Friday, September 14, 2007

A Civil War veteran's letter to a bookseller

I recently purchased a musty old book at an antique store in a small Texas town: Civics: Texas and Federal, by Triplett and Hauslein; Rein & Sons, Houston (1912). I bought it for an old document left between the pages long ago. It had more value to me than the neglected book that had archived it all these years. I had just about tossed it into the donation pile when I decided to thumb through its pages quickly for any interesting old photographs. I was rewarded for my efforts. Many historical images from around the state of Texas began to appear, but one in particular caught my eye--the Home for Confederate Veterans in Austin.

Earlier this year, I had acquired a letter written in 1922 by an old Civil War soldier--a veteran of the Confederacy living in Austin, Texas at the Home for Confederate Veterans. The envelope bore the Confederate insignia flag and address of the home. The letter was addressed to a Mr. Wolfe of Houston, a bookseller I presume, whom the old vet thought might be able to help him escape his "prison" (he states he is an "inmate of the Home") via the pages of a book about his homeland--Davidson County, Tennessee.

It's a poignant letter from an old man at the end of his life, longing to see his boyhood home. His life long ago shaped by the events of the War Between the States, he still seems to retain an important sense of place for his younger years in Tennessee. By the time he finds himself in the Confederate Home in Austin, Texas, and writing this letter at age 84, his financial situation is pretty dire, but a creative spark hatches a scheme whereby he can travel home again through the pages of a book.

John L. Young is the Confederate veteran. His brief bio is found here at the Texas State Cemetery site. From it, we learn Mr. Young's age, that he was from Nashville, and that he was listed as a deserter during the war. Apparently, he signed up for 12 months and was taken prisoner, but was released after he'd been in service for 12 months, so he just went home. Assuming his obligation was over, and presumably having no more use for the war, he tried to get on with his life. But it would never be the same, and you can hear echoes of longing for his pre-war youth in the lines of his simple request:
I wish to know if I can rent your book for one month. I propose to pay expressage both ways and promise and pledge to keep it absolutely clean and free from abuse. This will be a great favor to me. I will promise that no hands shall touch it but mine.

Every time I read this letter, I wonder how Mr. Wolfe in Houston responded to the old man. Or did he bother to respond at all? Did Mr. Young get to read about his old homeland and see images that would enhance time travel back home through his aging memories? What would a bookseller today do with such a request from, say, a World War II vet? Unless it was a collectible book of great value, I'm pretty sure I would send the old man the book with my compliments and tell him to enjoy it.

1936: The first paid air passenger around the world
Marlin, Texas man crosses Atlantic on new Zeppelin Von Hindenburg

The estimable age of the book above, coupled with the title, hinted strongly that there was an interesting adventure waiting inside. And so I took the book off the shelf of a local resale shop, opened it, and stepped into the world of an early 20th century adventurer by air.

Dr. Bolivar Lang Falconer of Marlin, Texas, a Fellow of the American and the Royal Geographic Societies, embarked on a round-the-world journey in 1936 that would make him the first person to do so as a paying passenger by air. And by the way, what a great name for an aviation adventurer--Falconer!

It was his intent to fly around the world by available paid transport--commercial Zeppelin and airplane lines. This plan included a safe journey on the Zeppelin Von Hindenburg. Yes, that Hindenburg--the same one that burned and crashed killing many on board a year later at Lakehurst, New Jersey. The same tragedy that Hollywood made one of its ubiquitous 1970s disaster movies about.

Retired in 1931 as a Senior Examiner for the United States Civil Service Commission, Falconer had traveled extensively around the world in the ensuing five years, circling the globe five times while setting foot on every continent. On page 17 of his book, he claims: Many think travel on the Zeppelins is very dangerous. This idea, however, is a mistake. The Graf Zeppelin at the end of 1935 had made 437 trips, including104 ocean crossings and a voyage around the world, a total mileage of over 650,000, and had carried safely and promptly a total of 27,900 persons. He then refers to the Hindenburg, which he is about to fly on:
The new airship, the Von Hindenburg, provides accommodations for 50 passengers in two berth staterooms, with running hot and cold water. There are in addition a Reading and Writing Room, a Lounge, and a cozy Smoking Room and Bar, besides a Gallery or Promenade deck on each side. The articles of furniture (beds, tables, chairs, piano, and so forth) are made of aluminum and are very light and the walls of the cabin are very thin. Shower baths are also among the comforts found on the Von Hindenberg. The cabins, lounges, and decks are all enclosed in the shell of the ship. Three meals are served daily and in addition morning and afternoon snacks. The passenger accommodations on the airship are comfortably heated in cold weather. The baggage allowance is only 45 pounds and there is a charge of $1.40 for each pound of excess baggage. The cost of transportation from Lakehurst to Frankfurt (Germany) is $400. This includes meals and tips.
I guess I was more than a little ignorant of just how massive these airships were. I never saw the disaster movie about the Hindenberg tragedy and I never read much detail about the airship itself until I came across Dr. Falconer's little travel book from nearly three-quarters of a century ago. I was struck by the enormous size of the dirigible and found the picture below for comparison at The 747 is dwarfed by the airship above it.

Falconer is clearly quite impressed with airship travel and his tone seems to echo other forecasts that the airship would be a viable competitor with the airplane in emerging airline travel for ocean crossings and other long-distance trips.

He describes the take-off from Lakehurst, cruising over Manhattan at 1300 feet and the sights below, followed by a bird's eye view of the many luxurious estates along Long Island Sound, and a trip to the bar by many of the passengers once the excitement below evaporated into the expansive view of the Atlantic Ocean. Certainly sounds like a better time than an airplane hop across the pond in Falconer's other mode of air travel on this journey:

And I'm not sure that you could just "hop across the pond" in 1936 by commercial air. The answer to that appears to be contained in an interview with Dr. Hugo Eckener about Zeppelins, included in this book. Dr. Eckener, who headed operations at the Zeppelin factory in Germany, and had piloted a number of record setting flights, stated this in the interview: "I am very optimistic about the future of the Zeppelins, even if airplane lines are established. For ten years or more they have been saying that airplane service was about to be established, but now they are saying it will be three or four years more." He cites safety and comfort as advantages over airplanes and travel time as an advantage over ships. The interview is not dated (the editors at Stratford should have clarified this oversight), but it's reasonable to conclude that it was conducted inflight during Falconer's trip because Eckener talks about the Hindenberg's next trip being back to New York.

A little research and deeper digging into this book reveals that the Hindenberg's maiden voyage was May 8, 1936 from Frankfurt, Germany to Lakehurst, New Jersey. Falconer boarded on May 11th, in what turns out to be the Hindenberg's inaugural voyage from America to Germany, or the return portion of its first round trip.

Falconer writes of his original itinerary that he would fly to Miami, connect with Pan-American Airways to Rio de Janeiro, and there board the Graf Zeppelin airship to Germany. While planning this trip, it was announced that a new German Zeppelin, the Von Hindenberg, would begin trans-Atlantic service in May. Falconer modified his plan accordingly and embarked on the first leg of his journey (10-hour flight from Dallas to Newark) on May 8th, the same day the Hindenberg was embarking on its maiden voyage. Falconer was waiting for the airship when it arrived a few days later and recorded its landing in his travel journal. Beyond the Hindenberg, Falconer traveled through Europe to the Middle East, including stops in Gaza, Palestine and Baghdad, "Irak." Other stops included India, Burma, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Pacific islands of Guam, Wake, Midway, and Hawaii, before flying to San Francisco and back to Dallas. Oddly (sadly for his readers), the travelogue stops in Manila, or about half-way through his trip. No explanation is given, but a few photos help document the remainder of the trip. As Falconer's friend, J.G. Harbord, writes in the Foreword:
This is unquestionably the shortest description written of 26,130 miles of travel, begun and ended at Dallas, Texas, every night spent in a hotel except three nights spent crossing the Atlantic in the Zeppelin. When you read it, you wish the author would expand the story.