragraph of that second page became much more interesting, dramatically so, with an unexpected twist of humor. At least I think the author had his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek. Or was that a barbed hook aimed at a segment of the fishing population he vehemently despised?

After a statement about the fishing seasons for Brook Trout in the north and northeastern regions, the author asserts that there is but one way, and you know he means one way only, to catch a Brook Trout. And that is with a fly. But he allows that there is a class of fishermen who resort to worms, minnows, nets, and even their own roe. I had to look that last one up. Roe is the fully-ripe egg mass of fish. I've never done that--seems a little weird. But first on the list of bait violations, worms, I did not have to look up. My grandfather taught me to fish the mountain streams with worms we dug up in his vegetable garden (my old bait box, circa 1940s-50s, pictured below). I knew he had fly fished some, but he preferred worms. So I bristled a bit at the author’s condescending tone toward something so indelibly imprinted upon my fondest memories. But his next sentence was the killer:
These villanies are not at present punished with death nor even imprisonment for life; but our legislature is looking into the matter, and there is no telling how soon such statutes may be passed.

Ha! After lulling his readers into the beginnings of a mind-wandering state with a dose of mundane text, the author craftily floated a fly downstream into my placid reading pool and hooked me sharply with a device that snapped me to attention immediately. Well done! I never saw it coming. His humor was the device, used in a way, I’ll bet, to see if his readers were still with him after a few pages of dry descriptors about fin characteristics and scale observations. Catching Brook Trout with worms should be punishable by death or life imprisonment? Ye gods and little fishes! How do you really feel about it, Mr. Barnwell?

And Barnwell is used somewhat pseudonymously. The real name of this author is Robert Barnwell Roosevelt. A little googling produced this biographical information: Uncle to President Theodore Roosevelt, great-uncle to Eleanor Roosevelt, who married her fifth cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, who himself was a fifth cousin to President Theodore Roosevelt, who was an uncle to Eleanor Roosevelt... Wait, I think I said that already. Sheesh! What a tangled-up crow's nest of fishing line that genealogy is! Not that that has anything to do with the radical Barnwell. But after advocating the death penalty for bait fishermen of Brook Trout, Barnwell reverts back to serious writing, extolling the virtues of fishing with the fly. Without reading any further, I'm sure a few more barbs are floating along the currents toward the unsuspecting reader.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Laughing Muse: Frontispiece Frivolity

I purchased this book recently, purely for the frontispiece illustration. Something about this muse that resonated with me, or with my own muse perhaps. Actually, anyone who has acknowledged a visit from their own muse will probably recognize this humorous trait that likely inhabits all muses. The book: The Laughing Muse, by Arthur Guiterman, Harper & Brothers, NY (1915). This is a collection of humorous, whimsical verse, most, if not all, of which appears to be pretty boring drivel. But there was that laughing muse holding the world in his hands, smiling down on us. It doesn't appear to be condescending. More of a laughing with us, not at us kind of look. Maybe he's employing a smile and the whole world smiles with you kind of posture. Maybe he's noticed that, as a planet, we have a few situations that could use a smile.

I'm curious about the artist, but can't quite make out his name. Looks like Hunter Clay, but not quite. Hopefully, I can pick up the trail on this illustrator and see where it leads. Right now, the trail is cold--nothing to smile about.