(Photo credit: NASA)
|Photo by Apollo 11 crew
(Photo credit: NASA)
(Photo credit: NASA)
|Photo by Apollo 11 crew
(Photo credit: NASA)
* I read this book only during daylight hours, and never after dinner.
Not because it’s a scary or freaky book, but because I am just that weirded out
about true crime.
Here’s the deal: #2 Nazi Hermann Goring’s nephew was an American
B-17 pilot. The young fellow was named Werner Goering, and he was born in the
States to parents who’d emigrated from Germany shortly before his birth.
(And the dude was a Mormon, which I think is also a little bit unexpected.)
So… the U.S.
government was a little bit weirded out about what would happen if:
So the government found a guy who’d agree to shoot Werner if
either thing were to happen. And this guy—Jack Rencher—became Werner’s best
Holy crap. That’s all
So that whole story is downright unbelievable (except it’s true).
|(photo credit: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs)|
And then add to the mix the B-17 lore the author tosses in for
At the EAA Museum in Oshkosh,
there’s a B-17 you can walk through (actually: crouch through) and I
can tell you, those are some seriously tight quarters. Not only that, but they
were flying at 30,000 feet, and it was hella cold up there. And then they’d get
shot at, and lots of them went down in flames. Not great.
Those were some tough fellas.
So the book doesn’t stay on course, because the author deviates
plenty to tell all kinds of great B-17 stories. And for me, that really worked.
But if you’re wanting just the narrative of Werner and Jack and the rest of the
crew, you just might frustrated by the other tales that accompany their strange
But if you’ve got the aviation bug, you’ll just marvel at the ways
people can survive (and the valiant way others died to save their buddies).
Of course, in the end, we learn that some of the story was indeed
too good to be true.
But still. I’m stunned by this book.
Amidst the book geek’s ravings, this post also includes 3 quizzes. Here’s the first…
Quiz 1: Name these Mercury 7 astronauts.
Recently I spent a weekend re-reading Tom Wolfe’s book The Right Stuff, forsaking all other books.
It was one of the best reading experiences of my adult life.
It was my second time reading The Right Stuff, and I think it was even better this time around. Last time I read it, it launched me (ha! space pun!) on a space reading kick that’s lasted ever since. But when I first read it, back in 2007, I didn’t know much about most of the people in the book. Pete Conrad, Gus Grissom… who were they?
Well, now I’ve read about those fellows, and I’ve read John Glenn’s autobiography (and I just bought a copy of Chuck Yeager’s, but I haven’t cracked it yet—thus bolstering one of Wolfe’s points about the astronauts getting all the glory while the other pilots were treated more or less like chopped liver) and lots of other space books.
But this one… this one is the Thing.
The first time I read it, and the second time I read it, this book had me at page 11. Here’s the sentence that just killed me:
“And the bridge coats came out and they sang about those in peril in the air and the bridge coats were put away, and the little Indians remarked that the departed was a swell guy and a brilliant student of flying; a little too much of a student, in fact; he hadn’t bothered to look out the window at the real world soon enough.” (p. 11)
It’s the third time the bridge coats are evoked, and those fine bridge coats mean death. They’re funeral clothes, and the image of those young pilots hauling out their best uniform coats and then storing them again, then pulling them out again… it gets a person, you know?
Wolfe is a gorgeous stylist—an utter genius at putting together a sentence, a paragraph, a chapter. This book is a masterpiece.
And the thing is, it’s so darn readable!
Often, when people speak of a writer’s gorgeous writing, it seems they’re talking about writing that is all lush and overblown and complicated and hard to read. This book is not like that. It’s easy to read, it’s a pleasure to read, and it just flows. But it’s not at all simple…
While the writing is stunning, the thing about this book that makes me love it is the sense of heroism. And the way the actual pilots and astronauts were horrified by such a word.
For example: After Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, journalists descended upon Muroc Field. “The real problem was that reporters violated the invisible walls of the fraternity. They blurted out questions and spoke boorish words about… all the unspoken things!—about fear and bravery (they would say the words!) and how you felt at such-and-such a moment! It was obscene!” (p. 47)
I love and adore this.
OK, time for Quiz 2…
Who is in the cockpit of the P-51 Mustang in the picture on the left? Hint: He’s the guy wearing the tan shirt and white cap in the 2nd photo below.
So let’s try one more…
Quiz 3: Name this astronaut.
Wolfe also describes the way grown men—hardened men: police officers along the parade route—would weep upon seeing John Glenn after his successful Earth orbit. Wolfe (correctly, I think) chalks it up to the notion of the single combat warrior: the designation of a single man to represent his tribe in a fight to the death against a single warrior from another tribe. We simple beings tend to get overwhelmed by such things.
And I get it. I still get choked up every single time I hear Scott Carpenter say, “Godspeed, John Glenn,” as the countdown begins. (I actually can’t even think of those words without my face crumpling up.)
The only other things that can create the same feeling of ecstasy are visiting the National Air & Space Museum (where I have been known to do the following:
a) stand with my mouth hanging open in sheer awe
b) blink rapidly and look at the floor in order to avoid embarrassing crying-for-joy episodes, and
c) smile so broadly my face nearly cracks)
…and the spectacular documentary In the Shadow of the Moon (to which I am fully addicted. I’ve watched it at least 10 times, and I’ve only just begun.)
So, here it is. A book with that kind of power, it’s going on my Top 10 list. And now I own a copy, so I can rest easy, knowing it’s under my roof and available to re-read at a moment’s notice.
And in these ways, I know life is good.
Quiz 1 answers—Back row, l-r: Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Gordon Cooper; Front row, l-r: Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter
Quiz 2 answer—Just in case you missed the way I spoiled the quiz by answering it in the photo credit note, that dude is Chuck Yeager himself!
Quiz 3 answer— John Glenn, after being picked up by the USS Noa after splashdown in Friendship 7
If you named ’em all, you have earned serious bragging rights. Truly. Also: Welcome to my club; you’re a certified space geek.
Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach
Evidence of a benevolent universe: I picked this book for the Read-a-Thon. First book of the day, and it just plain blissed me out.
Yes, I’m a confirmed space geek.
But I’m here to tell you, you don’t gotta be that wild about space to really like this book. It’s got those intangibles that make a nonfiction book loveable even for people who don’t care about the subject matter. I’ll name one of those intangibles: intelligent good humor. There are authors out there, people, who lack this variety of Right Stuff. But Roach has it in spades.
Speaking of the Right Stuff, Roach describes the way that Stuff has changed over the years. She writes that, “America’s first astronauts were selected by balls and charisma” (p. 28), but these days they gotta be sensitive team players who ooze empathy.
These two sentences had me busting a gut: “Today’s space agency doesn’t want guts and swagger. They want Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe.” (p. 32)
This probably explains why I get all swept away by the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts, but feel pretty darn iggis about the astronauts of today. I like some swagger in my astronauts. I just do.
There’s also entertaining stuff here about what the astronauts eat, and also about what happens once they’re done digesting it.
And Roach got to ride on the Vomit Comet!
Which brings us to other gross biological stuff, like nausea in space and BO. But… it almost sounds like boredom, isolation, and confined spaces are more insidious enemies to today’s astronauts. It ain’t very glamorous up there.
But it sure as hell is entertaining to read about.
Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival by Norman Ollestad
How did this book miss my radar for 2 years? It’s a remarkable story, gorgeously and simply told, and as an audiobook it’s simply stunning. And I’m rather appalled that I missed knowing about it till now.
We know I can’t keep away from plane crash stories. This is such a story.
But it’s really a father-son story, told by the grown son, who’s looking back at his childhood and the influence of his charismatic father. Ollestad’s dad really pushed his son to excel athletically—dragging him out of bed for hockey practice, taking him surfing in waves he found frightening, and skiing with him down icy mountains. And all that adventure travel and extreme sport stuff prepared him for February 1979, when the worst happened.
Eleven-year-old Norman, his dad, his dad’s girlfriend, and a pilot were flying in the mountains, and they crashed.
The plane crash story is interwoven with the story of Norman’s life in the year or so leading up the crash. Obviously we know Norman survived, but it’s still surprisingly suspenseful to read the passages about the crash and its aftermath. It’s pretty amazing that an 11-year-old could have the strength and the presence of mind to take the steps necessary for his survival, but he was kind of an extraordinary kid.
He’s grown up to be an extraordinary writer.
Other notes: The author reads the audiobook himself, and I can’t imagine anyone else reading it. His intonation adds so much to the story that I actually can’t even imagine reading it on the page. It’s rare that an audiobook is powerful enough for me to say that. (Audiobook: 7.5 hours)
BTW, Amazon has an essay the author wrote about enticing his young son into reading. I love it.
This fine book, which has more history than insider stuff, is the closest thing I could find in book form (especially the glorious chapter 9: “Behind the Scenes with the Blue Angels,” which is like candy to a baby).
The thing is: There is no shortage of videos about the Blue Angels, and that makes perfect sense. The drama is really in the visual. And I’ll be the first to confess that I saw every last one of those DVDs that I could get my hands on, before ever thinking to seek out a book.
In fact, let’s pause—shall we?—for a brief video interruption:
In this book’s favor:
1. Written by Noah Adams (of NPR), who has a pleasant speaking voice (not that that has anything to do with one’s writing ability, but I get a calming feeling when I see the name Noah Adams)
2. It is about the fathers of powered flight!!
On the other end of the stick: This book sure sounds like it’s one of them travelogues.
And, as stated before, I’m not keen on the travelogues, particularly when they are predicated on a gimmick (a la, I’ve always wanted to do this thing, and so now I’ll do this thing and write about it!!)
So this book was a mixed bag for me.
I’ll admit it was Noah Adams’ name that made me pick it up; when I saw the Adams and Wright names together, I thought, “Here’s my book.”
And I liked that he started the book with a visit to the Wrights’ graves. I think a cemetery visit is always good.
In spite of plenty of aviation reading over the years (from the 1980s on), I confess I’ve neglected the Wright brothers Until Now. Poor fellas. Not only ignored by the likes of me, but then Wilbur went and died all young, and Orville was a spinster his whole life and was meaner than mean to his sister when she deserted him to get married at age 50-something. It was a bit troubled, all that business.
But really, for me, it’s all about the humans and their aeroplanes.
Check out this picture, peoples:
How can you not get all verklempt?
That’s Orville flying the machine and Wilbur standing to the right.
Can anyone name the date and place? Aviation geeks, step forward!*
So here’s the best part of this book: It provides good details about the Wrights’ lives and their flights—to such an extent that I am feeling all sentimental about the wonders of flight. Adams makes the Wrights human and he shows them to be remarkable.
The part I didn’t love was the travelogue part—the interviewing people who work at, or live near, the various Wright sites. I like the biographer to step out of the picture and just give us the guys. But that’s just me. I imagine there are people who would be liking the I-went-here-and-talked-with-this-local-expert approach. Not so much my style, but still this book worked for me overall.
*December 17, 1903, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina