Thursday, July 23, 2009

Chennault - Way of a Fighter

I read an article about something going on over at Facebook where users are asked to pick up the book closest to them, turn to page 56 and update their status with the fifth sentence on that page. Closest book, page 56, fifth sentence. Verbatim.

Why? I have no idea, but I'm sure there are some intriguing entries. I don't know if this has spread to the blogosphere, but after reading the article, I went upstairs to my office and the first book I saw amid a pile of books on my desk, work table and floor, was a 1991 reprint of the 1949 Flying Tiger history, Way of a Fighter: The Memoirs of Claire Lee Chennault, by Claire Lee Chennault, Major General, U.S. Army (Ret.); James Thorvardson & Sons, Tucson.

Chennault was commander of the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force in 1941-42, otherwise known as The Flying Tigers. Hired by the Chinese government to defend China against the Japanese, their training actually began before America's entry into the war, and just days after the the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the Flying Tigers were flying combat missions.

Before I get to the Facebook game, there is something much more important to mention about what I found in this book, other than the 5th sentence on page whatever, whatever. I found this book last spring at a library sale and was thrilled at what I discovered inside. The blank page preceding the title page (verso of the frontispiece) has a wonderful inscription from famed World War II ace fighter pilot for the Flying Tigers, "Tex" Hill:
To my dear friend and fellow Fighter Pilot, a man I admire most. Thank you for the sacrifice you made for our country. All the best. "Tex" Hill
My first thought, after getting over the excitement of finding this inscription, was whose book was this? As Chennault died in 1958, he's quickly ruled out, but would have been the top contender otherwise. So who, or which fellow fighter pilot, did "Tex" Hill admire most? Perhaps some biographies of Hill would shed some light on the provenance of the Chennault book.

Back in January, I blogged about another Flying Tigers fighter pilot named Joe Rosbert. He lived in the Houston area where I found the Chennault book. I also read that he died recently, so the possibility exists that the Chennault book signed by Hill could have belonged to Rosbert.

At any rate, I now have a companion book to for the Rosbert book and what looks like the beginnings of a Flying Tigers collection.

Finally, for anyone interested in the fifth sentence on page 56, here you go:
More strained silence and the faint buzz of approaching heavy-engine noise.
This sentence is part of a scene being described by Chennault as he surveys an airfield in Nanking under attack by Japanese fighter planes.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Something Permanent: Walker Evans, Cynthia Rylant

You know there are moments such as these
when time stands still
and all you do is hold your breath
and hope it will wait for you.
-Dorothea Lange

A picture is worth a thousand words. So goes the old adage. And so goes the haunting photographs of Walker Evans (1903-1975), best known for his documentation of everyday folk and scenes during the Great Depression in America.

Cynthia Rylant, in Something Permanent (Harcourt, Brace & Company; 1994), doesn’t need a thousand words to tell the stories she sees in Evans’ photographs. She employs the poetic form to marry simple subjects with lean verse. Even the titles of the poems cut right to the subject; all but one contain a single word.

But you’ve only to spend a few minutes with an Evans picture to realize that the subject matter is anything but simple. Rylant’s poems, inspired by the stories in the pictures, accomplish the same thing, inviting the reader to look beyond the immediate image that emerges in an economy of language.

I found this book a few weeks ago while out bookscouting and was captivated by the Walker Evans photos. After I got home with it, I began to examine the photos more closely. Evans’ photos are famous and some looked familiar, some did not. I also looked more closely at the interpretive poems created by Rylant for each picture. The short poems, like the accompanying images, invite you to imagine more, to read between the lines, to expand the story and try to understand the circumstances of a frozen moment, and, perhaps more importantly, what might have happened afterward.

This image of a cemetery and the unusual grave marker was my initial favorite in the book (favorites rotate in this work like a carousel) and aroused a flood of questions and imaginative thinking. And I think Ms. Rylant gives a fine accounting in the companion poem, Tombstone:
There wasn’t much excitement to be found
anywhere nearby,
so people would just go to the cemetery
when they wanted to give their
visiting company something interesting to do,
and they’d show them the man and the dog,
and folks would marvel
and say things like,
how do you s’pose they
got them ribs in that dog
how much you figure a tombstone
like this’d cost?
Then, without fail,
Before leaving
Each had shyly to
Lean over and stroke that lovely dog’s head,
Swallowing back the “good boy”
That was on their wondering lips.
This is interesting. Rylant chose to imagine the reactions of strangers upon visting the cemetery and spotting the life-like sculpture of a man and his dog. I might have been inclined to approach the image from an historical perspective, wanting to create a story about who the man was, how he died, and what happened to his dog.

But Rylant travels back to rural Mississippi (photo credits indicate this photo is titled Mississippi, December 1935) and creates a mood for the time. During the Great Depression, in a small town or rural area, there couldn’t have been much to do nor money to do much of anything. Going to the cemetery could pass for entertaining visitors, where it was certain a particular tombstone would capture their imaginations.

This must have been the case with Walker Evans as he traveled through Mississippi and came across this tombstone in this cemetery. And that’s how Rylant chose to approach the image in verse—from a visitor’s perspective.

Cynthia Rylant, I discovered, is a writer known primarily for her books for children and young adults. I thought she might have been primarily a poet so I was looking for more information about her and her writing. Apparently, this book was aimed at a young adult audience, but its content transcends any age group she or her publisher might have intended for this book. There are a couple of informative sites that provide the details of this author’s background and bibliography:

Interestingly, or appropriately, the first image I found of Rylant was a picture of her with her dog. That on the heels of the cemetery picture and her poem, Tombstone.

And about that cemetery… that got me to wondering about the title of this book, Something Permanent. Where do we find permanence in a constantly changing world? Death? Or is it the perceived permanence of a moment captured on film, a split-second from the continuum of time? But photographs aren't permanent; they fade away eventually, revealing an impermanent medium.

A quotation at the beginning of the book, repeated at the beginning of this post and again below) may hold a clue. From photojournalist Dorothea Lange, a contemporary of Walker Evans, Rylant has included the following lines:
You know there are moments such as these
when time stands still
and all you do is hold your breath
and hope it will wait for you.
These poeticized lines are taken from a statement by Lange in reference to her first attempt at social documentary through her lens. But she will always be best known for the photograph, Migrant Mother.Could it be that Something Permanent refers to time and these photographs represent an attempt to borrow a piece of the permanence, much like the displaced migrant mother seeking more permanence in her life--home, food, etc. Perhaps Something Permanent speaks metaphorically for the human condition and the spirit of hope against hopelessness, both of which flow through these images and words. I don't know for sure.

But one thing I do know, Something Permanent is truly something exceptional to read and absorb.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

One giant leap... forty years ago

Forty years ago last night, we stayed up late to witness history being made on the grandest of scales. I was with my family on vacation at my grandparents' home in South Tamworth, New Hampshire. My grandparents were born in the horse and buggy days when the novelty of motorized vehicles was still just that--a novelty. And now we sat with them watching three men fly to the moon nearly seventy years later. We were staying up late to witness two of those men actually walk on the moon.

A few months shy of 13, I must have struggled to comprehend the magnitude of what was taking place. Having traveled by commercial jet all the way from Houston, where the astronauts lived and trained for this mission, I might have taken it somewhat for granted, having "grown up" with the space program in my back yard, so to speak. I had no perspective of life without cars, airplanes, or rockets. But I knew my grandparents did and that became part of the story for me. Metaphorically, 1969 was a coming of age for both the space program and me.

Twenty years later, I went to work at NASA, for one of their many contractors, reporting for duty at the Johnson Space Center (JSC), Building 17. From 1989 to the late 1990s, I enjoyed working in an environment steeped in a young, but vibrant, history and scientific innovation. The opportunity arose from time-to-time to see some of the pioneers of manned space flight through presentations to our branch and signings at area bookstores.

I wanted to share some of those books here. I started to include biographical information about the astronauts and a synopsis of each book, but have decided to just share the evidence of my brush with these heroic men--their handwriting in my books.

This is far from being a great collection, nowhere near complete. No signed Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, or Neil Armstrong. And Buzz Aldrin's latest book, Magnificent Desolation, along with his 1973 autobiography, Return to Earth, are waiting patiently for signatures (hopefully!) at a signing later this week.

But this little collection has a great deal of meaning to me, not only for the signatures I obtained in person, but for the memories they evoke for a period in my professional life as well as a period in my childhood when the heroes were baseball players and astronauts.

For reviews, thoughts and opinions on these and other books about space exploration, I recommend the blog, A Space about Books about Space. In no particular order, the books are listed below.

Here’s Moon Shot by Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton. Slayton died in 1993, a year before the book was published, but I did get the signature of the first American in space, co-author Alan Shepard. That's pretty special.

Jim Lovell’s book is Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, and I got to meet him and get his autograph on this book a year before the Apollo 13 movie reintroduced the drama of his failed flight to the moon, but successful return home against great odds. Tom Hanks played Lovell in the film.

John Glenn may have been the most special because I returned to the neighborhood where I spent my childhood between 1960 and 1967 to meet Glenn and his wife at a book signing just blocks away from my old house.

Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth, having accomplished that feat in 1963. In 1998, at the age of 77, he flew aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery (STS-95).

His book, John Glenn: A Memoir was published the following year. He and his wife were both very gracious and kind at the signing, as I got to shake his hand and exchange a few words.

Preparation for lunar orbital and subsequent lunar landing missions was accomplished by Apollo 7, the first manned Apollo flight. Walter Cunningham was one of the astronauts flying that mission and wrote The All American Boys in 1977 and updated it in 2003 (my copy below), as a review of the manned space program from his days to present.

Michael Collins was the third, and often overlooked, member of the Apollo 11 historic mission to the moon. While Armstrong and Aldrin walked on the moon, Collins circled, as the command module pilot, amid fears that he would return alone to earth. There were reservations about the reliability of the lunar landing module being able to get Armstrong and Aldrin off the moon. They all thought the chances were 50-50. I have Collins' 1974 autobiography, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys, that covers his Apollo 11 mission and the rest of his astronaut career that preceded the mission (he retired in January 1970), but it's his 1990 book, Mission to Mars, that I have signed. Actually, he signed a bookplate for this one.

Scott Carpenter, another of the Mercury Seven astronauts, signed my copy of his 1991 novel, Steel Albatross--the only fictional work in this collection.

The Flight Director during the Gemini and Apollo programs was Gene Kranz, best remembered for his work with the Mission Control team in guiding Apollo 13 back to earth safely (see Lovell's Lost Moon above). He was portrayed by Ed Harris in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 movie of 1995. Harris also played John Glenn in The Right Stuff (1983), making him the only actor I know of that has played both an astronaut and a flight director.

I did not get to meet Kranz in person for this signature, but I did have the pleasure of hearing him speak at a branch meeting one year and recount his days at Mission Control. His book came out in 2000 and I was lucky enough to find a signed copy a few years ago on a bookscouting trip.

There are other books in my collection by astronauts of the era represented by those above, such as Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon and Chris Kraft, the first flight director, who was instrumental in establishing the Mission Control Center. They are not signed, nor have I had the opportunity to meet the authors.

And that brings me back to my small collection that looms large among my other collections. It's the personal touch associated with the books and the special memories associated with the space program, particularly those of my family sitting around a black and white television with poor reception, in a small New England village, to watch a man walk on the moon--the same moon we could see from the front lawn. How fantastic and magical it all seemed. Forty years ago.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Declaration of Independence

Today, July 4th, or Independence Day, Americans celebrate the day a delegation of colonists under the rule of George III and Great Britain declared the United States (thirteen colonies) an independent nation.

During the 1970s, in conjunction with the approaching Bicentennial anniversary of this event, the United States Department of the Interior, National Parks Service published Signers of the Declaration: Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Declaration of Independence. This title is Volume XVIII in the series, The National Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings. The series editor was Robert G. Ferris. My copy is a revised edition, dated 1975, but it retains the Foreword written by Richard Nixon from the White House, Washington, D.C.

Part I of this book provides historical background , Part II provides biographical sketches of the signers of the Declaration, and Part III surveys the historic sites and buildings connected to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It is this last part that is of particular interest to me because of family history.

In June of 1776, Thomas Jefferson was asked to draft a document to present to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in support of the Resolution for Independence favored by most colonies. Jefferson sought a quiet place where he could work on his assignment. Near the edge of town, at the corner of 7th and Market Streets, he rented a third floor room from Jacob Graff, Jr.

I am a descendant of the Graff family. Jacob Graff, Sr. was my fifth great-grandfather, but my direct line of descent goes through another son, John Graff, brother of Jacob, Jr. So it's actually a great-uncle of mine who built the Declaration House in 1775, and a year later rented the room to Thomas Jefferson for a few weeks so he could draft the Declaration of Independence. The house was destroyed in 1883, but the National Park Service rebuilt it in 1975 from old photographs in time for the Bicentennial.

The rear endpapers of the book depict the Graff House as it may have appeared in 1776 when Jefferson rented a room there. The sketch below is of the proposed reconstruction to be completed in 1975. Below that image is a photo of the finished house.

The Declaration was submitted to Congress on June 28th, where it was debated and edited (minor edits by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin). But Congress created a final draft with some pretty significant omissions, including Jefferson's passage condemning the slave trade.

Some interesting facts from the book:

  • On July 4th, all colonies except New York voted to adopt the Declaration.

  • The document was first read to the public on July 8th outside the Pennsylvania State House.

  • New York approved the Declaration on July 15th. Four days later Congress ordered the document prepared on parchment for signature.

  • The 56 signers did not sign as a group and did not do so on July 4th.

  • The official signing took place on August 2nd, 1776. Fifty men signed at that time, five more signed later in the year, and one more the following year.

  • On January 18th, 1777, Congress finally authorized the printing of the Declaration.

  • Declaring one's independence is one thing, actually getting it is another. The fighting had begun before the Declaration and continued for seven years afterward. In the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Britain officially recognized the Americans' independence, which they had declared in 1776 and fought so hard for in the ensuing years.
One of the Patriots in the fight for independence was my fifth great-grandfather, Caleb Whiting.

Happy Birthday, America!